The Vorrh by B Catling

Coronet, 2015, 510 p.

The Vorrh cover

I had this on the back burner until I read the recent favourable review by Brian Kelly in the Guardian of The Erstwhile, the second part of Catling’s trilogy.

The book is an eccentric thing to be sure – featuring a mysterious forest, robots in basements, a more or less human cyclops, a bow forged from human bone and which has strange powers of attraction, a pioneering photographer, anthropophagi (a smaller species of cyclops – Catling seems to have a thing about one-eyed creatures – but whose heads protrude from their chests,) a ritual involving still-born or aborted children – but I fear you may have to be in the mood for it. And I wasn’t.

The Vorrh is a forest in Africa which may be the site of the Garden of Eden and may even still have living somewhere in its centre, Adam. Most of the action of the book, though, occurs in Essenwald, a European city “imported piece by piece to the Dark Continent” which lies to the Vorrh’s south-east. The time is sometime after the Great War – yet there are sections from the Victorian era featuring the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

The more or less human cyclops is Ishmael, raised in the basement of 4 Khüler Brunnen by the Kin, gentle dark-brown robotic machines. He is rescued from them by the building’s inhabitant, Ghertrude Tulp, whose lifelong chastity is broken by her attraction to Ishmael. But having tasted freedom from the basement and seen the city via a camera obscura in 4 Khüler Brunnen’s upper levels Ishmael is not content and on Carnival weekend (a time of masked, licenced debauchery) travels the city, encounters and has sex with the blind Cyrena Lohr. The next morning, Ishmael disappeared, Cyrena finds she can see. As a result of this miracle she dedicates herself to finding him. Meanwhile the ability to cure or cause affliction has become transferable from person to person.

The city’s fortunes are tied up with trade with the Vorrh for timber, trade which can only take place via creatures known as the Limboia, whose cooperation is only achieved via the delivering to them of the bodies of still-born children, an enterprise in which a Dr Hoffmann is closely involved.

There are also passages featuring a Frenchman who is based on the real life Raymond Roussel, in whose book Impressions of Africa appeared a forest called the Vorrh. Likewise the names of Ishmael and Dr Hoffmann are, I’m sure, intended to have resonances.

In that review Stuart Kelly waxed lyrical about The Erstwhile as did Michael Moorcock about The Vorrh in his review. but none of this really grabbed me.

And the Muybridge strand was odd in that it did not link to the others. I suppose it may do so in subsequent volumes but that, along with the occurrence of at least 30 instances of “time interval later”, meant I found completing this something of a chore. Those subsequent volumes may have to wait.

Pedant’s corner:- The copy I read was a publisher’s proof (or advanced reading copy as they are now known) so some or all of these may have been changed in the final published book.
“He had been in a slithering ditch at Passchendaele for two years” (no British unit was ever in the line that long) “had witnessed spectral visions .. Angels of the Somme” (Passchendaele isn’t on the Somme – and the Angels were seen at Mons,) at 23 “he stepped from a plane” 200 miles to the southeast of the Vorrh (a plane? in what must be the very early 1920s?) Prone (in the sexual encounter described “supine” is meant,) silkand (silk and,) workingmen (working men, cargos (cargoes,) “I loosen an arrow” (x3, arrows are loosed, not loosened,) “he had survived far worst” (worse,) leeched (leached, ditto for leeching vs leaching) “the surface is clear and highly reflective” (it can’t be both those things; clear = transparent, reflective = mirror-like, mirrors are not transparent,) affliction (affliction,) Misstress (Mistress,) a missing end quote mark, octopus’ (octopus’s,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb,) gotten (got,) vise (vice,) skeptics (sceptics,) fit (fitted,) “‘She’s just a bit ruffled, that all’” (that’s all,) staunched (stanched,) parquetflooring (parquet flooring,) “’I am the only person ever to ever have photographed it’” (one of those “ever”s is unnecessary,) the butlerhad (the butler had,) on all matter of things (manner,) no start quote when dialogue started Chapter 29. “He had aged seven years enough time for every cell in his body to change. A different man climbed these shadows and stairs, so why did he feel the same?” (in Victorian times was it known that every cell in the body changed over seven years?) lay low (lie low,) laughingstock (laughing stock,) undrgrowth (undergrowth.)

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