It’s only after you’ve experienced — and notice I did not say “read” — something like Brian Catling’s The Vorrh that you begin to understand how rare it is to encounter novels capable of blowing up our understanding of what fantastic literature can even be. The Vorrh is a sprawling, expansive, even fierce piece of storytelling, transporting us to realms both familiar and alien. It’s a complex beast of a book, avoiding convention and demanding attentive reading, but never inaccessible or difficult to follow as, say, Steven Erikson’s Malazan novels can be. It can be as frustrating as it is dazzling. It simply opens up your head like a nutcracker, and it’s one of the 21st century’s few great works in the field so far.
Catling himself has mainly worked as a painter, poet and performance artist, and his writing in The Vorrh — whose 2015 US edition is slightly reworked and expanded from its 2012 UK release — is breathtakingly visual, utilizing words as brushstrokes in a way that never feels like stylistic affectation. The book doesn’t feel written so much as painted or even sculpted.
The story is mainly set in the early 20th century in a fictional colonial African city named Essenwald, which has been transported from Europe and rebuilt on-site brick-by-brick. Colonialism and its exploitation of native peoples is a thematic undercurrent, and Essenwald has already had to squelch one rebellion in a conflict called the Possession Wars. The city itself is situated at one edge of a dense and uncharted forest, the Vorrh, of which it is said no one has ever crossed and lived to tell the tale. The Vorrh is home to terrifying creatures, and may be the home of dark spirits, or some malevolent and inexplicable force that first drains your memory and then your very soul. As the tale unfolds, elements of the supernatural and magical are doled out just sparingly enough that when they occur, they’re truly alarming.
Several people attempt to cross the Vorrh, or at least enter it. One is the Englishman Peter Williams, now known as the Bowman for the bow he has constructed literally from the mortal remains of his lover, the native seer Este. Through the bow, she now guides him where his memory fails, as he follows the paths set by the arrows he lets fly into the Vorrh’s heart. The Bowman is being relentlessly tracked by the assassin Tsungali, a native instigator of the Possession Wars who’s been promised amnesty in exchange for Williams’ death. Williams is being just as doggedly protected by Sidrus, a physically imposing and merciless killer whose own motives remain kind of opaque.
In Essenwald, other characters will decide that their destinies — or at least some sort of revelation to give their lives a sense of meaning — are to be found in the Vorrh. Most prominently is the cyclops Ishmael, who has been raised by automatons in the basement of a decrepit mansion by someone who remains invisible and yet appears almost omniscient, somehow observing events in the house and delivering instructions by mail. Ishmael’s life takes a fateful turn when he meets the rebellious young woman Ghertrude, who has broken into the house out of curiosity and sheer defiance of her regimented upper class upbringing. She finds herself drawn to, rather than repulsed by Ishmael, who is simultaneously sensitive and insatiable, emotionally, intellectually and sexually. She introduces him to the world outside the house.
Along with his invented cast Catling has roles for real historical figures. One of them, the French surrealist Raymond Roussel, appears in the story as “the Frenchman,” whose idealistic romanticism ends up being no match for the frightening realities of the forest. The real-life Roussel’s novel Impressions of Africa is actually Catling’s source and inspiration for The Vorrh, and here, Catling cynically makes the man a victim of his own creation.
We also meet the infamous pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose scenes comprise some of the book’s most striking storytelling, even though they take place entirely in England and America and don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the story. But they do share recurring motifs with the rest of the book, such as the power dynamic within human sexuality, and the importance of sight. From Muybridge’s photographic studies, to his strange relationship with the surgeon William Gull and one of Gull’s mental patients, to Ishmael’s single eye, to the camera obscura Ghertrude uses to give him his first glimpse of the outside world, to a shocking power Ishmael doesn’t even know he possesses — we are repeatedly drawn to Catling’s fixation (natural, I guess, in a painter) with our visual relationship to the world, and its sometimes questionable sensorial reliability.
Though a handful of elements are familiar — the premise of a mysterious place of untamed nature will resonate with fans of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood or Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy — Catling unfolds his story at an unhurried pace, with admirable resistance to cliché and a striking, distinctive voice. The first in a planned trilogy, it leaves many questions unresolved, and its multicharacter, mosaic plot prevents the whole from ever coalescing and building to the single grand climax we might have wished for. But the overall effect of the book puts it in a class by itself. Lyrical, brutal, uncompromising, often violent but sometimes tender and even funny, The Vorrh will be an irresistible lure to anyone who wants to test just how adventurous a reader they think they are. Just remember…you enter the forest at your own risk.
Followed by a sequel.