Jesse Bullington leapt onto the scene with his first novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, published by Orbit. A scandalous romp through Medieval Europe with a couple of murderous brothers, the novel managed to meld dark humor and horror, while also injecting the supernatural. The novel divided reviewers but received its fair share of praise.
Now Bullington's back with a second novel that's no less ambitious. Set during the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition, Enterprise of Death features a young African slave named Awa unwillingly apprenticed to a necromancer. Although she manages to extricate herself from the arrangement, Awa finds herself under the power of a curse. Only a mysterious book may help release her"”but first she must find it. Along the way, she'll meet up with the artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, the alchemist Dr. Paracelsus, and a Dutch mercenary. Vampires and zombies also put in an appearance.
Sound like your standard fantasy novel plot? Not at all, and as the Wall Street Journal noted in its review, you have to admire the results: "It's macabre, gruesome, foul-mouthed and much more complex than the usual vampire-and-zombie routine. The book is also a great counter to any notion that it's easy to tell the difference between scientific fact and occult fantasy."
I interviewed Jesse Bullington recently about the novel and his relationship with weird fiction, continuing the theme from Tuesday's feature on Michael Cisco and Brendan Connell.
Amazon.com: What does the term "The Weird" mean to you, and how would define your own work in relation to the Weird?
Jesse Bullington: It's a bit of a cheat, but for me "The Weird" is best defined by what it isn't"”ordinary, mundane, predictable, the not-weird. What exactly that is varies wildly from era to era, movement to movement, medium to medium, and artist to artist, but I think the core of "The Weird" is an effort to create something fantastic and often fantastical, to turn up something new and unexpected even in seemingly overworked fields. As such, it's pretty much a catchall for the sorts of art that I'm most interested in experiencing, consuming, producing, and participating in.
In terms of the word in a strictly literary context, I suppose I see it as a continuous evolution rather than a series of delineated movements"”obviously the "original" weird of the Weird Tales crew was informed by Hodgson, Machen, Poe, and Blackwood, by the Decadents, and they by the Gothics, and on and on. Then if we move forward from the original Weird Tales heyday, between those famous pulp weirdoes and the "New Weird" we've had Peake, Borges, Kafka, Shirley Jackson, Jack Vance, Angela Carter, Abe Kobo, and countless others who we can draw as many comparisons between as we can point out stark differences"¦ and now we are, albeit tongue-in-cheek, into the "Next Weird," right? Maybe? Or maybe not, maybe "the Weird" with a capital W has been with us since the beginning, and will be with us until the end.
Amazon.com: Do you think about experimentation in a formal way, as a writer?
Jesse Bullington: I do think about it in a formal manner. That said, I'm hardly the most experimental author working today...Overall, I suppose it's a bit like the question of defining "The Weird""”what one considers unusual or novel in fiction is entirely dictated by what texts one has previously encountered; some readers seem to view any deviation from the three-act plot with a single third-person limited perspective to be experimental, which is simply depressing. For me it gets down to finding works that make me cock my head and grin at what the authors have pulled off, however they've elicited that reaction. The "Arachnid we" of Nick Mamatas' new novel Sensation, for example, is hardly the most unorthodox approach to narration out there but it's a far cry from what one might be used to, and that aspect combined with the other ways Mamatas subverts the reader's expectations results is a work that is delightful in all the ways that a good novel can be while simultaneously being a remarkable achievement on both the artistic and technical levels (assuming for the moment that they're distinct).
Amazon.com: For readers who have enjoyed your first novel, how different or similar is this new book?
Jesse Bullington: It's pretty different. Now that it's been out for a little while I've heard from readers who liked the first but hated the new one, readers who liked the first and loved this one, and even a few readers who didn't care for the Brothers Grossbart but gave Enterprise a chance and ended up loving it. It's a more serious novel in a lot of ways, which increases the odds of my coming across as a ham-fisted, self-important doofus, it's more complex in terms of structure and plot, which increases the odds of my confusing or losing the reader looking for a straight and narrow tale, and it's overall a more fantastical story, which might turn off those with an aversion to such things. On the other hand, it's still a gritty historical novel featuring flawed characters and awkward stabs at humor, so I think and hope that those who enjoyed the first book will give this one a chance"”I put even more work into this than the last one, and firmly believe it's a stronger novel, but obviously mileage varies.
Amazon.com: What influences on your work, or on this new novel, might readers be surprised by?
Jesse Bullington: In general, I think readers are sometimes surprised to hear of the influence Roald Dahl has on my writing. Now, he was a beastly man in some ways, and not an altogether brilliant writer, but he was my absolute favorite growing up and I read his work over and over again, both the kiddie stuff and the adult fiction. As for this novel in particular, it's a project I've been kicking around for a long time and so it can be hard to pin down what came from where, but the tradition of Conjure in the American South was really where the ball got rolling in terms of Awa's character: in one of my very favorite undergrad English classes we traced the belief systems of Conjure, Vodou, etc, back to their origins in Africa. I became interested in the Fon people of Dahomey, and having a character from that tradition interacting with both historically based and more fantastical notions of European magic struck me as an interesting dichotomy. Before I even got to the nonfiction and went back across the Atlantic, though, there Gloria Naylor's novel Mama Day, as well as a few other works that seemingly share little in common with my novel but provided fuel early on in the game; in some ways, the main plot of The Enterprise of Death is my way of addressing and subverting one of "Lovecraft's (many) poor representations of women.
Amazon.com: What was the role of research in writing this novel?
Jesse Bullington: For me research is a major part of the writing process in general, and never more so than when I'm writing a historically set piece. I strongly believe it should be organic, if that makes sense"”rather than using research to fill in details for a pre-existing plot and set of characters, I draw a huge amount of inspiration from historical non-fiction long before I even start writing. With Enterprise, for example, several of the principal characters in the novel only became a part of the project when I encountered them while researching the general era and locations I intended to use, and I only settled on a concrete time and place when I decided to use said historical characters in the novel. Speaking of, it's been particularly amusing to see the odd criticism alleging that certain characters advance my own modern worldview instead of an "appropriately" archaic mindset when the characters in question are historical persons whose stated opinions in the novel are taken directly from the historical record"”stranger than fiction, and all.
Amazon.com: In closing, if you had to pitch the novel to a Hollywood studio, how would you describe it in a couple of sentences?
Jesse Bullington: The elevator pitch would be something like this: A badass young African is shipwrecked in Spain and learns to raise the dead from a diabolical necromancer, who then puts a curse on her. She joins forces with a gunslinger, an alchemist, and an artist-turned-mercenary, and hits the roads of Renaissance Europe looking for a means to lift the curse while dodging the Inquisition and learning about life. Plenty of sex, violence, and monsters to offset the mushy stuff.