The Atrocity Archives – If You Gaze Long Into IT, The IT Also Gazes Into You

51zhglnwgul._sx308_bo1204203200_Show of hands, how many of you out there have worked for a large corporation before? For those of you sitting at your desk with a hand raised, likely sipping a lukewarm coffee that may or may not have been the last cup before the carafe needed to be refilled (you think we don’t know?), put your hand down. You look ridiculous and your colleagues are beginning to talk. Those of you who had your hands raised, and are now feeling a little self-conscious, The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross, is going to make sense to you. It shouldn’t, because the contents are mind-warping, strange, and surreal, but it will. I’m sorry.

As I was saying, today’s review is The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, a book that is actually a long novella and a short story combined into one printing and kicks off the Laundry Files series. As of the writing of this review, there are 9 fully numbered entries in the series, so there’s clearly a readership. Considering it’s essentially about an IT guy who’s really good at math trying to contain gibbering extra-dimensional entities it seems like I may be the kind of person who’s a member of that readership. Review spoiler, as is tradition, I am.

The Atrocity Archives is written from the POV of Bob Howard, who starts the series as a low level IT guy working for Capital Laundry Services, the UK’s secret agency for all that goes bump in the night. The back blurb gives away that he quickly “gets noticed” and is bumped up to being a field agent. He subsequently goes on a few adventures, sees some scary stuff, and is generally annoyed by the proceedings. His first few (mis)adventures are told with an interesting but slightly repetitive window-dressing, in that about halfway through the action we fade to him in a staff meeting briefing his superiors on what happened next. I thought that it was funny the first time, but I think it wears a little thin on repeated use. Luckily this disappears for the most part as the story goes on, but it did stick out to me.

I don’t really hold it against the book overall, though, as one of the main selling points of the story is the way it examines and takes apart the day-to-day trappings of working for a soulless (maybe literally in this case) bureaucracy. Bob’s life as a secret government field agent who is licensed to use deadly and high-grade occult weaponry is mainly occupied by staff meetings, corporate liability training, and other equally terrifying drudgery. Bob’s inner monologue as he sits through yet another staff training exercise he’s overqualified for but had to attend because his office had the budget to send someone is dry, funny, and will spring to mind during my next conference call.

I was also very impressed by Stross’s handling of the actual horror scenes in the book. A great many crossover horror books tend to actually be a fantasy or sci-fi book with a little bit of lip service to horror in the form of a mention of Nyarlathotep or some gore and flickering lights. I can honestly say that there were multiple scenes in The Atrocity Archives where I was truly unsettled. I really can’t get across, without spoiling specifics, how effective Stross managed to be with his horror.

One thing that stuck out to me in a less-than-positive way was how juvenile the hacker culture aspects of the book were. I’ve waffled from one perspective to the other on this, and since I read this book rather than listened on the audiobook, I can only infer what Bob sounded like when he used terms like “pwnz0r3d” in casual conversation, and since I enjoyed all the other aspects of the book so much I’m choosing on a personal level to believe that Bob is so unremittingly sarcastic that he’s joking when he says it. In the interest of fairness and honesty I have to inform you that in choosing to believe this I’m ignoring some other questionable evidence (e.g. his roommates names being “Pinky” and “Brains”, though again this may just be another in-universe joke for them, it was hard for me to tell).

I liked the book. I liked the book so much I immediately bought the second and read seven chapters before reminding myself I have other books on my schedule and it can wait. That being said, I think that the writing itself is pretty much just okay, and my enjoyment of it was heavily influenced by the fact that it was written for someone with almost exactly my interests and history of media consumption. I don’t really think this is a “recommend this to anyone and they’ll love it” book, I don’t even think it’s really a “recommend this to anyone and they’ll finish it and still have faith in your recommendations, at least” book. If you have a good grounding in the Cthulhu mythos, but really wanted to experience it from the perspective of a late-twenties British IT guy who’s pretty funny most of the time I’d recommend you pick it up.

General Audience Rating: The Atrocity Archives – 6.5/10
Will Audience Rating: The Atrocity Archives – 9.5/10
-Will

The Ballad Of Black Tom – Not Going To Dance Around This One

51y55ipp1jl._sx311_bo1204203200_I’m certainly not a prolific reviewer – you can take a look at the history of the blog and see that without too much difficulty. At the same time, since joining The Quill to Live I’ve reviewed a decent amount of horror stories. I’ve come to some conclusions on what attributes great (or just my favorite) horror tales share. These are certainly not commandments written in stone from on high, but when I truly enjoy a spooky story it tends to share the following traits.

