DISASTER IN SPACE:

J.G. BALLARD’S “JOURNEY ACROSS A CRATER”


By Mike Holliday

(I) A story disliked

The special edition of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, published in April 2017 by Fourth Estate, contains a wealth of additional material, including the contemporaneous short story ‘Journey Across a Crater’. The new edition is the first occasion that this particular piece has been included in one of Ballard’s books – indeed, it was deliberately omitted from both The Complete Short Stories and the expanded edition of The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard, it seems, had subsequently taken a dislike to the story, telling those who asked him that he did not believe that it worked.

‘Journey Across a Crater’ originally appeared in the February 1970 issue of New Worlds, and was reprinted the following year in the first issue of New Worlds Quarterly before disappearing from sight. At the time of its original publication, Ballard was busy working on the first draft of Crash, which he had started writing a couple of months earlier. This was confirmed in the New Worlds editorial for its February issue, which also informed readers that the new novel would be conventional in form – unlike the ‘condensed novels’ that comprised The Atrocity Exhibition. However, ‘Journey Across a Crater’ was written as a condensed novel and bears strong similarities to Ballard’s earlier stories in that format.

New Worlds #198 - cover photo by Roy Cornwall

(II) Stitched together

One possible reason for the author’s dissatisfaction with ‘Journey Across a Crater’ is that it does give the impression of being two different stories that have been rather inelegantly stitched together. The first half introduces the unnamed protagonist who is, or believes he is, an astronaut who has had some form of mishap in space and is now having difficulties in comprehending the world around him. Then midway through the story he takes up with a young paraplegic woman in a wheelchair, ultimately causing her death.1 The first half of ‘Journey Across a Crater’ therefore has some similarities to ‘The Death Module’, which had been published in New Worlds in July 1967 and was later included in The Atrocity Exhibition under the revised title of ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’. That earlier story had been announced in Ballard’s ‘manifesto’ for his new fiction – ‘Notes from Nowhere’, which was published in New Worlds in October 1966:2

At present I am working on a story about a disaster in space which, however badly, makes a first attempt to describe what space means. ... In my own story a disaster in space is translated into the terms of our own inner and outer environments.

To help get across the theme of the story, Ballard quoted the surrealist painter Roberto Matta: ‘Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own times?’3

‘The Death Module’ did not appear in print until July 1967 by which time Ballard had incorporated the real-life deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch-pad fire on 27 January 1967.4 In retrospect, one of the benefits of using the Apollo 1 fire as his space disaster was that it was relatively straightforward for Ballard to incorporate this very public accident into the story. He had no need to find a way of relating a mysterious accident in space to the exterior and interior landscapes that confront the astronaut here on earth – one of the weaknesses of ‘Journey Across a Crater’.

(III) Troubles with space

The phrase ‘disaster in space’ does appear in ‘Journey Across a Crater’, and it is possible that most of the first half (and perhaps some of the second half) was written during the latter part of 1966, before Ballard decided to base his story upon the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. The similarities between ‘The Death Module’ and ‘Journey Across a Crater’ are particularly noticeable in the first paragraph of each story: the sub-titles are almost identical –  ‘The Impact Zone’ in ‘The Death Module’ and ‘Impact Zone’ in ‘Journey Across a Crater’ – and both paragraphs refer to radio or TV commentaries on a space disaster. In fact, the New Worlds editorial for its February 1970 issue included a brief description of ‘Journey Across a Crater’ which could well have been provided by Ballard and is of just the sort of story that one might have expected from his comments four years earlier in ‘Notes from Nowhere’:

J.G. Ballard's latest story ... describes an astronaut's search to re-establish the meaning of his surroundings, after a disaster which has destroyed his conception of space. The astronaut deciphers the coded landscape slowly and painfully until at last he finds the key to interpreting the geometries of his environment.

However, if ‘Journey Across a Crater’ had been started in 1966, it is unlikely to have been finished until late-1969, given that it contains references to Armstrong and Aldrin, who became the first men to land on the Moon in July of that year, and to the Boeing 747 – an airliner that was first seen in public at the Paris Air Show in mid-1969 before entering service the following January.

(IV) The controls of the car

‘Journey Across a Crater’ can also be read as an attempt by Ballard to address the subject matter of Crash in the form of one of his condensed novels. Both halves of the story contain passages that relate to the automobile, including a description of a partially-constructed highway cloverleaf (which forms the ‘crater’ of the title), a re-enactment of a spectacular traffic accident, an account of the eroticism inherent in the paraplegic’s car with its specially adapted controls, and a crashed vehicle that is displayed in an art gallery. But at first sight such passages seem to lack relevance to other aspects of the story - something which was not the case with those sections of The Atrocity Exhibition in which the automobile had played a key role.

