Sunday, 30 October 2011

'Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute' - Jonathan L Howard

It's time for the third book about Johannes Cabal - necromancer, detective supreme - and I'm very excited about The Fear Institute. The first two books were very clever and witty. Not really much of a choice here. I did not need to read the blurb, I already knew The Fear Institute was a must read. Let's see if I still think so at the end of my review. If you have not read the first two, I suggest you do so. Take a look at my review of Johannes Cabal: The Detective. Thank you Headline for providing me with this review copy.

Johannes Cabal is approached by three men, who introduce themselves as members of a secret society called The Fear Institute. They have dedicated their resources to fighting humankind's greatest enemy, fear. Fear holds us back as a species, and stands in the way of progress and innovation. It must be destroyed. They now have identified where the manifestation of fear can be found, but they need a reliable guide to lead them to their goal. Who else would be better than the infamous necromancer Johannes Cabal.

Jonathan L Howard pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft with his world building. The avatar of fear can be found in The Dreamlands, an alternative dimension, which can only be entered via dreams. The Dream Cycle is a series of stories by H.P. Lovecraft in which he wrote about The Dreamlands. The members of The Fear Institute have found an alternative way in, but logical caution (fear really) is behind the decision to bring a guide with experience of the occult.

The Dreamlands is a great setting for a Johannes Cabal story. It's a place where the science and the laws of physics have to take a step back and give way for superstition and myths. The Johannes Cabal we have  come to know so far is far more a scientist than a sorcerer, but in The Dreamlands magic is real and science less so. Will it prove a challenge for our super logical hero, or will he take it all in his stride and start flinging fireballs to the left and right?

Not having read much H.P. Lovecraft I canot say how much modifications Jonathan L Howard has made in his version of The Dreamlands, but it is a well presented setting. It's equal parts quirky and unsettling. I'm guessing that fans of H.P. Lovecraft will recognise a lot more than me.

I've said it before and I'm not afraid of saying it again; Johannes Cabal is a fantastic character. A lot of credit to Jonathan L Howard for striking such a perfect balance with his main character. It's funny how such a cold, selfish and ruthless man as Cabal can be so likeable. He has a lot of charm to him, which comes from his great wit and naivety. Johannes Cabal might know a lot about science and the occult, but when it comes to simple things like people and emotions he is sometimes at a loss. Supporting characters have plenty of life in them, but at the end of the day they are mere puppets dancing at the deft fingers of Johannes Cabal.

The plot of The Fear Institute starts out as a simple quest, find the manifestation of fear and slay it. When Jonathan L Howard is holding the pen, nothing is as simple as it seems though, and more than once it takes a surprising turn. One on occasion a very surprising turn. He never has to result to dirty tricks to keep things moving forward, and as always it's both exciting and funny.

Johannes Cabal is a (slightly) evil version of Sherlock Holmes. They both have the same superior intellect, which lets them be several steps ahead of their opponents. My favorite sleuth however lacks the wit of my favorite necromancer. Cabal's knack for unexpected violence with a humorous outcome is outstanding. The Fear Institute is a fastidiously well written book. It's an absolute blast to read. My only regret is I finished it way too quickly.

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute weighs in at 416 pages and is published by Headline.

Recommendation: must read


  1. Mr Howard's creation is the most entertaining anti hero since Dexter Morgan. Although he has
    been compared to Terry Pratchett, he is the true heir to the late great Robert Sheckley,
    a writer who has been greatly overlooked.

    What makes Mr Howard such a clever writer is his
    reference to other classic writers of weird fiction, such as M.R James and Oliver Onions,
    both giants in their chosen fields.

    Mr Howard is the only writer who has made the
    Cthlulu Mythos seem amusing, which is no mean
    feat as many of Lovecraft's tales were utterly

    It is a long time since I have openly laughed in public, and that respect he is in magnificent company with George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman and Carl Hiassen's demented books.

    Readers who enjoy Johannes Cabal should check out the Lucifer Box novels by Mark Gatiss as well.