These books published by Brian Catling are a strange beast. They are too weird to ever become a great success and compete with mainstream epic fantasy series, but other artists hold them in high regard and they gather high praise. Catling is an artist in the modern art scene where he creates sculptures and does performance art, and only recently did he start writing books. So, when he suddenly burst into the scene a few years back, critics were amazed by his striking prose and feverish imagination. Catling’s artistic history in visual exhibitions shines through in his text, which is full of visual metaphors and striking images.
When reading his fantasy series about a mystical forest in Africa named the Vorrh, it is clear that Catling comes from a very different milieu than other fantasy writers. The novels are set in colonial times in which Europeans were wandering around Africa, and Catling connects the idea that Africa was the cradle of the human species with the idea that Eden from the book of Genesis can still be found deep within the heart of the Vorrh. Spooky African witchcraft leads to a tale full of ghost and mystical transformations, which is closer in theme to Ovid’s Metamorphoses than modern fantasy. Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (1984) would make for a good comparison. The Erstwhile refers to fallen angels who failed to guard the tree of knowledge and are waking up and crawling out of the ground.
The Erstwhile (2017) follows closely upon The Vorrh (2012) and starts with a storm brewing over the Vorrh. Forces are moving and characters die and/or are resurrected. A particularly creepy scene early on transforms old storylines from The Vorrh about Peter Williams and Tsungali into a new beginning. Catling is fond of putting old artists into his novels, the way Dan Simmons puts old poets into his science fiction. In The Vorrh, the experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge showed up, and The Erstwhile features the painter William Blake. Look up his painting of Nebuchadnezzar and you’ll recognize the cover of this novel. According to Catling, Blake based his painting on something mysterious.
Catling has strengths that are present again in this sequel. His prose is dense, full of strange similes, and he always aims for communicating complex emotional states. His characters are very sensitive to moods, changes of weather and the like. There are constant hints towards unseen forces that give his story a heavy mystical feel to it. It is best to read this slowly; take your time and savor the language and imagery. Reread paragraphs; it’s ok. Rush through it and the language is sure to frustrate you.
I love these novels and think that Catling is one hell of a writer, showing sheer delight in storytelling. The Estwhile meanders quite a bit in its telling because Catling just loves to establish his characters and locations before delivering the punch of a chapter. The result is meandering, but rich storytelling and a fountain of imagination. It is also bloody creepy at times, which gives the story a nice bite to it. And even though it is set in colonial times, Catling is far more interested in evoking a sense of the eerie and the unknown than to get bogged down in morality lessons.
The plot does not go anywhere fast. Catling is juggling a lot of storylines, so that even halfway through the novel he may switch to a character and I find myself thinking: “oh right, that was also going on!” But the story is mostly setting up new threads and taking the first new steps forwards. That makes this a typical middle book of a trilogy where the excitement of the introduction is already past, and threads twist and morph towards a new direction. What that direction is, is not entirely clear. But that can be said about the first book as well; Catling’s plot reveals itself slowly, over time. At least, if there is one.
In the final quarter, the novel starts flagging. It lacks a nice wrap-up, a strong direction with a momentary climax. Catling presents a lot of great, spooky stuff in chapters that are well built-up in a Mervyn-Peake-kind-of painterly way. Yet, plot-wise, not enough happens. I am not happy about the gratuitous violence towards the end, and the last 100 pages leaves me confused about what happened with Catling’s story and his writing. Overall, this is a wonderful book with lots of memorable moments, but the second half left me deflated.