Perhaps we can grasp the intent behind the car-related passages of ‘Journey Across a Crater’ by considering two specific paragraphs, one at the beginning of the story and another near to its end. In the story’s second paragraph, the astronaut appears before Helen Clement in a dishevelled state, soaked to the skin, and so bewildered that he is unable even to comprehend the controls of her car. Later on, he takes up with the paraplegic woman, and in a paragraph titled ‘Vectors of Eroticism’ he carries out an inventory of various aspects of the controls and trim of her vehicle. Now, it seems, he can make sense of them – but only in an erotic or perverse context, by appreciating such features as ‘the unsymmetric imprints of buttock and thigh on the foam-plastic seat’ or ‘the stained leather mounting for the seat urinal’. If we view these two paragraphs as constituting a metaphor for the astronaut’s ability, or inability, to comprehend the world around him, then they become key elements of the story. It is therefore appropriate that the resolution at the end of ‘Journey Across a Crater’ is the result of a ‘crash’, when the astronaut propels the paraplegic woman in her wheelchair into the middle of the highway cloverleaf and lets her spin out of control.

(V) Too many Gabrielles

The second half of ‘Journey Across a Crater’ contains the emphasis on injuries and eroticism that we find in Crash; and in both cases, the woman whose wounds and disabilities fascinate the protagonist is named Gabrielle – without a surname in the novel, but ‘Gabrielle Saltzman’ in the short story. There are, however, two notable differences: in Crash, Gabrielle usually gets around without her wheelchair – and she does not die, unlike Gabrielle Saltzman in ‘Journey Across a Crater’.

The actress who appeared with Ballard in Harley Cokeliss’s short film ‘Crash!’ (1971) was yet another Gabrielle – Gabrielle Drake. In the first typescript for the novel, the paraplegic woman is unnamed. But when working on the script for Cokeliss’s film, Ballard suggested that it needed an actress, perhaps in the background, ‘like the artist’s model in the paintings of Delvaux, Ernst, etc.’5 After Gabrielle Drake had fulfilled this role, Ballard put a name to the young woman in his novel. At first she was Gabrielle Byrd, but by the time he came to submit a typescript to his agent6 she had actually become ‘Gabrielle Drake’! Here we have another example of Ballard attempting to ‘personalise’ the text of Crash whilst he was writing it – in the same way that he named the protagonist of the novel ‘James Ballard’, based James’ wife, Catherine, on his own real-life girlfriend, Claire Walsh, and modelled the hoodlum scientist Robert Vaughan on his good friend Dr. Christopher Evans. However, by the time that the novel came to be published, Gabrielle’s surname had – unsurprisingly – been omitted.

The description of Gabrielle Saltzman in ‘Journey across a Crater’ – she has ‘powerful hands’ which propel her ‘chromium wheel chair’, and emanates ‘an intense and perverse sexuality’ – is very similar to Ballard’s description of another of his real-life acquaintances in the late 1960’s, the filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin. In his tongue-in-cheek introduction to ‘The Bathroom’, a series of stills from one of Dwoskin’s films, Ballard had written: ‘Dwoskin himself is something of a closed character. A strong-shouldered and laconic paraplegic, he moves around London in a chrome wheelchair. His pursuit, across a city and a mind, of my own girl-friend, the beautiful Claire Churchill (whom he hopes to star, naked, in his first feature film), merits a movie on its own.’7 This description is reprised in ‘Journey Across a Crater’, in which the protagonist drives around following Gabrielle Saltzman in her specially adapted car, just as Dwoskin pursues Claire Walsh (née Churchill) across London.

However, Gabrielle Saltzman was not the first ‘crippled young woman’ in Ballard’s fiction: that is the very description given to Vanessa Johnstone in The Drought, who has a metal support on her right leg and with whom the main character, Doctor Charles Ransom, has a discreet on-off romance.

Ballard with Garbrielle Drake in Harley Cokeliss’s short film Crash!

(VI) A deliberate psychotic state

Two months after ‘Journey Across a Crater’ had been published in New Worlds, Ballard held his crashed cars exhibition at the New Arts Lab in London. He often said that the purpose behind the exhibition was to test the responses of the audience to the wrecked vehicles, but recollections of other attendees at the opening night do not substantiate his claims of wild and aggressive behaviour – some drunken fooling around at most. However, the fictional account by ‘Jim’ of his own exhibition in The Kindness of Women may contain a germ of the truth: ‘I still assumed that the exhibition had been designed to test the psychology of its audience, but [my friend] David took for granted that its sole purpose had been to incite myself.’

