The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

AtrocityExhibitionIt’s oddly comforting to know that J G Ballard’s most experimental, challenging, and controversial pieces of fiction, the ‘condensed novels’ that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, were written between, on the one hand, a children’s story for the much-loved BBC series Jackanory (‘Gulliver in Space’, broadcast 11th Feb 1966) and a treatment for one of Hammer Films’ fur bikini efforts, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). In contrast, The Atrocity Exhibition stories are deliberately difficult, intentionally obsessive, and wilfully confrontational. As much experiments in form as they are in content, they were Ballard’s attempt to break away from his early, more conventional (though still firmly ‘New Wave’) science fiction, to something that felt more relevant both to himself and to the time in which he was writing. As he states in a 1973 interview with Peter Linnet (included in Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews):

‘I wanted to write directly about the present day, and this peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties… It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed.’

AtrocityExhibition02As much as they were a response to the ‘peculiar psychological climate’ of the mid-1960s, the Atrocity Exhibition stories were also a response to Ballard’s own psychological ecosystem. The protagonists of these fragmented stories, variously called Trabert, Traven, Talbert, Tallis, Travers, or left unnamed, usually start their stories working in some sort of institute (a hospital or a university), but leave to pursue their increasingly obsessive private projects. Similarly, Ballard gave up his medical training when the urge to write became too strong. The Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ private projects are often artistic, but always, like the Atrocity Exhibition stories themselves, highly experimental, and more often than not entirely conceptual. In the story called ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, Travis plans to make himself the first victim in an entirely imaginary, though very real to him, World War III; in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, Trabert wants to somehow resurrect the Apollo 1 astronauts. These men are usually trying to somehow recreate the decade’s most celebrated tragedies — those which most challenged the post-war optimism of the 1950s — but do so in a way that somehow, this time, makes sense. Their key working method, it seems, is to collect disparate photographs, scientific images, artworks, and other ‘terminal documents’, while somehow insisting that ‘all these make up one picture’:

‘(1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500cc; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones…’

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001When writing about Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as an example of what I called ‘crisis literature’ — books written on the edge of, or just past, a traumatic, and often psychologically destabilising crisis, which forced their writers into new, experimental, and often difficult narrative forms to capture and somehow master that crisis. Alan Garner’s Red Shift was perhaps the first example of this kind of book I really stuck with, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most well-known. Such books, I said, present themselves as highly intellectualised puzzles, but are really about deep emotional trauma. They take the form of fractured narratives (the multiple time strands of Garner’s Red Shift) or a barrage of seemingly unrelated fragments (the many styles and images of The Waste Land), that, like the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’s ‘terminal documents’, the authors insist belong together as a single statement. (One such disparate list of peculiar photostats — ‘(1) Front elevation of a multi-storey car park; (2) mean intra-patellar distances (estimated during funeral services) of Coretta King and Ethel M. Kennedy…’ and so on — is titled ‘Fusing Devices’, making their function in an attempt at self-integration clear.) This is something Jung has said is a general characteristic of psychological healing: the search to resolve highly polarised, conflicting internal forces (a thesis and an antithesis) into a new synthesis, a new unity. The Atrocity Exhibition is fragmented in form (all those short paragraph-long chapters with their wonderful Ballardian titles), narrative sequence (Ballard says you don’t have to read the chapters in the order presented, but can pick and choose at random), and images. ‘At times it was almost as if he were trying to put himself together out of some bizarre jigsaw,’ as someone says of the protagonist of ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

What may be another characteristic of ‘crisis literature’ is the way that violence, or violent images, are always waiting to burst through any apparently normal facade. Dr Nathan, one of the recurring figures in the ‘condensed novels’, who Ballard calls, in his later footnotes to the stories, ‘the safe and sane voice of the sciences’ — though with a hint that it’s not necessarily safety or sanity that are needed to solve these post-traumatic conundrums — provides a key to understanding this element of the Atrocity Exhibition:

‘The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations. Violence is the conceptualisation of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.’

TAtrocityExhibition03he many violent images in The Atrocity Exhibition stories — car crashes, assassinations, murders — are, then, attempts to externalise a deeply repressed or dissociated pain, a pain so intense it destabilises the very landscape around the protagonists, disconnecting them from a sense of reality, and from normal contact with their fellow human beings. Half of what happens in each of the stories is probably hallucinated — certainly, some of the characters are, including that mostly-silent recurring trinity of Kline, Coma, and Xero — while the other half is overwritten by a fictionalisation of reality which is, nevertheless, more real, or at least more meaningful, to the protagonists than reality itself.

I’m not a great one for experimental fiction. The Ballard I like is mostly the writer of weird disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), dream-like psychological short stories, and a few of the mid-period novels (High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company). But after a while, reading interviews and articles about Ballard, you have to admit that, at some point, you’re going to have to read The Atrocity Exhibition, just to find out if it can really live up to all he said about it.

jg_ballardIn a way, what we have here is Ballard’s own commedia dell’arte taken to max — reusing the same stock figures (the mentally exhausted doctor/lecturer protagonist, the psychologist colleague who wryly, calmly comments and explains, the rather passive abandoned wife, the rather passive younger girlfriend), stock props (a torn flying jacket, a helicopter, a crashed car), stock images (the angle between two walls, cubicular screens or mirrors, vastly blown-up fragmented images of a woman’s face and body), and stock situations (car crashes, bizarre artistic exhibits) and landscapes (abandoned military testing sights, abandoned motorways, and other concrete wastelands), played and replayed, re-imagined and re-fit, in an attempt to find the combination that will unlock this particular meaning, solve this particular riddle. (The exception that proves this rule is, perhaps, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, which reads as though Ballard were deliberately trying not to use any of his standard tropes, and finds there’s nothing worth writing about. It’s the least interesting of the Atrocity Exhibition stories.)

Having read them, I have to say I didn’t find the whole as powerful as I’d hoped. The shock of the fragmented form works at first, but after a while the repetition doesn’t quite gain power through accumulation. What’s undeniable — as always — is the strength and integrity with which Ballard follows his obsessions. This is something you get, though, even in his more conventional narratives, the early novels and short stories. Here, in condensed form, sometimes the effect is of shocking juxtaposition, but sometimes it’s tired repetition. Undoubtedly, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write; it revitalised his novel-writing and set him on a new direction for a new decade. It’s almost as though he had to go to such experimental, obsessive lengths to break free of all the generic and standard novelistic conventions he’d been following, so as to return to them (with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise) with a new strength. And I think the condensed novel form can really work, and it would be great to read other writers attempting it — if, that is, they don’t just take it as an excuse to throw together a bunch of random paragraphs. (It would work well, I think, with cosmic horror.)

If, as I say, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write — so as to confront, and perhaps master, the dehumanising forces of trauma, despair, and the ‘death of affect’ in his own life in the mid-60s — then his final book, Miracles of Life, was the equally important answer to it, as that book is about the humanising forces that saw him through life, mostly notably being his children.

Three Types of Ghost Story

Hill Woman in BlackI’ve been reading a few ghost stories lately. Most recently Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (having already seen Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV film, and the recent Hammer version), though I found it wanting in a way I didn’t with, say, Dark Matter, or my recent re-read of The Turn of the Screw. Thinking about why this was has led to a little bit of theorising about three types of ghost stories and how they work. So here goes.

The first, and purest, type of ghost story revels entirely in the protagonist’s horror of the supernatural. To make it work, the ordinariness of both the protagonist and their everyday world has to be clearly established, so when the supernatural makes its appearance, it feels truly weird and frightening. In this type of ghost story, the ‘ghost’ doesn’t even have to be a ghost, in the sense of a undead human spirit. M R James’s stories are probably the best example of this type, and his ‘ghosts’ are more often demons or elementals — embodied curses or prohibitions — and when they are human, as in, for instance, ‘Number 13’ or ‘Count Magnus’, they’re often supernaturally-tinged sorcerers or necromancers. This type of ghost story is all about technique — the way the supernatural is hinted at, built up, and finally revealed. The only emotion required of the protagonist is terror; details of his or her inner life just get in the way. You don’t get a lot of human insight from M R James’s stories, but you do get a good ghost story.

The Woman from The Woman in Black

from Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black

The second type is as much about the protagonist’s horror at the display of human qualities, such as despair or sorrow, driven to such an extreme they’ve become supernatural. The Woman in Black is of this type. (The book is, anyway. I’d say the 2012 Hammer version, upping the cinematic shock value, turned the Woman into a far more demonic creature than she is in the book.) The bulk of conventional Victorian ghost stories are of this type, too. There, a ghost lingers beyond death because either it has been wronged, or has done wrong, and needs to set things right before it can move on. With The Woman in Black, there’s no longer that Victorian feeling of a moral order keeping certain dead souls from moving on till they’ve done what they’re supposed to; rather, it’s the Woman herself, so consumed by sorrow, anger and the need for revenge that she can’t pass on. The thing about this type of ghost story is that the protagonist is still looking on the ghost as something separate — as purely a horror. Things change slightly in the last chapter of The Woman in Black (the narrator comes to experience something of what made the Woman what she is) but not enough to take this story to the next type; the Woman is still seen as something exceptional and horrific, a twisted and rare form of human being, something to be pitied and feared, not empathised with.

The Haunting of Hill House coverThe third type is about how the protagonist’s own despair or sadness is brought to the fore by encounters with a ghost, until they experience it as a manifestation of their own inner world. The ghost still exists to embody (in a ghostly, disembodied way) supernaturally-distorted human qualities, but as much as the protagonist is haunted by the ghost, they’re haunted by something inside themselves too. The ghost and the protagonist’s inner life become entangled to the point where they’re indistinguishable. This is the type of story where the ghost needn’t exist at all — or it can exist in that Tzvetan Todorov hinterland where the story never makes it clear whether the ghost is a ‘real’ ghost or is just an externalisation of the protagonist’s own mental state. Listing examples, I find all my favourites: The Haunting of Hill House, The Influence, The Turn of the Screw.

It has to be said these three types have permeable walls. (Ghosts being ghosts, they’re not going to be stopped from wandering through walls anyway.) Jonathan Miller, after all, turned M R James’s ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ from a ghost story of the first type to the third, by emphasising how the basic character-type of so many of M R James’s protagonists (academic, reserved, distant and somewhat disapproving of lesser human beings) is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to the terror of an isolating ghostly visitation.

Woman in Black 2012Overall, I tend to like examples from the first and third types. The first work best as short stories — shocks work best when kept short. (Cinematic ghost stories, more and more, tend to be overlong examples of the first type, with nothing but shock after shock after shock. I ended up fast-forwarding much of the second half of the 2012 Woman in Black, searching for morsels of story, because I got bored of being supposedly shocked.) The third type mixes the supernatural with the psychological, which is how I prefer it, and this tends to be best when done at length, with plenty of build-up to establish both the protagonist’s psychology and the ‘normality’ of their world.

The trouble, for me, with the second type, is it’s basically disapproving. It’s about marking certain humans (undead ones, admittedly) as separate from ‘us’ (as represented by the protagonist and the rest of a quietly-ordered, functioning society). It seems to be saying that most of us don’t experience extremes of emotion, particularly negative emotion, so we can safely regard those who do as alien, other, horrific. But saying this is also saying that as soon as we experience such extremes, we have to regard ourselves as now separate, alienated, and horrific, too. This is perhaps a very English thing, where reserve and social propriety can make for a ridigly-defined norm, where extreme emotion is met with an embarrassment and disapproval close to horror — meaning you have to repress such emotions, to the point of being haunted by them. Perhaps that’s why the English write so many ghost stories.

The Damned

There was more than radiation in the fallout from the first atomic bomb — there was an awful lot of science fiction, too, peaking in certain eras (the 1960s and 1980s) as though that cloud of glittery dust, lingering off the cultural coast, had been blown in again by adverse, probably cold, winds. I’d never heard of The Damned — a fittingly black & white little masterpiece from Hammer, released in 1963, though filmed two years earlier — till I happened upon it late, late one night when I couldn’t sleep (one of the best times to happen upon a film, particularly a black & white one), and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before.

The sculptures in The Damned were created by Elisabeth Frink

The sculptures in the film were created by Elisabeth Frink

Its approach to the science fictional core of its story is oblique — it’s a good half hour before there’s a hint of anything strange going on. Before that, it could be a slice-of-life seaside drama. It starts with a retired US insurance man, Simon Wells (played by Macdonald Carey, who I’ve only just realised played the good-guy cop in one of my favourite films, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, two decades earlier), thinking he’s getting the come-on from local girl Joan (Shirley Anne Field), but in fact is being lured off the sea-front to get mugged by her gang-leader brother, King (Oliver Reed). The motorcycle gang, fingersnapping in black leathers, seem halfway between the danciness of West Side Story and the smartly-dressed nastiness of A Clockwork Orange: Reed’s character carries a brolly; it’s got a knife blade in the handle.

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Meanwhile, further up the coast, freethinking Freya (Viveca Lindfors) has a remote, clifftop cottage where she makes some fractured-looking sculptures (glimpsed in the movie’s opening shots, they look uncomfortably like the victims of an atomic bomb blast), unsuspecting that the “public servant” Bernard who lives next-door (and who is, I think we’re supposed to infer from the way he leans familiarly on her bed, her lover, though they’re an odd match) is running a dangerously top-secret operation in a bunker beneath the cliff. The first glimpse we get of this operation is when Bernard turns on a TV link and starts talking to nine very British schoolchildren living in total isolation. When Joan and Simon, on the run from the possessive King, fall from the cliff to the sea below, they’re rescued by the children — who aren’t supposed to be able to get out, but have found a way. Starved of any interaction with other people (one of the boys believes their bunker is actually a spaceship, transporting them to another world), the kids are as excited by the hope this couple they’ve fished from the sea might be their parents, as they are to find they’re warm to the touch — the children themselves are ice-cold. When King arrives and touches one of the boys he backs off, scared, saying the children must be dead. In fact, the children are, in a way, the key to a new life — born out of a freak accident involving a strange kind of radiation, they may be able to survive in a post-bomb-drop future. The only thing is, they can’t live with us normal humans. Or, we can’t live with them. Not for long, anyway.

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I love this slow-start approach, where the fantastic only begins to intrude once a real-seeming, recognisable world, and real-seeming characters, have had a chance to establish themselves. If only films like The Damned had been a success (neither Hammer, nor its distributor Columbia seemed to know what to do with it), we might have had more of them. Its bleakness is made all the more tragic by the way that, before the characters enter such a hopeless situation, they’ve been grappling with their own, more normal-worldly, versions of hopelessness already.

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It’s a little odd that 1963 saw the release of another UK film featuring apocalyptic kids that had the word “damned” in the title: Children of the Damned, a sequel to the 1960 John Wyndham adaptation, Village of the Damned. (The Damned is also an adaptation, but the 1960 novel it was based on, Children of the Light by H L Lawrence, seems rather difficult to get hold of.) In the US, the film was retitled These are the Damned, but I think The Damned is a better title, as it leaves room for the question: who are the damned? Is it the kids isolated in their underground bunker, or is it us, aboveground, exposed to the constant nuclear threat?

Cat Girl

Cat Girl is a UK take on Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 US film, Cat People, a favourite of mine that I reviewed a little while back. Released in 1957 (the same year as Tourneur’s other well-known horror, Night of the Demon), it’s been put out on DVD as part of Network’s British Film series — coincidentally in the same month as Cat People finally gets a Region 2 release (from Odeon Entertainment). It’s not a film I’d heard of, and I was immediately intrigued.

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Newly-married Leonora (Hammer Horror’s Barbara Shelley in her first starring role) is summoned back to the family home by mad old uncle Edmund. She goes reluctantly and, despite her uncle’s stipulations, not alone, bringing her new husband, Richard, as well as his (unknown to her) lover Cathy and Cathy’s hanger-on, Alan. Her uncle has doleful news, but waits till the dead of night before summoning her to his study. (In the meantime, he nips outside to take a bloody bite or two out of a raw rabbit, in the company of a leopard he keeps in a cage.) On the back of the DVD case, Network say Cat Girl is an “updating” of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier film, but already it seems to be taking a step backwards. Cat People was set firmly in the contemporary world, and certainly got some of its power from having the supernatural emerge into a modern reality at utter odds to the fantastic. But here we’re in full old-fashioned Gothic mode, complete with blustery thunderstorm, old dark house, mad uncle poring over piles of ancient books, foreign-accented retainer with a limp, flickering candles, billowing curtains, long, frilly nighties, and a 700-year-old family curse.

Cat Girl in Gothic mode

Cat Girl in Gothic mode

The curse is Uncle Edmund’s news. He is about to die (as predicted in one of his musty old books), and Leonora, as the only remaining member of the Brandt family, will take on the curse. It’s lycanthropy, but with a twist: instead of turning into a wolf (or, in this case, a leopard — though the film posters mostly feature a panther), at night Leonora’s soul will enter that of the leopard Uncle Edmund keeps in a cage in his study. It will be “the servant of your mind, the strength of your body”, and she’ll feel its “love of darkness, the craving for warm flesh and blood”. His message delivered, Uncle Edmund then goes out into the blustery dark to become the leopard’s next victim, and the curse is passed on. The following day, an already slightly unbalanced Leonora enacts her first lycanthropic revenge: finding her husband and Cathy canoodling in a copse, she sets the leopard on them. Cathy escapes, Richard doesn’t.

Cat Girl getting more modern...

Cat Girl getting more modern…

Cat Girl then leaves the gothic for something a bit more modern. It’s already been established that Leonora’s real love is for a former crush, now a Harley Street psychiatrist, Dr Brian Marlowe. He, however, is married (to Dorothy — the psychiatrist’s wife’s Dotty!), but, in the usual tradition of silver screen headshrinks (none of whom seem to have any sense of ethics), elects to treat the increasingly besotted/deranged Leonora himself. In what is, perhaps, the film’s most chilling sequence, Leonora books herself into Marlow’s institute, only to find herself being rendered increasingly powerless. Her belongings are taken off her, her room has bars on the window, and glimpses of her fellow inmates confirm that this is, despite Dr Marlow’s assurances, an asylum for the fully insane. Then night falls, and she goes properly bonkers — or, rather, goes into full mind-meld with her leopard, and is left convinced, the next day, that her hands have been turned into claws and her face is that of a hideous predator. Her descent into a cat-like frenzy, tearing at her bedsheets, her clothes, and her own skin, is a moment of genuine horror — though it’s not the sort Cat Girl is ultimately aiming for. Because, after this, Leonora shifts from the film’s heroine to its monster.

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Not quite as useless as Cat People’s lecherous Dr Judd, Dr Marlowe still believes he has the situation under control. So under control, in fact, that after this one night of madness, he decides this obviously dangerous and self-harming woman will recover better in the company of normal people — of his wife, in fact, despite Leonora’s clear hostility to Dorothy. (Dorothy, meanwhile, produces a string of cat-related double entendres whenever talking of, or to, Leonora. My favourite: “Be a pet and zip me up.”) Dorothy at least has the sense to start feeling creeped out when, having left Leonora alone with her budgie for a moment, she comes back to find nothing in the cage but feathers.

One of these women is a lycanthrope.

One of these women is a lycanthrope.

Cat Girl has neither the brooding, pressure-cooker feel of Cat People, nor its sense of tragedy (Irena’s scrabbling for normality, then her resigned and finally gleeful backslide into lycanthropy, are so much more sustained than Leonora’s madness), but it does provide some new variants on the same situation. The most interesting aspect is Barbara Shelley’s passage from helpless gothic heroine, through to a more modern gothic victimhood (trapped in an asylum, teetering on the verge of madness), then to an increasingly torrid darkness, ending the film as a psycho-killer in a black mac, almost as if you can see horror cinema in the process of sloughing off the skin of its own Gothic past. Unlike Cat People (which has two distinctly tense horror scenes in a tightly orchestrated plot), Cat Girl has only one real build-up of tension, at the end, as Leonora stalks her love-rival through the night streets of London. The moment she slips out of her shoes to better pad after her prey you know the game is really on — though, by this time, the film is almost over.

An interesting add-on to Cat People, then — and a film that’s left me wondering, what other good British horror films were there in the 1950s?

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