Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is your standard comedy Faust story. The eponymous Cabal is, uh, a necromancer who’s sold his soul to Satan in exchange for arcane knowledge. But he’s discovered that his lack of a soul is skewing the results of his experiments; so, in the name of Science, he must get it back.
Satan agrees to give Cabal’s soul back if he can get a hundred people to sign over their souls within a year – aided only by a demonic carnival and some satanic funding.
And so the fun begins.
And it is fun. How could it not be, with lines like this?
Congas of hopeful applicants [to Hell] wound around the gatehouse like a line drawn by somebody to find out how much writing you could get out of a box of ballpoints.
What really works about the book, though, is that Howard manages the rare trick of balancing parodic humour with real emotional depth: the humour is character-based, not gag-based, and so it evokes empathy as well as laughter. It’s the same trick that Terry Pratchett pulls off in his Discworld novels (though, to be clear, I think those are denser and cleverer than Howard’s work); it’s a trick that I think comedic fantasy writers like Tom Holt and Robert Rankin miss.
So the novel’s underpinned by a kind of emotional ambiguity: we can’t quite pin down what Cabal is like as a person, whether we should root for him. On the one hand: he left his brother Horst to rot in a mausoleum for eight years; he sold his soul to the devil that one time; he’s very bloody nasty to the servants he conjures up to serve his carnival. On the other hand, there are some lovely episodes throughout the book that demonstrate his ability for empathy: a ghost in a railway station who doesn’t realise he’s dead yet; an impassioned speech about the unfairness of death. As well as providing something like a narrative arc to bring together what is a very episodic narrative (tonally as well as structurally), this ambiguity is an age-old feature of the Faust narrative, rendering its central character both hubristic and tragic in his hubris. It’s also not something comedy necessarily does very often, allowing its characters space to be more than one thing at once.
There are things that annoyed me about Johannes Cabal the Necromancer: its slow start promises tedium the novel thankfully doesn’t actually deliver. And it renders the dialect of some of its minor characters phonetically, which is quite possibly the most annoying (not to say patronising) stylistic choice it is possible to make as a writer.
In other words: it’s not high literature. But it’s pretty good.