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The dark side of magical realism

The kind of fiction that carries the label of magical realism, associated with South American writers like Márquez and Borges, possesses a lightness of touch and a whimsical sense of fantasy that works its way into the stories of everyday life.


Brian Catling The vorthSean Sheehan


Such aspects of style and content separate the genre from a type of contemporary writing known as weird fiction and the novels of Brian Catling are very weird indeed, revealing a dark side to magical realism.

“The Erstwhile”, the second novel in Catling’s projected trilogy, has just been published but it makes sense to begin by reading “The vorrh”, the first story. By the end of it you are likely to be excited by the prospect of another book that continues the story – and hopeful that it will provide a tighter reading experience by reining in the author’s promiscuous imagination.

The Vorrh’s plot is bizarre and occasionally bewildering but the narrative centre of gravity is a mystical forest in the heart of Africa; this is the Vorrh.

It’s a dangerous forest, rumoured to be the site of the Garden of Eden but inhabited by cannibals and angels and who knows what else – “Creatures beyond hope. Heads growing below their shoulders. Horrors.”

Brian Catling . Photographer Rebecca Hind
Brian Catling . Photographer Rebecca Hind

A European presence establishes itself on the edge of the forest and the rapacious logging methods of the colonists introduce a healthy dose of grim realism into the storyline. The colonists, transporting all the building materials from the middle of Europe, create a Gormenghast-like city that mirrors their distorted, exploitative attitude to life.

The forest is the embryo of the plot and it divides into many cells which develop into mini-narratives of their own and sometimes the reader has to grapple with them in order to keep track of everything that is happening.

What more than compensates for the complex plot is the power of the language. To call it poetic is an understatement: it boldly goes where no fantasy writer has gone before, mixing surrealism, sex and touches of the supernatural into an intoxicating prose cocktail.

A host of highly original and outlandish characters are encountered in the early chapters: the most important of which are Ismael, a Cyclops, raised by obliging robots, and Peter Williams, a renegade soldier, with a sentient bow he has fashioned out of the bones and sinews of a female shaman with whom he had been close. He is pursued through the forest by an assassin called Tsungali.

Forest bosquie pixabayThe real-life photographer Edward Muybridge is another character, with memorable experiences that take place in England and America but his connection with the main events of the novel is never made clear. Maybe this will be resolved in the second novel of the trilogy.

Given the sprawling plot and myriad characters, readers may lose their way in the early chapters but, like the Vorrh itself, if you venture into its heart there is the prospect of survival and along the way your imagination will have been stirred and shaken in a way that few other novels ever manage to accomplish.

The Vorrh” and “The Erstwhile”, by   , are published by Coronet.

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