The forest has, for many years, been the source of drama and intrigue in fantasy stories. We all know the tropes: witches, fairies, huntsmen, and all manner of spooks call the forest home. It can be a place of great wonder or great danger, and in the stories in which a forest appears, it’s never fully conquered. Even James Cameron’s military grunts in Avatar had their fair share of kickback when trying to tame the wilds. Forests are mysterious, insular, sometimes claustrophobic—just ask the Brothers Grimm. But I have seen no forest that punches deeper or inspires greater awe than the Vorrh. B. Catling’s newest novel shares its title with the forest at its center. The Vorrh (a name taken from Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel, an early surrealist writer and character in the story) is located next to the African colonial town of Essenwald. It’s the rumored location of the Garden of Eden and, by extension, the dwelling place of God. It’s dark, mysterious, and brutal. From it seeps a strange magic, and the characters and plots that venture into its depths are forever marked by it.
By definition, Catling’s story falls under fantasy by virtue of its contents: magical forest, a shaman, the dead brought back to life, miraculous healings, enchanted weapons, invisible creatures, zombie-like servants, etc. There are even touches of science fiction in the mix, shown by the existence of robots and the use of psycho-photographic machinery. However, this is one of those rare tales in which the charm and enduring quality of the stories contained therein do not rely upon genre-specific creatures or macguffins. The uniqueness of the book derives from the voice of the narrator instead, and as early reviews have intuited, this makes the story stand out among the multitude of other fantasy stories.
For one, the voice is brave enough to be slow. Many fantasy stories rely on spectacular scenes of action and intrigue: the epic battle, the dragon ride, and so forth. But Catling’s style finds delight in the details, both inside the mind and out, and exploring them in depth. The beauty of this comes from the language of the description itself, which, in good surrealist fashion, blends the line between the real and the imagined. Catling’s way with figurative description is supreme. Trees that exhale the evening, thoughts that tug with their own gravity: these kinds of description unveil the charm that normally commonplace objects secretly possess. Interestingly enough, the same level of figurative description is used for the not-so-common elements of the story. The weighty chasms of meditation are described with just as much patient fervor as the sap of trees or light of the sun. We see just as much of the magical essence of secret spells and mind-altering optics as we do the magical essence of grass and floorboards. And the essence of all these things is magical; Catling slows down and has the patients in his prose to show it.
The effect of this slower approach, one that dotes on imagery and perspective, as opposed to action and spectacle, is that the book’s entire world becomes enchanted. Every crumb and feather becomes something more than what it would first seem. The world has depth. Depth, by Jove! And depth goes a long way, especially when constructing something as vast and intimidating as the mysterious Vorrh.
More than this, though, Catling’s writing and slow cadence themselves have depth. To put it another way, reading the story–the reading itself–is like wading through a forest. And like in a forest, the atmosphere and insular thoughts one conjures during the read are as important and integral to the meaning of the story as the plot and characters are. In essence, the story isn’t about events that characters undergo but rather about the way they are portrayed and shown; they are not laid prone in the open but are hidden behind the trees and fog of Catling’s prose. Take for example this psychological description of the Vorrh that mirrors the mind of the writer Raymond Roussel on page 244:
The forest grew dim as the shadows lengthened into one continuous form. The world outside of the tree was beyond dark but constantly moving; blue blurs matted with the dense blackness of distance. Things slid and rustled, crawled and flapped, in the infinite depth of closeness. He held his hand before his face to test the old adage. It was true—he could not see it—yet the ebony fluid in his eyes sensed all manner of things swirling within a terrifying proximity.
Beyond the pace of description, the story offers a rich diversity of characters and plots, all loosely connected by the Vorrh. In one corner we have a widower, Peter Williams, who must travel through the Vorrh to further his destiny, and we have the hunter Tsungali hired to track him down and kill him. In the other we have a forest protector, Sidrus, tasked with hunting the hunter. We follow the stories of a Cyclops raised by robots and discovered by the most privileged of rebels, a photographer trying to traverse the bridge between optics and psychology, a doctor and foreman meddling with the dead, and other such foreboding tales. And these stories contain the full gamut of the human experience—fear, lust, religion, mythology, love, destiny, and greed. Action makes a notable appearance too. From violence between friends to cat-and-mouse battles between enemies, every story finds itself in moments of heightened senses and split-second decisions.
Now, I wouldn’t be fair to the story if I didn’t try to be honest with it, and to be honest, the figurative language is a little much at times—to the point of confusion. At it’s best, the prose is plastic, concrete, and haunting, but at worst it can be insular and too abstract. I sometimes found myself relieved when arriving at large stretches of dialogue simply because they provided moments of concrete clarity. When not engaged in dialogue, the mood of the story has a way of entering the abstract. At one point I sat, after reading a passage, wondering just what the heck happened over the past five pages. I might compare the feeling to dreaming. For some, this is not a flaw; they seek out the ghostly plane of abstraction. But for others, perhaps those accustomed to fantasy being as straightforward as it is fantastic, the high road the prose and description embody might be a little too high.
Still, dreams like the ones manufactured by Catling’s prose and plots are a fresh breeze in a genre in need of revival. His story, despite being in stark contrast to other fantasies like George. R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, comes to the fore as a grand balancing force, displaying a masterful blend of genre and aesthetics. Once you pick up the book, you’ll find yourself eager to get lost in the woods.
The Vorrh is published by Vintage Original, and retails for $15.95