I read the first ninety pages of what looks to be a remarkable novel last week: Jesse Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Set in the Middle Ages, it follows two thieving, murdering brothers as, forced from their home due to their crimes, they travel across Europe having outrageous adventures. It reads a bit like a collaboration between Kafka and Sam Peckinpah, with a pinch of Catherynne Valente’s retold folktales. It’s very violent and readers must resign themselves–as I did, willingly and with eagerness–to the fact that the main characters are murdering bastards. No heroes here. The prose is muscular yet clever and relatively transparent. Unlike some novels of this type, the reader doesn’t have to acclimate both to the moral dissonance and to a more purple style.
Bullington lives here in Tallahassee, and I was fully prepared to read the novel and make some polite sounds about it being promising–that’s just the odds. The odds of being handed a novel by a new, relatively young writer and being blown away by what you read are…very low. But that’s exactly what happened.
I’ve now found out that Bullington has been shopping the novel around to agents and not yet had any luck. I hope that luck changes, because I could see The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, if published correctly, being very successful. Violent, yes. Amoral characters, yes. Funny as hell in places, yes again. Clearly, carefully, often brilliantly written–yes again. Perhaps agents familiar with the work of Mike Mignola and other graphic novelists whose art has a certain darkness would appreciate it more. I’m not saying this is a graphic novel in novel form–more that it seems right now that the kind of black humor on display here is currently more fashionable in graphic novels.
Here’s an excerpt where the brothers, in their travels, stop for the night and have a strange encounter.
Excerpt from The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, copyright 2008, Jesse Bullington
Night wore slowly under the tress, the canopy blotting out any stars or moonshine. The large fire provided ample light though, and nothing stirred in the wood. Just as Hegel felt his lids droop and reckoned he should wake his brother, a peculiar feeling crept over him.
In the course of their nefarious adventures neither Grossbart was stranger to being hunted, yet time and again Hegel had some inkling of when their pursuers drew close, and always knew when they were being watched. He kept such things to himself save when the situation necessitated it, and years earlier his uncle had declared him to possess the Witches Sight after Hegel suddenly urged they take cover minutes before a search party rounded the path they had walked. Hegel resented the term as any good Christian would, but his hunches always proved right.
The familiar raising of his hackles told him eyes watched from somewhere beyond the fire, and given the unbroken silence their owner must be soft of sole indeed. A more cautious and clever man might have feigned sleep to lure out the voyeur or slowly reached for a weapon. Such action would have meant disaster for the both of them, so it is fortunate Hegel instead leapt to his feet as he notched a quarrel, shouting at the top of his lungs.
“Come out, you bastards!”
Mengele rolled out of his blankets and gained his feet in an instant, mace and ax at the ready.
“Got guests?” Mengele blinked his eyes, peering into the night.
“Don’t know,” Hegel shouted even louder, “guests show themselves, honest-like! Only fools and fiends cower in the dark!”
A deep laugh rolled out of the blackness, and to Hegel’s shock it came from just behind him. He spun around, crossbow leveled, but found no target. He aimed at where the laughter emanated but held his finger, wanting to make sure.
“Come over by the fire,” Hegel called a bit softer. Mengele moved closer to his brother, squinting into the moonless forest.
“No thank you,” a voice growled from the dark, seeming to come from a throat choked with gravel. “Unless you care to douse that fire.”
Another chuckle, which chilled both of the Brothers guts. They were accustomed to being the sinister voice in the night, and did not care to be on the receiving end of such a discourse. Mengele attempted to wrest control of the situation.
Taking a step forward Mengele intoned “May all those who love their salvation say evermore Mary is great!”
Another genuine belly laugh, and after a pause, that voice: “My mistress is far closer than that slattern, dwelling as she does in this very wood!”
“Fire your bow,” Mengele hissed.
Hands shaking, Hegel fired towards the voice. There was a skittering in the underbrush while Hegel clumsily reloaded, Mengele cocking his ear to pin down where the man was moving. Readied, Hegel raised the weapon but the silence persisted, only their breathing and the wind disturbing the stillness. Then they heard a swishing, like a switch being swung back and forth. Now the man must be even closer, somewhere just beyond the glow of the fire.
“Not Christian,” the man complained. “Come into my house and try to murder me.”
