Brian Catling - a sprawling fantasy set in colonial Africa, populated by historical figures such as surrealist writer Raymond Roussel and Edward Muybridge. “A phosphorescent masterpiece,” “the current century's first landmark work of fantasy.”

Brian Catling, The Vorrh, Vintage, 2015.

Prepare to lose yourself in the heady, mythical expanse of The Vorrh, a daring debut that Alan Moore has called “a phosphorescent masterpiece” and “the current century's first landmark work of fantasy.”

Next to the colonial town of Essenwald sits the Vorrh, a vast—perhaps endless—forest. It is a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests. Sentient and magical, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend has it that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart. Now, a renegade English soldier aims to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a strange bow, he begins his journey, but some fear the consequences of his mission, and a native marksman has been chosen to stop him. Around them swirl a remarkable cast of characters, including a Cyclops raised by robots and a young girl with tragic curiosity, as well as historical figures, such as writer Raymond Roussel and photographer and Edward Muybridge.  While fact and fictional blend, and the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate hangs in the balance, under the will of the Vorrh.

Foreword by Alan Moore:

B. Catling is a man of many callings. As a poet, his remarkable The Stumbling Block remains a darkly glittering obelisk on the form’s late twentieth century landscape. As a performer, he presents a presence which is visceral and solid and yet borders on a kind of alchemy, while as the artist of obsessive cyclops miniatures he catalogues the haunting totem-figures of a personal dreamtime. In his writings, in his savage and compassionate novella Bobby Awl, there is an earthy shamanism to his resurrection of the dead from archive fragments and forgotten plaster death-masks.

All these areas of accomplishment, however, are subordinated to the fact that Catling, first and foremost, is a sculptor. His affecting piece to mark the Tower of London’s former execution block, a tenderly indented cushion cast from glass so hot that it required a year of careful cooling, a degree a day, displays the mixture of robust and sometimes hazardous material process with a deep, heartfelt humanity which typifies his work. The quality of lithic stillness brought to his performances is sculptural, as too is the apparent working method which informs his poetry and prose: there is a sense of raw experiential elements crushed manually together into a new shape; of language worked between the fingers into different and surprising contours. This procedural approach is witnessed in The Stumbling Block’s successful crafting of a piece of mental furniture, or Bobby Awl’s stark evocation of the physical from a surviving cast of its historical protagonist’s tormented features.
Nowhere, though, is Catling’s way with literary clay revealed more eloquently than within the genuinely monumental pages of The Vorrh. It’s represented in the trilogy’s enormous mass and in its artful combination of bark, metal, mud and stone to build an edifice inside the reader’s mind; a tactile craftsman’s attitude that’s signalled from an unforgettable opening scene which centres on the manufacture of a legendary bow. The scene in question, from this brief description, might be taken for a standard trope of fantasy and myth that could derive from Tolkien, Robin Hood or Rama, were it not for the material of the item’s manufacture. With this early revelation, the intrigued and startled reader is informed that, if indeed this is a work of fantasy, it is a fantasy quite unlike anything they may have previously encountered in that much-abused and putatively primal genre.
Primal because in this field of things that never happen we can perhaps see the origins of the imagination as a human faculty, and much-abused because of the absurdly limited palette of concepts which have come to represent fantasy’s most identifiable features and markers. By definition, surely every fantasy should be unique and individual, the product of a single vision and a single mind, with all of that mind’s idiosyncrasies informing every atom of the narrative. A genre that has been reduced by lazy stylisation to a narrow lexicon of signifiers ... wizards, warriors, dwarves and dragons ... is a genre with no room for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, arguably the earliest picaresque questing fantasy; for David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus with its constantly morphing vistas and transmogrifying characters; for Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary Gormenghast books or for Michael Moorcock’s cut-silk Gloriana. It is certainly a genre insufficient to contain the vegetable eternities of Catling’s Vorrh.
Please note that this is not to say that this feverish epic ruthlessly eschews genre conventions such as legendary bows, freakish monstrosities or, for that matter, haunted woodlands. Rather, in the fierce embrace of Catling’s language and in the context of the work’s hallucinatory and astounding milieu, such potentially shop-worn material transforms into a different substance altogether, as does the now corseted and hidebound genre struggling to encompass this unclassifiable extravagance. While in fantastic literature we’ve previously encountered the enchanted forest, it has not before included modern Irish peat-bogs and the jungles of colonial Africa amongst its various extremities. And where we may have chanced on angels in our fictions formerly, they are not simultaneously as awesome and as poignant as the disenfranchised Erstwhile. Although it is not in fact the case, The Vorrh could easily be taken for the work of someone who, prior to that point, had never read a line of fantasy, such is its staggering originality.
As with the very best works in this slippery and elusive genre, one cannot pursue the intricacies and phantasmagorias of The Vorrh without a mounting certainty that the unfolding story is concerned with something other than its own remarkable contortions and reversals. Just as in the ritual labyrinth of Gormenghast that conjures twentieth century England so astutely, or in Lindsay’s Tormance which appears to speak to issues of both sexuality and metaphysics, so too in The Vorrh are fugitive suggestions of a world that’s obsolete and vanished, reconfigured radically and reassembled as the speculative inner-space cartography of territories to come, with personal psychology construed as undergrowth. Bakelite chimeras recall the 1950s working classes’ endless sepia indoors, just as the book’s crepuscular Victoriana conjures some lost Children’s Treasury of Empire, a resort of rained-off Sundays, vivid line engravings of unlikely animals, of dervishes, plate-lipped Ubangi, men with antiquated guns. In its Ernst-like collage of elements and sculptural assemblage of found objects, Catling’s striding debut builds a literature of unrestrained futurity out from the fond and sorry debris of a dissipating past.
The Vorrh’s distinctive approach to character and cast of players is worth noting. Prising out obscure yet true-life stories from their real- world mountings to reset within his lurid and profound mosaic, Catling gives us Eadweard Muybridge, the anatomist of the moment, in an unbelievable but actual consultation with Sir William Withey Gull, alleged anatomist of Whitechapel, the historicity of these protagonists not for an instant out of place amidst the pageant of monocular and brooding outcasts or distressing headless anthropophagi. Within the moss-blurred reaches of The Vorrh’s untended paradise, the factual is not privileged in its relationship with the fantastical and each intrudes upon the other’s territory, an insidious kudzu creep that rewrites memory and leaves the fixed past open to invasion. There is the impression, as with any genuine mythology or romance, that these inconceivable events must in a sense have happened or perhaps be somehow happening perpetually, somewhere beneath the skin of being.
Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy and ranking amongst the best pieces ever written in that genre, with The Vorrh we are presented with a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.
Comedies of manners set in mews and crescents that have lost their meaning, auto-heroising romps through sloppy pseudo-medieval fens, our writings are increasingly outgunned by our experience and are too narrow to describe, contain, or even name our current circumstance. In the original-growth arbours of The Vorrh, new routes are posited and new agendas are implicit in the sinister viridian dapple. As the greyed-out urban street-grid of our ideologies and ways of thinking falls inevitably into disrepair and disappearance, Catling’s stupefying work provides both viable alternatives and meaningful escape into its tropic possibilities.
It offers us a welcome to the wilderness.

