Friday, February 22, 2013

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

Jonathan L. Howard is an experienced hand in the video game industry who I was not previously aware of and whose previous literary output consisted of a couple of short stories which I’ve never read and had also never heard of.  Thus it is perhaps surprising that this novel is so good; it also doesn’t overstay its welcome, thereby hitting two for two.  Perfection?  Not really, read on.

Let’s start out by noting that Johannes Cabal is a complete dick right from the very first page, where he’s introduced entering Hell in order to make a deal with Satan.  This is of course a somewhat clich├ęd scenario and requires something a little different to make it in any way interesting, but Howard provides this by quickly establishing that Cabal is actually trying to get his soul back, as he sold it to Satan already some years ago.  This introduces the character as someone who’s got the sort of brass stones to demand his soul back from the devil, but oblivious and entitled enough to expect to actually get it.  In fact he’s downright churlish at Satan’s obstinacy in refusing to turn it back over right away, especially since he doesn’t propose to return the necromantic powers he obtained for selling it in the first place.  Apparently the soul was actually removed from Cabal’s body at the time of the original deal and has been in Hell this whole time; how exactly this works is not really explained, nor should it be in my opinion.  Johannes wants the soul back because its absence is rendering his experiments unreliable, and as a man of science this will never do.

Anyhow, Satan does always like a challenge, so he makes a second deal with Cabal.  He’s got to get 100 suckers to sell their souls within the next year, and then he’ll get his own back.  If he fails, Satan gets to kill him.  Satan also gives him a certain amount of evil mojo and access to a demonic carnival train to use as an attraction, since Johannes isn’t very good at using persuasion.  Well, non-lethal persuasion.

I don’t really need to point out that someone who would even consider getting 100 people to accept damnation to save their own ass is a pretty horrible, but Johannes doesn’t really seem to understand why anyone would consider it, you know, a thing.  He’s not like those other people, he’s important, he’s got some stuff he wants to do.  And by the end of the book you can at least see where he’s coming from, even if he is still totally unjustified in pretty much every action he takes.  Making a protagonist this loathsome and unlikable still worth reading about would be a challenge for anyone, and Howard steps right up to it, mostly by contrasting him with his brother Horst, currently suffering from a case of vampirism that is also Johannes’ fault.

In case it’s not clear, this is actually a very funny book, punctuated with the darkest of dark comedy.  Johannes’ sociopathy and his aura of assholism is played for laughs early and often, and you laugh at him more than with him (seeing as how he probably doesn’t ever laugh, this isn’t too hard).  Of course you wouldn’t want to laugh at him to his face because he’d kill you with his revolver and animate your corpse.  Well, maybe not on the first offence, but he’d certainly think about it.

Despite being almost totally distinct from it in every way, reading this book reminded me of nothing more than one of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels.  The protagonist is a total self-serving bastard with no traditional redeeming qualities whatsoever, and furthermore he doesn’t care what you think about it.  Therefore, you’re just reading it to admire their personal style and maybe see them foil someone even worse than they are, in Parker’s case other horrible criminals, in this case, Satan.  And whatever else you might say about him, Johannes Cabal has style.  Insufferable, annoying, highly threatening and morally dubious style to be sure, but style it is.

Now all that said, even with the book being quite reasonable in length, I at least was ready for it to be over with, as I felt that the premise had quite exhausted its lease.  In the afterward, Howard mentioned that he basically got the idea for this book by wondering where the demonic carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes could have originated.  Johannes Cabal, however, is almost too awesome to have confined him to this train.  At the same time, he’s also such a repulsive person that you don’t really care if he does lose his bet.  He might have made a better recurring unbeatable foil in a book series starring Horst, actually.  Nonetheless, this has a lot of potential, and I’d give it a recommend to the non-squeamish who love some dry British humor.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw

Imagine the invention of the printing press.  There must have been a time and a person – although I don’t know when it was or who it was, though this would be interesting to know – who began making a living by writing about other books.  The first literary critic, if you will.  And this paradigm has continued on through the ages with new media, up until the present point where I write my personal thoughts about books on my blog.  Not professionally, of course, although the world supports professional book critics, movie critics, television critics, and now video game critics.

As a relatively new form of entertainment, the video game industry has only recently started to support what I’d call truly professional reviewers, as distinguished from sycophantic hacks or industry created material (Nintendo Power of my youth, I’m looking at you).  For a while playing video games marked you as an eleven year old boy or a cheeto-encrusted basement denizen, and while these stereotypes probably actually do have some basis in reality even today, there’s a lot of us that grew up around gaming and are essentially respectable citizens of adult age who still like to play a little bit.  All of this is by way of introducing Croshaw, who has been reviewing a game every Wednesday over at The Escapist since 2007 and is also a game designer and author in his own right.  He’s not the 800-pound gorilla of the industry (that would be the Penny Arcade guys) but he’s funny and creative and he’s got his own niche.

This is his sophomore novel, following up on his 2010 work Mogworld.  I didn’t have really strong feelings about Mogworld but I did generally enjoy it; there was quite a lot of good humor in there, but it was somewhat weak in characterization.  Strangely enough, Jam has nothing whatsoever to do with Mogworld or video games in general except for one of the characters who works in the industry and is trying to retrieve one of his latest builds.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m tired of zombie apocalypses. So this is at least a nice change of pace in that regard, as the city of Brisbane has gone through a . . . blob-ocolypse, I guess.  The title is Jam and that’s what the characters call it too, but I kept thinking of The Blob when reading it.  There’s a reddish, fruity smelling layer of gelatinous goop on the ground.  It also dissolves all organic material on contact.  Since it swept through town during morning rush hour, pretty much everyone with a regular job is now gone, and the novel opens with it already there.  The protagonist, Travis, finds out about the unpleasant properties of the jam when it almost immediately dissolves one of his flatmates, who is just trying to get to the gym, poor bastard.

Most of the book deals with humorous vignettes as we assemble the usual rag-tag bunch of survivors along with the world’s most sociable Goliath bird-eating tarantula (read: not at all sociable in any way), which Travis picks up early on and carries with him.  Also included are American agents X and Y, who are possibly the world’s worst liars and provide useful exposition by their suspiciously accurate denials.  Are they responsible for the apocalypse?  If so, was it on orders?  Is it just Brisbane that is afflicted, or the whole world?  All these questions and more are eventually answered.

Like most of us, the survivors here have no particular survival skills, and furthermore their inability to reach the ground makes their future survival tenuous at best.  There’s a lot of examination here about how really unfit most of these people really are for post-apocalyptic survival, and much of it is pretty funny.  At the same time, there’s also a lot of, you know, people getting horribly dissolved.  I guess that could be funny, but at least in my opinion that’s actually pretty horrifying.  At least I think I’d be horrified if this was going on around me (at least it is mercifully quick – over in seconds and not hours-or-days long Troma-style horrorshow stuff).  I know that I can really enjoy horror comedy – This Book is Full of Spiders may have been my favorite book of 2012 – but for some reason it didn’t quite gel for me here.

In trying to organize my thoughts here, I realize that, again, I don’t have super strong feelings about this one either good or bad.  There are a lot of quotable and amusing parts here, and some really squirmworthy parts as well.  So, that’s good.  But he’s also got a layer of ironic detachment about a mile wide, and that prevents the reader from really caring about Travis or anyone else for that matter.  If the author doesn’t really care if the characters make it then it’s certainly hard for me to get worked up about it.  I'm not sure if he just isn't very good at characterization, or if he feels that someone will make fun of him if it looks like he's actually caring about his characters.  In either case, that was something I didn't like about Mogworld and I didn't like it here either.

In my opinion, Yahtzee has a great book in him somewhere – he’s certainly got the chops for it – but this one isn’t it.  At the same time, if you only read one book about carnivorous jam this year, this should probably be the one.