“See, it ain’t like that,” Hegel explained. “My finger slipped.”
The chortling bothered them more than the voice, and that faint whipping noise did not help.
“Slipped, did it? Oh, then it’s all right. After all, travelers in the night are right to be cautious, especially so deep in the wood, so far in the mountains. Never know who’s out there, prowling the night.”
“Right enough,” Mengele answered, sorely aware he did not need to yell to be heard.
“It’s been an awful long time,” said the man, “since we’ve had any visitors who’d talk to us.”
“That a fact?” Hegel swallowed, still trying to pinpoint the man’s location.
“Most just scream like children and run off. Rather, they try to run off.” Neither Grossbart found this warranted even a chuckle, let alone the drawn out laugh which shook their nerves.
“We’s talkin,” Mengele pointed out, “ain’t gonna run. Anyone runs, reckon it’ll be you.”
Hegel could not return his brother’s weak smile. “Yeah, uh, that’s how it is, friend.”
“Oh, I think I could make you run,” the voice growled. “Yes, I wager you’d run if you weren’t too scared to do nothing but mess your drawers and pray. All it’d take is me taking a few more steps toward that fire. Still want me to come into the light? Fair’s fair, here I come.”
“Nah, that’s all right,” Hegel quickly interjected. “You’s fine where you’s at, and we’s fine where we’s at, no sense in, uh, no sense inÃ¢â‚¬â€œ”
“Forcin us to kill you,” Mengele finished, but the words almost stuck in his craw. He was no superstitious bumpkin, but he knew dark things move at night, especially in the wilds where men rarely journey. Still, no sense in getting all frazzled. Sweat poured down his face despite the frigid night air. The chortling coming from the dark twisted his bowels, and his whole body shook with nervous excitement.
“Can’t have that,” the unseen interloper managed through his mirth. “My goodness, no.”
“Knew he was bluffin,” Mengele muttered, mouth dry and brow damp.
“Can’t have you killing me, that wouldn’t do at all. Have to put food on the board, yes?” The man rasped, only now his voice came from above them, drifting down out of the thick pine boughs. Mengele felt nauseous and light-headed, even his disproportioned ears failing to detect the movement in the dark.
“Yeah.” Hegel tried to keep his voice from quavering but he felt ill and weird. The Witches Sight–if that were truly what he possessed instead of old fashioned horse-sense–wracked his body with chills, every inch of his skin itching to dash off into the night, away from this clearly God-forsaken wood.
“So we’s decided.” Hegel finally said.
“Yes we are.” The voice almost whispered from the trees.
“You stay where you’s at and we stay where we’s at.” Hegel confirmed.
“Good.” Hegel felt relieved.
“Til mornin?” Mengele bit his lip.
“When I fall upon you and eat you both alive.”
For the first time in their lives the Grossbarts were dumbstruck.
“You’ll scream then,” he continued, his voice rising with the wind. “You’ll beg and cry and I’ll suck the marrow from your bones before you expire. You’ll feel bits of you sliding into my belly still attached, and I’ll wear your skins when the weather turns.”
“Uh.” Hegel managed, looking like an occupant of the crypts from which they made their living.
Mengele could not manage that much, eyes like saucers. His lips moved in prayer but no sound emerged. His faith that whoever waited outside their vision posed no serious hazard to them had dissipated. He wanted to spit in the face of whoever lurked in the trees, to say something so insulting it would make even his brother blush. What came out mirrored Hegel’s statement:
Laughter rained down on them with such heartiness that pine needles accompanied it. The Brothers had subconsciously drawn so close that when their shoulders brushed they both jumped. No further sound came from the darkness, save the swishing both found familiar but neither could place.
“Fire’s low.” Hegel whispered, the shadows lengthening on their periphery.
“So put wood on,” Mengele snapped. Neither had taken their eyes off the overhanging branches since the laughter had trailed off on the wind. They were uncertain whether moments or hours had passed, scanning the trees for movement. Hegel cracked first but used his feet to kick limbs onto the blaze, unwilling to set down his crossbow for even an instant.
“Watch my back,” Mengele said, and retrieved the other arbalest. Loading it, he rejoined his brother’s vigil. “Got an idea. Need to shoot soon as you see’em.” Mengele had lapsed into a guttural vernacular that only his brother could decipher. Their uncle grew furious whenever the Brothers adopted it, paranoid they were plotting against him. His suspicions were only occasionally justified.
“No need to say it twice,” Hegel replied in the same.
“Gotta stoke these flames, shine some light on matters,” Mengele announced to the wood, back in his regular Germanic mode of speech.
Dumping more branches on what quickly grew into a bonfire, Mengele suddenly leapt to his feet and hurled a flaming brand into the limbs overhead. Hegel stood ready but saw only the thick boughs of the pines. They narrowly avoided being singed when the branch plummeted back down.
“Damn,” they both said, Hegel looking right, Mengele looking left.
“Suppose he’s a ghost?” Hegel asked in their unique tongue.
“More likely a cannibal tryin to put the spook on us,” Mengele replied in kind.
“What’s a cannibal do all the way out here?”
“What you think he does? Eats people, told us himself.”
“Awful strange, be smart enough to talk but dumb enough to eat other folk stead a proper beasts. All they’s good for.” Hegel glanced at Stupid, who had calmed after the voice had departed and stood dozing near the fire.
“Them churls you find in church is all cannibals, and they’s liable to talk you to death in the bargain.”
“What churls? What church?” asked Hegel.
“All a them. That’s what they eat, say it’s the body a Mary’s babe, and the wine’s his blood.”
“Oh, that rot again. Recollect that time we stole all a that hard bread and wine? That make us cannibals?”
“Hell no! Need a priest to turn it to flesh and blood.”
“Witchery.” Hegel judged it.
“It surely is. That’s how you know a man’s pure or not. Honest man don’t eat nobody else. Specially not no kin a Mary, I don’t care how much a bitchswine he is.”
“So you think whoever’s out there’s just a heretic?” Hegel felt relieved.
“Yeah, nuthin more nor less.” Mengele was not the least bit sure but it would not do to frighten his brother with speculation. “Besides, if he was somethin more than moonfruit what’s stoppin him from rushin us right now? Or earlier when I was asleep?”
“True words. Means to put the rattle us, so we stay up all night and is half-strong come cockcrow.”
“Exactly,” Mengele heartened at Hegel’s sound point. “Any fool’ll tell you night’s when there’s real nastiness afoot. Nuthin I ever heard a prefers day to night cept ordinary people. So you get some rest, and I’ll stand guard.”
“I won’t hear it, brother, my watch had only begun when I roused you. I’ll stay up, you take in some shut-eye.”
“Nonsense. I can see from here your eyes are saggin and you’s got that tremor on your lip you always get when you’s tuckered.”
Hegel tried unsuccessfully to get a gander at his own mouth but his bulbous nose blotted out all but his lower beard. He reluctantly lay down, too out of sorts to argue anymore. He still felt hot and cold all over but could no longer be sure if this came from being watched or exhaustion. He pretended to sleep for several hours, always keeping one eye half-cocked on the trees. He then switched places with Mengele, who did the same only less convincingly. Only Horse got any rest that night, and an hour before dawn both Grossbarts squatted beside the fire, crossbows ready, too tired to speak and without even a turnip to gnaw.
The dawn light grew agonizingly slow, and when Horse whinnied the Brothers both spun around. In the dimness nothing stirred save Stupid, who stomped and pulled at his tether, eyes bulging at something behind them. Then they heard the swishing, and slowly turned to face the enemy.
He perched on a low-hanging branch not fifty feet away, smiling mischievously. Guessing from his sparse and wispy hair he held over fifty years on his wrinkled crown, but his teeth and eyes appeared hard and sharp. His face did not hold their attention, however.
Under his chin any semblance of humanity was absent, his body instead akin to the panthers and leopards which stalk desolate regions. His mottled pelt bristled, various hues contrasting splotches of naked skin. The swish-swish-swishing came from his balding tail, which swayed behind him of its own accord. His front paws dangled over the branch, hooked claws lazily detracting and retracting.
The Grossbarts had prepared themselves for anything; unfortunately, their concept of anything failed to include a hog-sized cat with the head of an old man. Horse whinnied but no other sound disturbed the morning, the monster and the men watching each other while light drifted down through the branches. With an air of finality the beast rose on its haunches, its four legs balanced on the limb.