I’ve been waiting a while for a Faust character to pop back up in fiction. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, I have to say, fit the bill nicely. Cabal bartered away his soul to the Devil for the powers of necromancy. Classic selling the soul for unknown knowledge and powers. He even gets followed around by a devil who tries to make life difficult for him. Eight years later, he goes tries to get it back. In the name of science, no less. Turns out that his powers are hit and miss and he thinks having his soul back will fix that little problem. The Devil agrees, but only if Cabal can get 100 souls in exchange for his own. Classic wager with the Devil stuff.
But what really struck me about this book was its sense of humor. I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure the author is British because his has this hilarious run a metaphor into the ground style. For example, rather than encountering a pit of fire, this is what the damned encounter on arrival, according to Howard:
Lots of forms. Stacks of forms. An average of nine thousand, seven hundred, and forty-seven of them were required to gain entrance to Hell. The largest form ran to fifteen thousand, four hundred, and ninety-seven questions. The shortest to just five, but five of such subtle phraseology, labyrinthine grammar, and malicious ambiguity that, released into the mortal world, they would certainly have formed the basis of a new religion or, at least, a management course.
This, then, was the first torment of Hell, as engineered by the soul of a bank clerk. (3)
It gets even better from there. After Cabal makes his deal, he gets put in charge of a hellish carnival. (In the acknowledgements, Howard writes that he was partially inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.) With the help of his vampire brother, Cabal’s carnival travels all over the country-side (probably England) collecting souls. If he doesn’t get his hundred before a year is up, his soul is forfeit and he goes straight to Hell. Thought you might be tempted to be sympathetic to Cabal–since you’re hearing the story mostly from his perspective–he’s just enough of a jerk to make that very difficult. It gets even more difficult as you read along because Howard doesn’t reveal the reason the Cabal is so determined to beat death until the very end of the book. Until you get to the last three pages, Cabal swears up and down that he’s only trying to beat death for its own sake, not to save anyone. Personally, I think the end of the book makes it clear the Howard has to write a sequel.
The best part of this book is its biting, whimsical humor. I know those terms together make an oxymoron, but I really think they’re the best adjectives. There are very few people in this book that are purely good. Everyone’s got a little bit of the Devil in them. Consequently, a lot of the humor comes from satire. But there’s also the loopiness of the demons that pop up occasionally and the decaying zombies and the general whackiness of Cabals world to keep this book from getting too serious.
It would also have been easy for this book to have turned into a slog if Howard had not chosen to jump the plot forward in time towards Cabal’s deadline. I was glued to the book for the last hundred or so pages because Cabal only had a few hours (and then minutes) to get his last soul. And then there’s a plot twist and another trip to Hell and, for a comedy, this book was terribly dramatic.
I could criticize the book for having no, ahem, soul, but I don’t think that’s the point of this book. Perhaps later books would make me care more about Cabal or this soul-swapping business. But based on just this book, I rather think that it’s mostly about entertaining and partly about ethics, like all good Faust stories are. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer will definitely make you think, but more than anything it’ll make you laugh.