The Corner of Lovecraft and Ballard

H.P. Lovecraft and J.G. Ballard both put architecture at the heart of their fiction, and both made the humble corner into a place of nightmares.

Collage by Jim Kazanjian
Untitled (Vehicle), 2013. [Jim Kazanjian]

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890; James Graham Ballard died in 2009. Together these two writers spanned the 20th century. They shared the earth for just seven years between Ballard’s birth in 1930 and Lovecraft’s death in 1937, and those years were spent on separate hemispheres. And their fiction came from different hemispheres of the century: Lovecraft’s could only have been produced before the Second World War, and Ballard’s was inextricably the product of the postwar world.

Both writers are as influential today as they ever were in their lifetime — in Lovecraft’s case, vastly more so. This is due to the nature of their writing. Their business was speculation. They sought original ways to describe the world around them, and in the process often had to create new modes of writing. In its time, speculative writing is often ignored, or shunted into a genre ghetto. Often it is forgotten. But Lovecraft and Ballard both managed to tap into deep veins of human concern, which has kept their work relevant. Perhaps the best evidence of this is that Lovecraft and Ballard have both, like Kafka and Orwell, been turned into useful terms of description — to say “Lovecraftian” and “Ballardian” is to summon at once particular moods, particular storehouses of imagery, particular manners of literature. They claimed their respective territory, they got there first, and they made it their own.

Lovecraft and Ballard sought original ways to describe the world around them, and in the process created new modes of writing.

Rub any two writers together and similarities will show. No two writers, however different, are completely different. Here’s a crucial instance: Lovecraft and Ballard both put architecture at the heart of their fiction, even though neither had the slightest formal training in the subject. And it is via this interest that the two intersect in an unexpected way. They are connected, through time and space, by that most humble of architectural events: the corner, the junction between two walls. What Lovecraft and Ballard did was to make the corner into a place of nightmares — and in doing so, they reveal its secret history.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s writing career was a catalogue of chronic failure. He was part of the early 20th-century American pulp scene, writing short stories for magazines such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories. Only one of his stories, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is long enough to be considered a short novel. He made very little money and lived mostly in poverty. The reputation and popularity he enjoys today would have baffled him in his lifetime.

What saved Lovecraft from being forgotten like scores of other pulp writers was the fascinating mythology he wove through his stories. His monstrous gods and godlike monsters, and the stark, original philosophy that framed them, captured the imagination of other writers in his circle. Peers such as Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, and Clark Ashton Smith wanted to write Lovecraftian fiction; they kept his writing alive so they could keep the peculiar genre alive.

Collage by Jim Kazanjian
Untitled (Anomaly), 2009. [Jim Kazanjian]

The Lovecraft worldview is notably unpleasant, the product of a profoundly depressed mind. (And also, it should be noted, an extremely racist mind, even by the standards of his day.) Lovecraft was a nihilist. In his fiction, mankind is nothing, a fleeting irrelevant coagulation in a vast, indifferent universe filled with cosmic terror and unimaginable beings of unlimited power. Our civilization, our religions, our science: these amount to nothing more than a collection of worthless trinkets and silly fairytales, deserving only hollow laughter. There were other, greater species on earth before us and there will be other, greater species on earth after we’re gone. (The insects are next in line.) Our footling efforts to understand the world are, at best, wildly misjudged, and risk provoking the immense fiendish gods that lurk in the unthinkable gulfs of space around us. All this is well put in the opening lines of Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” from 1926:

The most merciful thing in world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

A Lovecraft story typically starts with a scientific expedition or a mysterious occurrence that demands investigation. The investigators, always learned, rational men — you can count Lovecraft’s notable female characters on one hand, with fingers to spare — delve into the matter, are exposed to some profoundly vile and mind-bending discovery and, if they survive, flee. Generally the experience is so horrible that they are afraid to recount it — but they do. Lovecraft’s writing is full of fearful hints; of people trying to describe things without describing them. It’s always an unnameable, unspeakable horror that they encounter, one which nevertheless yields copious descriptive detail. But to alienate that detail from the realms of the familiar, Lovecraft liked to reach for arcane (and all the more sinister) adjectives dredged up from obscure corners of anatomy and natural history: rugose, squamous, ciliated, reticulated.

