The sky opened up and rained for me during two of my sessions with The Mud Ballad by Jo Quenell.
We begin in a small, rundown town called Spudsville with Jonathan and Daniel, a set of twins conjoined at the head. We meet them in their tent at the circus they travel with discussing the imminent self-separation Jonathan has planned for the two of them. He performs the deed, and Dawes, the resident circus doctor finds them bleeding out, Daniel’s throat slashed. He is able to save Jonathan and amputate his brother’s corpse from his head, leaving a protrusion like a horn.
Jonathan goes on trial with the circus for the murder of Daniel. He is found guilty and exiled from his carnival community.
The story continues years later when Dawes returns to Spudsville, surprised to see Jonathan working as a restroom attendant at a bar there. Dawes has quit the circus and travels back to Spudsville to try and settle down. Jonathan offers Dawes a place to stay, if only a moldy sofa in a tiny shed behind the bar. In exchange for his hospitality, Jonathan asks Dawes to help him dig up the bones of his twin because he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye before Daniel’s burial. After the exhumation, things get stranger and more bizarre until all hell breaks loose upon our protagonists and the denizens of Spudsville.
And hell breaking loose in Spudsville is quite the ride. We have children raised to be fierce and violent soldiers, taught to fight with bear hands and teeth, brutal, carnivorous pigs that cannot be satiated, murderous mimes, bloodthirsty demons summoned from the grave, botched slayings and surgeries, Satanic cults, and so much more.
The Mud Ballad oozes grime from its pages, never letting you get more than a few paragraphs before again making you feel ill and as oppressed as some of those living in the rain-soaked dirt fields of Spudsville felt. Jo Quenell’s first novella succeeds in creating a bizarro world rich with characters who operate based significantly on desire and regret. There’s an air of sadness and guilt that pervades The Mud Ballad from start to finish. It isn’t stifling, and there is enough comedy to provide levity, but it’s an undeniable feature of the story (I mention this less as criticism and more as an acknowledgement of well-established tone and mood).
Despite its darkness, The Mud Ballad was a quick and fun read, and I’m already looking forward to reading more stories by Quenell.