Might ‘Journey Across a Crater’ have been another attempt by Ballard, similar to his crashed cars exhibition, to get himself in the right state of mind for writing Crash?8 At the end of the story the astronaut finally understands his environment, having come to terms with its ‘geometry of violence and eroticism’ – and perhaps this reflects a belief on Ballard’s part that he could only write Crash once he himself had accepted that same geometry. As he said in a later interview: ‘I had to will myself into this deliberate psychotic state, suspending all values and embracing the nightmare logic that the book sets out’.9 There are therefore similarities between the protagonist of ‘Journey Across a Crater’ and the story’s author: the astronaut is an explorer of outer space, just as Ballard saw himself as an explorer of inner space;10 they are both are concerned with trying to make sense of the world around them; and they both arrive at similar solutions.

At one point the protagonist attends a basketball game held at a hospital for injured aircrew and played by paraplegics in their wheelchairs. All of a sudden, he wheels one of the surprised players towards the exit. It seems that the mentally disturbed astronaut identifies with the physically wounded aircrew, in much the same way that in the first chapter of Crash the narrator James Ballard identifies with the likes of ‘psychopaths’ and ‘excited schizophrenics’. That Ballard himself made a similar identification can be seen from his dedication included in the suppressed 1970 Doubleday edition of The Atrocity Exhibition: ‘To the insane’.11

Later on, the astronaut ponders his ‘failed relationship’ with Helen Clement12 before taking up with Gabrielle Saltzman, who has her own difficulties in coping with external reality. During his time with Gabrielle, the astronaut learns that he can come to terms with the world by accepting its underlying violence and eroticism. This he does by killing Gabrielle – and to the extent that he identifies with paraplegics, he can be considered to have sacrificed the ‘injured’ part of himself in order to redeem his life. This theme of ‘sacrifice’ is one that had featured in The Atrocity Exhibition, most notably in Dr. Nathan’s suggestion that ‘in 20th century terms the crucifixion’ – the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of humanity – ‘would be re-enacted as a conceptual auto-disaster.’13 Ballard also had to accept a world of violence and eroticism, and risk making a sacrifice of his sanity, by writing Crash: ‘I had to take the top off my skull ... and start touching pain and pleasure centers to see what happened’.14

(VII) Like an archangel

If Gabrielle Saltzman’s role in ‘Journey Across a Crater’ is to show the astronaut how to come to terms with the world, then she is aptly named. Initially, it is the astronaut himself who is described as appearing before Helen Clement ‘like ... an archangel’; but his relationship with Helen is a failure, and it becomes clear that it is Gabrielle who is the true messenger from God in this story.

It is possible that Gabrielle’s namesake in Crash may have been intended for a similar role. The typescript which Ballard submitted to his agent contained a good deal of material that was omitted from the published version of the novel. In one such section, in the first chapter, the narrator ponders the fate of the other characters following the death of Robert Vaughan; Gabrielle, he believes, ‘will go off ... with the others who gathered around her, like a crowd drawn to a cripple whose deformed postures reveal the secret formulas of their minds and lives’ – a description which recapitulates Gabrielle Saltzman’s role with respect to the astronaut in ‘Journey Across a Crater’.

(VIII) An impatient little boy

‘Journey Across a Crater’ also contains quite specific autobiographical elements. Most obvious is the paragraph titled ‘Hell-Drivers’, which was the name of the American display team whom Ballard mentions in his autobiography, Miracles of Life. This section of the story describes how the character Vorster visits a display of crashing cars. After the climax of the demonstration, a reconstruction of a spectacular car crash, Vorster feels irritated by his fellow spectators and hands over his binoculars to a small boy who waits impatiently behind him – almost like a six year-old Jim Ballard standing with his father whilst watching the Hell-Drivers in Shanghai.15

(IX) Bondage activities

In a paragraph titled ‘Nutrix Corporation’, Helen Clement reflects upon the astronaut’s ‘strange perversions’ and realises that they are actually ‘bridges across which he hoped to make his escape’, thereby freeing himself of his estrangement from the external world. Nutrix was actually a real-life US company that had been set up by Irving Klaw and specialised in producing bondage magazines and films. Ballard told Penthouse in a 1970 interview that a friend of his who had visited America had brought back a Nutrix magazine that featured a number of women being restrained and tied up to various parts of a motor launch.16 This is therefore the likely source for the photograph used in Ballard’s advertiser’s announcement ‘A Neural Interval’, which was published in Ambit in 1968. That image was credited to the collection of Ballard’s friend Eduardo Paolozzi, who did indeed spend some time in the US during 1968-69, and presumably supplied Ballard with the magazine.