He applied the same distancing tactic to the alien architecture that encrusts many of his stories. In “At the Mountains of Madness,” written in 1931, a scientific expedition heads to Antarctica, which was then still mostly blank space on the map. There, they discover an immense and terrifying mountain range, and in the caves beneath those mountains the preserved bodies of an alien race which had walked the earth before the dinosaurs. Most of the party is wiped out during — but perhaps not by — a blizzard. The alien bodies, which were suspiciously well preserved, disappear. The two survivors take the expedition’s plane and fly over the mountains, trying to find their colleagues. They become the first humans to set eyes on the ruins of a vast and inconceivably ancient city, the home of a mysterious species called the “Elder Things.” Here is the first description of the city:

The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath. There were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five. All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer gigantism.

Since this is architecture unknown to human imagination, it is described without human architectural terms: it is not called baroque or classical or modernist because those styles are the products of human culture, and human culture has no place in this nightmare ruin. Instead Lovecraft reaches for the language of geometry — cones, pyramids, tubes, cubes. And without cultural touchstones, the city, though described, remains somewhat undescribed. In Against the World, Against Life, his appreciation of Lovecraft, the French novelist Michel Houllebecq argues that these descriptions, though magical on the page, stymie the imagination. “Images graze the consciousness,” he writes, “but none appear sufficiently sublime, sufficiently fantastic; none come close to the pinnacle of dreams.” That’s Lovecraftian architecture — it’s oneiric architecture, the architecture of dreams. Houllebecq also has a warning for young architects inspired by Lovecraft:

It would not be rash to imagine a young man emerging enthusiastically from a reading of Lovecraft’s tales and deciding to pursue a study of architecture. Failure and disappointment would lie in wait. The insipid and dull functionality of modern architecture, its zeal to use simple, meagre forms and cold, haphazard materials, are too distinctive to be a product of chance. And no one, at least not for generations to come, will rebuild the faerie lace of the palace of Irem. 1

It may entail “monstrous perversions of geometrical laws,” but the city of the Elder Things is described in terms of those laws, in angles and platonic solids. Lovecraft rummages constantly in the language of geometry even as he stresses that what he describes does not conform to it. The paradox that is embodied in the term “non-Euclidean,” not conforming to the standard three dimensions, is basically a calling card of Lovecraftian language. It is not a description; it is a negation of description.

Collage by Jim Kazanjian
Untitled (Object), 2011. [Jim Kazanjian]

The perverted geometry of Lovecraftian architecture reaches its literal peak in the monstrous sunken city of R’lyeh, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean. The Antarctic city of the Elder Things is positively conventional when compared to R’lyeh, which is described in “The Call of Cthulhu.” In this story, an earthquake thrusts part of R’lyeh to the surface, an occurrence that triggers cult mania, bizarre dreams, and artistic blasphemies worldwide. One unfortunate ship comes across the exposed peak of the city and its crew starts to explore:

Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces — surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality.

Johansen and his men landed at a sloping mud-bank on this monstrous Acropolis, and clambered slipperily up over titan oozy blocks which could have been no mortal staircase. The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarizing miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance showed concavity after the first showed convexity. … As Wilcox would have said, the geometry of the place was all wrong. One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable.

The hapless crew accidentally disturbs Cthulhu, a sleeping god with the head of a squid, who is entombed in the city. As they flee in terror, their sanity permanently shredded, the architecture of R’lyeh shows itself to be actively hostile rather than merely sinister:

Parker slipped as the other three were plunging frenziedly over endless vistas of green-crusted rock to the boat, and Johansen swears he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.

The crew member Parker is swallowed by an angle; he is eaten by a corner. Corners in Lovecraftian fiction have horrible power.

Lovecraft’s stories are full of malign domestic architecture.

What applies in the wastes of Antarctica and the Pacific applies at home in New England, too. Lovecraft’s stories are full of malign domestic architecture. In “The Rats in the Walls,” a house is revealed to be sitting on suspiciously ancient foundations, which in turn lead to unthinkably ancient sub-basements and ultimately to the usual abyss of horror. In “The Lurking Fear,” the almost-ruined Martense house also sits atop a secret and strews murder across the countryside around it. In “The Dunwich Horror,” the terrible deeds old Wilbur Whateley is committing in his farmhouse are suggested by the sinister alterations he makes to the structure. Events in the story “Cool Air” are kicked off by a mysterious substance dripping through the ceiling of a boarding house. Sagging gambrel roofs, rotting gables, creaking covered bridges, twisting alleys, loathsome colonial mansions sitting on yet more ancient foundations — this is also Lovecraftian architecture. He loved antique pockets of New England such as his native Providence and the town of Salem, which in his fiction becomes the “changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham, with its clustering gambrel roofs that sway and sag over attics where witches hid from the King’s men in the dark, olden days of the Province,” to quote from the 1932 story “The Dreams in the Witch House.”

