Fantasy magazine

From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Jonathan L. Howard

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Jonathan L. Howard to tell us a bit about the background for his story for Fantasy Magazine, “The House of Gears.”

Jonathan L. HowardYour story, “The House of Gears,” has as its protagonist Johannes Cabal, “a necromancer of some little infamy.” Herr Cabal is also the, um, “hero” of your two published novels and upcoming third, as well as several other short stories. As the author of a series, do you think about chronology when writing shorts like “House of Gears”? If so, where does “House of Gears” fit?

There is a chronology, although not an utterly rigid one, at least not as far as the short stories go. As a guide, the chronology is probably best described as follows:


“Exeunt Demon King,” in H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror #3, 2006

“The Ereshkigal Working,” in The Way of the Wizard (ed. John Joseph Adams), 2010

“Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day,” in H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror #1, 2004

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, Anchor, 2009

“The House of Gears,” in Fantasy Magazine, April 2011

Johannes Cabal the Detective, Doubleday, 2010

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, Headline, 2011

I trained as a librarian. It sometimes shows.

The novels have a stronger sense of continuity than the shorts, and it becomes harder to place the latter within the context of the former as more are written. I suspect I shall find myself writing the Cabal shorts with no eye at all upon where they exist within his life except in the broadest sense. That said, I do like the idea of setting a few shorts within the year in which Johannes Cabal the Necromancer takes place. For reasons of space and my own sanity, it was impossible to tell of every event within the novel’s time span, but there were definitely things in there that would bear recounting.

Being obviously something of a polymath, Cabal instantly recognizes the statue in Monsieur Samhet’s garden. Do you think he would like Shelley’s or Aeschylus’ Prometheus Unbound more?

Probably the latter. Most of it is lost, so it would be that much shorter. Well, he’s a busy man.

Samhet’s “solution” to escaping death combines knowledge of how the human brain works with an understanding of something that we, in our world, might consider computer programming—at least the sort that involves punch-cards. Yet in the end, his “improved” brain is exceeded by an at least somewhat normal human mind. What was your inspiration for such a villain?

I’ve taken a very mechanistic approach to the nature of intelligence that is certainly fantastical in scale (I made the brain-machine big, but it would really have to be absolutely vast to come anywhere near anything that seemed even vaguely intelligent) and in the vexed question of how a brain generates intelligence in the first place.

Complexity is certainly part of it, but plenty of very clever people, with Roger Penrose being one of the loudest voices, are firmly of the opinion that a purely mechanistic approach will never create an intelligence. He may be right; I read his book on the subject The Emperor’s New Mind a few years ago and was not greatly the wiser as to his argument afterwards so I cannot say. Then again it hardly matters. Magic works in Cabal’s world as does discredited concepts of physics such as the ether and gyroscopic levitation and television. Given Penrose’s position that intelligence cannot be created artificially until some currently unknown law of physics can be identified and quantified, then there’s no reason that such a law hasn’t already been found in Cabal’s world and is part of occult theory. Samhet, after all, was a necromancer before he bought himself a wrench set, so it’s probably he would combine such eldritch knowledge with more mundane nuts and bolts.

As to the exact moment of Samhet’s creation, I couldn’t tell you. My ideas often come to me as “How about…?” rather than “Eureka!” so they don’t make an impact on my rather patchy memory. I think it may have almost formed as it was written. I recall the image of Samhet’s house and its environs came first, and then everything else followed on. Sorry to be so vague, but the story was originally written for H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror back in 2004, but got the thumbs down because it lacked any supernatural aspects. After six years the details of its genesis are a little murky.

“…Cabal thought it unlikely that Descartes had ever considered the Evil Genius might spend at least some of his time lurking behind a plant pot. Not, he corrected himself, that he, Cabal, was evil. A little single-minded perhaps, but not evil. Not in any cosmic sense.” Would you please expound a bit on Cabal’s worldview: Does Cabal consider himself a moral man? Does he hold with notions of Good and Evil (in the ultimate sense), and if so, how does he account for his own actions in relation to such?

He certainly has a moral set, although it’s unlikely to win him any plaudits. He would argue that his moral scale is simply greater than most people’s and that he does not concern himself with the minutiae. Others would counter that by arguing that surely taking on such an Olympian worldview, isn’t he simply saying that the ends justify the means? For his riposte, Cabal would probably start shooting, so we shall never know.

As for good and evil, Cabal has faced Satan, evil’s cheerleader, the essence of malevolence. Satan is a sadist, a selfish meddler who breaks lives and minds because it amuses him to see things fall apart. What Cabal knows of God is equally unflattering, albeit in the opposite direction. God is obsessed with order, which leaves little space for individuality. In this, the cosmology of Cabal’s universe has a distinct kinship with Michael Moorcock’s view that things are really between Law and Chaos, not Good and Evil. On that scale Cabal is somewhere a tad to the Lawful side of the scale, at least according to intention. By actual deed, however … well, he does tend to leave a smoking trail of chaos in his wake.

What’s next for you?

The next big thing is The Fear Institute, which is due out later this year. Apart from that, and apart from Cabal altogether, I’ve got another couple of novels that I want to get into a polished state. When I’m not working on Cabal, that’s what I’ll be doing.

One of the novels is a children’s book that started off all shiny and happy and fun, and then went rather darker, so it will need its tone adjusting (I’ll be darkening the opening a little). The other is a two-fisted pulp thriller, which also ended up not quite as I’d originally envisaged. It was intended to be good, uncomplicated fun with much punching, yet somehow became a bit Nietzschean along the way. This seems to happen a lot to me, doesn’t it? I’m a generally happy, upbeat sort of soul, but when I write, the shadows tend to seep out.

It’s traditional to drop a hint here about some sort of super secret project that I can’t possibly talk about, but which is very exciting. Unfortunately, I can’t because I don’t have one. Sigh.

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Molly Tanzer

Molly TanzerMolly Tanzer is the Managing Editor of Lightspeed and Fantasy Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in Running with the PackCrossed GenresPalimpsest, and is forthcoming in Historical Lovecraft. The account of her adventures going minigolfing with zombie polka band The Widow’s Bane appears over at Strange Horizons. She is a fan of the semicolon, an out-of-practice translator of ancient Greek, an infrequent blogger, and an avid admirer of the novels of eighteenth century England. Currently, she resides in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat.