Boy howdy it’s mid-August and you know what that means: horror review time! There’s nothing scarier to me than 90 degree days with 90% humidity, and the electric bill that will be coming from me running my AC on the highest possible setting for months on end. In honor of the true terror brought on by the depths of summer, we’re hopping back on the Cabal Train!
Wait…no, that was the first book. The Cabal Dirigib-
No, no that was book two. Let me try again.
We’re back on the Cabal Long-Journey-Through-Mysterious-Lands-With-Mysterious-Travel-Partners-That-Involves-Multiple-Transportation-Methods.
For those of you who forgot, we reviewed the first two books in the series quite some time ago, you can find those reviews here and here. As a quick catch-up (though I don’t know why you’d be reading the review of a third book in a series if you had forgotten, kinda weird to be completely honest), the series follows a German necromancer (of some little infamy) named Johannes Cabal on his various travels and travails. To this point in the series proper (spoilers follow) he has bargained his way out of a deal with the devil and foiled an aristocratic plot aboard a dirigible. Having literally walked away from the dirigible’s crash landing, he has arrived back at his three-story Victorian townhouse that has been somehow moved to a deserted countryside through less-than-mundane means. As he recovers from his unexpected turn to heroism, he is approached by three men from the Fear Institute who want him to be their guide through the Dreamlands, and this is where our story begins.
The Fear Institute is a small group of intelligentsia that has dedicated itself to eradicating what they call the “Phobic Animus”, which is a silly name they have for the physical embodiment of fear itself. They believe that by eliminating this Animus they can eliminate fear in the human race and lead mankind to a more rational way of living and thinking. The problem, for them, is that the Animus resides in the Dreamlands, which are notoriously difficult to access and travel in. Based on the fact that the book isn’t over after three chapters, I think it’s fairly safe to spoil that they do end up in the Dreamlands, and it is there that the vast majority of the book takes place.
Any of you that have read Lovecraft in the past will have at least a passing familiarity with the Dreamlands, as they feature in one of his most popular stories: “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. It is in this book that readers will solidify this series as a favorite or decide that it’s not for them after all. In previous books there were scattered references to the Cthulhu mythos, one-off moments of horror, and the occasional weirdness among what were mostly fun adventure stories. This is a stark contrast to that as the lovecraftian horror and sense of the weird really takes its place at the fore. I will not spoil the specifics, but the group’s entry into the dreamlands reads as a straight cross of parts from “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Music of Erich Zann” in only the best way. There are many more moments which brought to mind my favorite aspects of cosmic horror and instill a true feeling of mortal minds in a place not meant for them. As someone who enjoys that style of writing and that particular flavor of horror, this book was so far up my alley it was in the adjacent street. I can, however, see this as being a major issue if you are a reader for who the horror was tolerated in order to get to the action or detective scenes. There are still moments of almost Sherlockian deduction from Cabal, but the horror and weird has taken a front row seat and does not relinquish it for the majority of the book.
While this was certainly the spookiest of the Cabal novels thus far, it was also the funniest to me. Until this point in the series Cabal has relied mostly on having one character as the foil to his dry and biting wit. Horst, in the first book, played the sidekick and doting protector. Leonie, in the second book, acted in more of a friendly antagonism. In this book, we have three travelling companions, who all have very distinct personalities, that fall victim to Cabal’s jibes and sarcasm. In a way, this tripling of party members leads to a similar tripling of sardonic remarks and cutting jokes, all of which were as funny as any in the previous books. I find Howard’s ability to make me laugh in the midst of spine-tingling terror absolutely astounding and was continually impressed by how he always seems to find just the right balance of scares and scoffs.
The Cabal series has only gotten stronger with each entry, and after each story I find myself liking Johannes himself even more. His character arc is absolutely fantastic and never feels unrealistic to me. His slow transition from actual villain to reluctant hero has been believable and fun on every page. I cannot recommend reading the Cabal series highly enough, and while the series’ mix of cosmic horror and sardonic humor may throw some people for a loop, I have enjoyed each novel more than the last (and the short stories are well worth a read, too). Give it a go and I guarantee you have a ghoulishly good time.
Rating: Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – 9.5/10