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Literature / Johannes Cabal

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The Johannes Cabal Series is a number of novels and short stories by Jonathan L. Howard about the eponymous necromancer of some little infamy. It takes place in an Alternate History where magic is real and acknowledged as such by the general population, though also rare - the kind of thing the average person hears about but doesn't see.

Although necromancers like him are hunted down and burned at the stake, Cabal is driven to find a cure for death- although "driven" is something of an understatement. Not an adventurous sort by nature, he's also horribly pragmatic, so his quest for knowledge (which he'd be content to do in a lab and library) sees him travel to Hell, the Dreamlands, various fictional European countries, and a city of horrors called London.

The series consists of five novels:

  1. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)
  2. Johannes Cabal the Detective (2010)
  3. Johannes Cabal and the Fear Institute (2011)
  4. The Brothers Cabal (2015)
  5. The Fall of the House of Cabal (2016)

There are also several short stories, but the series is written in such a way that they are not necessary to follow the novels - any elements which appeared first in the stories and then in the novels are usually described well enough to preclude confusion.

The short stories are also harder to track down than that, as many were written in magazines that subsequently ceased publication. In brief, there are "Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day", "Exeunt Demon King"note , "The Ereshkigal Working"note , "The House of Gears"note , "The Death of Me"note , "Ouroboros Ouzo"note , and" A Long Spoon"note .

The Cabal Series has examples of:

