Not a few folks make a meal of it, but the act of differentiating between books good, bad and abundantly ugly is fairly straightforward, I find. Several simple indicators—including care, competence and consistency—suggest which side of the divide to place a particular text. Assuming it surpasses these rudimentary measures, the thing is at least reasonably well written.
It is far harder, however, to pick apart the truly great from the good. There is no steadfast formula to work from, and often no fathomable factor beyond one’s feelings. Be that as it may, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’m inclined to look for beauty—and indeed, The Vorrh is a beautiful book. So too does a sense of intelligence prove paramount when separating the standard from the remarkable—and Brian Catling’s dark fantasy debut certainly has smarts.
But all other considerations pale, in my eyes, when compared with a book’s ability to surprise. To wit, take the following statement for the compliment it is, rather than the complaint it might be perceived to be: The Vorrh is an exceptionally shocking novel.
By now you must be wondering: what is the Vorrh?
That’s easy. It’s a forest — albeit an imaginary forest, conceived by the poet and playwright Raymond Roussel (a fictionalised version of whom features hugely herein) in his 1910 novel, Impressions of Africa.
Do I hear a ‘What’s so extraordinary about that, then?’
Well... that would be telling. Nothing and everything is, equally. But here, a hint:
“For years, it was said that nobody had ever reached the centre of the Vorrh. Or, if they had, then they had never returned. Business expanded and flourished on its most southern outskirts, but nothing was known of its interior, except myth and fear. It was the mother of forests; ancient beyond language, older than every known species and, some said, propagator of them all, locked in its own system of evolution and climate.
“Dizzying abnormalities of compass and impossibilities of landing made it a pilot’s and navigator’s nightmare. All its pathways turned into overgrowth, jungle and ambush. The tribes that were rumoured to live there were barely human — some said the anthropogphagi still roamed. Creatures beyond hope. Heads growing below their shoulders. Horrors.”
At bottom, then, the Vorrh is a Bermuda Triangle of sorts, practically uncharted and wholly unknowable; a landlocked expanse of eerie trees and creepy creatures which almost all of our narrators find themselves drawn towards, for one reason or another.
There’s the basement-bred cyclops, Ishmael, who aims to escape the hatefulness of humanity after being brutalised during his first trip into town. Hot on his heels comes Ghertrude Tulp, his conflicted lover-come-carer, and alongside her, another of Ishmael’s admirers: blind since birth, Cyrena Lohr is suddenly sighted after a dalliance with the one-eyed man. Now she worships him, from afar if not necessarily nearby.
Then there’s the aforementioned Frenchman, initially unnamed but eventually unmasked as the creator of this forest in actual fact. In the less literal fiction, Raymond Roussel visits the Vorrh with a perfect specimen of the tribal True People. He imagines it will inspire him, and in its way, it will — but what price enlightenment? One far higher, I fear, than this pilgrim is prepared to pay.
And the book features another almost-anonymous narrator whose identity I’ll refrain from giving away. To boot, it begins with him—in of one of the year’s most memorable scenes—as he carves a bow out of the bones of his late lover, strung with sinew, and fashions arrows from Este’s organs. From here on out, we know him as the Bowman. Sudden onset amnesia means he knows little else about himself—and we are as in the dark as he—except that “everything in his life was a mystery [...] his only purpose seemed to be to travel through the Vorrh.”
There are, however, powerful forces set against him—not least the assassin Tsungali, who half-remembers his target from an impossible encounter decades earlier—and others who oppose those who oppose our fair wayfarer. Sidrus, for instance:
“He had to find [a] way of stopping the wretched Englishman from being butchered in the Vorrh as he tried to pass through it for a second time. Nobody had ever accomplished such a thing; the great forest protected itself by draining and erasing the souls of all men; all except this one, apparently, who walked through it with impunity, even appearing to gain benefit from it. Sidrus did not know how or why this unique possibility had manifested itself, although he guessed that the witch child of the True People had worked some blasphemous magic with her protégé. What he did know was that if the Englishman passed through the forest again, he alone would have the opportunity to understand its balance, its future and maybe even its past. Not since Adam had such a single being altered the purpose and the meaning of the Vorrh, and now he was being hunted by a barbaric mercenary.”
Obviously The Vorrh is quite a complex novel, and not always easy to follow, what with its unnamed narrators and its array of peripheral perspectives—I haven’t even mentioned the neurotic photographer Eadweard Muybridge, nor a certain Scotsman—but though the going gets tough, the tough makes for good going soon enough. I’d go so far as to say great, as indicated at the outset of this article. And if its story seems iffy initially, rest assured that things become clearer beyond the book’s fulsome first third, by which point I warrant you’ll be comprehensively caught in the inexorable vortex of The Vorrh.
A large part of its appeal originates with the astonishing setting Catling renders so delicately. Evoking elements of the uncanny, The Vorrh takes place in a landscape like but unlike ours—a vista at once oh so similar, yet distinctly different—giving credence to the awful or else incredible events that occur against it. The author’s worldbuilding is neither overbearing nor too neat and tidy; here Catling’s confidence is clear from the first, thus The Vorhh feels markedly more natural than most fantasy fiction, which I fear tends to fall afoul of one of those two traps. As the author of Voice of the Fire asserts in his involved introduction:
“In the literature of the fantastic, almost lost beneath a formulaic lard of dwarves and dragons, it is only rarely that a unique voice emerges with a work of genuine vision to remind the genre of what it should be aspiring to and what it’s capable of doing: a Hope Hodgson, Mervyn Peake or David Lindsay; untamed talents who approach the field as if they’re the first sentient beings to discover it. In Brian Catling’s phosphorescent masterpiece The Vorrh we have [...] a brilliant and sustained piece of invention which establishes a benchmark not just for imaginative writing but for the human imagination in itself.”
I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Moore, but if the truth be told, Catling is marginally less successful when it comes to character than he is vis-à-vis the world of The Vorrh. Though the death toll is satisfyingly high, some developments are more substantial than others... yet this is but the beginning of a trilogy, and occasional allowances must be made for multi-volume novels. Narratively, the author somewhat sacrifices accessibility for artistic ambition, likewise frankness for suggestion and impression, but considering Catling’s complementary careers—as a performance artist and erstwhile Professor of Fine Art at Oxford—this is not utterly unexpected, and what plot there is is gripping.
When even the warts of a novel are winning, it’s hard to misunderstand that you have something special on your hands, and The Vorrh is absolutely that. Equal parts dark fantasy and surrealist dream, it is inescapably dense, and unrelentingly intense. Shelve it shoulder to shoulder with 2012’s other most notable novels, be they of the genre or not, then consider carefully which stands lacking in comparison.