Collage by Jim Kazanjian
Untitled (Backyard), 2011. [Jim Kazanjian]

But to get at the matter of interior corners, I want to use first a story from 1929 written not by Lovecraft but by one of his protégés. In “The Hounds of Tindalos,” by Frank Belknap Long, an antiquarian lays hands on a drug that allows the mind to travel through time. He takes the drug and soon he is watching the Roman legions and chatting with Pericles, as you would. But he pushes at the edges of time, “beyond life,” and attracts the attention of something nightmarish:

They have no bodies and move slowly through outrageous angles. … No words in our language can describe them! … They are symbolized vaguely in the myth of the Fall, and in an obscene form which is occasionally found engraved on ancient tablets. The Greeks had a name for them, which veiled their essential foulness.

The name of the nightmarish creatures is “the Hounds of Tindalos,” and they are always depicted by artists as dogs or doglike; but Long writes that they barely have any form at all, and their hound-like nature is simply descriptive of their habit of deadly pursuit.

In an awful light that was not light, in a silence that shrieked, I saw them. All the evil in the universe was concentrated in their lean, hungry bodies. Or had they bodies? I saw them only for a moment; I cannot be certain. But I heard them breathe. Indescribably for a moment I felt their breath upon my face. They turned towards me and I fled screaming. In a single moment I fled screaming through time. I fled down quintillions of years.

But they scented me. Men awake in them cosmic hungers. … But they are not evil in our sense, because in the spheres in which they move there is no thought, no morals, no right or wrong as we understand it. There is merely the pure and the foul. The foul expresses itself through angles; the pure through curves. Man, the pure part of him, is descended from a curve. Do not laugh. I mean that literally.

The Hounds come from angles, and we humans come from curves — and the splendid, terrifying thing about Long’s Hounds of Tindalos is that they manifest themselves in our universe through the corners of walls. Wherever two walls meet at an angle of 120 degrees or less, they can scrabble through into our world. So the protagonist of the story tries to cheat them: he gets as much plaster of Paris as he can and smooths out all the corners of a room. His plan is to wait in that cornerless room until the Hounds give up the scent. But then an earthquake dislodges some of the plaster, revealing a corner, and the Hounds devour him.

Lovecraft read “The Hounds of Tindalos” and discussed it with Long — it seemed to have a deep impact on him. He further endorsed the Hounds by referring to them himself in a story he wrote in 1930, “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” an instance of his remarkable intellectual generosity. And the Hounds’ pawprints can surely be seen all over Lovecraft’s most evil corner, that of the attic room that drives Walter Gilman insane in “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Gilman, a student of “Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics,” takes a room in a house that was once the residence of Keziah Mason. A 17th-century witch who disappeared from a Salem jail after smearing the walls with mysterious curves and angles, Mason pursued occult investigations which oddly mirrored Gilman’s scientific studies, and Gilman scours the room for traces of her dark work. The shape of the room itself begins to obsess him:

Gilman’s room was of good size but queerly irregular shape; the north wall slanting perceptibly inward from the outer to the inner end, while the low ceiling slanted gently downward in the same direction. Aside from an obvious rat-hole and the signs of other stopped-up ones, there was no access — nor any appearance of a former avenue of access — to the space which must have existed between the slanting wall and the straight outer wall on the house’s north side, though a view from the exterior shewed where a window had been boarded up at a very remote date. The loft above the ceiling — which must have had a slanting floor — was likewise inaccessible. When Gilman climbed up a ladder to the cobwebbed level loft above the rest of the attic he found vestiges of a bygone aperture tightly and heavily covered with ancient planking and secured by the stout wooden pegs common in colonial carpentry. No amount of persuasion, however, could induce the stolid landlord to let him investigate either of these two closed spaces.

