In all my recent page turning I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more adventurous, weirdly pensive and violently juicy work of speculative or historical fiction than I have from Jesse Bullington’s The Sad Tale of The Brothers Grossbart. As a chronically slow reader, I’m amazed with the rapid rate at which I cannibalized the literature.
Most superficially, this tale is a bloody romp through the carnage that’s burned, crumbled, or spurted in the wake of a pair of medieval entrepreneurs, Hegel and Manfried Grossbart. Just two brothers sensibly trying to stay on task pursuing their utmost grave robbing quest. They’re not to be confused with those silly protagonists we call “heroes”, “honorable men”, or perhaps even “likable persons”. Nay, I think Bullington says it best when he aptly heralds his brothers as “bastards at large”. Their tale is as straightforward as gnawing roast mutton, or perhaps even live mutton, from its fleshy, dripping chop.
Bullington’s tale is settled within the fourteenth century, specifically the bubonic plague and it’s equally carnal wreckage across Europe. The Pestilence, vividly depicted through pulsating, pus-filled buboes and projectile vomiting, is fictionalized through the demoniac spirits initiating such attributes; the plague itself is not propped against the Grossbarts as some boring good vs. evil dualism, but possibly a metaphorical pondering for the reader, forced to consider which may be a greater evil, life’s external diseases or those internal ones exhibited in our worst manifestations. It’s a fleeting observation, to be sure, carried behind the entertainingly violent whimsy with which the story progresses, however looming and ultimately reaching its cathartic coda in the sands of Gyptland.
Progress it does though, mainly through unabashed beatings, cleaving, projectile spray of every fluid imaginable, and just about every other way to incur slow maiming. A refreshing touch of equanimity, as no one is spared from perpetual suffering in this spew-fest, not even the protagonists Grossbart. Just as engaging is Bullington’s clever use of dialogue, both between the brothers and outwardly directed. Sparse, rational musings brilliantly balanced between the almost piously pragmatic and the foul-mouthed; incidentally, the use of the curious term “mecky” is sure to cultivate a resurgence, if it truly ever existed prior. The narration is equally leveled between a quick pacing and an academic adherence to the milieu, as evidenced by an extensive bibliography. Similar to Jeff VanderMeer’s careful and documented treatment of his fictitious Ambergris, this trend of quasi-academic application within speculative fiction is something readers need more of, showing that authors actually care about the details and accuracy of their worldview. Finally, treatment of the fantastical is eerily earthy without falling upon ubiquitous or popular description. Possessed pigs, “mantiloups” and witches, especially the story of Nicolette, is tremendously unsettling though unavoidably engaging.
In sum, The Sad Tale of The Brothers Grossbart is literally, in every sense imaginable, a smashing, gross, and fun read.