Great horror stories are short. I’m not saying something needs to be five pages long to be scary, but the longer you spend on a subject the more it tends to move out of “horror” and into being just “scary”. I find the sweet spot is right in the novella length, somewhere between 70 to 150 pages, long enough to unfurl the entirety of itself but short enough to leave you uncertain what it was that you just experienced. I find in the longer stories you tend to be left with a few scary moments, rather than a truly horrifying experience.

There are no “Good Guys” in great horror stories. The very existence of a Good Guy in a horror story means that it’s a scary story, not a horror story. Any kind of tale can be scary, all it requires is a distinct kind of tension and discomfort. To be truly horrifying a story needs to be bleak, hopeless even. In a great horror story, the characters who survive to the end haven’t won, they’ve merely prolonged their role in the tale.

You can’t “win” a great horror story. Regardless of the outcome, whether the big bad ostensibly won or lost, everything is worse at the end of a horror story. Sometimes there is no right answer, and the best in horror makes sure there isn’t a happy resolution.

An awful lot of whinging for what was ostensibly a review of The Ballad of Black Tom, the novella by Victor LaValle, right? With a lead-in like that there are only two potential opinions I can have on the book. One: I loved it, and this is all an elaborate way to review the book without actually saying anything about it. Two: I hated it, and this is all an elaborate way to lead into me tearing this book to shreds with visceral glee.

It will put LaValle’s mind at rest, in the vanishingly small chances that he’s a member of our loyal readership, that Black Tom firmly falls into the first category. I absolutely loved the story and wish I could talk about a number of things that I’m unable to without ruining some of my favorite aspects of the narrative. I shouldn’t need to, but will regardless, say that Black Tom is perfectly pithy and short, the characters are complex and flawed, and the story ended in a compelling and chilling fashion. I won’t say anything else here, as I don’t want to influence you going into the book. It really is a frightening story in the style of the old weird authors, and manages to twist the telling of the story in a way that I think makes it all the more interesting and adds a sense of realism to the otherworldly horror that makes up the majority of the narrative.

If you don’t enjoy frightening short stories and the mention of Cthulhu is enough to make you put a book down, this book won’t change your mind and I don’t think you should pick it up. If you enjoy stories that leave you paralyzed by doubt, discomfort, and distress on their conclusion, I think you’ll find this one to be right up your alley.

Rating: The Ballad of Black Tom – 9.0/10
-Will

The Gutter Prayer – Get Your Mind In This Gutter

51dGKfMrwvL._SX331_BO1204203200_This is pretty much the coolest post ever on the site, and I’ll tell you why. I’m writing from the future! Not only did we here at The Quill to Live receive an advanced reader’s copy of The Gutter Prayer (in exchange for an honest review), but I’m writing this from the back of a taxi in London. Not only is this being written before the book is even out, but I’m writing it from tomorrow (depending on where you live and what time it is, I suppose it could even be from the past all things considered but since that’s how these usually go that sounds less cool).

Let’s get the actual review started, shall we? To whet your appetite, I’d like to give you my one-line description: take RJB’s Divine Cities series, throw in a little churchy intrigue a la Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series, then top it off with a healthy smattering of unique and fun ideas and you get The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan. Any longtime readers of the blog will know just how lofty the heights of our esteem is for The Divine Cities and the Craft Sequence, and they will surely be wondering whether this novel soars like an eagle or a little more like Icarus.

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil the rest of the review a little here and answer that lead-in question: the book was great. I had a really fun time with a varied cast of characters, a unique and vibrant city I enjoyed exploring, and a surprisingly deep and interesting world. While there was a bit of hand-waving when it came to filling in the parts of the world we didn’t see, there was enough fleshed out that I’m excited for a chance to go back and hear more about them. The city that we spend the duration of our tale in, Guerdon, is an old and storied merchant city with a long enough past that some of it is bound to be dark (and oh my does it turn out to be). With an incurable plague that slowly turns its victims to statues, alchemical monsters patrolling the streets, and ghouls living alongside humans Guerdon has a lot going on. It would be easy to just sketch the city out in broad strokes with so much else to describe, but Hanrahan does a great job of making Guerdon feel lived in and real. As the story unfolds and we become privy to more of the city’s past I became more impressed with the amount of thought that was put into it and how interesting it all was.

As cool as the city was, however, you need solid characters to do things in a story. Spar, Rat, and Carillon are the three main characters in The Gutter Prayer and they’re all thieves. Spar is a stone man, afflicted by the plague mentioned earlier and the descriptions of his illness and what he goes through to survive it just a little longer can be heartwrenching at times. Carillon is a vagrant and thief recently returned to the city after running away in her childhood. Rat is a ghoul. I want to point out that the fact that a main character was a ghoul was my main reason for choosing to read and review this book. I was hoping that would add a bit of something disturbing to the story and oh boy does it. I don’t think the sections from Rat’s POV would necessarily turn anyone off of the book by itself, but there are certainly things that made me squeamish.

