Picturing Vermilion Sands

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First UK edition, 1971. Art by Brian Knight.

Vermilion Sands (1971) is a story collection by JG Ballard which maintains a cult reputation even while being overshadowed by its author’s more popular (and notorious) novels. Most of the stories were written in the 1960s, and a couple of the pieces are among Ballard’s earliest works, but where many of his other short stories can read like the work of a writer with bills to pay, the tales of Vermilion Sands are much closer to Ballard’s core interests, filled with symbolic resonance and literary allusion.

Vermilion Sands, the place, is a near-future resort with a desert climate and an unspecified location, where the Côte d’Azur meets Southern California but the ocean is a sea of sand. The inhabitants are the idle midde-class types who populate all of Ballard’s work, and each story has a different artistic or cultural theme. Ballard was more receptive to visual art, especially painting, than many authors, particularly the SF writers of his generation for whom art was less interesting than science and technology. There is science and technology in these stories (some of the latter is now inevitably dated) but it doesn’t dominate the proceedings. The stories derive less from scientific speculation than from Ballard’s desire to create a future he would have been happy to inhabit himself, an alternative to the grim dystopias which proliferate in science fiction. The background furnishings also reflect the author’s ideal, owing much to the Surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, a pair of artists whose works are often referenced in Ballard’s fiction. Given all of this you’d expect that cover artists might have risen to the challenge more than they have. What follows is a look at the more notable attempts to depict Vermilion Sands or its population, only a few of which are covers for the book itself.

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The King in Yellow

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Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

The King in Yellow, Act i, Scene 2.

Rearranging the bookshelves this week had me looking again at this old Ace paperback of Robert Chambers’ weird classic, one of that select handful of books which can bear a blurb from HP Lovecraft. Any Lovecraft aficionados yet to read the first four stories in Chambers’ collection (the others pieces are of lesser interest) are missing out. These are as good as anything that Weird Tales published and together they achieve that unique blend of science fiction, fantasy and horror which Lovecraft and others also managed in the days when writers, and readers for that matter, were far less concerned with the definition and boundaries of genre.

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My Ace edition was the first paperback printing from 1965 and the cover painting is by Jack Gaughan, credited inside as being based on Chambers’ own first edition design. I’d often wondered what the original cover looked like and now, of course, it’s easy to find. Whether Chambers himself drew this is unclear but whoever the artist was, the design is rather more finessed than Gaughan’s sketchy painting.

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Searching around reveals two further variations, one of which—the green cover—is described on a bookselling site as the actual first edition of the book from 1895. Yours for a mere $1,750. The other cover is probably a later reprint which gives a clearer view of the mysterious King. What’s notable here is the curious sigil on both the Neely editions. I was hoping this might be the dreaded Yellow Sign which is the subject of Chambers’ fourth (and Lovecraft’s favourite) story; it’s certainly more suitable than the squiggle which seems so unaccountably popular among certain quarters of Lovecraft fandom. It isn’t the Yellow Sign, however, it turns out to be the monogram for publisher F. Tennyson Neely. Perhaps this is just as well. “The solution to the mystery is always inferior to the mystery itself,” as Borges said, and some things, like the malevolent play which gives its name to this collection, are best kept out of reach.

The King in Yellow at the Internet Archive

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Arthur Machen book covers
Clark Ashton Smith book covers