Alan Moore explores The Erstwhile, the second book in the Brian Catling fantasy trilogy that began with The Vorrh…
It was some few years ago, just after I’d emerged from reading Brian Catling’s mesmerising tour de force The Vorrh, that the obliging author sent an early version of the trilogy’s next episode, its blizzard of loose pages in a big black box-file like a cinder block. Where they remained: having by then embarked upon a worryingly overgrown book of my own, I was reluctant to expose myself to more of Catling’s haunting and immersive territory lest there be some shadow of unconscious influence, some colouration inadvertently picked up from his malarial Arcadia with its abundance of invasive species. Only recently, with my own novel put to bed, have I embarked upon The Erstwhile and discovered that my prophylactic measures were entirely useless. Evidently, even having this work under the same roof as mine has spread a fungus of angels and Blake and simultaneous time and Bedlam across both. Perhaps a box-file made of lead would have afforded more protection.
Although then again, perhaps not. There’s a virulence about The Erstwhile against which there may be no effective barrier. The visionary vegetation propagates and seeds itself within the reader’s psyche, and you’ll never get its mulch of dream out of your mental shoes. Infectious characters, ideas and images abound as in The Vorrh, its predecessor, but if anything the way those elements are handled here only increases the conceptual nettle-rash.
Most noticeably, the exotic figures and Ernst-collage vistas of the earlier book are granted an alarming animation in the sequel. While the eerie dioramas and the dramatis personae of The Vorrh were limned in phosphorous and burned themselves onto the retina of the imagination, there remained the sense that these were immobile and intricately sculpted forms, motionless symbols, archetypes from an alternate-history tarot there only to be interpreted. The sense of an immense narrative mechanism in repose, like an industrially-scaled version of those penny-driven clockwork tableaux to be found in the amusement arcades of the 1950s, glass box purgatories in miniature where tiny misers, phantoms, devils and condemned men whirred and juddered to their blackout destinies, made psoriatic by their peeling Humbrol paint jobs. With The Erstwhile, Catling drops a coin into the slot of the arcane machinery he’s spent the whole of the first volume in constructing, whereupon the marvellous assembly comes to dreadful life and we discover that the lyric Raymond Roussel undergrowth is even more unnerving when it’s rustling and moving; when it’s coughing miracles.
From the spine-tingling opening conversation between a South London artist and his model to the gory public spectacle of the cliffhanging season two finale, we are caught in a fast-growing root system of interweaving stories with their nerve-hair tendrils burrowing into incongruous geographies, boarded-up centuries and secret lives. The dead, the living and the never-were cohabit riotously and cross contaminate, released from the conditions of their quarantine and free to follow their cryptic and terrible agendas. Sometimes, from the first book’s sympathetic studies there arise the second volume’s fiends while other members of the cast affect an opposite trajectory in a surrounding as amoral as mythology, where gods and natural forces have no concept of consent, have no more boundaries than does the sempiternal wilderness wherein the players variously enact their savage dramas.
The clue being in the title, the commencement of the trilogy concerned the Vorrh itself, taking its time to introduce the stupefying concept of a sylvan multiverse to its disoriented audience. In this continuation, just as aptly titled, focus shifts from wood to trees and we are offered an examination of the titular abandoned angels, the redundant workforce and security contractors for the compromised and walked-away-from Eden project, a celestial enterprise derailed by primordial scrumping. Whereas in the first book we’re permitted only glimpses of the Erstwhile in their more-than-natural habitat, sightings through leaf-cover of their unfathomable pack behaviour – witness their fear-stricken self-interment at the least approach of the fate-guided huntsman Williams and his longbow bride – in this new chapter we’re allowed to see them toppled from their violent mythic context, fallen into no less bruising historicity and an unwelcoming material world, unearthed from peat bogs, dredged from filthy rivers or among the shell-shocked soldiers convalescing in First World War sanatoriums. Their strange imperatives come gradually to seem more lucid and clear-sighted than those of the endless forest’s human interlopers – human, or at least less than divine.
