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Paul Spalding-Mulcock
Features Writer
@MulcockPaul
3:00 AM 12th April 2022
arts

The Devil's In The Detail: Johannes Cabal The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

As with innumerable readers, my reading proclivities benefit from the deft hand of serendipity acting as a delightful agent of fortuitous thaumaturgy. Quite by chance I will be drawn to a book ostensibly appearing to be something unlikely to tickle my fancy, yet upon closer inspection, said book magically provides unexpected noetic stimulation, and the invaluable balm of unadulterated entertainment. These lucky finds remain one of my greatest joys, and go a long way to explaining the enduringly ineluctable pull of the second hand book shop upon both my curiosity, and book craving psyche.

Amongst my many predilections is a taste for the macabre, the supernatural and the luridly scintillating, recondite shibboleths of the occult. H.P. Lovecraft, Poe and M.R. James have become my most adored tour guides when venturing into the impenetrable stygian darkness, providing nefarious cover for things that go bump in the night.

By way of a confession, my leanings toward such works have even found me enjoying Dennis Wheatley, though I’m unlikely to advertise this guilty pleasure unless tempted to do so by Bacchus himself! Counterpointing this reverence for the venerated masters of the Gothic genre, is a counterintuitive fondness for books which flagrantly lampoon this hallowed genre, and its iconic progenitors.
Howard’s first novel is a devilishly thrilling comedic fantasy which artfully imbricates the tropes of the traditional Gothic novel over those of Steam Punk, science fiction and paranormal genres.

If an author can offer me the quintessence of the genre whilst simultaneously salting their fare with deliciously diabolical wit, cynicism and a jocund spirit of erudite whimsy, I’m likely to be as happy as the infamous Countess Báthory in her warm blood bath ! Thanks to a recent visit to my local second hand book shop, I stumbled upon Jonathan L. Howard and can gleefully report that he is an author perfectly equipped to tickle my Gothic funny bone with linguistic legerdemain and devilish aplomb!

In the 1990’s, Howard worked as a successful scriptwriter and acclaimed video game writer. Warranted approbation soon catalysed his desire to try his talented hand as an author of fiction. His first book, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was published in 2009 and launched a series of seven novels charting the exploits and escapades of our titular protagonist.

In addition to the Johannes Cabal series, Howard is also the author behind the hugely popular The Russalka Chronicles and the Carter & Lovecraft Series, together with a widely acclaimed body of short fiction works, and the short story collection Kyth the Taker. Had Lady Serendipity not laid her knowing hand upon my shoulder, I would be entirely unaware of both him and his work and knowingly risk the reader’s scorn in confessing my lamentable ignorance!
By way of a confession, my leanings toward such works have even found me enjoying Dennis Wheatley, though I’m unlikely to advertise this guilty pleasure unless tempted to do so by Bacchus himself!
Howard’s first novel is a devilishly thrilling comedic fantasy which artfully imbricates the tropes of the traditional Gothic novel over those of Steam Punk, science fiction and paranormal genres. Whilst the book never crosses the Rubicon dividing flippant frolics from truly terrifying horror, it deftly hovers between these two poles, though its sarcastic soul is firmly rooted in highly stylised, tongue-in-cheek eldritch eeriness, rather than Poe-esque terror.

In short, Howard has lovingly mined his obvious adoration for a plethora of iconic, darkly macabre works, but laced his every sentence with a bone-dry sense of humour designed not to unsettle, but to titillate and entertain his informed reader. This inventive mash-up of genres should by rights produce nothing much more than highbrow high jinks… yet, in Howard’s dextrous hands this scintillatingly bizarre cocktail is nothing short of comedic brilliance. So convinced of the truth of this albeit subjective statement, I have esuriently amassed a collection of his books and simply cannot wait to accompany Johannes on his next demonic adventure!

So, to the plot of our book. We meet the urbane, otherworldly Johannes Cabal…an enigmatic necromancer with the sartorial elegance of a demonic dandy. Our gothic anti-hero has devoted his considerable intellect and energies toward the noble goal of raising the dead, not as ersatz monstrosities of their former selves, but as fully reinvigorated authentic continuations of their corporeal selves.

