More than four years on from The Vorrh, professor and performance artist Brian Catling is back with a book that explodes the exceptional premise of its predecessor at the same time as falling short of fulfilling its awesome promise.
The Erstwhile shifts the focus of the darkly fantastic fiction from the forest around which the first volume revolved to one of its many denizens. “No one quite knew what they were. But they had been given a name, which translated into ‘of Before’ or ‘the Previous’ and finally settled as “the Erstwhile.’ Some said they were ‘undead, angels, spirits embodied in flesh.’ All that was known was they were as ancient as the forest itself.” And the vast Vorrh, held close to the heart of Africa like an unspeakable secret, is at least as old as us. Indeed, “there is a deep belief that this land is sacred and may be the physical geographic location of the biblical Eden.”
What business, then, does man have messing with it?
None, n’est-ce pas? But where there’s wood, there’s timber, and where there’s timber, there’s industry—a truism even in this alternate history. That industry animates the settlement of Essenwald, where the majority of the events of The Erstwhile occur. Truth be told, though, the Timber Guild has been having a tough time of it since the Vorrh started screwing with its various visitors:
The forest had a malign influence at its very core. Some said it was an unknown toxicology of plant and oxygen. Others said it was a disturbance in its magnetic resonance. A few said it was haunted and that its evil nature was responsible. In fact, nobody knew why prolonged exposure to the trees caused distressing symptoms of amnesia and mental disintegration. No matter what or who they tried, all was in vain. Nobody could work for more than two days in the Vorrh without contamination.
Nobody, that is, other than the Limboia. “They were hollow humans” whose lack of humanity left little for the forces of the forest to fuck with. And yet even the Limboia have been lost. As of the outset of The Erstwhile, they’ve been missing for some months, and without them, Essenwald’s singular industry has stuttered to a costly stop. Alas and alack that the Powers That Be in that precarious place are prepared to do whatever it takes to get these beings back.
They’d have to be to trust in Ishmael, a cyclopean sexual sadist who left his last lover just as she was about to become a mother. But the Timber Guild is only interested in one thing about him: his history. Ishmael is, after all, one of just a few folks to have ventured through the Vorrh without significant incident. To wit, he takes charge of a small army whose mission is to locate—and ultimately subjugate—the Limboia.
What follows—as Ishmael leads his lot into the awful forest, as his men lose their minds around him, as they’re stalked by the shadow of a half-man made whole after consuming the skull of another—is far and away the most memorable section of The Erstwhile as a whole: a terrifying testament to the enduring greatness of Catling’s creation on the one hand; and a frustrating reminder, on the other, of all that is otherwise absent in the narrative. Because ultimately, the atrophied angels after which this novel is named just aren’t as effective a focus as the Vorrh was. Conceptually, they’re a credible centrepiece:
They who have been forsaken by God have been adopted by a greater, slower master. The forest itself. Over the centuries it has entered every vein, every follicle, and every pore of their rotting bodies and now it runs through them like the endless chatter in humans. They are waking because the Vorrh feels a threat, far off and constant, a force that could wipe it away forever. It has known of this for centuries and now the actual time is approaching, it has been preparing, by changing its breathing, its denizens, and the Erstwhile. Some have already left, some are transforming, and all of them know of you.
Unfortunately, as fascinating as the Erstwhile are in the abstract, in practice, they’re baffling. Their purpose appears to be pressing people into writing scripts in invisible ink that attracts ants. As to why? You know exactly as much as I.
We experience these curious creatures firsthand from the perspective of a former professor of theology who’s sent from a retirement home in Heidelberg to London to look in on an inmate of Bethlem Royal Hospital, the insane asylum better known as Bedlam. Patient 126’s hobbies include burying himself alive and listening to the wireless. He’s even named himself Nicholas Parson after the host of a particular BBC Radio 4 programme—which wouldn’t be worth commenting on were it not for the fact that Just a Minute didn’t exist until 1967, fully forty years into the future of this trippy fiction.
Hector Ruben Schumann’s relationship with Nicholas is at the centre of these sections, and although their rapport is affecting, and deftly developed developed over the length of the text, I frequently found myself sympathising with the professor’s plight to parse “the ultimate enigma that was Nicholas.”
Much of what the Erstwhile said was beyond him; his shifting persona and its accents and the obscurity of it left him confused. He also felt he was being tested, that many of the questions Nicholas posed were there to define his boundaries and that most did not have simple answers. Except of course the one that he posed backwards by giving him the answer and telling him that he had to find the question.
There weren’t a great many answers in Catling’s last, and there aren’t in The Erstwhile either, though book two of the trilogy does firm up what the Vorrh actually is—or at least what it’s perceived to be—by looking in on the aforementioned forest from the outside rather than looking out from within its fearsome fringes. But inasmuch as this distance serves to broaden the overall scope of the series, it also places readers at a regrettable remove from the richness and resonance of the grotesque garden at its centre.
The Vorrh was “an exceptionally shocking novel,” and one of 2012’s very best. It was, as I wrote in my review, “inescapably dense, and unrelentingly intense.” The Erstwhile simply isn’t. It’s not an easy read by any means—the author’s prose remains opaque and effusively allusive—nor is it entirely absent the satisfying if sordid surprises of its predecessor, but between its clarified characters and the relative plainness of its plot, not to speak of its shift in setting, the alchemical elements which made the first part of Catling’s narrative remarkable are sadly in short supply in the second.
The Erstwhile is a good book, to be sure, about “the possibility of a retaliation from nature should man’s greed become overbearing,” but great it ain’t, I’m afraid. In that—and in lieu, too, of either a bona fide beginning or anything resembling an ending—it’s very much a middling middle volume.
The Erstwhile is available now from Vintage Books.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.