Early in The Fear Institute Jonathan L. Howard warns us that this book is not for our fanciful amusement but rather a story of madness, corruption, and lost hope. He is right about the latter and half right about the former. I wouldn't say that this book is amusing, but it is funny, in a very black and sick way and is full of thrills to boot.
The Fear Institute is the third novel about Johannes Cabal, Necromancer. Knowledge of the previous books isn't necessary though I read one, and liked it quite a bit though not as much as this one. Johannes Cabal is a Necromancer, and isn't the least bit ashamed of it. In fact, I would say that he is inordinately proud of his profession, but his character is far too cynical to admit that. One of the most enjoyable things about this book is Cabal himself, who no matter where he is seems as jaded and funny and cynical as a New York cabbie who moonlights as a stand-up comedian.
In this book Cabal is approached by a group of gentlemen representing an organization called The Fear Institute who wish to eradicate fear from the world. They say that the source of fear is an object found in The Dreamlands, and they wish Cabal to lead an expedition to the Dreamlands so they may find this object, and use it to obliterate fear from the world. The Dreamlands, of course, are a realm created by H.P. Lovecraft, a writer whose influence almost surely outpaces his talent. They have never been so well used as they are here, where Mr. Howard wields them with a mixture of fear and comedy that is one of the signatures of this book. If you never thought that humor and horror were flip-sides of the same coin I suggest you read this book. I would also be hard pressed to find a writer who riffed with so such love, but so much malicious skill upon Lovecraft himself, in a wonderful section where our crew, with Cabal leading them they cannot really be called heroes, visits Arkham itself to find the gateway to the Dreamlands. As for not being a hero it is not because Cabal is cowardly or tentative, far from it. He is such a devoted pragmatist however, and so devoted to himself and his goals that he is willing to throw almost anybody under the bus, at any time. That he rarely does without some decent soul-searching at least gives him a small flickering of likability. I for one didn't need it because Mr. Howard gives Cabal such a mordant and cutting wit that I often actually found myself laughing aloud even as the horrible specters of Lovecraft's mythos beamed down from ...wherever they beam from.
Once in the Dreamland things go not from bad to worse but from strange to stranger. Mr. Howard is at his inventive best here, and manages to throw some curves that leave even a cynic like Cabal with his jaw in the dust. If you want any idea of how black and how effective his sense of humor is just read the interludes, which are little primer-like chapters devoted to teaching children about the various gods and creatures of Lovecraft's mythos.
If all that is not enough Mr. Howard surprised me as near the end of this book as we begin to see a new sense of humanity taking hold of Cabal. Surprisingly this doesn’t at all seem at odds with the rest of the tone of the book because even Cabal seems a little taken aback about his small but significant transformation. He is also very busy. A small complaint, and one not too often heard is that I felt that the end of this book was a bit rushed compared to the more sedate pace of the earlier chapters. As we are speaking of endings this is a good time to say that this one really did catch me by surprise, although I feel that some readers who are less than careful may be left a bit baffled by it all. That's fine, and it works for me, although it would seem like we are being led to another book, and if so, well that also works for me.