Brian Catling’s novel ‘The Vorrh’ is quite unlike anything you have read before. In a just world, where bland, conservative middle-class literary types who’ve never journeyed much beyond the M25 except on a gap year did not get to decide that only books about failure in middle-age, divorce or a distrust of ethnic minorities in a multicultural urban setting should be the accepted standard for literary fiction, Brian Catling’s novel would be getting hailed from the roof-tops as the very best fiction published in years. There is a strong argument to be made that this novel is in fact one of the greatest of the twenty-first century.
The novel’s many failings as literary fiction include its categorisation as fantasy; it is set in a mythologised version of equatorial Africa and is a critique of British Empire at its peak but is not based on real-life events; it has a man born as a cyclops as one of the main characters; there are ghost-like forms and the suggestion that the great forest is alive, and; it doesn’t spoil the book to mention the extraordinary first chapter where the protagonist turns his lover into a bow. This novel is not quaintly described as a work of ‘speculative’ fiction but instead plants it’s flag proudly.
But ‘The Vorrh’ is much too exciting to be just a work of literary fiction. It is a work of fantasy and all the better for it. There are no dragons here. There are no swords and sorcerers and certainly, no derivative fellowships or demonic Bad Guys attempting to take over the world. There is also no Final Battle in which the forces of good overcome evil and all is made good in the end… and thank f*ckety f*ck for that.
‘The Vorrh’ re-imagines fantasy. It goes further and re-imagines imagination. Though a greater part of the narrative involves two journeys – one taking the protagonist on a physical expedition through the great forest, the other taking a young woman on a journey to the dark interior of her heart and mind – the majority of the tropes familiar to readers of fantasy are going to find themselves on very strange domain. In short, Catling has taken the rulebook created by Tolkien and used it as a wick to light the candle to altogether deeper depths of the imagination.
If there was a list of ingredients for this novel, it would include M John Harrison’s, Pale City series and the writings of HP Lovecraft, there’d be a generous handful of Ursula Le Guin and a pinch of the nature writings of Nan Shepherd. Poetic language abounds and recalls Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene, Rossetti’s The Goblin Market and a big heft of Blake. There’s a hint of Rider Haggard, David Lindsay and Conan Doyle and from more modern influences, there is a nod to Susan Cooper, and Jonathan Carroll and Alan Moore.
Right from when I first obtained a sample of the first chapters as a digital download to when I finished reading the hardback edition, I felt that this was not the work of a young, début novelist but instead someone who has spent a lifetime reading and enjoying literature, both high-brow and pulp, someone who has a very visual grasp of the world the characters inhabited and I resisted the temptation to Google any more about the possible identity of the author (and my determination to avoid clues as to the author’s identity, ensured that I read Alan Moore’s introduction last). It’s nice to know that as often as I’m wrong about things, I can still occasionally be proven right. If everyone has just one book in them then I’m glad Brian Catling took the time to write this one.