Jul 16, 2008
ABOVE: Back cover from The Haunter of the Dark and Other Grotesque Visions, John Coulthart’s book of Lovecraft adaptations.
Originally published on ballardian.com, 16 July 2008.
I have been curious about Lovecraft for some time. When I was younger I saw the film of Reanimator. When I was a little older, I got beaten up by headbangers who loved Metallica’s ‘The Call of Ktulu’ and were offended that I, as a card-carrying punk, only knew of Master of Puppets, a crossover fave with chaospunks but the liking of which was seen as a symbol of a tryhard bandwagon jumper according to them. Later, when I was a travel writer, I visited on assignment the Pohnpei island group in Micronesia, which includes the ruins of Nan Madol, inspiration for some of the setting of the Cthulhu Mythos. And now, during my tenure as curator of ballardian.com, I have been most intrigued by the re-modulation of the Lovecraft frequency on my radar, calibrated via the online acquaintances I’ve made through the site.
But how exactly does Lovecraft speak to Ballard aficionados? Don’t the two writers in fact speak to separate audiences? Could you really imagine an Alcoholica fan banging their head to Ballard’s Crash while listening to Ride the Lightning? In fact there appears to have been a certain critical tradition of sorts that equates some aspects of Lovecraft’s work with some aspects of Ballard’s. As far back as 1959, Ballard’s story ‘The Waiting Grounds’ was introduced by Ted Carnell in New Worlds like so:
Not for a long time have readers seen a story quite like this one. Those with extensive collections or good memories will remember the impact H.P. Lovecraft made in the middle 30s with his all-too-few science fiction stories, particularly ‘At the Mountains of Madness.’ Undoubtedly author Ballard has a touch of that same genius which eventually made Lovecraft great.
And in 1994, Ballard’s 1965 short ‘Prisoner of the Coral Deep’ even appeared in a Lovecraft tribute volume, The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft, edited by D.M. Mitchell, although, as wiki notes, ‘Some of the stories in the collection — notably those by Burroughs and Ballard — were not inspired by Lovecraft, but were seen by Mitchell as sharing his “visions of cosmic alienation”.’
More recently, I have noted that k-punk (Mark Fisher) and Ben Noys, both Ballard scholars and also past contributors to this site, were involved in the conference ‘Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Theory’ in April 2007. Cousin Silas, whom I interviewed in 2007, told me that his music is inspired by both Ballard and Lovecraft. And at the Ballard conference in Norwich in May 2007, Mark Williams gave a paper on Ballard and New Worlds that contained, as I noted at the time, ‘a surprising diversion into Lovecraft territory’.
In fact, Noys, over at his excellent new blog, No Useless Leniency, goes some way to explaining why Ballard, a writer not primarily known for horror or Gothic fiction, is so frequently aligned with Lovecraft:
In the formation of “reactionary novelties” (Badiou) Lovecraft can be aligned with those forms of “High Modernism,” such as T. S. Eliot’s, that constituted themselves, in Peter Nicholls words, as “an attack on modernity” (251). The difficulty, in terms of Badiou’s evental tracings, is how Lovecraft’s “novelty” is something artistically “new” while at the same time “politically” reactionary (and reactionary against other artistic innovations); it suggests the intersection or imbrication of events: in this case art, science, politics.
His reaction against these currents of the new produces a “reactionary novelty,” but actually also a true novelty of disruption that exceeds its primary evental site – Gothic fiction; this may be why that it only outside of the Gothic that we find Lovecraft’s true disciples: William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and Michel Houellebecq, artists like H. R. Giger and John Coulthart, and muscians like The Fall and Patti Smith. The Lovecraft event therefore problematises Badiou’s formulation of the artistic event by being a reactionary event that produces something new.
ABOVE: Front cover illustration for The Haunter of the Dark and Other Grotesque Visions, John Coulthart’s book of Lovecraft adaptations.
Wanting to know more, I was inspired to approach John Coulthart himself, a contributor to the aforementioned Lovecraft tribute volume and the foremost visual interpreter of Lovecraft’s work today. Coulthart is an operative of Savoy Books, and as such, given the Savoy trajectory, is well placed to comment on Ballard’s work, too.
Given that John’s art is included in A Lovecraft Retrospective: Artists Inspired by HP Lovecraft, the mighty volume that has just been released, the timing could not in fact be better to ask him for his own take on the Ballardcraft crossover:
ABOVE: ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (1984), by John Coulthart.
JOHN COULTHART: One of the earliest works of mine I can stand to see displayed in public is my drawing from 1984 intended to accompany the story (as opposed to the book) of The Atrocity Exhibition. It was going to be part of a series of drawings illustrating each chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition collection with each picture joining to the next to form a single long work. I completed the second one, The University of Death, then ran out of steam, and the whole idea was completely negated by the superior RE/Search edition of TAE, and then dropped in favour of my starting work on the Lovecraft stuff.
There are some vague parallels between the two writers: both are very imitable writers in terms of superficial style yet that style is at the service of a unique imagination. Both have a very identifiable inner landscape (to borrow a Ballard phrase), sufficiently notable to give us the terms Ballardian and Lovecraftian. Both transcend the genres they started out in; HPL moved from horror to a kind of visionary sf more concerned with conveying the sublime feeling of the vastness of space and time than generating a horror thrill. And both have their own readily identifiable mythology, of course. It irks me the way Lovecraft’s mythology, at least where Cthulhu is concerned, has been rendered cuddly by Americans. Have you noticed how they do this with everything, putting monsters on cereal packets and kids’ TV? I keep telling people that Hannibal Lecter (and the inferior Jigsaw from the Saw films) will be next to be absorbed by this process. Hannibal is already on his way after the last book and film.
ABOVE: ‘Haunter of the Dark’ from The Haunter of the Dark and other Grotesque Visions, John Coulthart’s book of Lovecraft adaptations.
There are a couple of other parallels although the trouble with these discussions is that you can stretch the comparison too far and then it breaks. However…. HPL was the first writer to move the content of horror stories away from the Gothic with its ghosts and vampires into the 20th century. I’ve noted elsewhere how he was grasping (albeit in a pulp fashion) after an articulation of horror that parallels some of Kafka’s writing; the concerns are with the point at which our existence in three-dimensional space becomes disturbing and threatening, a fear of unusual angles and paranoia inflated to a cosmic scale. He’s known generally as an inventor of a pantheon of monsters but its that reinvention of the medium which makes him important. As Ballard did with sf, he found a way to take the tools of a popular genre and use them to say something new about our perception of the world. And like Ballard, eventually the genre trappings lost their interest. Lovecraft’s later work has little overt horror content, it’s more a kind of sublime sf with a vague horror atmosphere; At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time were both published in Astounding magazine after Weird Tales rejected them for not being scary enough.
ABOVE: ‘The University of Death’ (1984) by John Coulthart.
So there you have it — thanks John. Some of these comments back up what Ben Noys wrote about Lovecraft’s ‘true novelty of disruption that exceeds its primary evental site – Gothic fiction’, and all of it helps me to understand a little better for I am very far from a Lovecraft expert.
To end, I’ll leave you with a quote from Ballard himself, probed in 1991 by Paul Di Filippo (on the ball as always):
PAUL DI FILIPPO: Could I get your reaction to the rather bizarre assertion that your work bears secret affinities to that of the cult horror writer, H. P. Lovecraft, with its emphasis on “alien geometries,” “the outsider,” and landscapes as symbols of mental states?
J.G. BALLARD: I’ve never read him, but there may well be correspondences.
‘Ballard’s Anatomy: An Interview by Paul Di Filippo’, SF Eye, 1991.