As time wore along, his absorption in the irregular wall and ceiling of his room increased; for he began to read into the odd angles a mathematical significance which seemed to offer vague clues regarding their purpose. Old Keziah, he reflected, might have had excellent reasons for living in a room with peculiar angles; for was it not through certain angles that she claimed to have gone outside the boundaries of the world of space we know? His interest gradually veered away from the unplumbed voids beyond the slanting surfaces, since it now appeared that the purpose of those surfaces concerned the side he was already on.

As implied — Lovecraft always implies and implies and emphatically implies until his meaning is astoundingly obvious to everyone but his luckless protagonists — the mysterious angles of the room serve as a kind of gateway, which Gilman travels through while in a dream state to meet the undying witch and her ghastly companion, an oversized rat named Brown Jenkin with the face and hands of a man. He is then forced to participate in a sacrificial ritual in a chamber that resembles the negative space formed by the slanting walls and roof.  The adventure ends very badly for poor old Gilman, and the house is abandoned. When it is later demolished, the enclosed space is revealed to be choked with detritus and gnawed bones.

Collage by Jim Kazanjian
Untitled (Implosion), 2009. [Jim Kazanjian]

The Lovecraftian corner could drive men mad, whisk them to terrible other places, and sometimes kill them outright. And the corner of a room is a place of power — uncanny, unwelcome power. “That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined,” writes philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. Bachelard saw the corner as a shameful intellectual bolthole, in which we are silent and immobile, negating the universe, constructing imaginary rooms around us: “Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house.” 2

The Lovecraftian corner could drive men mad, whisk them to terrible places, and sometimes kill them outright.

As the corner is the germ of a room, it is also room for germs. With the rise, in the 1870s, of germ theory as the accepted explanation for the spread of disease, household dust was thrown into inauspicious new light. It was more than simply unsightly, it was unhealthy. It was the visible habitat of invisible micro-organisms that could cause illness and even death. The home, a “self-contained moral universe,” in the mid-Victorian mentality, came under increased pressure “to appear hygienically inviolable, impermeable, and unassailable,” writes Eileen Cleere, in “Victorian Dust Traps.” “The impenetrable Victorian home became an anxious fantasy rather than a predictable ideological construct,” she says, and continues:

Sanitary “maniacs” not only condemned the nooks, crannies, tunnels, dark rooms, narrow hallways, and turrets cherished by Gothic revivalists, they also dismissed the favored features of aesthetic decoration — dados, decorative carving, shelving, cornices, tapestries, curtains, and carpets — as “dust traps” or, in other words, “the forcing beds for disease germs.” Ultimately the domestic “dust trap” replaced the urban fever nest as the primary locus of pollution anxiety within sanitary geographies of the Victorian home. Inside the dust trap an aesthetic philosophy became a material household canker, a site where the opposing claims of art and hygiene collided, with potentially dangerous effects. 3

The United States followed these trends, adopting new looks “that eliminated dust lines and facilitated a more bacteriologically informed cleanliness” towards the end of the 19th century. As Nancy Tomes writes, in The Gospel of Germs, a study of American sanitary mania:

In place of the old overstuffed look, early twentieth-century home fashion featured lighter, more easily cleaned materials, including wicker, metals, and glass, that would have been rejected as too cold and sterile in the Victorian home. Likewise, popular house plans, such as the bungalow style, demonstrated a growing appreciation for smooth surfaces and clean lines. A comparison of Victorian and Progressive interiors reveals that the inside of the middle-class home became noticeably more “germ-proof” between 1890 and 1920. The white tiled bathroom and enameled kitchen; the living room furnished with parquet floor, area rugs, scanty curtains, painted, molding-free walls, and pared-down furniture; and spare use of decorative items all paid tribute to the new sanitary standards. 4

The end of the Gothic revival in the home naturally affected the Gothic novelist. Lovecraft, with his many reversals in fortune, health upsets and squalls of depression, felt the world around him in decline, steadily being ruined by the democratic inhumanity and efficiency of the machine age — a world-view that both sprang from and fed his inveterate racism. The backstreet snickleways and hard-to-reach corners that fascinated him were being held up, throughout his life, as the enemies of health, art, and morals. No wonder he populated them with evil.

