The Erstwhile by Brian Catling

The Erstwhile
B. Catling

Vintage Books 2017 paperback

English artist and poet B. Catling’s imagination is way out there, much of it beyond my grasp, yet the intrigue keeps you reading his second, definitely surreal novel, “The Erstwhile.” 

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“. . . mild to label this novel as psychedelic .”

It’s a tale about the Erstwhiles, ancient creatures who are angels on earth and occupy “The Vorrh” (the title of the first novel in his trilogy), a forest in Africa where it is believed Adam took the apple from Eve. They were supposed “to guard the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden” but failed when Adam fell to Eve’s apple temptation, and so were banished to live under the soil, their memories scrubbed.

Sometime after World War I, strange beasts emerged in England and Germany, believed to be the Erstwhiles. The creatures, fur and hair covered with feathers and quills and bark and twigs under their skin, began to adapt and take on a human form.

There are multiple characters in this drama, some of which are based on poet and illustrator William Blake’s, “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell,” and are so bizarre and numerous, I needed a flow chart to keep track as their surreal tale twisted between myth and reality. 

Two major story lines merge. One focuses on a cyclopian man, Ishmael, who now lives in a colonial German town, and is believed be the only known being who entered and returned from The Vorrh. He is asked to guide members of the Timber Guild into the The Vorrh to search for a timber work crew that had vanished.

Ishmael encounters many bizarre creatures on his journey, one seeking revenge, and others appearing in different forms to assist him. Among them are the Kins, or “Bakelite” plastic robots; a mystery child discovered in an abandoned house, and a live bow made from the body of a shaman. 

The second, more lucid, strand evolves around retired German theology professor Hector Schumann, whose curiosity leads him to these “strange beings” from under the earth. One of them, Nicholas, is in England’s Bedlam asylum, and has taken on a human form. Schumann finds a way to communicate with the furry beasts who continue to run away and bury themselves in dirt.

It is mild to label this novel as psychedelic. Maybe it can be identified as “just plain weird,” and certainly not for everyone. Still, Catling’s scholarly language and bizarre imagination nets accolades even from folks who don’t necessarily seek surreal or magic realism. For me, I’ll set the book aside, and pat myself on the back for suspending reality long enough to finish it.


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Review by Kate Padilla