B. Catling’s The Vorrh (Honest Publishing 2012) is an extraordinary dark fantasy novel by the Professor of Fine Art at Ruskin College, Oxford. Poet, writer, sculptor and performance artist, Catling continues to impress and beguile with the range of his explorations.
I found myself reading not only the narrative but also about the range of materials, which inform Catling’s diverting imagination. He always sends me on a journey of discovery and I return nourished and invigorated.
The first thing to say about The Vorrh, the title of which is derived from an imaginary African forest in Raymond Roussel’s 1910 novel, Impressions of Africa, is that it is exquisitely written and effortlessly draws the reader into its constructions. It maintains an intense and unpredictable narrative throughout veering from a charged elegance to the hallucinatory with graceful if shocking ease.
The man looked like God. A mane of unkempt white hair, a long,
fearsome white beard, and wild smoke eyebrows cocked ragged
over piercing, unforgiving eyes. A stern, knowing face which saw
the world in a hard light with gauged contrasts. A Lear
countenance that let nothing in or out without radical severity. He
wanted to look like this – biblical, austere and imposing.
The novel, an inventive addition to the literature of the imagined forest, crosses over from fantasy to magical realism as a means of propelling the narrative onward through the unexpected. It works wonderfully well. Sometimes the reader is forced to re-read and think to make sense of where the narrative has gone. I found this more of a pleasure than a pain as such beautiful writing carried the narrative.
Dawn, like the first time. The lead-grey clouds are armoured hands
with the weak sun moist and limp inside them. The night still sits
in the high branches, huge and muscular, rain and dew dripping to
the pungent floor. It is the hour when night’s memory goes, and
with it the gravity that keeps its shawl spun over everything in the
forest. The crescent-eyed hunters sense the shift, feeling the glory
of darkness being leeched and ultimately, robbed of its purity. The
vulgar gate of day gives no quarter, and its insistent brightness will
tell lies about all forcing the subtlety back into the interiors of the
trees and the other side of the sky.
Among the characters is the hunter, Tsungali, the Cyclops, Ishmael, Roussel, rifle heiress, Sarah Winchester, pioneering Victorian photographer of the body in motion and in motion-picture projection, Eadweard Muybridge, and the physician Sir William Gull, often associated with the Whitechapel Murders. I knew of Muybridge through Francis Bacon and his importance for the study of the body. Catling took me further into murder and forensic neurology. My reading of The Vorrh has been a history of interruptions and diversions. I hope that yours is as pleasurable.