In the colonial city Essenwald, literally eating forest with its logging operations situated on the Vorrh’s delimited perimeter, the first novel’s theatrical ensemble now perform the melancholias and machinations that were formerly only implied. Troubled young cyclops Ishmael, having two eyes following cosmetic reconstructive surgery and therefore physically less monstrous, becomes involved in a disastrously misjudged incursion into the interior of the Vorrh’s repurposed Paradise and in the process drifts towards a new emotional and psychological monstrosity. Ishmael’s abandoned lover Ghertrude – name perhaps a nod in the direction of Peake’s Gormenghast – gives birth to what may be his child, attended by differently-moral Bakelite automata, while his neglected current paramour the previously blind Cyrena finds that her Ishmael-restored sight, gifted by a one-eyed man, is a mixed blessing. Catling’s narrative, a landscape out of Odillon Redon or Georges Bataille, drips eyes, while Essenwald and the primordial wilderness upon which it encroaches gradually emerge as the evolving trilogy’s two principal antagonists, opposed environments with unexpected agency.
Although this conflict between habitat and heavy industry is central to the intricate emergent story, it would be an error to mistake this forest-centred triple-decker for an ecological allegory, unless we are referring to a personal interior ecology of the imagination; a conservation policy for what is thinkable. Upon consideration this may be Catling’s agenda, staging a reckless safari into the uncharted reaches of dream and derangement, sending back amazed despatches, photos, documentary footage, native artefacts, glimpses of unspoiled territory to inspire a new environmentalism of the psyche. And let us be clear on this: the verbal landscape of the Vorrh is not a place that Catling made, but rather is a place he found. Jungles are not constructed; they’re discovered.
William Burroughs came up with his formulation of ‘the word vine’, the phenomenon by which one written word inevitably shapes the next, and so on. One common misapprehension with regard to writers is the notion that they have ideas and then write them down, whereas in actuality ideas tend to grow out of the natural progression of the words, as unanticipated fruit on Burroughs’ vine. The implication, surely, is that writers are reduced in stature from omnipotent creators and become instead the vehicles by which ideas have themselves. From this unusual perspective the arboreal eternity just beyond Essenwald takes on a different status ontologically, construed as almost an immense self-seeding organism of the mind, not biomass but psychomass, and less imaginary than imaginal. The space-and-time-transcending undergrowth becomes a real locale in our conceptual geography, a place, a state that pre-exists authorial discovery, description, husbandry, craft or cartography. The Vorrh, then, is what happens when the word vines are encouraged, flourishing in a rich loam to run completely out of hand, an ineradicable kudzu of idea and imagery.
Elsewhere in the word-thicket’s vast coterminous expanse we are afforded an almost forensic inquest into The Erstwhile’s eponymous lost Kherubim, retrieved from their auto-entombment by bewildered mortals and now resident in 20th century London madhouses, disinterred mysteries that are impervious to experts, analysts, and all contemporary measures of examination. One such specimen, its abject, partially-regenerated form the inspiration for William Blake’s penitent Nebuchadnezzar, has in the intervening century apparently not even managed to get out of Lambeth, being presently incarcerated in the Bethlehem asylum just a stone’s throw from the visionary’s Hercules Buildings home address. Here, in this second volume’s most astounding sequence, we behold eternal beings unrestrained by what can only be a temporary confinement, and encounter cat-obsessive Louis Wain, with Wain’s hallucinatory feared-and-beloved felines merging effortlessly into the phantasmagoric swirl of unearthed angels and premonitory crystal radios. It is a testament to the hypnotic power of Catling’s literary voice that even a deliberately anachronistic reference to Just a Minute only adds to the pervasive creepiness; does nothing to dispel the timeless vegetable trance.
Meanwhile, in the brainforest, vengeance-consumed shamans are made implacable torturers and steam leviathans are thundering between the ancient trees in search of Essenwald’s absconded catatonic labourers, the Limboia. At 4 Kühler Brunnen an insidious illusion-weaving gas forces itself upon a child, while somewhere in the virid distance the unnatural granddaughter of photographer Eadweard Muybridge is instructing a bewitched priest in the manufacture of clear sugar ink required for a calligraphy of ants. Babies are born that grow into unnerving prodigies. Babies are born that disappear. A foliage of unprecedented notions and conceits spills past the flowerbed borders of the page to overgrow the book, the library, the fenced constraints of genre, in a great reforesting of our capacity for wonder; a re-wilding of our colonised and concrete-covered inner space.
The Erstwhile extends Brian Catling’s march on the interior far past the point where maps give up in hearsay, speculation and teratological mirage, the bearers having long since fled. This is the wilderness of us, the echoing cloud-forest clamouring and teeming in each skull, in every human nervous system. Welcome to the jungle.