When B Catling’s fantasy novel The Vorrh was published in 2015, it came with a blurb from none other than Watchman and Jerusalem author Alan Moore, who declared it, “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” He wasn’t kidding. Having just release The Erstwhile (paperback, digital) the second book in this series, I spoke to B Catling about its origins, where this series is going, and the impact Moore and his quote had on this second novel.
Photo © Gautier Deblonde
To start, what is The Erstwhile about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous novel in this series, The Vorrh?
It runs directly out of the forest and its previous occupants to tell new tales of origin and mystery. Its title is the name of the desolate angels that skulk and bury themselves in the vorrh after failing the one job they were given my God: To protect the Tree Of Knowledge from human beings. A few have been dragged out or accidentally escaped to join us in the modern world.
When did you realize that The Vorrh was not going to be a one-off novel, and what led to that decision?
I had the opening sequence of The Vorrh in my head for twenty years. When it finally came out, it was not alone. It wrote me. Not in a channeling sort of way, but in an out pouring of the imagination that may have previously been blocked by a non-narrative dogma in my art works. Once it spoke, it demanded articulations and cross fertilization. So those images caught fire and illuminated scenes, events, creatures and landscapes. I thought The Vorrh was going to be surrealistic narrative; it turned into an epic. When it was finished, I was amazed at its size and depth. I stood up to walk away from its completion and was told that it had just started. I began The Erstwhile a few days later.
Without spoiling anything, obviously, do you have a plan in mind for how many books there may be in this series, what happens in the other books, and how the series will end?
I thought it must be a trilogy. After I finished The Cloven, the third book, I wrote a quartet of Wild West stories. Followed by another three novels. Then scenes, people, and creatures started scratching inside my head and declared themselves as being a fourth Vorrh book.
I have never planned any of my writing, it grows from an internal image seed. When the pen hits the paper, it begins to grows.
Watchman author Alan Moore said The Vorrh was, “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” When it came to writing The Erstwhile, how, if at all, did Moore’s comment either weigh on you or influence you?
It never occurred to me that I was writing fantasy, which I hardly ever read. The things he so generously said about The Vorrh launched it into significance. But they were spoken to the reader not to me.
Do you consider Moore to be a big influence on these books?
Alan is a magician. That is his influence. That and the strength of our shared belief in the power of the imagination and the need to turn it away from the grey gruel of the norm. His influence is like a planetary body whose orbit shapes and steers the magnetism of fictional invention.
Is there anyone else, or a particular novel, that you see as being a big influence on The Vorrh and The Erstwhile that might surprise people or someone that no one’s picked up on yet? Like if you said they were influenced by Game Of Thrones, that’s not the least bit surprising. But if you said they were inspired by Bill Clinton’s My Life…
What about non-literary inspirations? Are there any movies, TV shows, video games, or the visual arts that you see as being an influence on The Vorrh and The Erstwhile?
I don’t underestimate video games, but they don’t feature in my world. But every creepy, abnormal TV show fed me. And cinema feeds my visual structuring of plot and atmosphere. I am not a literal person. It’s my visual cortex that is always swollen. If you take the things I do — making sculpture and installations, performing and writing dialogue — and put it in a sealed vessel and shake it, what is emptied out looks like film making. Maybe that’s what I should have done, but I never had the patience. All that and time wrangling money and people was beyond my tolerance. I needed a hands-on way of making. A hands-on way of seeing my imagination form in front of me. Haptic film.
As you said, you’re a painter and sculptor who’s had solo shows in England, Germany, and Norway. Did you ever consider doing The Vorrh and The Erstwhile as either graphic novels or as books with a lot of illustrations like Clive Barker’s Abarat?
No. The words conjure the image, the images conjure the atmosphere, the atmosphere conjures the unknown. I try to avoid illustration.
You’re also a published poet; your book A Court Of Miracles: The Collected Poems Of B Catling came out in 2009. Did you ever consider writing The Vorrh and The Erstwhile as epic poems?
No, when I dig deep into poetry, things become distilled, intimate self-generating motors, and that runs in opposition to the epic.
Speaking of A Court Of Miracles, do you think people who enjoy The Vorrh and The Erstwhile would like your poetry? Assuming, of course, they like poetry.
God knows. Bits and pieces might chime and glow, others will remain in glorious obscure isolation. Any audience taking them on my poetry will have to work a lot harder than reading my prose.
At the moment, A Court Of Miracles is out of print. Are there any plans to have it published again?
Is it? I did not know that.
Ah, well, I guess that answers that question. Moving on, I mentioned Alan Moore before, but another fan of yours is film director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits). Has there been any talk of making The Vorrh and The Erstwhile into movies or a TV series, maybe with Gilliam in the director’s or producer’s chair?
Terry, Ray Cooper, and I have formed a company called VORRHSIGHT. Our plan is to make a ten-part TV series of each book. With all three of us producing together and Terry directing the pilot. But this is in very early stages of development.
Finally, if someone really enjoyed The Vorrh and The Erstwhile, what would you suggest they read next and why?
Flying To Nowhere by John Fuller. It’s a tiny brilliant gem of a novel by a poet who inspired me to believe that I could write prose.