Jonathan L. Howard is the author of the Johannes Cabal series, the titular character being "a necromancer of some little infamy." He has published two novels which chronicle the adventures of Herr Cabal, and his short stories about the character have appeared in such venues as H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, John Joseph Adams's The Way of the Wizard, and, most recently, Fantasy Magazine. Recently, he published an article over at Black Gate about the genesis of his brilliant (if easily-aggravated) main character and his personal journey from page to publication; in this interview, Howard was kind enough to speak to, among other things, his interest in the ghastly, his former career as a game designer, his deep and abiding love of horror films, and his participation in NaNoWriMo last year. He also gives a tantalizing preview of his upcoming third novel, Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, which is due out later this year.
Author Jonathan Howard.
Molly Tanzer: For the uninitiated: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is a Faustian tale of an irritable necromancer who must win back his soul by means of a satanic carnival; Johannes Cabal the Detective has been described as steampunk by reviewers (and even mentions that genre on the American hardcover edition). Your novels and short stories alike contain elements of fantasy, horror, science fiction, camp, and sometimes even original hymns to ancient dreaming gods. So . . . what is it you write, exactly?
Jonathan L. Howard: What you just said, I write that.
Oh, very well. The long and the short of it is that I write the sort of things I would like to read myself. A novel is a long slog, so if you're not enjoying the story yourself then you're on a hiding to nothing before you even start. That's also true of short stories. What a short lacks in length it makes up for in intensity, and that requires concentration and diligence. If you're uninvested, it will show.
In my case, I've been fascinated by the grotesque and the macabre ever since I can remember. I don't really know why that should be—I didn't live in a house that featured much in the way of inspirational materials for such interests—but I cleaved to everything that bore the faintest tang of the uncanny.
This was combined with a mad keenness for science and science fiction. The '60s was the decade of the "white heat of technology," and that was reflected in popular culture. Science and weirdness went hand in hand in programmes like Thunderbirds, The Avengers, and especially Doctor Who. Actually, Doctor Who was in hindsight probably the strongest element in that mix. It combined science, fear, humour, and occasional surrealism in the '60s. I just about remember the first Doctor, William Hartnell, and I remember the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, very well. Between rather grim stories like Fury from the Deep, surrealist ones like The Celestial Toymaker, and tales full of gleaming death like The Evil of the Daleks, yes, maybe I was even more influenced by Doctor Who than I've previously thought.
MT: What first inspired you to try your hand at writing? What is the first thing you recall writing?
JLH: I've always made up stories as long as I remember, so it was just a question of channeling it through the medium of a keyboard or a pen. I remember the only time that I was ever late to school in my entire educational career was because I was making up a story and forgot the time. It was part of my primary school's routine that the headmaster came around the classes to hear late children's explanations. I told him I was late because I was telling myself a story. He looked at me blankly, which I took as a cue that he wanted to hear the story. In this, I was incorrect. He moved smartly onto the next child before I was even halfway through "Once upon a time."
I was only taught to read and write when I went to school, but I picked it up very quickly and was certainly writing from five years old. It was mainly "What I did at the weekend" sort of things, however. I only remember specific stories I was writing from about the age of seven or eight. I distinctly remember writing a Scooby Doo inspired piece (I thought Scooby Doo, Where are You? was awesome as a child, and never missed an episode) about a haunted inn. It ended with the narrator being trapped forever inside a sarcophagus. It's not quite as bad as killing the narrator off at the end of a first person piece, but it comes close. In fairness to my primary school self, I knew there was something wrong with the story at the time, although it took me a while to cotton on to exactly what it was. Last week, in fact.
MT: You biography mentions you've worked extensively in the game designing industry. What have your favorite projects been, and why?
My favourite project to this day is my first adventure game, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, renamed Circle of Blood for its original US release. It was just a fun game with, wonderfully, a sensible schedule so that we never crunched on it. I came in on several weekends and put in evenings, but that was just because it was an enjoyable project with a very good team and I wanted to make the thing as good as I could. It was also a small team, so I ended up wearing several hats. I think I had five credits for the assorted jobs on that. As a designer and writer, I also had a good amount of leeway on my sections of the game. When I came onto the project, the overall story arc was in place and the locations the game would go, but what would happen in those locations was up in the air. The brief was, for example, "George arrives in Spain and will discover these pieces of information and this artefact. The screens that are being drawn up are this, that, and the other." And that was it. That's a pretty blank piece of paper to work with, management was supportive of my design decisions, and I loved it. I've never had that degree of freedom on any other project.
MT: What games do you enjoy playing for recreation?
JLH: I enjoy playing all sorts of things. In terms of video games, I keep going back to Batman: Arkham Asylum, partially because it's just such a good game and partially because I'm a Batman fan and this is the first Batman game that has ever got the vibe right. I've also been playing several golden oldies like Silent Hunter III and Evil Genius recently. Finally got around to playing Oblivion and Dragon Age: Origins over the last few months. The former was fun, but Dragon Age surprised me by how good it is in every department. I also play MMOs. I've been playing City of Heroes for years, but I also get a fantasy fix from LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online) now and then. I don't think I'm very snobby about games. If it's fun, I'll play it.
For non-video games, I'm running a Pathfinder roleplaying game at the moment, which is really good fun. I'm a terrible one for buying RPGs simply because I enjoy reading them, so it's nice to actually play one in a while. I'll play all sorts, though. Boardgames, card games, dice games, you name it.
MT: It's Saturday morning and you've woken up early. Whatever weather you find most pleasant is occurring outside your window. You have no obligations, deadlines, or engagements of any sort. Type "I" for inventory; obvious exits are wherever they are usually in your home. How do you spend your day?
JLH: I like to walk. Not full-on hiking, but just wandering along the pavements, to see what there is to be seen. I find walking and long baths are good activities for thinking, so I would probably go off for a wander. Then I'd have lunch in a pub, which is a sinful luxury in my book, and walk around some more before heading home. Have some family time, probably have one of those long baths, and bed. I can guarantee I would have made notes along the way. As I say, walking and long baths help me think.
MT: Recently on Twitter you requested of Hammer Films that they do a big screen adaptation of Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible. What do you find appealing about the Dr. Terrible series? Do you also enjoy its source text, the Hammer/Amicus/American International-genre of horror, and if so, why?
JLH: Remarkably, Hammer didn't drop everything and take me up on my suggestion. What is the world coming to?
Doctor Terrible was just terrific, but I can understand why they only did one series. Although there were a few horror tropes they'd missed, filling another six programmes might have been difficult. I enjoyed it so much because it was a love letter to that vanished age of cinematic horror, full of little in-jokes that casual viewers might well overlook. The humour hit more often than it missed, and was often laugh-out-loud funny. It could have been as shallow and witless as the Scary Movie franchise, but it worked precisely because it never laughed at itself and avoided anachronistic jokes.
And, yes, I love the old Hammer, Amicus, and AIP films, too, but I also love horror films all the way back to flickery silents. When I was about eleven or twelve, one of my fondest possessions was my copy of Denis Gifford's A Pictorial History of Horror Films. That book was amazing. It went from Méliès up to almost the present day (it was published in 1973, my copy dating a year or so later), all illustrated with many, many photographs. I wasn't allowed to stay up late to watch horror films when they were on television (although somehow I managed to see The Night of the Demon when I was about five. To this day I have no idea how), so those photos were all I had. I don't even like to think how many times I read and reread that book. As a result, I ended up with a film buff's deep knowledge of the genre without actually having seen any of the movies. I still remember the first film I was allowed up late to watch. The Ghost of Frankenstein. Shame it's not very good. Oh, well.
MT: Last November you participated in NaNoWriMo. You said on your blog it was "an opportunity to get a monkey off my back—a story that had been nagging me for about a year or so demanding to be written." At the time, your blog posts indicated that while it wasn't your usual way of producing a work of fiction, you enjoyed the experience and found it beneficial. What did you like the most about the challenge? What was most difficult?
JLH: When you write a novel, there is a cathartic sense of getting the thing down, but it's such a long process usually that apart from a frisson when you write "THE END," it's a pretty drawn out sensation. With NaNoWriMo, however, it's a headlong dash and, when you hit the end, that sense of catharsis is that much stronger. I'm also a terrible fiddler when I write, usually, going back and fixing things that I only wrote an hour or two earlier. There's no time for that on NaNoWriMo, so you give yourself permission to say, "Stuff it, I'll fix it later," and keep on trucking. That's liberating in itself. The other striking thing was that I honestly did not believe that I could possibly write fifty thousand words in a month, yet I ended up finishing a 55k novel with a few days to spare. As a novel, it's as broken as hell, but I know where to fix it, a process that will add a few thousand words and make it that much more saleable in the process.
As to what was difficult, it was the days when I couldn't write as much as I would have liked for whatever reason. Those days frighten you. You find yourself wondering whether you've lost momentum and every day is going to be a low word count day from here on in.
MT: Recently you announced the title of your newest Cabal adventure, Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute. What can you tell us about the new book, or any other of your upcoming publications?
JLH: The easiest way to do that—and I'm always attracted to the easiest ways of doing things—is to reproduce the blurb for it. Thus:
Beyond the wall of sleep lie the Dreamlands, a whole world formed by dreams, but not a dream itself. For countless millennia, it has been explored only by those with a certain detachment from the mundane realities of our own world, its strange seas navigated, and its vast mountains climbed by philosophers, and mystics, and poets.
Well, those halcyon days are over, beatniks.
Johannes Cabal is coming.
Cabal, a necromancer of some little infamy, is employed by the mysterious Fear Institute to lead an expedition into the Dreamlands, an expedition whose goal is nothing less than to hunt and destroy the dread Phobic Animus, the font of terrors, the very source of all the world's fear. They will enter exotic lands where magic is common and monsters abound, see wonders, and suffer dreadful hardships. Cabal will encounter witches, vile abominations, and far too many zebras.
And, when they finally come close to their goal, Cabal will have to face his own nightmares, but for a man who communes easily with devils and the dead, there is surely nothing left to fear.
As you'll have gathered from that, this one is a bit Lovecrafty. Apart from that, I also want to polish another couple of novels up into second drafts. I should point out that neither of those are Cabal stories. One's a children's book, and the other is a pulp thriller.