The Violent and Unforgettable World of Brian Catling
The Vorrh and The Erstwhile are fantasy at its best
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A year and a half ago, I hadn’t heard of Brian Catling — though I’ve found out since that the husband of one of my colleagues was a student of his. That’s kind of like finding out that your uncle was a lot cooler than you actually thought, and was listening to that indie band you just found out about a year before you even knew it existed.
Anyway, a year and a half ago, suddenly a bunch of my friends and writers I admired began talking about a book called The Vorrh. Jeff Vandermeer declared that it read like “a long lost classic of Decadent or Symbolist literature.” Terry Gilliam and Tom Waits both praised it, as did Michael Moorcock and Philip Pullman. Alan Moore liked it well enough to do an afterword for the audiobook, in which he called it “the current century’s landmark work of fantasy.” It came highly acclaimed. Which meant, of course, that I didn’t read it.
I have an issue with books that come highly acclaimed. Not books that have a certain acclaim, just those books which have a level of acclaim suspiciously high enough to make me worried that they won’t be able to live up to their hype. That’s due to reading too many highly acclaimed books that don’t live up to the hype (what I like to call the Franzen syndrome) and beginning to think that, well, maybe 50,000,000 Elvis fans can be wrong after all.
So I didn’t read The Vorrh when it came out in 2015. Instead, it wasn’t until November of 2016, visiting a bookstore in Austin, Texas, that I saw the book in person and picked it up, idly, out of curiosity, and read the first chapter. In it, a man’s lover has died and he does what any good husband would do: ritually dismembers her body as per her instructions so as to transform her into a bow whose arrows are meant to lead him into the heart of an ancient forest known as the Vorrh.
After that, I read The Vorrh very quickly. I found it quite different from any other fantastical novel I’d read. Raymond Roussel appears as a character. Indeed, it reads almost like an absurd symbolist take on the fantasy novel, with its fantasy assembled out of an entirely original constellation of creatures and objects, with the nature of the dilemma at the heart of it revealing itself only slowly. It is a subtle and accomplished book, one that progresses more by feel than by plot, a kind of poetic disaster zone that is as much a barbed commentary on colonization as it is a quest novel. But it’s a quest novel as well, with Peter Williams, the man who has repurposed his dead wife into a living bow, using her to shoot arrows to provide him a path into the mysterious forest. His lover belonged to a native tribe called the True People, and in some senses belongs to the forest: she knows the rituals and tokens needed to allow him to pass in safety and has passed her knowledge along to him. And yet Williams is also being hunted, pursued by another member of the True People, someone who intends to kill him. Add to that historical figures used as characters (photographer Edweard Muybridge, royal physician and possible Ripper William Gull), a Cyclops named Ishmael, child-rearing robots made of bakelite, cannibals, and all the eccentricities of a colonial city, and you get some sense of what The Vorrh is: a sort of elaborate ritual played in a serious way, and for keeps, one that succeeds in making the grounds for a contemporary fantastic from any scraps and remnants that Catling can find. The results are startling — stunning even — violent, and unforgettable.
The just-published second volume of The Vorrh, The Erstwhile, has many of the same strengths as the first volume, but suffers a little from being the middle book in the trilogy: it extends certain moments in the first volume, redirects and rechannels the vectors, continues certain characters along their arcs, and prepares possibilities for a final volume. It’s not the kind of second volume that can be read on its own, and is best read in close proximity to the first. Still, the language is fine, the situations interesting, and as with the first volume it is full of stunning moments.
If the first volume’s guiding spirits were Raymond Roussel and French symbolism, for The Erstwhile it’s William Blake and his fascination with his own peculiar version of angels. At the heart of this volume is a strange child, half-dead, half-alive. The existence of this child is the key to the vanishing of the strange ghostly workers who used to bring lumber out of the Vorrh, as a quest to find them led by our former Cyclops reveals. But even more central to this volume are the Erstwhile, angels who have been reduced to a deathlike state for failing to protect the Tree of Knowledge and who are slowly reawakened into a confused and heady state.
In addition to time spent both inside the Vorrh and in Essenwald (the colonial city on the edge of the Vorrh) parts of the volume take place in Germany and England, where some of the Erstwhile reside in hospitals, confused, taking on the characteristics of those around them, stretching the fabric of time and space, and occasionally burying themselves. They’re investigated primarily by Hector Schumann, a retired and ailing scholar, who, as he spends more and more time with the Erstwhile finds himself physically changing and not always sure who he is or even what century he lives in.
There’s also the Tarantino-worthy destruction of Ishmael’s expedition into the Vorrh, a deepening of the mystery around many of its characters, and the sense that one of the houses in town might open onto something truly disconcerting. Where The Vorrh offered several children growing up in unusual circumstances and coming into adulthood, here they’re grown and either are destroying their own lives or are being destroyed by others without their being able to prevent it. At his best, Catling is wonderfully grim, and we rapidly get the sense that, as in The Vorrh, very little will remain untarnished or untouched.
In Catling’s world, animism and mysticism, fantasy and science fiction, the real, the surreal, and the absurd all swirl and blend into something highly original and beautifully bizarre. If in The Vorrh, you had the impression of someone building with whatever materials came to hand, here you find Catling examining those gathered materials carefully, shaping and reshaping them as he makes sense of what exactly they can do. The Erstwhile is a less vertiginous book than The Vorrh, but it is more grounded. One can only hope that the final book of the trilogy will manage to synthesize what is best about these first two volumes and give us something just as startling and inexorable.