Johannes Cabal The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

It’s rare for me to find a book that I love on as many levels as I do Johannes Cabal The Necromancer. It’s got a hero who sold his soul to Satan in order to gain knowledge of the occult and how to bring people back from the dead. It’s got an evil, yet hilarious, circus – very Ray Bradbury meets AHS: Freak Show. It’s got a vampire brother who loves the ladies. It’s got elements of horror, fantasy, Gothic romance, steampunk, a whiff of H.P. Lovecraftishness, a very sarcastic Satan, and tons of witty, black British humor. Oh, and in order to get into Hell, you must fill out paperwork. In triplicate times infinity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always pictured Hell to be place teeming with bureaucracy. It’s not compared to government for nothing, you know.

Johannes Cabal is a necromancer of some little infamy. Yes, that’s how he describes himself. He runs around in a black suit with a black hat, smoked glasses, a Gladstone bag containing his necromancy tools, various spells and potions, and of course, a gun. Because what else would a necromancer need besides a gun? Anyway, as the book opens, Johannes finds himself in Hell to demand Satan return his soul, as he needs it to continue his research into raising the dead, though not for the reasons you’d might expect.

Johannes Cabal is kind of an anti-hero but he is so deadpan, so witty and so unintentionally hilarious; and even though he raises the dead for a living, was responsible for turning his brother Horst into a vampire, and has no problem at all with swindling innocent people into selling their souls – part of his wager with The King of Hell to get his soul back – he is actually very lovable. I always enjoy when a writer is so talented that he can make an otherwise monstrous character into one that we love and root for. Tom Ripley is one such example, but Johannes Cabal is in a class all by himself. I guess the best way to describe him is that he’s soulless but he’s not heartless.

The characters are a motley crew of monsters, carnival attractions such as Layla the Latex Lady, a carnival manager literally made out of a bone, murdering magicians, swindling teenagers with attitude, a family of inbred and insanely wealthy misfits, a tough police detective trying to put all the pieces together, his beautiful daughter who ends up inadvertently helping Johannes Cabal break his contract with The Big Guy Downstairs, hilariously-named demons (Ragtag Slyboots, Despoiler of Milk and Tangler of Shoelaces, anyone?) and any number of snarky, witty, and grumpy observations by the necromancer himself.

Characters from the Johannes Cabal universe. From left: Satan, Frank Barrow, Leonie Barrow, Johannes Cabal, Horst Cabal, Bones the Carnival Manager, Dennis and Denzil, and Layla the Latex Lady. Image courtesy of AgarthianGuide on Deviantart.com. Here’s the link for more of her Johannes Cabal images: https://www.deviantart.com/agarthanguide/art/Johannes-Cabal-the-Necromancer-Linup-590426600

Toward the beginning of the book, once Johannes has made his Faustian wager with The Devil and goes back to Earth to start the circus, he finds he needs the assistance of his vampiric brother Horst. Horst, you see, was locked in the Druin family crypt several years before by Johannes himself as part of his necromaniacal researches. The Druin family, the aforementioned inbred and wealthy family, are all gradually picked off, one by one, by a mysterious aunt – and Horst’s crypt companion – who had a taste for bloodsucking and killed her psychotic nephews and nieces in some very gruesome and funny ways. Beatrice’s particular peccadillo involved creating the world’s largest museum of peas, so you can well understand how and why she came to her demise.

Then, one morning, the surviving family woke up and found themselves short one for breakfast. They discovered Beatrice tied by her ankles to the chandelier. Her expression was one of purest horror and she was quite dead. There were a lot of peas in the room. The post-mortem discovered another five pounds of them forced down her throat, jamming her esophagus shut and clogging her airways.

Yes, I was again inspired to cook a dish by a passage about someone’s gruesome death. I’m kind of cool that way. Anyway, mushy peas are one of those good old-fashioned classic British recipes that have basic ingredients and yet are so delicious. When I was in London a few years back, I fell in love with fish and chips served with a side of mushy peas, and when I came home, I started making them for myself. Aside from the fact that they are dead easy, you’d be surprised at the number of people who think I’m a culinary genius for coming up with that method! I generally don’t clear up the confusion. 🙂 Classic British mushy peas call for using mature marrowfat peas, but I just channel my inner Nigella Lawson here and use a bag of frozen peas. They’re just as impressive and tasty.

INGREDIENTS
2 12-oz bags of frozen peas
5 cloves of garlic, in their skins
2 tablespoons salted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat a large saucepan of water and bring to a boil, and sprinkle in some salt. Cook the peas and the garlic cloves in the boiling water for about 5 minutes, then drain.

Peel the skins off the garlic cloves.

In the same pan, add the butter and toss in the peas and garlic cloves.

Add the heavy cream, and using a potato masher, mash the peas and garlic with the butter. You can use a food processor if you want, but the idea is to have a mix of mashed peas and semi-solid peas so I find it easier to get the right texture this way.

Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed before serving. Delicious! I served with a nice baked salmon fillet and it was perfect with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. And nary a pea was to be found stuffed down my esophagus, either!

Jane Eyre: An Autobiography by Charlotte Bronte

I ain’t gonna deny it, Mr. Rochester is SEXY! Oh my lord almighty. Dark, mysterious, distant and yet romantic, rides a horse, is sarcastic, dresses in black. I could bang Mr. Rochester like a screen door from here til August……though it may also have to do with the fact that my very first big-screen Mr. Rochester was played by the ever-so-sexy Timothy Dalton, whom I adored as James Bond, and with whom I could have happily stayed in bed all day as his character Sir Malcolm Murray in Penny Dreadful.

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Oh, the plotline? Ahem. (fanning myself)

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It’s one trial after tribulation for poor Jane Eyre. Set in Victorian England, Jane Eyre is orphaned as a child, and goes to live with her horrible aunt and horrible cousins. She is later sent to a horrible boarding school with mostly horrible teachers and a horrible headmaster. She does become friends with Helen, who of course, dies horribly and leaves Jane alone. Jane grows up and becomes a model student, and has such good school credentials that she is able to apply for governess positions. She is hired to work caring for a little French girl called Adele at Thornfield Hall. The master of Thornfield Hall is the moody, brooding, sarcastic, attractive (of course he is!) Mr. Rochester. And the fun begins.

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Jane finds herself falling in love with Mr. Rochester – who wouldn’t in that setting? – and they end up becoming engaged. But there is a mystery at the heart of Thornfield Hall, that being Mr. Rochester still has a wife, albeit a lunatic nutcase named Berthe whom he keeps in the attic with a nurse, medications, padded walls, etc., so she can’t escape and cause harm. But the truth comes out on Jane and Mr. Rochester’s wedding day.

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If you have any kind of a heart or sense, you’ll figure out how it all ends. But as with all good books, the pleasure lies in the journey and not the destination. I’d held off reading it for many years, partly because I already knew the storyline from the numerous movie and TV versions out there, and partly because I was expecting lugubrious, long-winded prose that went on for pages before moving the story forward. Not so, and I was pleasantly surprised at how timeless the book is. Jane is a great character, self-aware and self-effacing, yet honest with herself and others.

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Being set in Victorian England, the usual food mentions abound. Tea, bread, cakes, butter, eggs, roast beef, potatoes, etc. There’s a passage when Jane and Adele are waiting for a large party to start at Thornfield Hall, when Mr. Rochester has purposely invited Blanche Ingram and pretends to fall in love with her, to somewhat torture Jane. Jane and Adele await their summons as they enjoy a nice meal.

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“Do you think Mr. Rochester will send for us by-and-by, after dinner?” “No, indeed, I don’t; Mr. Rochester has something else to think about. Never mind the ladies to-night; perhaps you will see them to-morrow. Here is your dinner.” She was really hungry, so the chicken and tarts secured to divert her attention for a time.

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Not being a sweets person, I thought about savory tarts. Doesn’t that sound yum? Savory chicken tarts with mushrooms and tomatoes were what I decided upon, because those are three of my favorite things, and also because I was watching a rerun of those classic eccentric British cooks, The Two Fat Ladies, and one of them made mini savory tarts topped with tomato. So I was inspired to recreate it in my own way.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of butter, ice-cold and cut into cubes
1 egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
Ice water, as needed
3 chicken thighs, poached
1/2 cup mushrooms
1 shallot
1 tablespoon each of dried parsley, dried thyme, dried rosemary and dried sage
2 heirloom tomatoes, room temperature
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

METHOD
For the tart pastry, add the flour into the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid. Add the salt, and cube by cube, mix in the ice-cold butter with the pastry hook attachment so that it gradually amalgamates. You want somewhat of a rubbly texture.

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Add in the egg and increase the mixing speed.

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Add in a dash or two of ice water, and watch the pastry hook mix the dough until it forms a ball. You will likely need to increase the mixing speed but just watch. It’s like magic.

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Dump out the pastry ball onto some plastic, mold it so it’s round, wrap it up, and refrigerate for at least an hour, if not more.

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Poach the chicken thighs for about 30 minutes, and allow to cool before cutting into chunks.

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Saute the mushrooms and shallot with the dried herbs and some garlic powder. Let cool, and mix with the chicken.

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Roll out the pastry dough, and cut out small rounds. Press into a tart pan but don’t stretch the dough. (And you can see why no one has ever said to me “Vanessa, you should really give up your day job and bake tarts!”)

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Fill each tart pan with a mix of chicken, mushroom and shallot, top with tomato slices and sprinkle over some cheese.

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Bake for 20 minutes, until the cheese melts and gets bubbly and brown and luscious. Let cool a bit and remove from the tart pans. Then imagine Mr. Rochester himself feeding them to you, delicious bite by delicious bite. Oh my!

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