What struck Ballard about the Nutrix magazines were that at first sight they had nothing much to do with sex, and yet for their readers they presumably contained elements that were more erotic than an actual depiction of nudity or sexual intercourse – a theme that he would explore in both The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.17

Detail from ‘A Neural Interval’

(X) Most dissatisfied

‘Journey Across a Crater’ is included in the forthcoming special edition of Crash – but it certainly dissatisfied its author, perhaps because he felt that he had not managed to get it to work as a coherent whole. Or maybe, after killing off Karen Novotny (several times), Nurse Nagamatzu and Margaret Trabert in The Atrocity Exhibition, he thought that brutally ending the life of yet another young woman was a death too far. Another possibility is that Ballard refused any re-publication after 1971 because he viewed ‘Journey Across a Crater’ as an attempt to create the right conditions for writing Crash: an exercise in self-induced psychosis that was now best left consigned to the past.

Certainly, the story does nothing to suggest that the non-linear style of The Atrocity Exhibition might be an appropriate choice for a detailed exploration of the linkages between sexuality, psychopathology and the automobile that were the focus of Crash. In the February 1970 issue of New Worlds Ballard was quoted as saying that he intended to carry on writing in the condensed form ‘for many years to come’. In fact, he dropped it almost entirely after ‘Journey Across a Crater’.

So what was ‘Journey Across a Crater’? A first version of Ballard’s ‘disaster in space’, given a bit of tweaking a few years later? A quick story written specifically for New Worlds, incorporating earlier, unused material? A failed attempt to develop the themes of Crash in a condensed format? A way of preparing himself mentally before he started writing his most notorious novel? ... Or was it perhaps a bit of all of these?

Notes

1 The ending to the story does not explicitly state that the characters Gabrielle Saltzman and Vorster are actually dead, but the fact that the astronaut ‘moved away from the two bodies’ is a strong indication that this is the case.

2 Based on internal evidence, it is likely that ‘Notes from Nowhere’ had been written a few months earlier, during June or July 1966.

3 Or rather, Ballard misquoted Matta, who actually wrote ‘Why must we await – and fear – a disaster in space, in order to become aware of our world?

4 Another possible reason for the delay in the story’s appearance is that New Worlds was experiencing publication and financial difficulties. At one point it seemed as if the magazine must close, and no issues appeared for February, May or June 1967.

5 Letter from Ballard to Cokeliss dated 3 December 1970, available at the British Library, ref. Add MS 89171/1.

6 Available at the British Library, ref. Add MS 88938/3/8/2.

7 ‘The Bathroom’, The Running Man #2, July-August 1968.

8 For an examination of the development of the ideas that lay behind Crash, and Ballard’s preparations for writing the novel, see Mike Holliday, ‘Taking the Top Off His Skull: The Genesis of J.G. Ballard’s Crash’ at http://www.ballardian.com/taking-the-top-off-his-skull-the-genesis-of-j-g-ballards-crash.

9 Interview in ‘Writers in Conversation: Volume 1’, Christopher Bigsby, 2000; the interview most likely took place in 1991.

10 Ballard must surely have been aware of the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi’s description of himself as a ‘cosmonaut of inner space’, a phrase admired by William Burroughs; see Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs.

11 The dedication had originally been included in the very first edition of The Atrocity Exhibition – Jannick Storm’s Danish translation, published in late-1969. Although the dedication was omitted from subsequent editions, Ballard did note in his 1990 annotations that: ‘The Atrocity Exhibition's original dedication should have been “To the Insane”. I owe them everything.’

12 Ballard’s girlfriend during the middle of 1966, when he may have started writing ‘Journey Across a Crater’, was also named Helen; see David Pringle, ‘Memories of Life: A Conversation with Fay Ballard’, in Deep Ends: The JG Ballard Anthology 2014 (ed. R. McGrath). One of the main female characters in Crash is also a ‘Helen’ – Dr. Helen Remington.

13 The same theme is implicit in Crash, even though not directly referred to; see Mike Holliday, ‘Taking the Top Off His Skull: The Genesis of J.G. Ballard’s Crash’ at http://www.ballardian.com/taking-the-top-off-his-skull-the-genesis-of-j-g-ballards-crash.

14 Ballard interview in Heavy Metal, April 1982.

15 Those of a Freudian disposition will therefore not be entirely surprised to learn that at the end of the story Vorster is killed by the astronaut.

16 Interview in Penthouse, September 1970. This section was not included in the published version of the interview, but it does appear in the ‘author’s proof’ held at the British Library, ref. Add MS 89171/1.

17 In fact, part of the rationale for the Nutrix magazines was that, because they did not actually display nudity or sexual activity, they were not considered pornography and were therefore legal in the US.