The Erstwhile by B Catling book review

B Catling returns to The Vorrh in The Erstwhile

Anyone who made the journey into B Catling’s The Vorrh won’t be forgetting it in a hurry. It was a mad, fantastical stew of a fantasy novel, teeming with a host of strange characters, creatures and spirits. Given the size and density of the book, it was also a slightly intimidating prospect, but those who found it hard going should be assured that this follow-up is a somewhat easier read.

Which doesn’t mean to say that it’s any less rich. The surviving characters (and a couple who didn’t make it through The Vorrh alive) are still dealing with events and forces beyond human understanding, but there’s something of a streamlining, with a tighter focus on a smaller number of key figures and a more comprehensible timeline.

The title refers to the mysterious spirit creatures living in The Vorrh who are beginning to find a way to manifest physically. In fact, some are living in 1920s Europe, which is where retired German professor Hector Schumann comes in. When his ailing body is healed after an encounter with one of these creatures, he is dispatched to London to interview an asylum inmate with the same characteristics.

Meanwhile in Essenwald, Ghertrude finally gives birth to her child, attended to by the Bakelite robot creatures that have always lived underground. Her best friend Cyrena continues to live with the Cyclops Ishmael, but their relationship has grown strained. With a second (non-seeing) eye sewn into his face, Ishmael is sullenly yearning for a greater purpose, which may be provided by a request to guide an expedition into The Vorrh.

Add a potentially evil miracle child found in the earth by a hermit and raised by a terrified priest, a vengeful hunter given new life by consuming rotting brains and a prologue featuring William Blake, and you have a worthy follow-up to a stunning first novel. Catling’s primary focus is the Erstwhile, those strange angelic creatures. Nicholas, the Erstwhile living in London, is fascinating and affecting as he attempts to explain himself and his past to Schumann, himself an exile due to the rise of anti-Semitic forces in Germany.

There’s slightly less straightforward horror here than in The Vorrh, but the description of two less well-adjusted Erstwhile creatures is powerfully nightmarish, as is their predilection for literally returning to the earth whenever they can. It’s worth noting, too, that Catling continues to punish his characters for their transgressions with impressive severity.

As the second book in the trilogy, there are still plenty of unanswered questions, but there’s no sense of wheel-spinning. This continues to be a fascinating world to get lost in, from the damp back-streets of London and the corridors of Bedlam to rigid hierarchies of Essenwald and the pitch-black depths of The Vorrh. If the first novel was about colonialists being confronted with how little they belong in this place, The Erstwhile finds its characters realising that there may not be anywhere in the world for them at all.