A Cyclops called Ishmael, a hunter called Tsungali, and a great looming mythical forest all come to the fore in an exciting new book that is to be released first Oxford this week, written by Brian Catling, a poet, sculptor and professor at The Ruskin School of Fine Art.
The launch will include a performance and exclusive reading by the author, and a guest appearance by the renowned fantasy writer Alan Moore who wrote the comic books Watchmen and V for Vendetta. The first in a trilogy, The Vorrh has been enthusiastically praised by Moore himself who declared it a masterpiece, saying that it is “one of the most original and stunning works of fantasy that it has ever been my privilege to read, a brilliant and sustained piece of invention which establishes a benchmark not just for imaginative writing, but for the human imagination in itself.” Equally praiseworthy, Iain Sinclair, author of Downriver, called the book “a work of idiocy and genius”, a read that will “rearrange the molecules of your being, turning your eyes inside out.”
The book is titled after the forest in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa. When I ask Catling himself to tell me about The Vorrh in his own words, he hesitates momentarily as he tries to fathom his answer.
“So many things happen in it,” he says carefully. “There’s not a single plot. It is a linear narrative, but the characterisation changes and there are huge time jumps, both backwards and forwards. It’s about a series of mythical events that take place in a mythical forest.” He pauses before emphasising that he never intended it to be perceived as a fantasy novel. “I thought I was writing a Surrealist epic,” he says with a smile, “but Alan Moore labelled it as fantasy, and now it’s being marketed as that, and that’s fine by me. When people ask me why there are no dwarves or dragons in it though, I say, well why would there be!”
Catling has already finished the other two books in the trilogy, the quartet that follows, and an additional three other novels. With such a huge backlog of writing, he laughs as he tells me that this summer he stopped writing and did some painting; as a well-known performance artist and poet, fiction is still relatively new territory for him.
“It’s kind of contradictory,” he explains, referring to the process of writing. “I was doing it at the same time when I should have been concentrating on sculpture, because that was what people wanted me to make. But I’ve always been like that; I’ve never been able to do just one thing.”
Perhaps this restless creativity is what drew him to writing fiction after so many years of publishing poetry. “I never really thought I could write character in fiction, I never thought I could invent people,” Catling admits, when considering the difference between his poems and his prose. “I suddenly discovered that I could, and they started to invite me to write them, and it just sort of poured out, and they’re still there. When I don’t write, they come and knock on the inside of my head, even when I’ve got to go and talk to some students as part of my job! So I normally write first thing in the morning, before I have to go to work.”
The Vorrh has been published by a small and independent publishing company, Honest Publishing, run by three friends who strive to find original voices in literature that are overlooked by the mainstream market. Looking for innovative and uncompromising writing in both fiction and non-fiction, Catling tells me that it has been wonderful working with such a dedicated team.
“I was in no rush to publish because I was just enjoying the writing,” he confesses when I ask how it was that he began to work with them. It was Alan Moore who recommended Catling’s writing in an Honest Publishing blog, and after that they approached him directly. “There was just something about them. I had a really good instinct about them,” he says sincerely, recalling the beginning of the project when he chose to work with Honest Publishing over some other well-known companies. “I’d been working with some better known publishers that make beautiful books, but sit in cardboard boxes under the bed for tens years, and that didn’t interest me. If I was to publish this, I wanted it to be with someone who was getting things out, getting things moving – and these guys are doing that.”
“The editing has been a joy,” he adds. “I should say that my daughter does the first edit for me. She turns it into recognisable English so that I can show it to people without them scratching their heads!” He once again laughs his deep rumbling laugh; he seems to relish talking about the process of writing, and the steps it took to publish it after three years of committed writing. “It accelerated,” he tells me, when I ask how long it took him. “It all happened really fast. But it’s complicated, too. In the second and third book, the person you expect to be the central hero changes completely.”
Why miss out on such an eagerly anticipated novel? The launch promises to be an evening of fantasy and utter originality, where you could meet the author himself, absorb the refreshing insight of the staff of Honest Publishing, and of course, grab yourself your own copy of The Vorrh. What you read is guaranteed to be extraordinary, something unlike anything you have ever read before; something that only the unique author-artist Brian Catling could have produced.
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