The Fear Institute is a story about the necromancer Johannes Cabal, who is commissioned to enter the world of dreams in order to seek out and kill the Phobic Animus, the embodiment of all the fear in the world. Of course, entering the world of dreams turns our seemingly objective world into an inconveniently subjective one. If you think something is going to happen, it just as likely will happen. And if you fear something, unfortunately there's a very good chance your fears will become reality (or whatever passes for reality in the world of dreams). Most inconveniently, the world of dreams is also the world of nightmares, leading to some encounters with some pretty imaginative monsters. And lots of ghouls.
Howard can write very well, which meant that as I read the first few chapters of The Fear Institute, chuckling to myself at the dry humour, I though I was onto a winner with this book. That feeling only strengthened as Cabal and his fellow fear-hunters entered the dream world - Howard's imagination is more than equal to the task of describing a subjective world made of dreams.
Sadly, though, the plot lets the book down. When you strip away the layers of imagination and wit that jump out at you from the page, the storyline is conventional and a bit boring. Cabal goes somewhere, fights some monsters/archly saves his companions from a terrible fate because his instincts for danger are so good/has a conversation with a god pretending to be a ghoul or something similar. The party moves on to the next place and the same thing happens, three or four times until suddenly they're where they've decided the Phobic Animus is, and the finale happens. I found myself losing interest in the second half of the book - and once that happened all the wit and imagination couldn't make me give this book any more than three stars.
Howard is a writer to watch and enjoy, but I hope he has a better book than this one in his back catalogue or up his sleeve.
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