Brian Catling’s entrancing novel comes with blasts of high praise from two heralds of the Great Literary Reconciliation, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore, who have long promoted the notion that popular genres – especially fantasy, with its sophisticated lexicon of narrative imagery – can be the seedbed for a new type of literary fiction. In the 1960s, this was the hope expressed by the likes of Ballard, Aldiss and others of us around New Worlds magazine who despaired of conventional literature’s inability to engage substantially with the modern world and thought to experiment with the subject matter and methods of imaginative fiction. A generation or so later Salman Rushdie and Michael Chabon, in particular, expressed similar frustrations and solutions, only to be attacked by those US academics whose livings were perhaps most threatened by the possibility that they were right.
Brian Catling has spent much of his creative life blending and bending. A performance poet, sculptor, novelist and sometime academic, he riffs here off the French surrealist Raymond Roussel, whose idiosyncratic book Impressions of Africa also featured a forest called the Vorrh. Thinly disguised, Roussel is a major character in what is one of the most original works of visionary fiction since Peake or Carpentier. Like them it is sui generis and like them will probably influence many future works of imaginative fiction.
The Vorrh is a semi-tropical forest older than mankind. It is immeasurable and apparently has no centre. Somewhere within it lies the Garden of Eden and near it roam Adam, Eve and their children, degenerate cannibals, or so some believe. Every story about the Vorrh is true and untrue, every narrative embodies countless other narratives, all taking place within the forest. The Vorrh, like so much in this novel, is sentient. It might be intelligent. At its southern edge it permits a few to hack a wedge in and take its timber. A great, decaying Middle European city, Essenwald, stands at the edge, existing chiefly on the timber trade. Large mansions display the wealth of its founders. A train makes regular journeys carrying a few tourists and explorers and near-human native slaves in and logs out. The slaves are unnaturally passive: only two Europeans at the log-front know the disgusting, unthinkable secret of making them work. They are tainted, addicted, morally and physically corrupt.                         
Elsewhere in the Vorrh colonial soldiers seek to civilise another native race who eventually turn on them and kill them. Hunters hunt hunters. A man makes himself a sentient bow from the spine of his dead lover, who might have been a forest goddess. The weirdness increases. Everywhere monsters are born and demigods created from their corpses. In Essenwald a boy, whom the world would destroy if it knew he existed, is educated by one-eyed Bakelite robots in the underground rooms of a house maintained by a mysterious watcher. Those who disobey the watcher are punished in bizarre ways. One has his son taken from him and returned with his hands sewn on backwards. During the city’s carnivale, when all go masked, two young women take daring actions which will affect many others for good and for ill.
Meanwhile, the Bowman, armed with a massive Gabbet-Fairfax Mars pistol and his sentient bow and arrows, seeks to cross the Vorrh, while a human native, Tsungali, tracks him, wanting to kill him with the Lee-Enfield rifle issued when Tsungali was a colonial policeman. All the weapons have names and personalities. Ghosts and dreams inform them. The Bowman cannot remember if he has crossed the forest or not. Mysteries proliferate. Every image has at least one meaning. Slowly, various narratives come together.
By the time “the Frenchman”, evidently the neurasthenic Roussel, arrives on the scene, followed a little later by the experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge, the book has acquired some of the best qualities of a Pynchon novel. Indeed, Pynchon is Catling’s nearest comparison. His themes are the many forms of psychic and physical colonisation. Combining several different kinds of narrative, as well as referencing many more, Catling borrows from popular and marginal sources to tell a story which has all Peake’s remorseless drive and remains in the mind the whole time one is away from it.
The novel is written in good, muscular language as original as its imagery; it contains paragraphs and observations you continually want to quote. Like an early Ballard novel, The Vorrh does not promote exoticism for its own sake yet is full of wonderful, telling imagery and a strong sense of resolution. For all its page-turning story, it is a poet’s novel, a serious piece of writing. I understand there are to be two sequels. I can barely wait to read the next one. - Michael Moorcock