Regrettably, Johannes has entered into a Faustian pact with Lucifer himself and exchanged his own soul for the dubious benefit of occult knowledge only possessed by those willing to barter with the Devil. Caveat emptor should have been his motto, for our satanic acolyte soon discovers that the absence of his immortal soul invalidates his grisly experiments, rendering his grave robbing antics and esoteric escapades useless.
Rather brilliantly, though Johannes is a conniving, mendacious monster more suited to a life in politics than an object of our sympathy...

Fortunately, Satan finds himself temporarily at a loss for amusement and agrees to a rigged wager with Johannes as a distraction from his infernal boredom. Cabal must garner one hundred souls within a period of twelve months if he is to regain his own soul. Failure to do so will lead to eternal damnation, festering in Hell’s waiting room and facing the prospect of aeons spent completing a tedious mountain of bureaucratic forms, all designed to drive those filling them in to insane frustration and inconsolable desolation. Imagine attempting to renew your driving licence and UK passport and you begin to partly appreciate Johannes peril!

Placed in control of a diabolical carnival in the form of a ghost train manned by ghouls and zombies, Johannes must tempt his punters into acts of craven iniquity, rapacious greed, murderous mayhem and blatant blasphemy in a bid to get their signatures on the Devil’s parchment. Beneath the carnival’s gauche amusements, the Devil’s agenda augments every action in pursuit of the souls of those who unwisely stray from the path of righteousness.

Aided by his undead, recalcitrant and anthropophagus brother Horst, and cornucopia of hilariously malfeasant nightmare freaks, Johannes takes his danse macabre on the rails to a variety of rube-infested villages and small towns in pursuit of his quarry. The devil, being an inveterate scallywag, does not leave Johannes unmolested and our facinorous magician duly encounters a series of ever more amusing hindrances threatening to derail both his train, and his plans. Armed with only his wits and an extremely large handgun, Johannes must out-guile the Devil and avoid the dubious fidelity of his rather vexed brother.

Howard blends rich literary allusion with Wildean wit, adroitly coining humour from his gloriously clever prose and genre-sensitive leitmotifs. As our beautifully rendered protagonist executes his sinfully brutal machinations, Howard vacillates from Poe-like darkness to ribald humour with enrapturing éclat. The reader is given a smorgasbord of gothic delights, as an omnium-gatherum of deserving and undeserving victims are exploited by dint of being dissolute epicureans, or fractured lost souls seeking solace.

The plot seamlessly clips along and Howard’s affinity for finely modulated sarcasm drenches the book’s pages in sardonic humour and laugh-out-loud comedic capers. Yet, beneath the frivolity our deceitful author is a dissembler. Inconspicuously mixed into our playful fun and games, is the ever present musing upon a truth that cannot be ignored … tempus edax rerum. We also confront the venality debasing mankind and the hypocrisy encountered when one attempts to deracinate oneself from self-serving evil doings in an attempt to justify a greater purpose.

Rather brilliantly, though Johannes is a conniving, mendacious monster more suited to a life in politics than an object of our sympathy, the reader finds themselves admiring Johannes’s longanimity and sheer guile as he becomes ever more embroiled in ghastly deeds bereft of moral decency. We find ourselves rooting for Johannes and hoping to see him achieve his apparently malevolent objectives. A perspicacious reader will realise that all is not as it appears, and slyboots Johannes might not warrant our antipathetic condemnation.

Returning to an earlier point though, this is a book almost exclusively made with one end in mind…to amuse. Any fan of the quixotic, the eccentric and the jauntily spiced paranormal doings of dodgy agents, will find Howard’s novel a colourful, inventive hoot. If I have a criticism, it’s simply that I’m late to the party and have only myself to blame …thankfully, serendipity knows me well and kindly forgives my foibles!


Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was first published in the UK by Headline Publishing Group.