Johannes Cabal is a necromancer, and one day three men appear with an offer. Messrs. Shadrach, Corde, and Bose want to hire him as their guide into the Dreamlands in order to find and destroy the Phobic Animus, the source of all fear. The Dreamlands are an alternate reality accessible to dreamers, poets, philosophers, and those under the influence of mind-altering substances. Dreamlands are full of beauty and wonder, but visitors are equally likely to meet monsters and nightmares of epic proportions. Cabal accepts this mission, and as the four journey through the Dreamlands, they encounter a variety of adventure, wonder, and horror. Cabal comes face to face with the source of the nightmares and fantasies that the men encountered and, in order to survive, must face some of his own inner demons to outwit his powerful opponent.
I liked this book, especially for the use of language and character. Scattered throughout the book are wordplay, allusions, and snarky little jokes that even someone not overly familiar with the Lovecraftian works that this novel are based on can appreciate. I should also point out here that this is the first Johannes Cabal book I’ve read, and it is the third title of the series. I plan to go back to the first two, especially since I want to see if the passing references made to Cabal’s past are explained at all.
Howard’s story is certainly horror-based, but thankfully not overloaded with gore and violence. These elements are certainly present, but they serve the plot and are not overdone, which, as a fan of the suspense variety of horror, I appreciate.
The suspense and Cabal’s character work very well-together. One of the key plot threads involves Cabal’s growing sense of unease about his mission and some characters he meets who seem to know him and want to help guide him, but whom he does not recognize. The recognition and realization process is one of the major revelations towards the end of the story, and contributes both to the suspense of the narrative and to the development of Cabal’s character. He is most definitely a cynic, but has an academic scholarly sense of exploration and thirst for knowledge such that he is open to change, even within himself. Given the genre and tone of the book, some of this development is on the tragic side but thankfully Cabal never lets the tragedy completely override his strong sense of self and purpose.
The one thing about this story that I did not enjoy as much was the confusion in how some of the mysteries were revealed. Once the major villain is unmasked and Cabal has to outwit that figure, he has to face one particular challenge that is not very clearly set up. Even at the end of this sequence, when Cabal figures out what was going on, how the sequence started in the first place is still not clear in retrospect. This annoys me a bit, given how most of the other suspenseful elements are resolved in a mostly discernible fashion, sometimes after the fact, but still clear.
This one dissatisfaction aside, the book does conclude well, especially with the wink to the forward in the last two lines. I can’t decide if I want to know what Cabal’s actually seeing or not. Now I might have to get my hands on book 4 of the series too to find out.