Hygiene and the new war on filth soon became central elements of modernism and its purgative moral armory of shining chrome, gleaming tile, and white plaster, of leather-and-steel furnishings, waste chutes, central heating, and parquet floors. Homes were to be scoured of the grubby organic traces of their occupants — this was, said Amédée Ozenfant, the “période de vacuum-cleaning.” 5 Not only was the Victorian home physically unclean, it was psychologically unclean, the breeding-ground of sloth, atavism, and perversion. Lack of ornament, said early modernist architect Adolf Loos, was a source of “spiritual power” —and its presence a source of weakness. Corners become associated with madness — we’re familiar with this in film. Consider the striking example of Robert Wiene’s 1920 expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which uses eerie and unsettling angles to indicate that it is a tale told by a madman. “Cornerless room” was also a turn-of-the-century euphemism for a padded cell in an asylum.

Hygiene and the war on filth became central elements of modernism and its purgative moral armory of shining chrome, gleaming tile, and white plaster.

Once the home was rid of moldings, fabrics, and tchotchkes, the sanitary maniacs’ suspicion fell on the dust-harboring corner itself. In the 1880s the “dust corner” was introduced: a brass triangle that could be tacked at the meeting point of two walls and the floor, or the corners of a flight of stair, so dirt couldn’t gather and sweeping would be easier. But the dust corner was a half-solution, and a fiddly, decorative one at that. Could the corner be eliminated altogether? Enamelware had smoothed out the grimy corners in the bathroom, and curved bathroom tiles could remove corners where walls met each other and the floor, a sanitary innovation successfully applied in some 19th-century hospitals. In the literature of the first half of the 20th century, there are references to the “cornerless room” as an ultimate convenience in a modern home. The labor-saving home built by the protagonist of Arnold Bennett’s 1911 novel, The Card, has “no sharp corners anywhere. Every corner, every angle between wall and floor or wall and wall, was rounded, to facilitate cleaning.” 6 “If one thinks simply in terms of saving trouble and plans one’s home as ruthlessly as one would plan a machine, it is possible to imagine houses and flats which would be comfortable and would entail very little work,” wrote George Orwell in his Tribune column in February 1945. “Central heating, rubbish chutes, proper consumption of smoke, cornerless rooms, electrically warmed beds and elimination of carpets would make a lot of difference.”

Collage by Jim Kazanjian
Untitled (Structure), 2007. [Jim Kazanjian]

Architects strove to find ways of dodging the corner. Open-plan layouts and curved interior walls are familiar elements of early modernist domestic design, and eliminate or minimize the number of corners present. Some buildings went further. “Although unusual in design as well as construction, the modern house, pictured in the drawing reproduced below, is entirely practical,” runs the description of one proposal for a house with rounded corners, from Popular Science in May 1939. “Oval rooms with rounded corners eliminate right-angle dust traps and allow a free circulation of air.” Austrian-American artist and architect Frederick John Kiesler, who collaborated with Loos and Marcel Duchamp, designed womb-like organic spaces with an absence of straight lines or angles. Eero Saarinen smoothed out as many corners as possible in his swooping TWA Terminal at JFK in New York.

The eradication of the domestic corner isn’t easy. Conventional doors and some furniture, like bookshelves, are not comfortable in eggs and wombs. Plaster isn’t durable and tile isn’t homely. After the Second World War, however, plastics promised a possible solution. Whole rooms could be molded in a single piece or “module,” and then slotted together like Lego. And the bright, shiny aesthetic of plastic was in keeping with the wipe-clean ease of postwar consumer goods. At the Ideal Home Exhibition in London, in 1956, British architects Alison and Peter Smithson showed their House of the Future (the future back then was 1980). Walls and floors were modular, seamless and gleaming plastic, as was much of the furniture; it’s an early glimpse of the stylized set décor of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. In pictures, the soft-soled and pastel-clad models floating through this pristine space are a shocking contrast to the dark-coated, shabby, smoggy Londoners peering grimly at them from the public gallery. It is hard to say which more resemble ghosts. A year later, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Monsanto unveiled the American equivalent at Disneyland, in southern California: an all-plastic home with brilliant white molded walls and minimized corners.

1956 was an important year for the Smithsons — at the Whitechapel Gallery, on the other side of London, they participated in This is Tomorrow, the coming-out party of British Pop art. After the dreary austerity of the early postwar days, Pop art was cheerful and colorful, reflective of home comfort, consumer goods, advertising and mass media — it promised a world of increasing ease and pleasure, just like the house of 1980. The spirit of the exhibition is commonly exemplified by Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, a collage used as its poster. Hamilton shows a domestic interior with highly polished wood floors; a housewife is using a modern vacuum to clean the stairs. (Ozenfant smiles.) This is Tomorrow was organized into twelve “environments”; the Smithsons’ corner of the show, “Patio and Pavilion,” was designed with the artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson.