Before Brian Catling's debut novel, The Vorrh, was published in his native England in 2012, he'd already racked up an impressive list of credentials — just not as a fiction writer. His poetry, sculpture, paintings and performance-art pieces have been getting international acclaim for decades.
Catling turned to The Vorrh at the urging of friend and fellow polymath Iain Sinclair, and his first foray into long-form fiction does not disappoint. Instead, it feels like the midcareer highpoint of an established novelist, full of lyrical subtlety, piercing clarity and an understated assurance. What it doesn't possess is restraint: The Vorrh — which is finally being published in the U.S. — is a sprawling, omnivorous novel that gobbles up history, geography, mythology and fantasy, then delicately chews it into a rarified pulp.
Like Jeff VanderMeer's recent Southern Reach Trilogy, The Vorrh takes place in a fictional area that exists within our world, nestled in a spot on the map that's never specifically identified. Catling's mysterious domain, which shares the name of his book, is a vast, uncharted forest somewhere in Africa — but other than that, the reader is left deliciously disoriented. Outside of the Vorrh sits another fictional place, the city of Essenwald, which was relocated from Europe, brick by brick, as a symbol of colonial dominance.
The era is post-World War I; the Vorrh sits on the cusp of antiquity and modernity. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Peter Williams — an English veteran of the French trenches — ventures into the Vorrh alone. But he's not going unaided: His lover, a woman named Irrinipeste who belongs to a native tribe called the True People, has died, and Peter gruesomely fashions a bow out of her sinews and bones. The arrows he shoots from this bow guide him as he treks deeper into the forest that no one has ever reached the heart of — at least no one who has ever lived to tell the tale.
Catling's plot and prose, like his setting, are dreamlike and hyper-vivid. His frequent and liquid shifts in point-of-view only add to that kaleidoscopic vision, and his surrealistic style dovetails empathetically with the source of his inspiration: The real-life surrealist writer Raymond Roussel, whose 1910 novel Impressions of Africa briefly mentions a forest called the Vorrh. In this sense, The Vorrh is not only a work of alternative history, but of alternate literature; Catling builds his imaginary story of the conception of Impressions of Africa into his Joseph Conrad-esque voyage into the unknown. He also intricately weaves in half-true, half-invented lives of historical figures such as pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge and Sir William Withey Gull, the physician to Queen Victoria (and suspected Jack the Ripper). Roussel becomes a central character, rendering The Vorrh a tangled, dizzying dialogue with the work that inspired it.
There are a staggering number of elements to juggle, and Catling practically levitates them. As Peter's journey becomes stranger, so does The Vorrh's voluminous cast. Ishmael is a Cyclops — literally, a man with one large eye in the center of his forehead — who seeks to track down Peter in the Vorrh and therefore further his own quest to discover his origins, as abominable as he fears they may be. In Catling's world, a miraculous healing touch becomes a plague of unchecked beneficence, where primitive tribes of cannibals do not adhere to the racist stereotypes of the time, and where angels must bury themselves under the soil in order to sleep. None of these wonders is there for show; they each play a part, sometimes pivotal and sometimes peripheral, in the teeming conceptual ecosystem of The Vorrh.
For all its eye-gouging, mind-bending spectacle, The Vorrh makes room for hushed poignancy and philosophical heft. Ishmael is a man-monster as compelling as Frankenstein's, and the nature of perception, time and the ghosts we both battle and become are tenderly explored. "They say that the forest lives on in memory, and that it devours the memory of men," Ishmael says to Peter, who has long ago forgotten how long he has been in the Vorrh, or even why he's there. It's a testament to Catling's skill as a sculptor of words that such otherworldly ideas and images not only connect, but resonate to the bone. - Jason Heller

