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The Corner of Lovecraft and Ballard

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.

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.

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.

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.