That’s a perfect segue into explaining why I was reminded of The Divine Cities, one of my absolute favorite series, when I was reading this book. Hanrahan’s creativity in coming up with and describing the various non-human “monsters” in his story is spectacular. Roaming the streets of Guerdon instead of a police force is the “Tallowmen”, waxwork figures made from criminals (and possibly others) with a burning wick on the top of their head. Super strong, super fast, and with a wicked knife instead of handcuffs, the Tallowmen added a lot of great tension to the story considering our main characters are thieves. The Tallowmen aren’t even the only thing: Crawling Ones, the aforementioned population of Ghouls, Ravellers, various alchemical horror-weapons, and in the near distance is the Godswar where maddened gods twist nature to do battle with one another. It all adds up to nearly a thrill a page and it felt like nearly every chapter was a cliffhanger in terms of exciting new things to see.

It can’t all be good, of course, and while the characters and world were amazing, the plot felt little rushed and unfocused. It felt very much like a couple of stories mushed together to make a single longer introduction to the world, and while it didn’t put me off the book I think that a lot could have been done to make the pacing better. It’s a plot we’ve seen before, and in a book that is so bursting full of unique and fresh things, it sticks out a little bit.

All in all I think that The Gutter Prayer is an interesting and extremely fun entry into The Black Iron Legacy, the name of this new series. I love discovering new monsters and I’m a sucker for detailed, old, and dangerous cities. If you’re anything like me in those regards you’ll absolutely love The Gutter Prayer. I’m interested in where the sequel goes, because much like City Of Stairs, The Gutter Prayer ends with a variety of paths open to it. I’ll be keeping my eye out for the sequel, as I think this series is going to be one of the major talking points of 2019.

Rating: The Gutter Prayer – 8.0/10
-Will

The Brothers Cabal – Turns Out Horst is Back

51j2c226w2lI’d like to start this one out with an apology. I’m four books into this five book series and I have officially run out of ways to make the “Cabal [method of transportation]” joke. I’ve spent kind of an embarrassing amount of time trying to come up with a way to make it work and I just can’t. I’m sure this is a personal failing on my part, and a better (funnier actually funny) writer could do it. I bet you’d still be actually laughing out loud at it. For that, I apologize. I’m the worst and I’m sorry. (Hey, side note, there’s gonna be mild spoilers. Please see the title for an example.)

Moving on to the actual meat and potatoes, we’re reviewing The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, the 4th book out of 5 in the Johannes Cabal series. You can find my reviews of the previous three books here, here, and here. I’m guessing if you’re reading a review of a book this far into a series you’re either already reading it yourself or are still somehow trying to convince yourself to buy the first one by seeing if the series is worth it overall. Well it is. The first two books are fun, the third book is where the series really hits its stride, and this book is a culmination of all of the best elements of the series. I cannot recommend reading the exploits of Johannes Cabal enough.

On the topic of Johannes Cabal, well at least relating to him, is the matter of the title. Readers of the first book will be very familiar with Horst Cabal, Johannes’ brother. Through a set of circumstances that were entirely the fault of Johannes, Horst became a vampire prior to the events of the first book. He was an absolute highlight of the first novel and was immediately elevated to one of my favorite characters in general.

SPOILER ALERT

He also died at the climax of the first book. Believing himself to have condemned Johannes to death and eternal damnation for the sins and general atrocities he’d committed throughout the book, he watched the sun rise and turned to ash, dying permanently.

Or so we thought! I was toying with the idea of just not talking about the title and playing this close to the chest, but the book has been out for four years at this point and I didn’t think being coy was worth it when the first chapter is literally Horst waking up from being resurrected. He obviously plays a huge part in the novel and is as good a POV character as he was a side character in the first book. He is the perfect foil to Johannes and the scenes where they verbally spar are beyond excellent. It’s too bad the series has to end, as I would devour a smaller episodic series featuring the brothers Cabal having misadventures until the end of my days.