as B. Catling built a novel? As well as being a poet and novelist, Brian Catling is an English sculptor and performance artist, and this shows: He has not constructed a book so much as a happening, established the framework for a literary situation in which anything may occur. His novel The Vorrh is bold, shaggy, and surprising; often beautiful, arresting, or both. It has its problems, but they have nothing to do with timidity.
Trying to capture the essence of this book’s plot is like trying to snatch eels from a river with chopsticks. There’s so much going on, and most of it is slippery and changes direction even as you grab at it. Dozens of characters appear, and their stories writhe over and under one another, knotting into vivid clumps of imagery and event.
The book mostly takes place in and around the Vorrh, an uncharted and unknowable forest in Africa filled with John of Mandeville’s anthropophagi and other unknown monsters. It is said to hide the original Garden of Eden at its heart and be haunted by decayed angels; God may walk in its innermost places:
“The Vorrh was here before man,” he said. “The hand of God swept over this land without hesitation. Trees grew in its great shadow of knowing, of abundance. The old silence of stones was replaced by the silence of wood, which is not quiet. A place for man was made, to breathe and be thankful. A garden was opened at the centre of the shadow, and the Vorrh was given an occupant. He is still there.”
Ordinary people can only enter the Vorrh in the most limited of ways without losing their souls and becoming mindless Limboia. Europeans have nevertheless found a way to log the forest, and to expedite this, a city, Essenwald, has been brought stone by stone from Europe to be reconstructed within sight of the Vorrh. There is a sort of atmospheric tension between these two places, the forest and the city, like thunder in the air. Most of the characters vibrate in place or shimmy back and forth between them.
Here’s the start of one story: Ishmael is a perfectly formed one-eyed boy, raised in a sealed house in Essenwald by entities he calls the Kin, small brown (also one-eyed) carapaces filled with thinking cream. A young woman breaks into the house and meets him after killing one of the Kin.
Another story: Peter Williams is a young Englishman who came to a colonizing outpost in Africa after World War I. He saves a local shaman, Irrinepeste, who seems mad and is desecrating the new church by menstruating. Years later, she gives him the tools to become Oneofthewilliams, a mythic figure whose actions kick off the (undetailed) Possession Wars, during which the True People rise up against their colonialist oppressors. (Who are the other Williamses? Are there any? Unknown.) Years later and dying, Irrinepeste orders him to convert her corpse into a black bow and two shadowless white arrows:
I shaved long, flat strips from the bones of her legs. Plaiting sinew and tendon, I stretched muscle into interwoven pages and bound them with flax. I made the bow of these, setting the fibres and grains of her tissue in opposition, the raw arc congealing, twisting, and shrinking into its proportion of purpose. 
The bow and arrows, semisentient, are instrumental to Williams’ quest, such as it is: He has crossed the Vorrh once and must cross it again. Williams is hunted by Tsungali, one of the True People, a former friend, and a tireless tracker—who is himself tracked by another mysterious figure, a Boundary Holder of the great forest.
Another story: the Frenchman (a real man, proto-Surrealist Raymond Roussel [1877–1933]), who has written a book, Impressions of Africa, without having been there: a fantastical mélange of exotic images and adventures. Now an aging sensualist, he comes to Essenwald and accepts a challenge intended to crack open his jaded soul: He will enter the Vorrh.
The book also follows historical figure Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), the photographer whose zoopraxiscope presaged the moving picture—and whose long life, detailed through the book, ended decades before the novel’s main action. And there’s the Erstwhile, subsentient entities that may be decayed angels; a gray creature who may be Adam; ghosts; a hive mind of soul-dead slave laborers; a rare World War I pistol capable of stopping a running horse; a contagious miracle/curse—
The Vorrh is the first volume of an intended trilogy by Catling, and that makes this book even more slippery. By the end of this volume, many characters are dead or dead-ended—but in a novel with ghosts, what does that mean? The formal and informal quests driving some of the characters have changed and changed again, been lost or forgotten or inadequately completed. If an individual’s story feels underdeveloped or random, will the second volume fix that or just extend it? Is the plot going to advance in more conventional ways? Or can Catling sustain this level of weirdness over 1,500 pages and still trust his readers to stick with his vision? Will the story become more strange, or less?
None of this touches the heart of this book.
* * *
What this book is not, is about Africa. The Vorrh is a direct reference to and response to Roussel's Impressions of Africa, a fantasia written in the 1920s that had nothing to do with the continent and everything to do with the same impulse to generate wonders that would subsequently drive Ernst, Carrington, and other Surrealists. Roussel’s Africa was a forest in which he could grow his fancies, a marvel-filled playground unrooted in reality. I am not convinced that a 21st-century writer can remake Africa this way. It cannot be treated as a blank place on the map; we as writers are confronted with a reality that is far beyond anything that can be imagined, a reality that already inhabits this geography. The True People, the tracker Tsungali, and the others do not convince me they are African so much as a set of (intentionally?) dated assumptions about colonial Africa; Peter Williams, the Englishman whose shaman spouse becomes a bow to his hand after her death, treads perilously close to becoming a white savior character, a Surrealist Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves.
It’s also, weirdly, not about a forest. The Vorrh doesn’t feel real on the page: There are trees, but we mostly don’t know what they are (the only specific mention was of an oak, which I noticed because by this time I was pining for any concrete details at all). There is underbrush, but we don’t feel it. The only animals we hear about are the monsters that play directly into the plot and some birds. The Vorrh is meant to be impassable and mystical, but it almost never feels that way; instead it is a European-styled woodland with all the naturalism and danger of Brocéliande. This vagueness might be intentional, but it is annoying when I contrast it with Essenwald, which Catling so generously embodies.
Author B. Catling.
Author B. Catling.
Photo by Gautier Deblonde
The book is deeply preoccupied with vision, and monstrousness threads through this. The cyclops Ishmael is a monster who sees clearly and would be reviled if people knew of him. He leaves his smothering situation in the city for the Vorrh, expecting to find kinship with the one-eyed man-eating monsters that live there. In Essenwald, blind beggars are healed and become a different kind of monster. Creatures that can only be seen on a two-hour delay; objects that accept no shadow or swallow all light; eyes that endlessly flicker after death, even when removed from the skull—the very act and organs of seeing are problematic in a thousand ways across this story.
One of the myriad characters is Cyrena Lohr, a rich blind woman who gains use of her eyes after an encounter with Ishmael—and finds herself hating the ways that sight violates the calm of her eyeless life. In a stunning three-page sequence, she examines a vase full of peonies given to her by friends congratulating her on her newfound vision:
The petals curled and ruffled to catch any saccade and pull it in, so that a maximum density of viewing was folded in on itself. All human sight was sucked towards a central concentration, a habitual, swollen funnel, like the mouth at the centre of an octopus’s beak, demanding to be fed by all its arms. The blooms seemed designed for the eye, matching their craving to humanity’s visual gluttony; they even mimicked its anatomy, once the external ball was peeled away. A dozen or so of the bright, rumpled orbs moved at a speed concealed from her hectic eyes. Others stirred more positively, picking up the passing breeze, nodding in what seemed like a smug, taciturn agreement among themselves. Their vanity appalled; she could see the strain of opening as they demanded to be seen, the hinge at the base of each petal bending under a pressure, stressing until they fatigued and fell loose, leaving a swollen, pregnant overy. That was the extent of their purpose: to gush colour and expose the wrinkles of their complexities; to attract admiration and excited insents and perpetuate the fertility of their kind.
The more she looked, the more she saw the extravagant blooms as an insolent, mimicking raid on her eyes and a mocking sham of her womanhood.
Cyrena has grown to miss the cozy, unseen world she used to live in. In that world, the sounds of flying birds and bats were perceived as a wonderland of unexpected pops of noise scattered around her; with sight, this wonderland deteriorates into animals following predictable paths as they go about the quotidian business of finding food. As for these peonies, their invasive visual demand to be prioritized over anything else disgusts her so greatly that she closes her eyes tightly, ​returning to her old​ unsighted ​world, and carries their vase across the room to drop over an unseen balcony.
Also part of this is the devices of indirect vision: things seen in the corners of the eyes, things seen at a distance in time or space. There is a camera obscura in the cyclops Ishmael’s house that can see all of Essenwald as miniaturized reflections on a table. Muybridge’s photography is of course a way to visually preserve a thing for a later time, and his zoopraxiscope and other experiments with moving pictures were focused on breaking movements through time into static ​​​images​ that could be interpreted. ​​Halfway through The Vorrh, ​​Muybridge ​and the real ​Victorian Dr. William Gull experiment with devices that use flickering lights and peripheral vision to elicit automatic physiological and emotional responses like anger and orgasms. In this book, what is seen cannot be trusted, but not in an Is it Photoshopped? kind of way. Vision can trick you into doing things that have nothing to do with sight; pictures and images are by their very nature fakery.​ Time can be gamed; so can space. ​ 
* * *
So what is the heart of The Vorrh? I speculate that it lies not in the contents of this novel but in its nature.
The book begins and ends with the Frenchman’s story. In a posthumous work Roussel revealed that his books, including Impressions of Africa, were produced according to elaborate formal constraints. His work was widely admired by the Surrealists and Oulipo, movements that challenged conventional narrative techniques and expectations. The Vorrh is Surrealist literature in the best old-school sense of the word. Much of its energy comes from Catling’s unwillingness to commit to any of the classic narrative strategies he toys with throughout—the quest, the hunt, the love story, the Bildungsroman. And the rest of it—the arbitrary character changes, the out-of-the-blue insertions, and the apparent dead ends—creates a sort of Brownian motion, a vibratory narrative energy that does not advance so much as shimmer. Is The Vorrh also constrained literature? I write a lot of constrained literature, and I suspect that it is, though I could not guess the rules.
I was reading The Vorrh during a visit from a friend who is an artist, so I read most of it aloud to her. This was a good thing. A book read aloud exists inside time, rather than outside it. You cannot simply skip past or ignore the hard parts; if it is Surrealist, you have to stick with the moments of dissonance, process them at exactly the same speed you work through the more conventional pages. We stopped often to talk through the book’s confusions—and to note the many, many instances of breathtaking language, the often-playful chimes and rhythms and rhymes. (Beauty also becomes more obvious at the speed of sound.) There was an entire chapter so clean and lovely that I wanted to turn back and read it again—Chapter 25, if you are playing along at home. My third-floor apartment has huge windows that open into the upper branches of an urban forest (mulberry and oak); I read until the days faded into darkness, and my voice grew hoarse.
It is possible that this is the reason for this book: the immediate jolts and delights of each scene, to be experienced in the order they appear, without worrying about the total panorama. This makes reading The Vorrh rather like walking in a dense forest with short lines of sight—always another turn, always another tree—many small delights and terrors, and then those occasional sweeping moments when the trees fall away for a view that suddenly reminds us of the immensity of the landscape. -

