By John Porter
First novels tend to fall into a few different categories. There are those that show a bit of promise with the author weighing in on questions that they’ll be exploring for the rest of their careers. Then there are those that flash so brilliantly that you wonder how the author will ever reach those heights again. There are also those that are so deliciously weird that within a few paragraphs you’re hooked, and you just know you are in for the wildest ride possible.
Fortunately, Jo Quenell’s The Mud Ballad falls into that latter category. I was not familiar with their shorter published works, but this debut novel, while compact at 142 pages, packs all the punch of a true heavyweight. From page one, I was mesmerized by their storytelling ability and their ability to work with the worst sets of circumstances that create a world that pretty much defies description.
Starting off in an awful traveling sideshow, one of its members is cast out to the wilderness of Spudsville. This town is so bad it makes Dante’s Inferno look like a carnival ride. There is no spark of life anywhere in the town. Jonathan, the cast out former conjoined twin, finds gainful—if awful—employment in this horrible town and is reunited with the disgraced former side show doctor, Dawes.
Every waking moment for these two misfits is a cry for salvation from their misdeeds. One for the loss of a brother, the other for the loss of his chance at love. Together they hatch a plan that will set the past right—although everyone knows it will be an impossible task that will most likely go horribly wrong.
There are also mimes, monstrous hogs, children trained for combat, lobster handed carnies, resurrections, and awful creatures that need to be killed.
Speaking of things that need to be killed, Quenell has an exquisite touch with violence. They are able to walk that fine line between the poetic and the gratuitous. That is no easy task for someone writing their first novel. Yes, there are scenes that will most likely make you cringe from the outcome, but none that will make you cringe from bad writing.
Revealing more plot details could only rob the reader of discovering this bleak world for themselves. There is an entire world packed into this tight work. There is not a single word wasted, not a superfluous sentence—it is sparse and edited to achieve maximum effect with minimum words. Like a well-written poem, each word is selected to compress power and emotion, and yet the story is told with a journalist’s flair.
The Mud Ballad stands as an entertaining, if occasionally horrifying, novel that blends so many weird elements that one quickly loses count. It only remains to be seen what Quenell will explore next—they have enormous talent and hopefully more stories of the strange to share. Get on board this crazy train if you dare and hang on like your life depends on it.
It just might.
John Porter is a writer of horror, dark fantasy, and is a former stand-up comedian. He also writes about blues music and plays records at VPM.org/timefortheblues. He has written extensively about surrealist theatre and Mexican Exploitation Films. His website is under construction because he is too lazy to finish it.