Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington

(2011, Orbit Books) Jesse Bullington's The Enterprise of Death is a horrific romp through Medieval Europe during the Inquisition on the verge of the Protestant Reformation. This tale is sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes meaningful, and sometimes all of these things simultaneously. Awa is a young Moor and slave. Her company is captured, and she finds herself under the tutelage of a vicious necromancer. She learns his dark arts and becomes a necromancer, too. Her tutor places a curse on her and wants her for her body in the darkest of ways imaginable. She roams Medieval Europe, finds friends, and seeks out a way to break her curse.

The friends she finds include several historical figures including real-life occultist Peraclesus and the artist Manuel Deutsch (whose art provides quite an evocative cover image). Another friend, Monique, is a foul-mouthed gun-toting blacksmith and pimp who utilizes Awa's skills in communicating with spirits (including the spirits of venereal diseases) to keep the "cleanest" whorehouse in Paris running a profitable business. These friendships form the heart and soul of this novel.

There are massive battles, walking skeletons, monsters, and inquisitors with cellars full of torture devices. The novel is a manic hodge-podge of myth, fantasy, and history blended together into a contemporary pulp narrative. This is both the novel's strength and weakness. The narrative is quickly paced, but sometimes the modern language – especially in dialogue – is a little jarring considering the setting. The language utilized throughout – sometimes sounding medieval while utilizing modern sayings and profanity – can best be described as anachronistic. Also, Bullington tends to have a tendency to change perspectives and settings in his third-person narrative randomly which can be quite jarring at times.

Also, the action taking place in the novel is flat-out disgusting and profane, especially during the initial formative chapters. This may prove problematic for some readers. Fair warning: The novel contains liberal doses of gruesomeness including graphic scenes of necrophilia, cannibalism, and even self-cannibalism. In honesty, at one point during the first part of the novel I seriously considered putting the book down. I wasn't that into it, and it seemed to be disgusting and shocking simply to be disgusting and shocking. During the first half of the narrative, I couldn't quite get my head around the point of the nastiness. It seemed juvenile and, well, gross. And this is coming from someone who spent a large chunk of his formative years reading Clive Barker and devouring Cronenberg films.

But I'm glad I didn't give up. The book was truly worthwhile. The friendships that develop are extremely well-drawn and compassionate. The underlying themes of friendship, faith, and bravery in the face of adversity are nicely explored. The characters – especially that of the protagonist – are quite flawed but manage to be extremely understandable and relatable. In fact, this reader found himself extremely sympathetic towards the characters of Awa and Manuel in particular. The Bastards of the Schwarzwald and the hyena near the end are welcome additions and an interesting take on their folkloric roots. In fact, the final half of the book and the ending are actually quite wonderful. Despite the darkness of the earlier chapters, the book left this reader with a nice warm fuzzy feeling which was, well, unexpected, and quite nice. (But the story remains more than a little twisted – it's not all sunshine and roses in the end. A crazy Bollywood ending complete with big smiles, singing, and happy dancing would have been quite the disappointment, after all.)

Yes, I liked this book very much despite my repulsion during much of the first half. I guess you could say that The Enterprise of Death is a grower not a shower. In fact, I recommend it heartily if you have a strong stomach with a strong tolerance for the profane. My six pack rating: 4 out of 6 mugs of a stout mead accompanied by a nice shredded long pork barbecue sammich.

*Legal Disclosure: Book received as free electronic copy via author and


  1. I recently finished Bullington's first novel The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and was keeping the author on my radar, but it sounds as if the problems I encountered with Bullington's writing style haven't improved much (by your account). However, I must admit that the book was entertaining and will have to consider The Enterprise of Death for the future.

  2. Chad - The Enterprise of Death really is worth the read. Once you get past the often grisly first act (it's that whole cannibalistic necrophilia thing that got to me *shudders*) and into the second and third acts of the book, it becomes a lot of fun and strangely, surprisingly sweet. In a good way. Jesse's got some writing chops and still growing as an author. I really expect great things from him in the future. This was good, but I can see hints of greatness there that should be nurtured and developed. He could become the Tarantino of historical horror. I think he needs to realize he has so much more to offer than the simple gross-out. Don't get me wrong, an occassional gross-out is cool and all, but I think you have to make it really meaningful, symbolic on some other level. This is why gross-outs in Cronenberg don't bother me (I understand what he is trying to say -- there's typically a larger message) vs. torture porn like Hostel (the violence and sickness does not have any deeper meaning). Although I do have to admit I found the parts I saw of the second Hostel movie strangely funny for some reason, but I'm not sure if the humor I found in it was intentional or not...