Brian Catling’s The Vorrh (2012, Honest Publishing) has been on my radar for a long time. I’d never heard quite the right things said of it to make me take that last step into actually reading it, that is, until last month, when I found out Catling will be visiting Blackwell’s bookshop in Edinburgh. His visit will coincide with the release of the sequel to The Vorrh, The Erstwhile (in March, details here). Eager for the chance to go to an event for a book I’d actually read, I borrowed a copy from my flatmate and got to work.
The reviews have not lied; I found The Vorrh to be one of the most imaginative, original books I’d ever read, full of unrelenting strangeness and synesthetic metaphor from the very first page.
It is clear that Catling takes as much care with all that he creates. When I look at Catling’s sculptural pieces each of them as deliberate, esoteric and disconcertingly functional as the last, I see glimmers of the same motifs he uses in his writing; projectile weaponry, especially the bow and the rifle, and that beady myopic cyclopean eye. I find it quite fulfilling, in fact, to see these common threads that unite his visual and literary work. Each sentence in The Vorrh is as carefully crafted and inanimately wilful as the ubiquitous bow wielded by the protagonist, and the book’s striking metaphors seem to clamber out of the page, blending the real with the surreal, the concrete with the figurative, and causing the reader to second-guess their own interpretation of the text.
Indeed, this book does not hold the reader’s hand, and it is not concerned with facilitating the reader’s understanding. Catling forges ahead, providing a glimpse (a glare, really) into a parallel world so alien to our own that only a writer of extreme deftness could convey it with any clarity, and yet so familiar that the strangenesses manage to seem organic.
The Vorrh is also, importantly, highly respectful of each of its characters. By this I mean that each character is rendered with layers of inner life, character development and private personality, and very few are wholly likeable or unlikeable. It is this quality which elevates this story above the generic struggle of good versus evil and above run-of-the-mill genre fiction into the realm of literature.
This is a fantasy novel in which strange and often shocking grit could easily have been used to create a wholly unpleasant book; one of a notable subset of fantasy stories being told nowadays in which any potential whimsy is stamped out, the characters are all horrible to each other and the painful and disgusting is the norm (I’m looking at you, GRRM). In other words The Vorrh could easily have been a relentless slog of a book. And there were a few times when I felt that the book was becoming too bizarre or too unpleasant, but each time a remarkable new tendril of humanity would spring out, drawing me back into the story.
But perhaps the most notable triumph of the book isn’t its imagination but its internal consistency. As the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that none of the litany of weird and wonderful motifs is included by accident or solely for aesthetic purposes. Just as very few can balance for long on the line between modern art and the scrawl of a kindergartener, anyone can write 500 pages of nonsense, but it takes meticulous dedication to create a work as simultaneously unique and structurally sound as The Vorrh.
Overall, The Vorrh represents a rare new development in the fantasy genre, one I would go so far as to call a breath of fresh air: the motifs that many authors (I chide myself for numbering among them) have relied upon for decades have been discarded in favor of a new set of myths. Catling draws motifs from literature and history, from Herodotus to post-imperialist Europe, and in his hands they are molded into something entirely new.
I highly recommend giving this book a read, if you’re a reader of fantasy, surrealist and avant-garde literature, or even just a reader of New Things. The book, and its sequel, which will be published March 7 of this year, are available to purchase online as well as at your local bookstore.