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 clichéd 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.