I was drawn into The Vorrh by the voices of other artists: Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair, Jeff Vandermeer, and even the elusive Tom Waits all hailed it as wondrous, dark, and engrossing. These were voices I respected, and they drew me into the jungle with their calls. In many ways, a summary of The Vorrh is a perfect storm of what I like in books: convoluted, intersecting stories; a mixture of history and fantasy; poetic form; bizarre settings and grotesque characters, and so on. Nonetheless, I was also apprehensive. While artists with similar minds and sensibilities to Catling seemed to devour the book, a cursory look at Amazon and Goodreads made it clear that it was not to everyone’s tastes. This apprehension, and the necessities of higher education, forced the book into a nook on one of my already over-burdened shelves for months. Now, with the pleasant arrival of Spring Break, and the recent publication of the sequel, I decided to start and finish the book to decide if I would want more.
It has only been half an hour since I turned the final page, and already I feel a need to discuss this book. The Vorrh is dense, almost to the point of being bloated, but it is resplendent with its detail. Catling, originally a visual artist, writes like a painter: he builds scenes, layers them, piling language into images that spill over their textual frames. Characters emerge as portraits, and they move through dizzying landscapes. In all this stylized detail, scenes can become distant, mucked in dark oily textures. Sometimes I found my mind wandering as I read, but I would be lured back in with a delicious line of description, a new bizarre revelation, or a sudden burst of action. Catling isn’t afraid to let the language wander, or for the scenes to stagnate, and his confidence keeps things from falling apart. For all its ruminations and distractions, The Vorrh does have momentum, but that energy flees in all directions. It flies away, the loops back in on itself. Catling maintains the energy by keeping the chapters short, often divided up into even shorter scenes focusing on various characters, but like a traveler in the eponymous jungle it can be hard to situate oneself. Having finished the book I realize that certain elements that seemed vestigial and confusing may have been more clearly interconnected, but it took hindsight to realize it.
The Vorrh is an interesting book, and one that I enjoyed, but it is also a book that I struggled with, and am struggling to reflect upon. Catling’s writing is beautiful and evocative, sometimes reading more like poetry than prose, but the parade of strange scenes can bleed into forgetful whimsy. Sometimes it seems like the book comes from another era, like some kind of otherworldly myth that doesn’t feel the need to explain itself. Characters are intriguing, but not much breath is wasted on their inner lives. They move like cogs in a machine that interconnect without their knowledge. The world of Essenwald and the Vorrh is packed with wonders, and very few are given much exposition, and it is refreshing to encounter a book that offers mystery so unabashedly. Sometimes the connections between stories become frayed by the ambiguities, but I suspect that I would have found the book much more tedious and banal had every puzzle been explained. I was able to get lost in The Vorrh where most books would hold my hand: I experienced delight, horror, and genuine confusion, but none of it felt astray from what the book meant to be. This is a work of literary deviancy, but it breaks rules with clear intent. I understand why others would not like this book, and I would not say that my experience was entirely positive, but I did find it worthwhile. The Vorrh knows what it is, and revels in it, so a reader must let themselves get lost within its pages (to a degree some might find disconcerting), or put it down and find their way home again. I, for one, did not regret the former.