Ballard’s stories have a lingering fascination with the domestic interior; it’s a landscape that he distorts until it shrieks with anxiety.

The author J.G. Ballard, then just 25 years old, was among the visitors to This is Tomorrow. He was hugely impressed by what he saw, and began a lifelong friendship with Paolozzi. “To see my experience of the real world being commented upon, played back to me with all kinds of ironic gestures, that was tremendously exciting,” he recalled in 1971. 7 Here was an alternative to the drab, gray England that so disappointed the young writer: space-age technologies underpinning a consumer-goods society, the deeper human desires and wishes expressed in material form.

The same year — annus mirabilis for the British idea of the future — Ballard published his first short story, “Prima Belladonna.” Ballard’s best known early fiction are his four apocalyptic novels of the early and mid ’60s — The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World — but his short stories of that period have a lingering fascination with the domestic interior, with furnishing and appliances; it’s a landscape that he distorts until it shrieks with anxiety. “Billennium,” published in 1961, presents an agoraphobic, teeming world in which runaway overpopulation means buildings must be constantly partitioned and re-partitioned. The walls — flimsy plywood — are literally closing in. Landlords tilt these partitions to cheat a few extra square inches into advertised cubicle areas. Interior slants and angles are to be mistrusted: “Ceilings were criss-crossed with pencil marks staking out the rival claims of tenants on opposite sides of a party wall.”

Collage by Jim Kazanjian
Untitled (Bubble), 2008. [Jim Kazanjian]

But this crowding is somewhat unusual for Ballard — more often his homes are lush and well-equipped places. “The Overloaded Man,” also from 1961, is set in the high-tech Menninger Village, built according to a “psycho-modular system … a sprawl of interlocking frosted glass, white rectangles and curves,” which its inhabitants find “formless” and visually exhausting. Faulkner, one such inhabitant, finds himself able to “de-identify” his possessions, turning them into completely abstract, dreamlike objects without obvious purpose or meaning: “Stripped of their accretions of sales slogans and status imperatives, their real claim to reality was so tenuous that it needed little mental effort to obliterate them altogether.” Eventually he goes insane, and in that state he de-identifies his wife, reducing her to “a bundle of obtrusive angles” which he murderously molds into a “softer and rounder” form. “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (part, along with “Prima Belladonna,” of the loosely themed collection Vermilion Sands) is set amid an estate of “psychotropic” houses which pick up and echo the emotions of their owners. These homes are distinctly non-rectilinear. One is a collection of aluminium spheres, with interiors of flowing “plastex” and “fluo-glass” that bulge and recess according to the resident’s state of mind. A house-hunting couple find that the psychotropic nature of the buildings is a problem: each home they visit exhibits the particular unhappiness of the previous owner. Smooth, wipe-clean plastics might have banished the physical traces of former occupants, but their misery and ailments linger on like psychic dust.

‘Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?’ Ballard asked.

Chafing against the constraints of the short story and the novel, in 1967 Ballard made four conceptual advertisements and placed them in the pages of the literary magazine Ambit. One asked: “Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?” Ballard was then drifting away from science fiction and moving  toward prophetic, violent literary fiction, the field in which he would cement his reputation. Ballard made a decisive break with sci-fi in 1970 with The Atrocity Exhibition, a unique experimental novel (or collection of short stories, depending on how one views it). The first chapter is typical of the structure: disjointed vignettes saturated with disturbing imagery. Surgery and human anatomy, car accidents, wounds, sex, sexual violence, architecture, war crimes, the atomic bomb, surrealism, advertising, psychiatry, religious imagery and a few cultural figures including Elizabeth Taylor and Ralph Nader: all are cut and re-cut together in a near-plotless montage. This passage is from chapter 2:

Journeys to an interior. Waiting in Karen Novotny’s apartment, Talbot made certain transits: (1) Spinal: “The Eye of Silence” — these porous rock towers, with the luminosity of exposed organs, contained an immense planetary silence. Moving across the iodine water of these exposed lagoons, Talbot followed the solitary nymph through the causeways of rock, the palaces of his own flesh and bone. (2) Media: montage landscapes of war —webbing heaped in pits beside the Shanghai-Nanking railway; bargirls’ cabins built out of tires and fuel drums; dead Japanese stacked like firewood in LCTs off Woosung pier. (3) Contour: the unique parameters of Karen’s body — beckoning vents of mouth and vulva, the soft hypogeum of the anus. (4) Astral: segments of his posture mimetized in the processions of pace. These transits contained an image of the geometry assembling itself in the musculature of the young woman, in their postures during intercourse, in the angles between walls of the apartment.

