Jesse Bullington’s debut novel is a difficult one to review, not because of plot or character, but because of the general style in which it is written. Plainly speaking; it’s pretty gross. Full of pus, vomit, blood, urine, gore, snot and other bodily fluids, The Brothers Grossbart isn’t short on content that will make you screw up your nose in disgust. Yet dismissing this novel for its ability to make you cringe is a bit like going to a Quentin Tarantino movie and complaining about the violence. That’s the whole point.
Set in the fourteenth century, Hegel and Manfried are brothers that take over the family business of grave robbing, with plans to travel to Gyptland to seek their fortunes there. They traverse the countryside from the mountains of Europe to the deserts of the Middle East at a time in which life was short, violent and smelly. To make things even more difficult, this is a world that is strewn with demons, witches and other monsters straight out of the Old Testament. Grotesque in appearance and evil in nature, the brothers end up pitting themselves against these hellish denizens as they rob and hack their way across the continent.
Naturally, there have been hundreds of anti-heroes throughout literature, many of whom the reader can secretly cheer for, or at least admire for their cunning, determination or audacity. The Grossbarts however, exist well outside the parameters of basic human decency, falling short of the standards set by the likes of other anti-heroes such as Long John Silver, Captain Ahab, Becky Sharp, or Heathcliff. In the very first chapter the brothers decide to finance their trip by robbing a farmhouse, a task that ends with them killing a woman with an axe, cutting a boy’s throat in front of his father, and burning the house down with several infants still inside it. They leave the farmer alive since killing him would mean: “there’d be no one left to learn the lesson.”
After reading this, all anyone wants is for the two of them to die slow, painful deaths. But again, that’s the point. And naturally it’s not to say that they’re not interesting despite their horrid natures. The two brothers engage in philosophical discourse as they travel, discussing the nuances of Christian orthodoxy and casually (unconsciously?) twisting it so that it justifies their own behaviour — as you may have guessed, neither brother really believes that they’re doing anything wrong.
To add suspense, the Grossbarts also make enemies along the way, both demonic and human. Tracked by horrific creatures with a vendetta against them, the brothers eventually fall in with a lying priest and a sea captain that has a secret of his own. Though the pacing slows when the brothers reach Vienna, the beginning and ending segments of the novel are suitably fast-paced and intriguing, despite the gruesome subject matter. Likewise, Bullington’s style is impeccable; the brothers’ speech patterns are maintained throughout the novel, as is an atmosphere that’s difficult to describe: every oozing boil and spurt of blood is lovingly described, the monstrous creatures are grotesque yet vividly rendered, and hanging over all is a palatable sense of dread; the reader knowing full well what both human and demon are truly capable of.
And yet for all of this, the moments of humanity contained here shine all the more brightly for their grim context. Nicolette’s story is as chilling as any macabre 14th century horror story can possibly be, and yet also bizarrely touching as a love story, one that reads like a dark fairytale that the Brothers Grimm purposefully left out of their anthologies. Likewise, the farmer who the Grossbarts leave alive at the beginning of the novel naturally has a tragic story and a heartrending journey of despair as he tracks down the men who murdered his family, finding no solace in heaven and so turning to the nefarious regions in order to sate his thirst for vengeance.
I can hardly describe this as a pleasant book, nor even an “enjoyable” one (unless you like the feeling of nausea), but it is entertaining, intriguing, oddly thought-provoking, and evocative of its place and time. It is certainly not for everyone, yet it manages to straddle a wide range of subjects (horror, fantasy, black comedy, history, theology) all in a tone that feels authentic to the period in which it is told, in which superstition and religion were more or less interchangeable, and witchcraft and the black plague were dangers that weighed equally on everyone’s minds.
As someone who likes her fairytales dark, this novel was certainly blacker than I had anticipated, and yet once I’d adjusted to the debauchery and violence, there was plenty here to both ponder and appreciate, particularly in the chaotic mish-mash of demonology and mythology that permeates the story (though I would have dearly loved to learn more about the Nixie!) One thing is for certain, and that is that The Brothers Grossbart is like nothing else I’ve read. It is unique, standing in a genre of its own.