A single-topic column today.
Cover of Johannes Cabal the necromancer. A bowler hatted skeleton, wearing a suit and carrying a key, faces right.
Fifteen years after Johannes Cabal the Necromancer came out, to acclaim, I finally read it, along with Johannes Cabal the Detective, the second book in Jonathan L. Howard’s series. While I’m not quite sure how I missed them the first time around, I thoroughly enjoyed these first two and the astringent wit with which they are written. I was completely entertained by Johannes Cabal, scientist, necromancer, intelligent and cold-blooded anti-hero who is just human enough to make really big, and really funny, mistakes. When your brother the bloodsucking undead vampire is your moral compass, it’s safe to say you’re a compromised individual.

When we meet Johannes in Book One, Cabal, who traded his soul to Satan years earlier in exchange for necromantic knowledge, wants to revisit the deal. He needs his soul, he’d decided, not because his humanity is threatened, but because its absence is affecting his scientific pursuits. Satan makes a deal with him; deliver 100 souls to Satan in one year, and he’ll get his soul back. To “assist,” Satan gives Cabal a demonic carnival with which to tempt the bad and the weak. (Never trust a deal Satan makes with you.)

Johannes enlists the help of his older brother Horst, who was trapped in a crypt and ultimately turned into a vampire. Horst went to a carnival once, so compared to Johannes, he’s an expert. The demonic creatures brought to life for the carnival may serve Satan, but they also have minds of their own—and clearly they know that Satan wants Cabal to gather as many souls as he can, while not making the 100 mark and losing the bet.

 Johannes Cabal (5 book series) Hardcover Edition by Jonathan L. Howard (Author)Book One is episodic, following the carnival and the demon train that houses it, showing us the lives of various people who either sign on the dotted line, or somehow escape. Cabal helps people along the way without realizing it, like a ghost trapped in a derelict train station. We read the eccentrically-spelled essay of a little boy who visits the carnival, and encounter a mad necromancer who challenges Cabal. Near the end of the book two decent Brits appear, who will stymie Cabal; retired Detective Barrow and his smart, stubborn daughter Leonie. Cabal, two souls  away from achieving his goal and two hours away from his deadline, crosses a line and makes a deal that so reprehensible that Horst cannot tolerate it. It would be hard for the reader to swallow, too—Cabal is an anti-hero, but anti-heroes have limits. The challenge for the end of the book is to resolve the issue so we can tolerate Cabal, without turning him into a cotton-candy character who “learns an important lesson.” Howard manages this, and a twist-within-a-twist ending, that was perfect.

In Johannes Cabal the Detective, Johannes is fleeing a small mid-European nation under an assumed named on a airship, when an in-flight murder forces him to become the anti-Hercule Poirot. Before the mysterious death of the curious airship designer, who was angling for a tour of the Princess Hortense on her maiden flight, Cabal discovers an adversary on board as well, one who recognizes him—Leonie Barrow. Howard sticks to the rules of the locked room mystery, while liberally seasoning the story with steampunk, including full page schematics of the ship and the smaller aircraft this world has. The circle of  suspects leaves plenty of room for humor and satire, and Howard doesn’t stint, and it’s still a pretty puzzling mystery.

Cabal has a moral, or at least ethical, code and sticks to it for the most part—its just doesn’t look like any moral code we recognize it. When he breaks it (as he does in Cabal the Detective) he seems to baffle himself more than us.

There are at least three more CABAL books, and I’ll be looking out for them.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.