The Eye of Silence mentioned in that extract is a painting by the surrealist Max Ernst. Ballard was an enthusiast of the surrealists, as well as one of their most interesting critics. He calls Ernst’s Eye of Silence a “spinal landscape” in a critical essay of 1966 that is partly recycled into that passage from The Atrocity Exhibition. “The real landscapes of our world are seen for what they are – the palaces of flesh and bone that are the living facades enclosing our own subliminal consciousness.” And he continues:

If anything, surrealist painting has one dominant characteristic: a glassy isolation, as if all the objects in its landscapes had been drained of their emotional associations, the accretions of sentiment and common usage. What they demonstrate is that the most commonplace elements of reality — for example the rooms we occupy, the landscapes around us, the musculatures of our own bodies, the postures we assume — may have very different meanings by the time they reach the central nervous system. Surrealism is the first systematic investigation of the most unsuspected aspects of our lives — the meaning, for example, of certain kinds of horizontal perspective, or curvilinear or soft forms as opposed to rectilinear ones, of the conjuncture of two apparently unrelated postures.

Or the angle between two walls. In The Atrocity Exhibition, distinctions between the outer environment and the inner landscape of the mind are wiped away; in another story, “The Overloaded Man,” people and rooms are reduced to (or revealed as) collections of angles and corners, part of a continuous geometry with our dreams and fantasies. The Ballardian interior is mental — “innerspace,” as he put it, a more promising zone to explore than sterile, starlit outer space. And that exploration isn’t confined to the analyst’s couch or the MRI chamber, but can take place in the world around us, which is the expression of our innerspace. The angle of two walls exists in the corner of the room, but also in the corner of the mind.

So does the angle of two walls have a happy ending? Ballard was asked his own question by an interviewer in 1992, and answered:

“You tell me. … Well, it’s a serious question actually, which I won’t try to unravel at this stage. But everything you see — the man sitting on the stool, people I see sitting on chairs — are all fictions generated by the central nervous system. There are fictions that match so we can all cope with each other. But they are fictions generated by the central nervous system none the less. The angle between two walls is part of that huge image that the brain generates, that explanation for the world that surrounds you. Now, the brain is looking for happy endings all the time. The brain is in the business of finding happy endings, whether it’s something to eat or whatever. Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending? It’s worth asking.”

For H.P. Lovecraft the corner is a gateway to the screaming abyss of the outer cosmos; for J.G. Ballard it is a gateway to our own psyche. In Lovecraft’s universe, science was making man irrelevant, shunting us into a corner. Ballard takes the corner and turns it inside out, again making us the very center. What Ballard saw, and what he expressed in his novels, was nothing less than the effect that the technological world, including our built environment, was having upon our minds and bodies. We were transforming the world around us into one seamless fiction.

Editors' Note

This article was made possible by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

  1. Michel Houllebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (London: Gollancz, 2005), 64.
  2. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 136.
  3. Eileen Cleere, “Victorian Dust Traps,” in William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson, editors, Filth: Dirt, Disgust and Modern Life (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 133-154.
  4. Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 161.
  5. Arthur Rüegg, “Autobiographical Interiors: Le Corbusier at Home,” in Alexander von Vegesack, Stanislaus von Moos, Arthur Rüegg, and Mateo Kries, editors, Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture (Vitra Design/NAI/RIBA, 2007), 118.
  6. John Carey contends that Bennett’s eye for “domestic convenience and labor-saving home design” was one of the features of his work most mocked by bien-pensant literary types. See The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (London: Faber, 1992), 179.
  7. Interview with Frank Whitford and Eduardo Paolozzi, anthologized in Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, editors (Fourth Estate, 2012), 42
Will Wiles, “The Corner of Lovecraft and Ballard,” Places Journal, June 2017. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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