Brian Catling’s The Vorrh is a sprawling fantasy set in colonial Africa, populated by historical figures such as surrealist writer Raymond Roussel, Edward Muybridge, Sir William Gull, and Sarah Winchester. And then there is the Vorrh itself, the ancient, eldritch forest that dominates the novel:
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 southernmost 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.
Much of the action of the novel takes place in the town of Essenwald on the edge of the forest, a town whose compound name of “essen” (to eat) and “Wald” (forest) already indicates that much of what enters the Vorrh may never escape (or at least, may only emerge utterly transformed). “Essenwald is a library to the forest, an appendage. It was attracted here when the Vorrh was already ancient,” another character tells Roussel before guiding him through the forest. The Vorrh may contain Eden within it, or the first man. Saints may live in the Vorrh; monsters certainly do. Most of the characters are not just fictional, but fantastic: from the robotic nursemaids that raise the Cyclops Ishmael, to the child-witch Irripineste and Peter Williams, the man who shapes her body into a bow to carry with him through the forest, to Cyrena, the woman whose blindness is inadvertently healed by Ishmael under highly unusual circumstances.
The Vorrh opens with Peter Williams following the orders of his dead lover Irripineste to form her corpse into a longbow that he will use to carve his path through the Vorrh. Meanwhile, Tsungali, who has previously crossed paths with Williams during their involvement in Tsungali’s people’s uprising against the British colonizers, is hired to kill him. In Essenwald, Raymond Roussel arrives with his entourage and meets a beautiful young man who promises to escort him through the Vorrh, and the Cyclops Ishmael is “liberated” from his robot nursemaids by the debutante daughter of local industrialists. Each finds themselves drawn to the forest, where their paths cross with each others’ and with a host of repulsive and fascinating secondary characters both human and not.
Reading The Vorrh may leave you with a strange sense of unease, one not entirely sourced in the body horror and ominous vegetation of the novel itself. The Vorrh joins the numerous works of fantasy of the past decade that have approached the history of colonialism and its attendant horrors, such as N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance series or the Weird fiction of China Miéville. Many of them have worked through lush, decadent language, horrifying and glorious by turns; The Vorrh is not unique in this regard, either. The sense of unease is not precisely rooted in any of these factors, but rather in what, at times, seems to be an uncomfortable divide between them. This comes out most strongly through the chapters centered on photographer Edward Muybridge, which seem largely disconnected from the main narrative, an intriguing but otherwise inert appendage. Set some thirty years before the rest of the novel, the chapters are intermixed with the rest of the storyline. Yet unlike the rest of the chapters, which focus on specific storylines whose threads weave together at various climactic moments, the characters of Muybridge’s plotline never cross paths with the residents or visitors of Essenwald. Tsungali’s righteous fury at the European colonizers who have stripped his culture bare is thrown into sharp relief by Catling’s characterization of Josephine, the beautiful and mute African psychiatric patient who is described in overtly sexual, exotic, and animalistic terms during her encounter with Muybridge in London.
It could, of course, be argued that the descriptions of Josephine are a result of their narrator, that Edward Muybridge as a historicized figure characterizes Catling’s writing of the characters he encounters, but that argument falls short when confronted with the events within his plotline. Josephine’s violent assault on Muybridge is isolated from the rest of the plotline, and seems to have very little relation to it beyond the possible thematic associations with the Cyclops Ishmael’s sexual development. Ultimately, it remains unclear whether Muybridge’s story affects the rest of the plot at all. Yet many of the plotlines are masterfully interwoven, and characters’ actions — however small — have ramifications that reverberate past their immediate surroundings. Dreamlike and horrifying, The Vorrh is permeated with an ominous power despite its flaws. -         

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.
Next question!
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. - Niall Alexander 

The Vorrh is an extremely ambitious book, and one that has garnered a lot attention for its complexity and effortless ability to bend genre labels. Not quite fantasy or mainstream literary fiction, it hovers nebulously somewhere in its own orbit. Catling uses his ample page space to explore a diverse array of themes concerning magic, myth, colonialism, and human nature, with real historical figures and events sprinkled judiciously throughout.
Imagine the Vorrh as a massive, primordial forest that predates the birth of humanity. No one has ever penetrated its core, and civilization comes to an abrupt halt at its shadow. What could be more intriguing than a peek at what lurks inside? The forest is an alien life— a glimpse at a reality where mankind takes a backseat to greater forces. There are a lot of characters in the The Vorrh, but it may be the forest itself that truly dominates as Catling’s most imaginative and vivid creation (although the opening scene of Tsungali making a bow out of his former lover's dead body will definitely stick with me).
There are times when the writing gets a bit carried away with itself. Prepare for a fair amount of this: The black bread and yellow butter had seemed to stare from its plate with mocking intensity, the fruit pulsing and warping into obscene ducts and ventricles.
That’s just a description of breakfast. Sometimes the prose is beautiful, sometimes it’s dense and exhausting. Chapters tend to fluctuate between voices, moving from more matter-of-fact narration to strange and dreamlike fugues.
Between all of the quixotic imagery and high-mindedness, I find myself feeling rather conflicted about The Vorrh. I’m not certain whether to appreciate its originality, or wish that the journey to its center had been less labyrinthine. Inevitably, the most accurate answer is probably both; Catling has written a complicated tale that invokes a complicated response in its readers. But there's no doubt that a real meal can be found here for the curious mind to chew over. - Leah Dearborn      

Brian Catling, The Blindings,  Book Works, 1995.       

‘These texts are lunges to capture handfuls of another time and place while passing through it in the curious guise of a witness to my own crimes.’
‘Looking and writing on the slippery stage of memory is as uncomfortable as it is mysterious, especially when chronicling one's own works.’ – Brian Catling

The Blindings is a description of a group of works and performances made between spring 1993 and winter 1994, revisiting them after the event in order to reconfigure them for the printed page as a modulated sequence of handwriting, description and print.
The texts for The Blindings are handwritten: each of which contains a pronouncement that a fluid, gas, suspension or extract has been injected into the eye; manipulated photographs are used to corroborate the truth of this fiction. A solid sans-serif type is used for the sections of the books that were actually spoken whilst a lighter serif is used to describe the performances and the intentions behind them.

