WTF Weekend: The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington

As the witch-pyres of the Spanish Inquisition blanket Renaissance Europe in a moral haze, a young African slave finds herself the unwilling apprentice of an ancient necromancer. Unfortunately, quitting his company proves even more hazardous than remaining his pupil when she is afflicted with a terrible curse. Yet salvation may lie in a mysterious tome her tutor has hidden somewhere on the war-torn continent.

She sets out on a seemingly impossible journey to find the book, never suspecting her fate is tied to three strangers: the artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, the alchemist Dr. Paracelsus, and a gun-slinging Dutch mercenary. As Manuel paints her macabre story on canvas, plank, and church wall, the young apprentice becomes increasingly aware that death might be the least of her concerns.


How does one even begin to describe the twisted genius of Jesse Bullington (who fantasy fans may know better as Alex Marshall), or the tortured gratuity of his sophomore effort, The Enterprise of Death? This is the kind of book that beats you over the head, robs you of your expectations, stomps upon those expectations, and then gleefully urinates upon the mess . . . all while you nod delightedly and ask Bullington to do it all again!

Yes, this is a wonderfully messed-up book, set in a wonderfully messy world, that comes across as a mixture of Terry Gilliam’s most surreal and Clive Barker’s most sexual. It is a book of nightmares and fantasies that are as much the Brothers Grimm as they are the Marquis de Sade (which, to be honest, are already far more alike than most us might care to acknowledge). This is a darkly cynical tale of human history, told neither by the historians nor the victors, but by the sad souls forced to live out its cruelties and delights, armed only with an unflinching eye and a very dark sense of humor.

As readers, this is a story that demands of us an empty stomach and an open mind. Seriously. Do not even think of whipping this puppy out and trying to breeze through a few pages while you are making dinner. It is a book that repeatedly gives rise to open eyes and open mouths, as often in delight as in disgust. With a stove-top of stew bubbling before you, you would not be at all remiss in worrying about what might escape that open mouth. The world of The Enterprise of Death is one populated almost entirely by the scum of society - soldiers, slaves, eunuchs, prostitutes, and criminals - all without an ounce of morality between them. Even those characters who do not revel in evil and brutality are often casually cruel, and at least amoral, if not immoral. Go into this looking for pure, noble, virtuous heroes and you are going to be sorely disappointed!

What you have to understand here (and this is important) is context. Really, context is everything if you are going to allow yourself to enjoy this. When you are stuck in such a world, and forced to choose between the supernatural horrors of zombies and vampires, and the all-too-human horrors of necrophilia, bestiality, and cannibalism, it is really hard to fault the characters for not exactly being paragons of virtue. They are, however, disturbingly endearing characters (particularly Awa and Monique) with whom we are more than happy to tag along on this journey through the horrors of the Inquisition. Yes, I did say happy, although you may very well prefer not to shake hands at the end of the journey.

Suitably so for such a confrontational book, the writing style is equally jarring and aggressive. It regularly leaps between past and present, a narrative device that is further confused by frequent jumps in viewpoint from one character to another. Also, for you linguistic purists out there, be cautioned that this is a story that is written in a 15th century style (with some quirky turns of phrase), but full of very 21st century dialogue (that is guaranteed to make even the most jaded reader blush at least once). Despite the contradictions and confusions, it all just works. Really, once the story comes together in your head, it holds fast for the duration.

The Enterprise of Death is quite possibly the strangest book I have ever enjoyed. Too dark and morose for a vacation beach read, it is entirely fitting for a cold, drafty, candlelit room during a violent winter snowstorm. It is most definitely not for everybody, but if the subject matter and storytelling style hold any appeal to you at all, then it is worth investing the time in a read. It is a twisted bit of fun . . . the very definition of a WTF guilty pleasure.

Paperback: 456 pages
Published: March 24, 2011
Published by: Orbit

The WTF Weekend gang is group of readers and reviewers who enjoy Weird, Taboo, and Forbidden fiction that is most definitely NSFW. Join us every Saturday and Sunday for more twisted tales . . . and if you have a review to contribute, please contact us!