Johannes Cabal traded his soul to Satan to gain power over the dead.
And as is usual in such deals, he eventually realizes that he wants it back. What is not standard is the method in which Satan decides to let him attempt to regain that soul.
To regain his soul, Johannes Cabal has to run a carnival.
There’s something a little uncanny about fairgrounds, amusement parks, and funhouses. While there are bright colors and neon signs and prizes and music, the booths are rickety, the lines are long, and there’s always a bit of suspicion on whether or not the games are rigged. Most are seasonal places that won’t last the summer, and yet a visit can be the highlight of the year. Between the music, the roar of the crowds and the hum of the rides, there’s something about the energy that’s incredibly artificial and incredibly organic. With the right touch, the place will feel as if anything can happen.
It’s a great place to set up temptations. It’s a great place to trap souls.
That’s what Johannes Cabal has to use his carnival to do. To regain his own soul, he needs to get 100 others to sign themselves over to Satan.
A necromancer by trade- gaining knowledge over the dead is why he decided to hand over his soul to Satan in the first place- Cabal really doesn’t know how to use joy of even the most artificial sort to get what he’s looking for. So he enlists a crew of helpers- some dead, some undead, all unnatural- to help him run his carnival. Mayhem both worldly and otherworldly ensues, and the consequences for both Johannes and his crew are unexpected. In some cases, they’re deadly.
Anyone who’s read Ray Bradbury will see parallels to Something Wicked This Way Comes, which also features a spectacularly evil carnival. They’d be right. The author of Johannes Cabal The Necromancer, Jonathan L. Howard, said that this story was largely inspired by that tale, and by his own asking of the question “Where would an evil carnival come from?”
“From Hell” might seem a trite answer to that question, but it’s the why of it that makes this story so spectacularly entertaining, even if you’ve never read Ray Bradbury. Using a carnival as bait for something much more sinister may be a cliché, but using it as a means to both steal souls and gain one is a really interesting play on the artificial allure that so many carnivals and amusement parks have. In such places you tend to forget about the niceties. Like double-checking that waiver you signed. Or reading the little form required to get that deluxe prize package.
The best thing about this book is easily the setting and the language. The carnival and its eerie workers leap off the page, and Howard can turn a metaphor with the skill of Wodehouse. My personal favorite was: “Johannes Cabal smiled. Somewhere a churn of milk curdled.” In keeping with the plot, the language is dark, unusual, sometimes arcane, and often very funny. Though the characters are interesting and the plot fun, the words are really a driving force for the story. It’s a delight to read.
There are a few minor problems in that that the plot gets a little breakneck towards the end, and that there aren’t very many characters to speak of. But the world is fascinating and the few characters we do get populate it very well. From the former necromancer who raises a lunatic army to Johannes Cabal himself, the characters fit perfectly into this odd little nightmare, even if they aren’t as fully realized as I’d normally like. And of particular interest is the relationship between Johannes Cabal and his brother Horst. It was oddly touching and heartbreaking, despite the bizarre circumstances in which they work together.
But by far my favorite part of the book was how real the threat of Hell was, both for Johannes and for the souls he was signing over. Because in a book where losing your soul is a major part of the plot, the threat to that soul had better be concrete and convincing. And I really appreciated that the possibility of Johannes going to Hell forever was never forgotten. The threat of losing your soul was presented as a very real danger, and makes me want to double-check every contract I’ve signed, as well as every Terms and Conditions check-box.
After all, you never know what might be in the fine print.