  • Black Comedy: Cabal is murderous, amoral and heavily armed, but most of the bodies he or anyone else drops are more punch-lines than acts of horror due to the nature of the stories-Cabal is bad but he's better than the antagonists. Usually.
  • Call-Back: The list of supernatural weather conditions in the very first Cabal short story (see below), has two of those just mentioned be seen in later books-Cabal meets Umtak Ktharl (but doesn't see his famous Red Snow) in the epilogue of Detective, and Horst encounters cumulonemesis in The Brothers Cabal.
  • Character Blog: Johannes has a twitter account.
  • Christmas Episode: "Exuent Demon King" is set on Christmas Eve and the story Cabal tells takes place a few days after Christmas. It's also slightly sillier than some of the other stories.
  • Demon/Devil Distinction: Demons obey the hierarchy of Hell and devils don't. As such, Satan is The Devil because he's at the top and nobody can tell him what to do, whereas Zarenyia the devil is an independent succubus who struck out on her own.
  • Devil, but No God: This is ambiguously true for the cosmology of the series. In Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, Satan refers to himself as being a fallen angel (in line with Christian religion/mythology)and tortures the damned in Fire and Brimstone Hell, and Cabal seems to believe that God exists, but doesn't like him either and believes that Heaven is also unpleasant, involving a loss of individuality. However, in a later book, Johannes Cabal and the Fear Institute, Cabal meets Nyarlathotep, who claims during a Breaking Speech that there is no Satan/God/Hell/Heaven, and in reality, Satan is just one of his masks, and merely believes himself to be a separate entity, and for his amusement, Nyarlathotep likes to torture bad souls and give good ones the "gift" of a Cessation of Existence. This is seemingly borne out by a scene where Cabal (admittedly while trapped in a Lotus-Eater Machine created by Nyarlathotep) has a vision of Satan and Hell and thinks he looks a lot like Nyarlathotep's human form. Although it is possible that Nyarlathotep was just saying this to Mind Rape Cabal, and there are indications that demons and devils exist independently of him, there's nothing that challenges Nyarlathotep's claims about God and Heaven.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Applies only to Cabal's twitter account, where he complains occasionally about "the man Howard" publishing lies about his life and entreats his followers not to read them.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Cabal's greatest enemy is death itself, but he still encounters things worse than that. He mentions this in "Tomb of Umtark Ktharl" when he is nearly shot by bandits and saved by the narrator-the conversation goes roughly "I just saved your life, Cabal!" "Them? I'm not scared of them-the worst they can do is kill me."
  • Friendly Neighborhood Vampire:
    • Horst Cabal is far different from the other vampires seen in the series, being a very nice fellow who is more or less exactly the same, personality-wise, as he was before being a vampire.
    • Some of the vampires seen in Fall of The House of Cabal are the same way, once they have a decent vampire in charge of them.
  • Genre Shift: While the tone stays consistent, the series goes through several closely related genres-"The Necromancer" is a Faustian tale, "The Detective" is more of a Ruritanian romance and detective story, "The Fear Institute" has Cabal literally travel to The Dreamlands, a setting made by Lovecraft, The Brothers Cabal features Horst taking roughly 50% of the role of main character and is something of a supernatural adventure story. The House of Gears has more sci-fi element, "Exeunt Demon King" is a sort of flashback story largely told in first-person and so on. These genres are fairly close, and Howard is such a good writer that these changes never feel like mis-steps.
  • Jar of the Bizarre: Johannes' lab is well-stocked with specimen jars of human (and inhuman) parts, including bits of Miss Smith that he retrieved from a lynch mob as a professional courtesy to a fellow necromancer. In the finale, Miss Smith's bits vanish from the jars, implying she's come Back from the Dead.
  • Long List: In Blustery Day, Cabal reads about supernatural things associated with the weather: Hail Goblins, "mandarin sleet", the Purple Cloud, the Horrid Flesh Dissolving Red Snow of Umtak Ktharl that Makes a Sighing Noise", precipitate spriggan, parasite fog, the Bonewind, cumulonemesis...
  • Mad Scientist:
    • While necromancers are typically seen as wizards, Cabal is not the typical necromancer and is more of a science hero than a magic hero.
    • "The House of Gears" also deals with a murderous scientist who even Cabal acknowledges is a genius.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • In "The Death of Me" Cabal meets a being he believes to be the personification of death. When asked for her name, she says its Myghin, which is Manx for 'mercy', which death can often be.
    • Rufus Maleficarus has a name which roughly means "red-haired" and "bad", both of which he is.
  • Noodle Incident: Many-Cabal's backstory and past adventures are often referenced but not explored-except when delved into in short stories. Among other things, Cabal mentioned seeing sunken R'lyeh rise, as well as the first severed head he acquired, and perhaps most importantly-how his love came to drown which kicked off his entire quest and the whole plot but was never really explained.
    • Cabal somehow moved his family house from where it originally was, all in one piece, to its new isolated location-it's implied he hired magical beings but never explained.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Entry into Hell is mediated by one of these, Arthur Trubshaw, a man so dedicated to dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" that he out-obstructed the demons; getting in requires filling out a massive entry form (nine thousand, seven hundred, and forty-seven pages!), in perfect detail. Using pencils with no erasers, meaning those that don't fill out the form perfectly are forced to start over from scratch.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Cabal has this reaction in "The Blustery Day" when he believes he has bested the Bonewind but he completely forgot that the Skirtingboard people have a chance to interfere and get him killed during his daylong stand-off.
    • Cabal and Zarenyia have a similar reaction in "A Long Spoon" when they discover the source of their enemy's power-which makes him immune to most of Zarenyia's tricks.
    • Cabal has a resigned one when he finds Umtak Ktharl's tomb and knows the warlock will soon rise-he pretty much just says "well, that's it, we're gonna die."
  • Randomized Transformation: Limbo is a World of Chaos where everything is mutable. In "A Long Spoon", Johannes spends a short time as a halibut, but other humans are much more unlucky — a hit of Chaos magic reduces one person to his body weight in bouncy balls.
  • Running Gag:
    • Cabal is almost always referred to in narration as "a necromancer of some little infamy."
    • Cabal has collected no less than three severed, animate heads in various circumstances.
    • Cabal being pursued by torch-bearing mobs.
  • Science Hero: While not holding any sort of advanced degree, Cabal is a scientist by inclination rather than profession-he conducts hundreds of experiments in raising the dead and in Fear Institute he takes great care in building himself a vine-rope by constructing a rudimentary scale to make sure he's not too heavy.
  • Shout-Out:
    • There's an oblique reference to the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of The Six Napoleons" in Blustery Day as Cabal re-kills one of his failed experiments by dropping a bust of Napoleon from three stories onto its head. How many does he have left? Five.
    • The series is full of references to H.P. Lovecraft from the first short story having Cabal use the powder of Ibn Ghazi, which comes from the story "The Dunwich Horror", on the Bonewind, to Cthulu getting name-dropped a bit, and the third novel is set in the Dreamlands and features many references to Lovecraft's works.
    • The series interpretation of Hell takes much from The Divine Comedy, down to the sign reading 'Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.'
    • When Cabal is tricked by a woman (of sorts) in "The Death of Me", he ends the story by reading the line "To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman" from A Scandal In Bohemia.
  • Succubi and Incubi: Succubus and similar demons appear in the series: "A Long Spoon" is about Johannes dealing with a devil (a demon non-affiliated with the legions of Hell) named Zarenyia who is a succubine and while she can shapeshift to appear like a normal (if beautiful) woman, her natural form is a sort of spider-centaur. Her sexuality and taste for murder are both played for laughs. When Cabal encounters a different succubus who doesn't like him as much in Fall of The House of Cabal she takes 'liberties' with him and he is disoriented and dazed in a rare fashion.
  • Summon Binding: Demon-summoning rituals don't actually mind-control the demon but rather invoke their infernal higher-ups for the authority to boss them around. When Johannes summons the devil Zarenyia, she cheerfully explains that she's a free agent who's bound only by her word, so they cut a deal with each other and begin an Odd Friendship instead.
  • This Cannot Be!: The adversary in "A Long Spoon", when Cabal escapes and faces him for a rematch. The narrator immediately lampshades that an immortal sorcerer living in a realm of pure chaos really has no grounds to say "This is impossible" about anything.