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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Weekend links: Apocalypse not now

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The Kurtz compound prior to destruction. An Apocalypse Now storyboard, one of a number which will be included among the extras on the Blu-Ray release of Francis Coppola’s film when it appears in the UK next month. The film is given a new cinema release on May 27th.

Radio broadcaster Harold Camping, a man denounced by fellow Christians as a false prophet, achieved one thing at least this week by making himself and his followers a global laughing-stock after the Rapture failed to materialise. I would have put money on him blaming those terrible gays somewhere along the way, such complaints being so common among a certain brand of American fundamentalist that you could write their sermons for them. Sure enough, here’s the old fool blathering about “lespianism” and describing the beautiful city of San Francisco as a cesspool. Shall we chalk this up as another victory for the gays, Harold? Related: No dogs go to heaven.

The internet has always been a home for ridicule but occasions like this bring out the wags in droves. The Oatmeal showed us how God is managing the Rapture using a Windows Install Wizard, and also pointed to a selection of sarcastic tweets. Meanwhile, this page has a comprehensive catalogue of previous apocalypse dates; the biggy is next year, of course.

Burroughs himself was no stranger to prosecution. In 1962 he was indicted on grounds of obscenity. Naked Lunch was not available in the US until 1962 and in the UK until 1964. The writer Norman Mailer and the poet Allen Ginsberg had to defend the book in court before the ruling could be reversed. In Turkey, it is now our turn to stand up for the novel.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak criticising the paternalism of the Turkish state in trying to protect its people from troubling novels. Related: William Burroughs publisher faces obscenity charges in Turkey.

An A–Z of the Fantastic City by Hal Duncan. “This guidebook leads readers and explorers through twenty-six cities of yore (Yore, while included, is one of the shorter entries).” Illustrated by Eric Schaller.

• The creepiest Alice in Wonderland of all, Jan Svankmajer’s semi-animated Alice (1988), receives a very welcome re-issue on DVD this month. With Brothers Quay extras and other good things.

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Robert E Howard’s sinister magus from the Conan stories, Thoth-Amon, as depicted by Barry Windsor-Smith. From a portfolio of five Robert E Howard characters, 1975.

What is computer music (or does it matter)? Related: A History of Electronic/Electroacoustic Music (1937–2001), 511 (!) downloadable pieces.

Unearthly Powers: Surrealism and SF: Rick Poynor explores the Tanguy-like strangeness of Richard Powers.

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s search for a kool place.

The Library of Congress National Jukebox.

Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies.

Amy Ross’s Wunderkammer.

Rapture (1981) by Blondie | Apocalypse (1990) by William Burroughs | Rapture (2000) by Antony and the Johnsons.

Ballard and the painters

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Jours de Lenteur (1937) by Yves Tanguy.

Behind it, the ark of his covenant, stood two photographs in a hinged blackwood frame. On the left was a snapshot of himself at the age of four, sitting on a lawn between his parents before their divorce. On the right, exorcizing this memory, was a faded reproduction of a small painting he had clipped from a magazine, ‘Jours de Lenteur’ by Yves Tanguy. With its smooth, pebble-like objects, drained of all associations, suspended on a washed tidal floor, this painting had helped to free him from the tiresome repetitions of everyday life. The rounded milky forms were isolated on their ocean bed like the houseboat on the exposed bank of the river.

The Drought (1965).

Following my observations yesterday about Ballard’s Surrealist influences, this post seems inevitable. By no means a comprehensive listing, these are merely some of Ballard’s many art references retrieved after a quick browse through the bookshelves earlier. I’d forgotten about the Böcklin reference in The Crystal World. The Surrealist influence in Ballard’s fiction is obvious to even a casual reader, less obvious is the subtle influence of the Surrealist’s precursors, the Symbolists. André Breton frequently enthused over Gustave Moreau‘s airless impasto visions and many of Ballard’s remote femmes fatales owe as much to Moreau’s paintings as they do to Paul Delvaux. The Symbolist connection was finally confirmed for me when RE/Search published their landmark JG Ballard in 1984; there among the list of books on his library shelves was that cult volume of mine, Dreamers of Decadence by Philippe Jullian.

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Fantômas

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Fantômas was championed by the Parisian avant-garde, first by the young poets gathered around Guillaume Apollinaire, who, together with Max Jacob, founded a Société des Amis de Fantômas in 1913, and later by the surrealists. In July 1914, in the literary review Mercure de France, Apollinaire declared the imaginary richness of Fantômas unparalleled. The same month, in Apollinaire’s own review, Les Soirées de Paris, Maurice Raynal proclaimed Feuillade’s Fantômas saturated with genius. Over the next two decades, poets such as Blaise Cendrars (who called the series “The Aeneid of Modern Times”), Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau, and Robert Desnos, and painters such as Juan Gris, Yves Tanguy, and René Magritte, incorporated Fantômas motifs into their works. Pierre Prévert’s 1928 film, Paris la Belle, featured a Fantômas book cover in the closing sequence, and the Lord of Terror was adapted to the surrealist screen in Ernest Moerman’s 1936 film short, Mr. Fantômas, Chapitre 280,000. As the century progresses, Fantômas remained a minor source of artistic inspiration as the subject of cultural nostalgia.

Continued here.