Brian Catling, Several Clouds Colliding, Sternberg Press; Co-published Edition with The Swedenborg Archive, 2013.

philosopher, inventor, mathematician, astronomer and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg is the inspiration behind the London based Swedenborg Society. In this intriguing collection of essays and documentary material from the society s achives, artist/poet Brian Catling and writer/filmmaker Iain Sinclair reveal a secret history of Swedenborg: madman or messiah, you choose. The author performers reconstruct and reflect on the extraordinary events surrounding an exhibition and performance held at the Swedenborg House on February 17, 2010. Catling is known for his teaching at Oxford and exhibitions at the Serpentine and the ICA and Sinclair for his publications and films including Ghost  Milk:  Calling  Time  on  the  Grand  Project (2011): they join forces to create this peculiar but seductively engaging journey into the psycho geography of religious ritual.

Poetry books:

2009  A Court of Miracles. Catling compendium. Etruscan Books
2007  Bobby Awl. Etruscan books 
2001 Thyhand  published by Alfred Davis Press.
2001  Large Ghost,  Equipage.2001
2001  Late Harping. Etruscan books 2001
The First London Halo (single book), Bookworks.
Thy hand, Parataxis.
Soundings; A Tractate Of Absence, Matt's Gallery.
Future Exiles, Three London Poets, Paladin Press.
The Stumbling Block, Bookworks.
Boschlog, Few Goats Press,  N.Y.C.


INTERVIEW: Brian Catling Digs Deep Into THE VORRH, What Inspires Him, and More

Brian Catling is a poet, sculptor, performance artist and writer. He is a Professor of Fine Art at The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford.  And, with the publishing of novel The Vorrh (the first in a trilogy) now a novelist whose work has been lauded by fellow Englishman Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta) with the following kind words:
Nowhere, though, is Catling’s way with literary clay revealed more eloquently than within the genuinely monumental pages of The Vorrh. It’s represented in the trilogy’s enormous mass and in its artful combination of bark, metal, mud and stone to build an edifice inside the reader’s mind; a tactile craftsman’s attitude that’s signalled from an unforgettable opening scene which centres on the manufacture of a legendary bow. The scene in question, from this brief description, might be taken for a standard trope of fantasy and myth that could derive from Tolkien, Robin Hood or Rama, were it not for the material of the item’s manufacture. With this early revelation, the intrigued and startled reader is informed that, if indeed this is a work of fantasy, it is a fantasy quite unlike anything they may have previously encountered in that much-abused and putatively primal genre.
Primal because in this field of things that never happen we can perhaps see the origins of the imagination as a human faculty, and much-abused because of the absurdly limited palette of concepts which have come to represent fantasy’s most identifiable features and markers. By definition, surely every fantasy should be unique and individual, the product of a single vision and a single mind, with all of that mind’s idiosyncrasies informing every atom of the narrative. A genre that has been reduced by lazy stylisation to a narrow lexicon of signifiers … wizards, warriors, dwarves and dragons … is a genre with no room for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, arguably the earliest picaresque questing fantasy; for David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus with its constantly morphing vistas and transmogrifying characters; for Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary Gormenghast books or for Michael Moorcock’s cut-silk Gloriana. It is certainly a genre insufficient to contain the vegetable eternities of Catling’s Vorrh.
The following questions are based on an ARC of The Vorrh provided by SFSignal, and answered by Mr. Catling view email over several weeks. Lately, I’ve trended toward interviewing Brit authors (see the Moorcock interview); I’m feeling the need to invent a time machine so I can interview Mervyn Peake!

Larry Ketchersid: You’ve participated in a wide variety of creative endeavors: from performance art to sculpture and poetry. What was your inspiration/motivation to target that creativity toward novel writing?
Brian Catling: The making of objects and the writing of poetry were the major poles in work for a long time. Performance sparked up between them way back in the 80’s. Then making videos joined in the creative scrum and allowed a new voice to appear.
I had made some tentative stabs at writing fiction in the form of long poems themed around imagined installations and acts; In Written Rooms & Pencilled Crimes, chambers and action were described in forensic detail. But the novels never escaped until 2006, even though I had the opening sequence (The making of the bow) and the title of The Vorhh for a long time. I had never got past page three before consigning the multiple attempts to the waste bin. Three things happened to changed that:
  • laptops came into being  (a profound invention for a dyslexic cockney stutterer)
  • I was inspired by the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and
  • enraged by the puerile lazy grayness of other less talented contemporary authors.
Together these made a push /pull mechanism that provided the friction to ignited the whole thing. I thought The Vorrh was going to be a slender and obscure surrealist work, so when the 500 pages of The Vorrh appeared I was astonished. When it grew into a trilogy I was shocked. When the next five others books followed it I gave up pretending that I knew what I was doing and gave in to the tide.
LK: CREATIVE SCRUM. As one of the few but growing numbers of Texans that played Rugby, I am familiar with that phrase on many different levels.
As for Inspiration and Enragement as motivators, I can relate; “best selling author” tends these days more to be about marketing than anything else. With self-publishing there is a lot of noise, a lot of volume for readers to sift through…which is both fortunate and unfortunate.
What did you find different about the creative writing process vs. the process/method you pursue in these other areas?
BC: The writing of fiction wiped away the video work, because it was direct and had a kindred narrative potency. It hushed the poetry because it drank deeply from the same blood of mystery and enigma. The sculpture and performance work evolved sideways, so that my obsession with making things and bringing them to life was not compromised by description and the need to explain.

