I seem to have recommended several stories with very virtuous heroines or heroes lately, so this week I’m going with an anti-hero. `The Fear Institute’ is the third in a series of novels by Jonathan L.Howard about infamous necromancer Johannes Cabal. Why pick the third volume rather than the first? Well, Howard likes to play with different genres and `The Fear Institute’ is closer to Fantasy than the other two volumes. Dark Fantasy that is. If you are intrepid enough to enjoy writers such as Lovecraft, Dunsany or Vance, Howard’s books are well worth (cautiously) exploring. `The Fear Institute’ is available on Kindle and other eReaders but the paperback seems to be between printings.  Possibly because this `horrible story of madness and corruption’ has caused the printers to run away screaming.

A tragedy in his past has made Johannes Cabal determined to become a great necromancer. This story starts when three visitors brave the man-eating pixies in Cabal’s front garden to put an unusual proposition to him. Mr Shadrach, a funeral director, Mr Corde, a solicitor, and Mr Bose, an art dealer, are all members of a society dedicated to the study and eradication of fear.  They wish Cabal to lead them on an expedition into the Dreamlands to capture or destroy the `phobic animus’, the archetype of Fear itself. Cabal has researched the Dreamlands as a potential source of useful magic and he knows that they are `a world of curious and exotic sights…lands as ancient as thought and oceans as deep as imagination’. The Dreamlands are created by mad artists, poets and opium addicts – the sort of people logical Cabal finds particularly annoying – but the men from the Fear Institute claim to have the Silver Key which will allow physical entry to this psychic domain. They offer Cabal permanent use of this key once their expedition is successful. With many reservations, Cabal agrees to the bargain.

Cabal leads the three men to the current location of the Gateway to the Dreamlands – in witch-cursed Arkham, Massachusetts – and uses the Silver Key in a gruesome way. Pursued by hideous ghouls, they enter the dangerous Dreamlands. With unexpected help from a notoriously unpleasant deity, Cabal guides Shadrach, Corde and Bose through a very nastily enchanted wood. In Hlanith, Cabal meets a witch in a graveyard who warns him that the Fear Institute is not what it seems. The expedition recruits more men and they all go off  to consult a hermit, who of course lives in `A Nameless City of Evil Repute’. Once inside the haunted city, the body count begins to rise. Cabal has a curious conversation with a super-intelligent ghoul, meets a monster of bizarre origin and gets to use his special skills to raise at least part of a dead man. As the expedition struggles on, Cabal has to face his worst nightmares and come up with a very ingenious plan if he is to defeat a disguised enemy.

`The Fear Institute’ is a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously but be prepared for a lot of stylised violence.  I like books with enticing chapter titles and this one has some beauties; such as  `Chapter 4: IN WHICH THE FAUNA OF THE DREAMLANDS PROVE UNPLEASANT’ or `Chapter 12: IN WHICH THERE ARE MONSTERS AND CATS, WHICH IS TO SAY, VERY MUCH THE SAME THING’. On this journey through the Dreamlands, Fantasy buffs will enjoy spotting allusions to the work of classic authors, especially Lovecraft, and the book includes a very funny `Young Person’s Guide’ to the Cthulhu mythos. I feel that there are enough inventive horrors,  suspense-filled scenes and artful plot twists to ensure that `The Fear Institute’ is more than a just an amusing parody. This is the kind of story where nobody is safe from terrible fates and you never know who is going to die – or how often – but what really makes the novel stand out is a complex and intriguing central character.

A witch points out to Johannes Cabal that he is not ideal for the job of  hero on a quest, and he isn’t. Cold, clever and cynical, Cabal is a self-confessed villain. He claims to have no friends and even the vampire in his family disowned him. Cabal is completely focused on a personal war against the irreversibility of death and is willing to lie, steal or even kill to accomplish his goals. He should be hateful but I find him strangely likeable. Cabal is a consistently amusing commentator on the events of the story and he is refreashingly free of any kind of hypocrisy. He never claims to care about something when he doesn’t or to follow any high moral code.  Yet he rarely targets the innocent, he does less harm than most authority figures, and he often behaves better than supposedly decent citizens like Shadrach, Corde and Bose. Touchingly, when it comes to love, Cabal is completely at sea. The fact that his character does have hidden depths is essential to the plot of `The Fear Institute’. To find out why, you’ll have to read the book. Until next week….