SPOILERS DONE

I hope you read that regardless of spoilers because otherwise this next paragraph isn’t going to flow at all. The humor that has been prevalent throughout the series is at its peak in this book. Johannes continues to be drier than the Gobi, the supporting characters are shocked and amused by him in turns, and Howard continues to make almost Pratchett-like commentary on the ways of the world. I could gush for pages on how funny and amusing the book is, but I think this snippet sums up the moment to moment voice and almost insouciant humor in every page:

One of the women was watching the engagement through her own pair of binoculars. She looked up towards the castle, and their gaze met through several sets of lenses and prisms. The sergeant had a faint premonition that this meeting did not bode well. The woman lowered her glasses and looked directly at him. She had a very intense look about her, and she seemed to be mouthing something.

The sergeant was just noting that she was a very handsome woman, from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean he would guess, when his eyes unexpectedly burst into flames. This distressed him, and he staggered around, blood-red fire erupting from the sockets, while he explained the degree of agony he was enduring and how much he would appreciate assistance of an unspecified form from those present. Then his head caught fire and his conversation became very scream orientated.

I don’t really know how else to exhort you to read this series if you aren’t currently. The plot is tight and fun, and the ending of this book sets up the fifth and final book perfectly. The series has grown into itself and Johannes Cabal himself has had an incredibly enjoyable character arc from cold, uncaring, soulless necromancer to…well, cold, mostly uncaring, soul-possessing necromancer with a soft spot for ghouls.

I just really like the series. I really like this book. I’ve never read something that felt so much like it was written for me and my personal taste, but this series really just nails it. If you have a dry, morbid sense of humor and enjoy a good action tale that features a morally dubious but good-hearted-in-the-end character, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading the Johannes Cabal series and The Brothers Cabal.

Rating: The Brothers Cabal 10/10
-Will

Winter Tide – Cooler than the Other Side of the Salt Water

a1zmg0rj1slWinter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys, is a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Essentially a subversive take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, the book is told from the perspective of one of his “monsters”, and I’d always been intrigued by the description. Now that I’ve wrapped up this story, I’m incredibly disappointed in myself for having waited so long to try it out. It certainly wasn’t the story I was expecting when I initially started reading, but the story I got is one of the absolute best I’ve read this year, and it’s a tale that I imagine will stick with me in the coming months.

I guess it was the fact that it takes place in a world where Lovecraft’s stories are canon (of a sort) that led me to erroneously believe that this would be a horror story when I started it. The fact that it was being told from the perspective of Aphra Marsh, originally an Innsmouth resident and one of the last two living and unchanged Deep Ones (along with her brother Caleb), made it more likely to draw the curtains and reveal the “horror” for what it really was, but I still thought that something so grounded in tales that left me quaking would…well, leave me quaking again. I was wrong about that, as this book sets out to chill the reader in other ways, more mundane and yet more deeply disturbing for that very mundanity.

Readers of Lovecraft, by this point, must make their forays into his work with eyes open and with the understanding that the man behind the words was a monster in his own right. Deeply xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic, even for the woeful standards of his time, Lovecraft channeled his fears of the other and anger at those who “wouldn’t mind their place” into works of seething atmospheric dread and unknowable terrors. It is impossible to extricate the man and his abhorrent beliefs from the monsters and stories he wrote into existence, as it was those very beliefs that gave him such an insight into the dark and dreadful recesses of humanity. I think this is why we see so many novels that make an attempt to “reclaim” or “rewrite” his works, twisting them on their head and showing him for what he was.

It is no accident, then, that Winter Tide is as sincere a refutation of those mores and ideas as I’ve found to date. The decision to accept that the old stories are canon, but canon as set down by men like Lovecraft himself, and show those stories and ideas for how twisted and wrong they are is incredibly powerful. Emrys draws parallels between the treatment of the Innsmouth folk in internment camps and the treatment of other indigenous peoples as a way of showing that rather than horrific monsters to be feared, the Men of the Water are simply that – human. When you consider how the United States government treated the native peoples of the Americas, and how they were viewed by the common populace as barbaric monsters at the time, it is easy to see in subsequent reads of the original tale The Shadow Over Innsmouth how the perceptions of the “hero” of the story could be twisted by a lack of understanding, or a lack of desire to understand.

It’s not just the big ideas that Emrys refutes, either. Everything in the novel, down to the occasional use of overwrought prose to make a call back to Lovecraft’s less than stellar narrative voice (using the word vertiginous rather than dizzying, as one example of many) was planned and executed fantastically. The specific use of Asenath Waite from The Thing on the Doorstep is another example of her twisting of Lovecraft’s original less-than-savory intent, as is the choice to change the spelling of the name of one of the elder gods from Shub-Niggurath to Shub-Nigarath. It’s a small thing but changes the way the name is said internally from one that was clearly using a racial epithet to make something feel dark and dangerous, to one that simply sounds strange and distant.