The bow I carry with me, I made of Este.
She died just before dawn, ten days ago. Este had forseen her death while working in our garden, an upcapping of mementum in the afternoon sun.
Este was born a seer and lived in the experience of her departure, a breeze before a wave, before a storm. Seers die in a threefold lapse, from the outside in.
Her long name was Irrinipeste, and she had been bron to Abungu in the Vorrh, the great brooding forest that she said was older than humankind.
We said goodbye during the days leading to her night. Then all of my feelings were put away; there were more important rituals to perform. All this I knew from our first agreement to be together as it had been described, it had been unfolded.
I stood before our wooden table, where her body lay divided and stripped into materials and language. My back and hands ached from the labour of splitting her apart, and I could still hear her words. The calm instructions of my task, embedded with a singsong insistence to erase my forgetfulness. The entire room was covered with blood, yet no insect would trespass this space, no fly would drink her, no ant would forage her marrow. We were sealed against the world during those days, my task determined, basic and kind. (pg. 9)
LK: The ‘making of the bow’ sequence (note: this is the scene that Alan Moore refers to in the prologue excerpt at the beginning of this post) and the title of the VORRH….which came first? I assumed the VORRH came out of Roussel’s poem, but is that the correct assumption?
BC: The making of the Bow and the title were simultaneous . The seeds from which all else grew. Yes the VORRH is from Impression of Africa. Roussel had no real interest in the forest, just a savage backdrop the the events that he invented there.
LK: About the Vorrh (the forest/jungle where the story takes place) itself: The Vorrh appears malevolent, only taking, not giving. Is this related to the Adam myth that permeates the book, that the ultimate gift was thwarted and now taking is now the only way to balance?
BC: A damn good question and a reasonable answer. A few years ago I travelled in the red heart of Australia and came across landscape so ancient that it had not even noticed that humankind existed. A vast total indifference. A system that dealt with itself . I think the VORRH is about like that. Adam, the Tree of Knowledge and Guardian Angels being a graft that did not set. The anthropophagi are closer to be indigenous and even they might be seen as new comers by the trees. I think the balance was never noticed by the VORRH.
LK: What is the time period in which the story takes place? The boatman who takes Williams is described as having been a bargeman in “the Great War half a century earlier”. I assumed that was WWI, and the time was the 1960s. But the historical characters would place it in the late 1800s.
BC: The 1/2 century bit for Paulus is a mistake. I don’t know how I missed that. Thank you for pointing it out. The boatman is a little thumbnail homage to the memory of my old mate Paul Burwell.
Cyclops egg tempera by Brian Catling
Cyclops egg tempera by Brian Catling

LK: Most of the female characters in the book (with the exception of Este I guess) are somewhat trodden upon by the male characters. Is this again a reflection of the VORRH’s malevolence and vindictiveness (Eve forcing Adam to be the “graft that did not set”) or a sign of the timeframe of the book?
BC: It’s both , but I think the men are week and reflecting a time. The women  grow in strength in the next two books they shine and take over.
The graft was not the rib but Gods implanting of generation without knowledge.
Charlotte is treated like shit by Roussell , but I don’t think it makes her weak, the opposite.
LK: The historical characters populating your book are an interesting (and not very well known) lot: Roussell; Eadweard James Muybridge; Sir William Withey Gull (who I believe was not only a noted doctor but also a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders). Is there a common thread in your career or research that had you bring this eclectic group together in your novel?
BC: You are certainly right about Gull. He also invented the term Anorexia nervosa. I had always had an interest about him. In an early book of Iain Sinclair poems I even used his (then) obscure name as a nom de plume for the drawings I made there. When I was writing the VORRH I told Sinclair about my usage of Muybridge and he dropped the bombshell that it was Gull that Muybridge visited about his head wound after his stage coach accident. That warped the plot and opened a vein into Whitechapel and forced me to extend the surgeon and the photographers relationship. There are suggestion that the Muybridge machine was used in his absence in the Whitechapel room in book 2.
Roussel, Muybridge and Gull overlapped and each created their own version of the time in which they lived , and each invented a disturbing lens in which to view it.
LK:  Dr. Gull and his anorexia patients, and his actions to push those patients into that state, made me want to invent time travel just so I could go back and beat the snot out of him (side note: one of those closest to me suffers from Anorexia, and the thought of a physician experimenting to put women into that state of mind pushes me towards violence). Were those experiments real occurrences that you found in your research, or did you create them? If you create them, what did you use as your point of reference?
BC:  Gull had a series of “private wards” that are not spoken of in biographies but were mentioned in some of the less “official’ ripper books. some of my best ever students (and friends) are anorexic. There is no record of Gull’s research.
LK: The Cyclops, Ishmael, is a fairly central and transformative character. I saw this from one of your performances:

Is there a particular reason for this interest in Cyclopses?
Cyclops egg tempera by Brian Catling
Cyclops egg tempera by Brian Catling

BC: My Cyclops thing first started in the Hungarian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. In the dental section, in back from was the tiny head of a human Cyclops birth. Red haired and pickled. A tragic, haunting abnormality that did not survive ( or was not allowed to ) birth. Some years later when making a performance in the London Library a camera caught my reflection bisected in a glass case and I saw the Cyclops again, I could become it. So its mentality, speech and isolation grew from there.
LK:  What can you tell us about the next two books? What are the titles and which characters continue?
BC: V2 is The Erstwhile, V3 The Cloven.  A lot more people and things enter the cast list including Hector Schuman a 72 year old Heidelberg academic who accidentally becomes the seeker of the Erstwhile angels that escaped the VORRH. Ishmael , Ghertrude, Cyrena, the Mutters, the Limboia, Nebsuel, Sidrus and Wassidrus go on. joined by the once living: Max Linder, Leo Frobenius, Eugene Marais. The magic gets blacker and the pace gets faster.
LK: In the introduction to this interview, there is a snippet of the foreword from Alan Moore. How did that acquaintance come about?
BC: Alan, Iain Sinclair, Michael Moorcock and myself had been doing a reading in London. Alan asked what I was working on, and asked to read it, so I sent him the MS.
Months later he made a blog interview in which he was asked ‘had he been reading anything interesting recently?” He then raved about The Vorrh.
That’s when the telephone starting ringing.
The publisher asked me if Alan would consider writing the forward. So I modestly asked him. His response was and still is overwhelming! - Larry Ketchersid

