Brian Catling sees things differently than the rest of us. To call him an artist is to paint him with the broadest strokes imaginable, as the British iconoclast works in all manner of media, from poetry (Bobby Awl, 2007, etc.) to his startlingly original sculptures to unflinching and disturbing performance pieces that carry titles like “Hunterian Cyclops” and “Mr. Rapehead.” Now, championed by comrades like writers Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair, the artist has turned his attentions to fiction in The Vorrh, the first book in a vast fantasy trilogy.
Kirkus describes the book as “a darkly imaginative story of magical realism set in and around a forest with mystical powers,” and Moore, in a characteristically lush Foreword, calls the book a “feverish epic.” The Vorrh is, to put it mildly, quite bizarre. Catling has resurrected the French proto-surrealist Raymond Roussel, whose groundbreaking novel Impressions of Africa (1910) inspired the setting for this wild-eyed fantasy. Roussel is here to bear witness to the events unfolding in a vast African forest whose denizens include a primeval hunter named Tsungali and a mythical cyclops named Ishmael.
Other characters are drawn from real life as well, including the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge and the mad heiress Sarah Winchester, and Catling promises later volumes that include figures like the Afrikaner poet Eugène Marais and the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius.What civilization is present in the Vorrh lies in Essenwald—because of course one drops a colonial German settlement into the wilds of Africa. It is a linguistically fertile composition that confronts readers with issues around power, imperialism, race and sexuality without consciously trying to build thematic arguments around them.
When I reach Catling at his office at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where he teaches, I mention casually that The Vorrh reads as much like he is channeling the words as he is crafting a fiction.
“You’re certainly correct in that thinking,” Catling affirms. “I just had the opening scene of this bow being made from the body of a woman, and I had one of the last scenes in my head. It was just so strong of an image that it demanded to have something else attached to it,” he says. “I was spending too much time trying to avoid this story, which was bothering me, so one day I just began. I started to realize that I was waking up earlier every day, and I was writing more and more. Somewhere along the way, it started to flow.”
The Frenchman Rousseau is probably the most omnipresent character, but that doesn’t mean that the author has any real affection for him.
“Impressions of Africa was such an odd read,” Catling explains. “Rousseau had no interest in the forest itself. It was just kind of a backdrop for him. But…he had established this great word, ‘the Vorrh,’ [and] it had this great, powerful sound, in a sense. It sounded like something that was itself a mythological place, so I just attached ideas to what I thought this place might be like and added this eternal quality to it,” he says. “I did research on Rousseau, obviously, and I found him to be such an obnoxious little man. He was a genius, of course, but also someone who was so cocky and privileged that I kind of wanted to drag him into the center of the forest he created and let the reality of it confound him.”
Some of the more fantastic elements originate in Catling’s own preoccupations. Ishmael, the melancholic cyclops, grew out of visual elements that the author has previously inserted into both sculpture and performance.
“I used to take students to a museum at the Royal College of Surgeons that houses the collection of John Hunter, the anatomist,” Catling recalls. “In a back room, they had a genuine human cyclops that fortunately didn’t last very long after he was born. I had always been a bit obsessed by this thing. I didn’t think I could find a place for him in my work, but in my mind I think that was actually Ishmael as a child.”
In his Foreword, Moore goes out of his way to point out that The Vorrh doesn’t fit within the confines of traditional fantasy, and Catling agrees. He seems intrigued when I point out that it reminded me of discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was very young, and I had to consider what a fantasy world might be like without having anything to use as comparison.
“A lot of my heroes are from America so that makes sense,” Catling says. “Edgar Allen Poe was among my first influences with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and that influence carries right through to Cormac McCarthy and Blood Meridian, so it would make sense that there is an American trope that makes its way into my book.”
Asked about the differences between working in sculpture and writing The Vorrh, Catling has an interesting response.
“That’s very simple,” he says. “There are certain things in sculpture and performance that I can’t make. They’re literally impossible in those mediums but they’re not impossible in fiction. Fiction can change the laws of gravity, or change the laws of all kinds of natural phenomenon. If it’s done correctly, fiction can give me the ability to convince people of just about anything.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.