That being said, all the best intentions and refutations of humanity’s darker nature in the world won’t help a book if the story and writing are off, of course, but Emrys shines here as well. I said earlier in this review that the story I received is not the one I expected, and the story I got was stellar. An adventurous mystery romp through the Miskatonic Bay region with a diverse and interesting cast of characters was a really pleasant surprise once I realized that was what I was reading. Each of the characters is developed well and written superbly, and every story beat and emotional reveal was handled deftly and sympathetically. My only complaint is that the main driving force of the mystery takes a hard detour and turns out to be something of a mcguffin, but the real mystery and plot that replaces it was far more interesting in the end, and as such I have a hard time faulting the book for it.

Winter Tide was fantastic, fun, meaningful, painful, and expansive. I loved the full cast of protagonists and loved rooting against the entire cast of antagonists, though in the end there aren’t really any “bad guys” per se, simply people with different ideas on how things should be done and not enough information on why things shouldn’t be done that way. Ruthanna Emrys has a fantastic voice as an author and I cannot wait to start the second book in the series, Deep Roots, released in June of this year.

Rating: Winter Tide – 9.5/10
-Will

Coldbrook – Something Something Lukewarm, Something Something Bad Pun

81jyozjppulFor those of you who have been reading the blog for…more than 1.5 years (wow it’s been awhile now huh?), you may remember a short recommendation list I made for the zombie fiction genre. In the opening blurb that isn’t nearly as pithy or interesting as I thought at the time, I mention that books about zombies are a weak spot for me. I can, without exception, find something to like in any zombie book I read. Some might say it’s a character flaw and they’d probably be right. Back to the matter at hand I realized that it’d been awhile since I’d read a new zombie book, and while on holiday with some of the QTL crew at PAX I picked up Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

With an opening paragraph like that, I bet you’re expecting me to say that this was the exception and Coldbrook is the only zombie book I’ve ever read that I couldn’t enjoy. You’d be absolutely wrong, I was just stumped on how to lead into this review, so the joke is on you.

Coldbrook is the story of a zombie plague brought about by a scientific experiment that opens a gateway between different versions of earth. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s literally in the back blurb. Coldbrook is, shockingly, the name of the science installation where this experiment takes place. We open with the experiment just having succeeded and things quickly go wrong from there. I want to focus on that word ‘quickly’, as that is a recurring theme in the book. The zombies run quickly, the virus spreads quickly, the plot moves quickly. It’s all very edge of your seat for the majority of the novel’s running time. This has its pros and cons. I absolutely tore through the book, finishing it in about a day and a half, and there really wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable with stopping, as the action was split rather well between the various povs.

Unfortunately, for a zombie book that seems marketed more as a horror book than an action book, the pace hinders what could have been some real scares. This is unfortunate, as Lebbon has a lot of talent for situational writing. Individual moments and scenes in Coldbrook rank up there in terms of scary zombie stories for me, and I think that with a little more room to work with, maybe over the course of a two or three book series, Coldbrook could have elevated the tension and risen to the heights of true horror.

I am not as big a fan of his characters, unfortunately. Another issue brought about by the amount of story Lebbon attempts to tell in a standalone novel is that the wide variety of characters don’t really ever get time to distinguish themselves as individuals. Instead most are reduced to broad strokes descriptions and individual unique traits that are leaned on in lieu of deeper characterization. The welsh scientist references wales and whiskey basically nonstop, the family man having an affair literally will not stop talking about how much disappointment he sees in his wife’s eyes, and so on. Please note that the characters aren’t bad, and I would have loved to spend more time getting to know them, which is the real shame.

Outside of the outbreak’s source being an alternate dimension, all the standard zombie fiction fare is here: airport shenanigans, school bus fiascos, gory cannibalism, all the fun stuff. The zombies themselves are pretty by the numbers, with their one distinct aspect being that instead of moaning, they make a quiet “hoot” sound. This doesn’t really change a lot other than the characters talking about how they didn’t think zombies would make that sound, which got a little meta for me, but in the end I do prefer characters that are self aware over characters that have somehow never heard of zombies and are absolutely dumbstruck by everything to do with them.

I don’t know that Coldbrook will make my shortlist of zombie book recommendations for the wider public, but if you enjoy zombies a lot already I think it’s a unique enough take on the genre to check out. The issues I had with the book are extremely common in the genre, and present in a much lighter degree here than in most similar stories. If you’re looking for a solid zombie apocalypse story with a little unique flair, the zombie guy at The Quill To Live recommends Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

Rating: Coldbrook – 6.5/10
-Will

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – It’s A Frighteningly Good Time

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.

Perfect.

51toff8i01l-_sx331_bo1204203200_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
-Will