April 28 will mark the release of a new edition of author, poet, and multi-media artist Brian Catling’s book, The VORRH, a fantasy novel about a sentient forest:
Next to the colonial town of Essenwald sits the Vorrh, a vast—perhaps endless—forest. It is a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests. Sentient and magical, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend has it that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart. Now, a renegade English soldier aims to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a strange bow, he begins his journey, but some fear the consequences of his mission, and a native marksman has been chosen to stop him. Around them swirl a remarkable cast of characters, including a Cyclops raised by robots and a young girl with tragic curiosity, as well as historical figures, such as writer Raymond Roussel and photographer and Edward Muybridge. While fact and fictional blend, and the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate hangs in the balance, under the will of the Vorrh.
In the following short interview, Catling and I discuss artistic spaces, the eternal appeal of forests, and more.
You’re well-known as a poet and conceptual artist. What drew you into fiction, particularly fantastic fiction?
I have always been dedicated , obsessed by the imagination and i believe that fiction can be a valuable tool to examine fact. The prose began in an attempt to describe object, events and atmospheres that i could not construct in reality. The earliest manifestations being WRITTEN ROOMS & PENCILLED CRIMES. 1987, a series of impossible installations and actions. The VORRH was in my head for years , I had the opening scene and the conclusion, everything else occurred once i started writing it. I had no intention of writing fantasy fiction, it just unwound that way. I thought i was writing an obscure surrealistic narrative.
Alan Moore (who wrote an introduction for the book) is one of my favourite graphic novelists and all-around creative persons. How did you become involved with him?
Alan and I first met on a poetry reading event and then on the set of Iain Sinclair’s film The Cardinal and the Corpse, we were both playing ourselves being Maji. A few years ago we did another reading with Sinclair and Michael Moorcock and Alan ask me what i was working on , I told him I had just finished The VORRH and he asked to read the manuscript. He did and loved it. Some time later he was asked in a blog what he had recently read that excited him. He was (and still is) enormously generous about The VORRH. then the phones started ringing.
Many of your readers have described your literary style as visionary and baroque. I wonder what you think of that? Is your prose in any way coloured by your experiences writing poetry?
Yes I think it must be. But I think its become less baroque the more i write , the scrolls and filigrees have unwound to make tighter and more fluent sentences. Visionary yes! but in the physical sense that I see all i write, there is no literally construct , i write what i see or imagine i see, a kind of occulted ekphrasis.
The cyclops is a recurring element in your work. The creature fascinates me on several levels, and is the subject of one of my favourite paintings by Odilon Redon. What draws you to it, and what does “cyclops” mean to you?
I have been taking students to anatomical museums for years (part of my Professorship at Oxford is engaged with the running and teaching of the anatomy course at the Ruskin School ) In the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, before its glitzy makeover there was a backroom of Orthodontic peculiarities.
There in a small glass container was the head of a human cyclops with red hair and two pupils in its stunted eye. It was an object of pity and woe. It produced strong feelings of compassion and disgust that made me want to do something about it. but not with the actual specimen.
Some years later I was making a performance in the Kings Gallery of the British Library. A zeal-full cameraman took a picture of my head reflected in one of the glass cases; bisected and doubled, and there it was the same face, the same terribly distortion. I then went on to produce the effect in performance and videos. Also writing a dialogue for the monster in which he explained his beauty and your ugliness, explaining that a single eye, an uncross single optic nerve running in a straight line from the outside world to its undivided brain. This condition creates a certain dogmatic clarity. Thus the monster bathes again in the doubt of our reactions.
The small egg tempera portraits of Cyclops came later ( It was inevitable that Ishmael, my VORRH cyclops, came into being.
Your novel concerns a quest into a mysterious and forbidding forest. That’s a classic fantasy premise if there ever was one. I’m reminded of fairy tales, Arthurian quests, and of course, contemporary fantasy stories like Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. What is it about the forest that resonates with us, and why do we associate it with the supernatural?
We know very little about plants. The life of a forest is a complex and ancient thing. The root structure alone is a baffling enigma. I suppose the most influential fictional forest or rather its effect on humans , for me is The Man Whom Trees Loved by Algernon Blackwood. a greatly unrated author of the uncanny.
Can you tell me a little bit about the VORRH itself? What is it like? Do concepts like “real” versus “illusory” apply there? What about sacred versus profane? There’s an Edenic quality here, isn’t there?
It is the only and every forest. Eden is an overgrown scrub patch lost in its centre, haunted by the failed angels who did not protect the Tree of Wisdom. I have never been much good at weighing real and illusory, sacred and profane. Or seeing the clear profile and texture of each. The forest would have no sense of those vapours. Some years ago I was in the Red Heart of Australia, a parched and lonely place, so old that it was totally indifferent to humans. It had not even noticed that they had come into existence. the Vorrh is a bit like that.
Speaking of real versus illusory, you’ve mixed characters from fiction and real historical personages together. How did you assemble this motley crew?
The real ones were reluctant volunteers. Some had been heroes, some demanded exploration, perhaps the most amazing coincidence (if you believe in such things) is that Muybridge actually meet Sir Willian Gull after his near fatal stagecoach accident. Gull had been an interest of mine for years: The man who coined “Anorexia Nervosa”, and a Royal surgeon who arose from near rural poverty to become a man of influence and sinister power.
There have been mentions of him in many Jack the Ripper books and some claim that he was the mysterious murderer himself. I had no intention of a “ripper” sub plot being in the book , but once Gull and Muybridge met and started talking talking it was inevitable. And a clear example of the way I write. I was another invisible person in the consulting room high above London Bridge, listening while they talked and occasionally occupying each man to see the other.
In developmental psychology there’s the idea of the “magic circle”: a prescribed place in which participants agree to be bound not by the rules outside of the circle, but by those of a game. As a bit of an artist and creative type myself, I suspect that it carries over a bit–maybe not even consciously–to the studio, art object, or mental space in which we make art. I mean, a painting itself has certain “rules” that are dictated by the medium and artist’s vision. Writing a book must occur within its own magic circle, too. The Vorrh strikes me as highly conceptual, and I wonder to what extent the forest serves as a creative or ritual space. Or is it just a wilderness and I’m reading too much into this?
That’s right, it is a conceptual portal with inherent rules, none of which I know. But it is also just the wilderness, capable of devouring all .
Who are some of the authors who influenced you most, and what might you recommend for people to read once they’ve finished with The VORRH?
Poe, Melville, Beckett, Kipling, Cormac McCarthy, Roussell Dickenson, Lautréamont, Highsmith, Huysmans, Borges, Flann O’Brien, Hamsun, the usual suspects!
What’s your next project? Where can people find you online?
The VORRH is a trilogy, after that I wrote a quartet of Westerns. Yes Westerns!!! A Cockney, Oxford Don dares to take on the sacred plains.
The Doc Quartet is centred around Doc Holiday , without re-telling the same old stories.
I am also working with Terry Gilliam, Ray Cooper and Christian Gwinn on the prospect of The VORRH flickering off the page.
What’s your next project? Where can people find you online?
I am currently writing a piece called HOLLOW : A mounted band of Peckenparish warriors desend the spiral path of a cone shaped, snow covered mountain. They all speak in King James biblical english. Far below are a series of villages and events all taken from Bruegel paintings, including the horrifying “Triumph of Death” and the drunken slapstick comedy of the “Fight Between Carnival And Lent’ They carry a boneless oracle who warns them of meetings and consequences of their journey, “Saint Christopher is a dog head man” being one of them. Three-quarters of the way down they discover that the ‘mountain’ is in fact the Tower of Babel and that its insides are being eaten alive by a hoard of lost demons and sad imps that have escaped from the painters imagination.
My webpage is currently hiding because it know that it needs to be washed & combed, when it appears it should be  - Matt Staggs


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