“There is fear among some in our community that the fevered imaginations of this artist, and some others, have escaped to spawn a calamity of actuals in our lands… and that veracity has been born underhand.”
So says a young monk, Friar Dominic, when confronted by the reality of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch at more or less the mid-point of B Catling’s exhilarating new novel. Hang on a minute, you might say. A monk is looking at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch and there is a worry that creature from a Bosch painting have escaped into the world? Why yes. Yes indeed. Welcome to the latest B Catling nightmare.
You’ll no doubt remember us waxing ourselves into a veritable froth over Catling’s first few books, The Vorrh trilogy – comprising The Vorrh, The Erstwhile and The Cloven – and more recently Earwig. We’ve said it before and we will say it again: there is no one writing like Catling. Whilst you always (more or less) understand what his words are telling you, the images and the narratives they conjure up sit irresolutely in your head (can this be so?) and leave you wondering how and why such a book came to land in your hands.
This time around, there is a monastery that sits beneath a tower that was once the tower of Babel and on the edge of something known as the Gland of Mercy (itself a seemingly infinite tablet of daily resurrected misery). Within the monastery is a place known as the Cyst that has played home to a shrivelled creature of oracular intent. That oracle is passing and a new oracle is being transported down from the mountains by a gang of roughnecks. The novel moves from the monastery (power struggles between the Abbot and a leading monk) and the roughnecks themselves (led by a man called Follett) who are called upon to feed the Oracle creature the marrow from bones – albeit marrow that has had sins whispered into it.
Meanwhile, in the small town about the edge of the monastery, creatures – possibly demons – are starting to appear with greater and greater frequency and Meg, a washerwoman sort whose friend was executed as a witch and whose son has been abducted by the Inquisition, is starting to glimpse that maybe just maybe there is more to her life than just putting up with a drunken useless husband. And through it all, Catling’s ever so painterly eye is there to guide us:
“A vast dome of radiant blue sky crowned with the ragged mountaintop was the only solid feature in the middle of this impossible landscape. The black, negative space of the hole they had just exited was the darkest thing around. The blinding snow covered a softly undulating circle that led to a rim: the edge of the summit.”
Bosch himself lurks out of sight (not much is known about the painter and Catling is more interested in the world he conjured and his influence upon society at the time), although his works pulse and throb in a way that recalls Lovecraft (and also Lord of the Rings and Stephen King’s Dark Tower sequence) – whilst of course remaining its own thing. Hollow does feel (curiously perhaps) like Catling’s most straightforward book in that its narrative rattles along as the three different groups of characters converge upon one another but (to paraphrase the Abbot himself) “these are esoteric matters, and the signatures and signs in them had to be perceived by resonance and reflection.” So – we’ll qualify – more straightforward than usual for B Catling, but still B Catling and therefore not for the weak-hearted.
Any Cop?: If your last novel set in a painting was Joseph Heller’s Picture This, Hollow might present you with a bit of a shock.