I wrote about B. Catling’s The Vorrh in my list of the books I enjoyed most throughout 2017. A few months ago, I picked up a copy of the second installment in the trilogy, The Erstwhile. Again, the cover art did its job. While The Vorrh had a rendering of Eadweard Muybridge’s photos of the moon phases, this sequel boasted a haunting version of William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, a print of the Babylonian king in a state of wide-eyed, frantic animalism, a punishment from Yahweh (if I remember the tale correctly).
Back Into an Ancient Forest:
Much like its predecessor, The Erstwhile deals with themes of what lurks in our distant history, what pieces of the common narrative are incomplete, waiting in shadows to rejoin the grand stage of the world. Here, God’s forgotten prototypes, his angels, the Erstwhile, are reawakening after countless years of shame and slumber. The Vorrh, the eponymous forest, is preparing for something. An ex-cyclops is hunted by a spectre of hatred. And a retired professor sets out to England to encounter William Blake’s auto-interring muse. And so much more.
Turned Down the Headiness a Notch:
Compared to the first book, the language is far more accessible, though I am not sure if this is a case of Stockholm Syndrome or an actual improvement in clarity. The first 100 pages of The Vorrh were a wonderfully excruciating experience, with language used in (at times absurdly) novel ways. By the time The Erstwhile came around, Catling seemed to have toned it down a degree. He still displays a penchant for unique descriptions, but now in a way that does not distract from the story at hand.
A Wavy Trail Through the Unfamiliar:
However, that story itself is quite meandering. For those who are searching for the traditional structures of narrative, do not bother, they have been left behind. While there is a degree of character development, the story unfolds in a dreamlike manner, with only a vague direction, and nothing guiding it save for a common trudge toward the esoteric. Which, in itself, can be refreshing in its originality.
I’m a sucker for a story filled with the dark and uncanny, with a mysterious forest, reshapings of mythological narratives, and a tinge of steampunk. Dancing between genres and rarely coming to a rest, The Erstwhile is a worthy read, even if only for the novelty it presents in a genre that can often find itself saturated with tired tropes.