Saturday, July 26, 2008


On the ever-interesting Ballardian blog, a post by Simon Sellars investigates whether connections can be found between the oeuvre of HP Lovecraft and that of JG Ballard. The post comes up with only "...vague parallels between the two writers". Ballard himself is quoted as saying: "I’ve never read him, but there may well be correspondences."

The post misses out on a pair of short stories which evince quite clear parallels between the two writers: HP Lovecraft's 1927 short story "The Color Out Of Space" and JG Ballard's 1964 short story "The Illuminated Man". In both stories, a cosmological event infects a rural area, warping color, threatening to mutate the world.

In Lovecraft's story, the cosmological events is a meteorite falling to earth, "... a great rock that fell out of the sky and embedded itself in the ground beside the well at the Nahum Gardner place." In Ballard's story the cosmological event is "... the creation of anti-galaxies in space, which [has] led to the depletion of the time-store available to the materials of our own solar system." Both stories highlight the vulnerability of man in an inhumane cosmic environment.

In both tales, the cosmological event affects a rural area, distant from urban centers. In Lovecraft's story, the meteorite strikes west of the fictional town of Arkham, where "... the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut." In "The Illuminated Man", the affected area is in the Everglades, "... three or four acres of forest to the north-east of Maynard..." (another fictional town - there are Maynards in Massachusetts, Arkansas and Minnesota, but not in Florida).

In both stories, the cosmological event warps color and light, transforming the landscape. Lovecraft: "All the orchard trees blossomed in strange colors, and through the stony soil of the yard and adjacent pasturage there sprang up a bizarre growth which only a botanist could connect to the proper flora of the region. No sane wholesome colors were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere were those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of the earth. The 'Dutchman's breeches' became a thing of sinister menace, and the bloodroots grew insolent in their chromatic perversion". Ballard: "The long arc of trees hanging over the water dripped and glittered with myriads of prisms, the trunks and fronds of the date palms sheathed by bars of livid yellow and carmine light that bled away across the surface of the water, so that the whole scene seemed to be reproduced by an over-active technicolor process."

The warped color destabilizes the symbolic boundaries between the organic and the inorganic, between the living and the dead. In Ballard's story, organic tissue transforms into many-colored, jewel-like crystals. But this transformation doesn't kill living creatures: on the contrary, those transformed enter a twilight zone between life and non-life. "There in the Everglades the transfiguration of all living and inanimate forms occur before before our very eyes, the gift of immortality a direct consequence of the surrender by each of us of our own physical and temporal identity." In 'The Color Out Of Space', an extraterrestrial color - i.e. something inorganic - is presented as something living. Infection with this color transforms living creatures into something inorganic: all organic matter becomes a phosphorescent grey, develops a highly singular quality of dryness and brittleness
and turns into dust. But even when this process is very advanced and the creature concerned is more an-organic than organic, life continues - a sort of undeath. Both Lovecraft's and Ballard's story focus on a fictive world into which classificatory ambiguity is introduced by a cosmological event - by a deus ex machina.

In both stories, the effect is contagious, and threatens to mutate the world. In Ballard's story, it is made clear at the very beginning of the story that the effect is spreading on a cosmic scale: "And yet it now seems obvious that the crisis is far from over. Tucked away on the back page of the same New York Times is a short report of the sighting of another 'double galaxy' by observers at the Hubble Institute on Mount Palomar. The news is summarized in less than a dozen lines and without comment, although the implication is inescapable that another focal area has been set up somewhere on the earth's surface, perhaps in the temple-filled jungles of Cambodia or the haunted amber forests of the Chilean highland." In Lovecraft's study, the threat to the world is a little more implicit. The protagonist of the story is a surveyor from Boston, who inspects a rural area that is to be flooded to the construct of a new water reservoir in Massachusetts. It is implied that the contamination from the meteorite will poison the water in the reservoir, thus spreading the extraterrestrial pollution: "... nothing could bribe me to drink the new city water of Arkham."

In both stories, the cosmological pollution is presented in terms referring to the sacred. Lovecraft's extraterrestrial color is something literally supernatural: "What it is, only God knows. In terms of matter the things Ammi described would be called a gas, but this gas obeyed the laws that are not of our cosmos. This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space - a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes." At the end of Ballard's 'The Illuminated Man', the protagonist is resolved to return to the phantasmagoric forest he has fled, seeking the gift of immortality through crystallization, seeking "an ultimate macro-cosmic zero beyond the wildest dreams of Plato and Democritus." This macro-cosmic (supernatural) zero has strong religious connotation, and Ballard's protagonist may well be described as an cosmological mystic.

Where the two stories differ is in the attitude of the protagonist towards the ambiguity. On the one hand, Lovecraft's surveyor is repelled by the cosmological pollution. Ballard's protagonist on the other hand is attracted by the boundary-dissolving effect, and in the finale of the book seeks to dissolve the boundaries of his own self. But perhaps even this difference is not so clear-cut as it would appear on first sight. The introduction of the reader in the equation has important consequences, if one thinks of the reader as a person who enters into a relationship with the protagonist and the world presented by the author. Horror stories such as those by Lovecraft are read to vicariously come into contact with the supernatural dangers which infest their fictive world. Even if the attitude of the protagonist in the respective stories may be different, the (affective) relationship of the reader to the cosmological ambiguities may well be similar: the mixture of attraction and repulsion which is the hallmark of religious ideas of purity and pollution. This ambiguous sentiment is close to Rudolf Otto's concept of the numinous. For Otto, the Holy is a mysterium tremendum and fascinosum: a mystery that simultaneously fascinates (attracts) and frightens (repels). The anthropological analysis of pollution ideas in Mary Douglas' seminal 1966 study "Purity and Danger. An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo" could doubtlessly evoke more meaning from these stories.

To recapitulate: both stories present a numenous cosmological event which destabilizes classificatory boundaries in a rural area. In both stories, 'warped color and light' are the central metaphor for this destabilizing effect, which both attracts and repels. Other than Simon Sellars, I'd say that the parallels between these two stories are far from vague: they are clear and distinct.

No comments: