Many literary historians would define "surrealism" as "a Twentieth Century movement in...literature purporting to express the subconscious mind by phenomena of dreams etc", but I would like to present an alternative history of surrealism in Literature and demonstrate that it was more than a short-lived pre-War movement, but adapted and changed to become an intrinsic part of many contemporary novels by merging with many realist techniques, and indeed, is now more widely-read than any of the original movement's founders could have hoped. While the similarity of some of the works to which I will refer with the works of Breton and Bataille is minimal, few would argue that the contemporary novel isn't fundamentally realist in form even though they have little in common with the likes of say, Fielding or Stevenson.
While the surrealist impulse has been present in Literature from Hesiod (who claimed to be instructed by the Muses), and the poet-priestess of the oracle at Delphi, through England's first poet Caedmon (who wrote when possessed by the spirit of God), to the dream literature of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan", Byron's "Fatal Man", and the descriptions of madness and irrationality in Shakespeare and Milton , the word was first coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917, and the first truly surrealist work was Andre Breton and Phillipe Soupalt's automatic text The Magnetic Fields, published in 1919.
These early surrealists thought that automatism was the way to express the subconscious, expressing in Breton's words, "properties and facts no less objective" than those in the external world. Breton described how to write automatically in his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), and thought its seemingly nonsensical phrases used the "grammar of dreams", a process very similar to what Freud called "condensation". In the Manifesto Breton said "Is it not possible that my dream of last night follows the one before, that dreams give every sign of being continuous?", a questioning of "objective" reality similar to that of two writers I will later discuss - Philip.K. Dick and William Burroughs (who once responded to the question of whether he believed in life after death by asking, "How do you know you're not dead already?")
However, by 1947 The Surrealist Groups in both Paris and London had dissolved, and in America literary surrealism, with the exceptions of Samuel Greenberg, William Carlos Williams and Charles Henri Ford, had remained disorganised and unfocussed, driven primarily by those European intellectuals and artists that had fled to America to escape the Second World War. Thus, the surrealist "movement", and surrealism itself, as accepted by many literary historians, fizzled out, and passed into history as an interesting experiment (although small numbers of surrealist writers continue to work today).
However, I would argue that surrealism did not disappear thus, but changed and moved into other literary sub-genres. The literary historian can see little evidence of it simply because he is looking in the wrong place.
Its history can be traced from the likes of Breton and Bataille in the Thirties and Forties, to the Beat writers of the Fifties especially Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and their work marked a significant move of the surrealist impulse and technique from a small, intellectual "avant-garde", into the mainstream.
Much of Kerouac's work was a "hip" stream of consciousness, and he believed in a form of literary Truth, which meant that, like Breton before him, he refused to change a single word once it had been set on paper. Burroughs (a former student of English Literature at Harvard), on the other hand, was probably the most overtly surreal of the three "big" Beat writers (Allen Ginsberg being the other). His focus on drugs and drug-induced altered states paralleled Breton and Dali's focus on dream-consciousness and paranoia, as well as mirroring those poets that the Surrealists admired, such as Coleridge and his opium-induced hallucinatory verse of "Kubla Khan".
While writing his most famous novel Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs was experimenting with mescaline and paregoric (an elixir of opium), and was reading psychiatric research on the effects of mescaline on schizophrenics. It was during this time that there was also a physical link with the early Surrealists, in that he met Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, and was friends with Jacques Stern, (a friend of Dali and Jean Cocteau).
Much of the novel is set in "Interzone" of which Burroughs said in 1955, "the meaning of Interzone, its space-time location is at a point where three-dimensional fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into the real world. In Interzone dreams can kill....and solid objects and persons can be as unreal as dreams." Similarly, he explains his method as:
"There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is
in front of his senses at the moment of writing....I am
a recording instrument....I do not pretend to impose
"story", "plot", "continuity".
Much of the book was a mish-mash of what interested him at the time - drugs, homosexuality, detective and science fiction, Kafka's Metamorphosis , and so on; a narcotics agent absorbs junkies like amoeba; a homosexual's rectum stretches from his body searching the town for young men; and telepathic creatures called Mugwumps sodomise young men before killing them.
However, it is his later work which is even more overtly surreal. In his three books, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964), he made extensive use of "cut-up" and "fold-in" techniques which he claimed "placed at the disposal of a writer the collage (technique) used in painting for fifty years" , and described the concept behind it as being that "....any narrative passage or any passage, say, of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own right. A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images - real Rimbaud images - but new ones....cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one's range of vision consequently expands."
These techniques while not expressing the subconscious mind, pushes the concept of automatism one stage further, the re-arranged words and phrases falling in a truly random order (that is if one can accept the idea that the author's subconscious can be truly removed from the process, which is open to debate).
There are many similarities between the kinds of sentences and phrases produced using the cut-up technique and those produced by automatism. For example, compare "Sad young image dripping stagnant flower smell of sickness to a dusty window... I'll tell you story called the Street of Chance" and "from his mouth floated coal gas and violets...on the boy's breath a flesh" with the phrases written by some members of the Surrealist group - "The face of the precipice is black with lovers; the sun above them is a bag of nails" and "In a glass filled with a garnet-red liquid, an intense boiling created white rockets that fell in hazy curtains."
However, the pushing of surrealism more into the mainstream by the Beat writers, was undoubtedly helped by the explosion of marijuana use amongst their readership - the "Beatnik" youth of the Fifties, their freedom-loving attitude to life (or aspirations towards it), and their drug use no doubt going some way towards creating a greater interest in altered states of consciousness and a greater questioning of "dream vs reality".
Of course, when considering the use of "consciousness-expanding" drugs by the general public, one must discuss the 1960's. For several years Allen Ginsberg had been investing a great deal of time and energy in helping to found the "Flower-power" hippy movement, and it was amongst the turmoil of this decade, (the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, radical feminism, and the hippy movement), that the literary style known as "The New Wave of Science Fiction" flowered.
Prior to this development science fiction (henceforth called SF), whilst being used by the likes of Burroughs as a representation of popular culture, had been rather dull and overwhelmingly realist in approach. (Although the heavy use of symbolism and allegory was remarkable in such pulp hack-work. The number of stories which used the "invading aliens/Martians/robots" theme as an allegory for Communism, or McCarthyism (depending on the writer's point of view), or the terror of the Atomic Age is impressive, and its popularity amongst Servicemen traumatised by the effects of mechanical war is understandable). However, these stories and novels are of little interest in the current discussion.
Christopher Priest gave a definition of New Wave" style writing as:
"...obscure to one degree or another. There would be experiments with
the actual prose: with grammar, with viewpoint, with typography.
There would be reference to all sorts of eclectic sources: philosophy,
rock music, newspaper articles, medicine, politics, automobile
specifications, etc. There would frequently be explicit descriptions of
sexual activity, and obscenities were freely used."
The surrealistic elements in such work is clear. Indeed, Donald.A. Wollheim wrote in his introduction to The 1974 Annual World's Best SF, that it "...amounted to little more than a dreary rechauffe of surrealist work of the 1920's and 1930's which had largely petered out in the mainstream."
Wollheim meant this to be a criticism of the New Wave, but for my purposes it is extremely useful, for that is the whole point! Surrealism, despite what many critics and literary historians believe, didn't "peter out" in the mainstream, but evolved, changed, and became more popularly accepted (and certainly more commercially successful) within the literary sub-genre of SF. Surrealism hadn't disappeared, one just needed where to know where to look for it.
The British magazine New Worlds, edited by Michael Moorcock promoted many of the New Wave writers including Brian Aldiss, and J.G. Ballard. Indeed, the first Moorcock issue contained a story by Aldiss, the first part of a Ballard serial (later published as The Crystal World), and interestingly an article by Ballard on William Burroughs.
As the New Wave, rich in surrealistic elements, grew in popularity, magazines like Amazing Stories, edited by Cele Goldsmith, began publishing more New Wave material, including work by Aldiss and Ballard (again), and Ursula Le Guin, Thomas Disch, and Philip.K. Dick (whose work I will come back to later).
By 1968 Judith Merrill had assembled the anthology called England Swings SF , which was littered with experimental typography, quotes and jottings of the time, and lyrics from Sergeant Pepper (echoing Burroughs' cut-up technique), and Brian Aldiss had managed to get an Arts Council grant for the financially-troubled New Worlds on the basis of its literary merits. It was at this time that New Worlds was publishing such work as Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration (1968)(a symbolic novel about the enhancement of human intelligence by use of the syphilis virus (more shades of Burroughs' work)), and much of J.G. Ballard's more overtly surreal work. He was writing books such as Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974),(a take on the Robinson Crusoe story about a motorist who crashes on a traffic island in the centre of a huge highway network and is unable to escape). New Worlds also published many of his "condensed novels" that were later to be assembled in The Atrocity Exhibition (1969).
Using tight compressed prose, and lists produced by free-association, Ballard openly referred to Surrealist writers and artists, and their works (for example, Oscar Dominguez, Roberto Matta, Paul Eluard, Ernst's "The Eye of Silence", "The Robing of the Bride", and "Europe After The Rain", and Dali's The Persistence of Memory" are all referred to).
The Atrocity Exhibition, contains such passages as "Undisturbed, the universe would continue on its round, the unrequited ghosts of Malcolm X, Lee Harvey Oswald and Claude Eatherly raised on the shoulders of the galaxy" , and "At the conclusion of the film he would go out into the crowded streets. The noisy traffic mediated an exquisite and undying eroticism" , and some of its chapters included The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race, (which did indeed consider Kennedy's assassination as a motor-race, with Oswald's shot acting as the starter pistol), The Generations of America, (a list of names taken from various magazines - "Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert.F. Kennedy. And Ethel.M. Kennedy shot Judith Birnbaum. And Judith Birnbaum shot Elizabeth Bochnak. And Elizabeth Bochnak shot....." for six pages), and Princess Margaret's Facelift, and Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty, in which he replaced the word "patient" in a medical text with the aforementioned celebrities, with the intention of highlighting the closeness of such texts to pornography by adding the element of fame.
However, the writer who was most obsessed with the nature of reality, unreality, and surreality was Philip.K. Dick. While much of his work in the Fifties was interesting but conventional allegory, his work in the Sixties and Seventies became notably more surreal, more than likely the result of an incredibly high intake of drugs, and bouts of mental illness. He experimented with cut-ups for fun, but his published work is notable for its obsessive reworking of the theme, "What is real?"
In Ubik (1969), an accident causes five people to waken in a reality other than our own, a reality that is the construct of one of the protagonists, the rest of the text describing their search as to whose reality it is, and their attempts to regain access to true reality.
In A Scanner Darkly (1977), the main character, an undercover drugs officer who has to take identity splitting drugs to fit in with those he observes, loses touch with who he is, and doesn't realise that the latest drug-user he has to track and observe is actually himself.
Some could argue that while such works are surreal in the everyday use of the term, they do not conform to Breton's aim of expressing subconscious thoughts and drives. However, the narrative viewpoint of these novels (indeed Dick's personal view of the world in his everyday life) is very similar to the paranoiac-critical method espoused by Dali, although utilised in a traditionally realist narrative form.
Similarly, Breton himself said in What is Surrealism? (1934), "Surrealism must cease being content with....automatic texts, the recital of dreams, improvising speech, spontaneous poems, drawing and actions", and I would argue that this is precisely what these writers were doing - utilising the surrealist impulse in new ways.
In Dick's novel Valis (1981), (written after he believed he had been personally contacted by God in 1974), two of the main characters are Horselover Fat who we are immediately told is insane, ("Philip" in Greek means "lover of horses", and "Dick" is German for "Fat"), and Philip.K. Dick himself, who also narrates the story. These two characters search for God (called Valis) in all manner of everyday items such as records and books, before meeting Sophia (the Fifth Saviour) who dispels Dick's need to project a "Fat" personality, before being accidentally killed. This results in the reappearance of the Horselover Fat personality who decides to scan T.V. channels and search the world for further signs of Valis.
The strange narrative viewpoints (who is the narrator, indeed, who exactly is the author?), and the continued questioning of objective reality, makes this a highly surrealist work. The conventional prose style may have little in common with The Magnetic Fields, but I would remind readers of Breton's urging writers to "move away from automatism", and to consider the differences between "realist" writers such as Ben Okri, and Emil Zola.
Finally, in Time Out Of Joint (1959), Dick writes a novel based on a similar premise to that of Magritte's "La Trahison des Images", in which Magritte reminds the viewer that his work is indeed not a pipe but an oil painting representing a pipe. In the same way Dick writes a novel in which a man sees objects disappear only to be replaced by pieces of paper bearing their names, the most notable being when he tries to buy a drink, and the vendor disappears leaving only a small note with the words "SOFT DRINK STAND" written on it.
Dick, like the Surrealists before him, saw his work as dealing "with hallucinated worlds, intoxicating and deluding drugs and psychosis....It's like Eye in the Sky" (a novel similar to Ubik in theme) "when actual rescue is right at hand but they can't wake up. Yes, we are asleep like they are in "Eye" and we must wake up and see past (through) the dream - the spurious world with its own time."
The work of many of the New Wave writers can thus be seen to be highly surrealist - explorations and expressions of the subconscious and altered states of consciousness. However, by the mid-1970's, the New Wave had become too obscure for many, and SF again became less experimental. So, we must therefore look elsewhere for the existence of surrealism into the Nineties, and with this in mind I would guide the reader towards many of the so-called "Post-modernist" writers.
For example, in Time's Arrow (1991), Martin Amis writes a novel in which time flows backwards from the nineties to the twenties, a classic New Wave device, used by Aldiss (Cryptozoic!), Ballard ("Time of Passage"(1967) in The Venus Hunters(1980)), and Dick (Counter-Clock World (1967)) before him. The purpose of this novel is essentially to redeem War (drug-addled psychotics "return" from Vietnam as clean-cut, fresh-faced teenagers), but especially the Holocaust (smoke and ashes flow into the incinerators from which the Jews are reborn), but the concept is notably surreal. Even conversations run in reverse, requiring careful reading.
Similarly, in his novellas Cock and Bull,(1992), Will Self tells the story, using a traditional realist narrative, of a woman who grows a penis and then rapes her alcoholic husband (Cock), and a young rugby player who discovers a vagina behind his knee, has sex (using his knee-vagina bizarrely enough) with his Doctor, and then gives birth to a son (Bull).
These stories, primarily intended as a humourous comment on sexual and gender relations are however, noticeably non-realist in their subject matter, if not their approach.
Thus, I would hope that my arguments for the continued existence of surrealism as a powerful literary force have been amply demonstrated, but, a linear direct influence can also be demonstrated by the various relations between the writers themselves. Martin Amis is an admirer of Ballard's work, even citing him as an influence for one of the stories in his collection Einstein's Monsters. Will Self has written articles for "The Guardian" on Burroughs, and "The Sunday Times" described Cock and Bull as like "a film of Kafka's Metamorphosis, scripted by William Burroughs, and shot by David Cronenberg" (who has himself filmed adaptations of Burrough's "Naked Lunch" and Ballard's "Crash"). Ballard has referred to Breton, Ernst, Dali, Bataille and other Surrealists in his works, as well as writing the introduction to the 1993 edition of Burrough's Naked Lunch, a favour returned by Burroughs in writing the introduction to Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition.
Thus, it can be seen how the Surrealist impulse has been an important element in literary output since before the time of Hesiod, and it is this impulse, this need to question external reality and explore the internal reality through which it is mediated, which marks a work as Surreal, rather than the narrative style that the work adopts. Thus, while the works of the Surrealist group in the first half of this century can indeed be seen to "run out of steam", repeatedly ploughing the same automatic furrow, the impulse, by its very nature refusing to conform to rigid rules of "what Surrealism was", changed and adapted, surfacing in different literary genres and utilising different narrative techniques. Indeed, when one considers the growing popularity of these works as the century has progressed, from the largely obscure works of Breton and Bataille, through the countercultural cultishness of Burroughs and Dick, to the bestseller, Booker-prize-winning success of Amis and Ballard, one can only wonder if the Surrealist impulse is evolving over time to a point where it is pure enough to be relevant to the masses, or if Society itself, overloaded with information from dozens of sources, has somehow gotten close enough to its own hidden paranoias and anxieties to be able to feel an importance in this work.
Ballard, J.G. (1993) The Atrocity Exhibition, London, HarperCollins.
Breton, A, and Soupalt,P. (1985) The Magnetic Fields, London, Atlas.
Burroughs, W.S.(1995), The Soft Machine, London, HarperCollins.
Carter, P.A. (1977) The Creation Of Tomorrow, U.S.A, Columbia University Press.
Gascoyne, D. "Salvador Dali" in Germain, E.B.(ed) Surrealist Poetry in English, (1978), London, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics.
Germain, E.B. (1978) "Introduction" in Germain, E.B.(ed) Surrealist Poetry in English, London, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, p27.
Miles, B. (1992), El Hombre Invisible: William Burroughs, London, Virgin Books,
Priest, C. (1978), "The New Wave" in Holdstock, R,(ed) Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, London, Cathay.
Sutin, L. (1994), Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip.K. Dick, London, HarperCollins, p153.
I've been far too busy to keep this thing up, so in the way of a "Greatest Hits" album to buy some time, here is a reproduction of an old article I wrote for "The Guardian" back in the mid 90s. As a dyed-in-the-wool Dick Head it was fantastic to actually talk to Dick's agent. I also had the opportunity to chat to Brit SF legend and renowned Dick fan Brian Aldiss and Fay Weldon, author of "Life and Loves of a She Devil" amongst many others. Weldon in particular was great. After about an hour of interview (over the phone) she said she had to go but she'd ring me back. Now clearly, I thought she was just making her excuses. But no, an hour later she did ring me back. I'll always remember my Dad answering the phone and saying, "Who? Oh. It's for you." "Well, who is it?" "Fay?" "Fay. I don't know any.... oh great.....", and just knowing that my cover as a freelance journalist for a national paper had been blown and I was exposed as a stoner who had just moved back to his folks'. Ah well, she carried on regardless (in some ways we just chatted about our mutual love of PKD's work - it was hardly a professional interview) and she even agreed to look at some of the early "Ugly Stories" (which she, ahem, loved of course)...
Anyway, here it is. Can't remember what the spur for it was now. Could have been a new PKD film adaptation. Anyway, enjoy:
"It's a sad fact of life that as far as the arts are concerned, success and fame is often accorded to the artist posthumously, the said artist usually dying in poverty unaware of his or her later status and influence.
And so it was with Philip .K. Dick, SF writer, counter-cultural figurehead, Intimate of God, and, according to Timothy Leary "a fictional philosopher of the Quantum Age". Dick, whose work has been influential on all manner of artists from Terry Gilliam, Robert Crumb, REM, and Elvis Costello to William Gibson, Philippe Starck, and Fay Weldon (who called him "my literary hero"), emerged as a champion of the 60's counter-culture and the European Avant-Garde, many of whom were enamoured by his strange stories of drug-like reality displacements and distortions.
His best known creations are probably the films based upon his books, films in which his creative role was negligible to say the least. These include the highly influential "Bladerunner" (1982) and "Total Recall" (1990). Now, with the news that "Screamers" a big-budget science-fiction epic starring Peter Weller (of "Robocop" and "Naked Lunch" fame) is to be released it seems that Dick's media profile is set to rise, and attention will again be focussed on his forty novels and two hundred stories. Based on one of Dick's less-philosophical 1950's stories, "Second Variety", "Screamers" is about robotic weapons that learn to develop themselves into humanoid forms and then rebel against their human masters. However, while the original story was one of the first ecological horror stories that also examined one of Dick's most obsessive themes of "what is human?", the film appears to be a special effects blockbuster that is expoiting the current boom in science-fiction. But with the news that Bladerunner's director, Ridley Scott, is to direct "Bladerunner 2", and that Francis Ford Coppola is to direct a $30 million adaptation of Dick's 1965 classic "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch", one must ask why a writer who spent much of his life working within the much-derided literary ghetto of SF, is suddenly such a powerful creative force some fourteen years after his death.
Until the release of "Bladerunner", Dick was a well-respected writer within science-fiction circles, yet despite his prodigious output and many attempts at breaking into the literary mainstream, was virtually unknown outside it. "Bladerunner" was released only months after Dick's death in March 1982, and he never saw the film in its entirety, although he had seen some clips and was astounded by the similarity of the film's visuals to his own conception of the future.
Based loosely on his 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", "Bladerunner" was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Harrison Ford, Darryl Hannah, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer, and had a score by Oscar award-winning composer Vangelis. It was touted as the next "Star Wars" - the next mega-grossing SF film that all of the studios were praying for.
Unfortunately it wasn't.
Despite it's $25 million budget it barely broke even on its initial release, and the merchandising line based upon it was a complete flop. However, in the long-run it established itself as a cult-classic. When the usually poor-selling "Director's Cut" (unusual in that it was actually slightly shorter than the original film) was released on video, it topped the charts, as did the Original Soundtrack that was released some months later.
"Bladerunner" re-established Dick's literary reputation worldwide, and virtually single-handedly spawned the whole cyberpunk explosion of the 1980's in the process. "Godfather" of cyberpunk and inventor of cyberspace, William Gibson recently claimed that he saw "Bladerunner" (a term borrowed from William Burroughs) whilst halfway through writing his seminal novel "Neuromancer", and had to quickly leave before the end, his vision of the future splashed across the screen. Indeed, the impact of "Bladerunner" can't be underestimated. For many the visuals of the film are the future, spawning many imitators, from "Akira" and the Japanese Manga explosion (the film was particularly popular in Apocalypse-obsessed Japan), to the 'Warriors of the Wasteland' look and sound so beloved by musicians like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry et al.
Dick was unhappy with the screenplay for the film, however, thinking the dialogue and the handling of the characters were poor. Despite this, in the years following the film's release, Dick underwent something of a Renaissance, many people discovering his works (some 35 novels and 6 short-story collections), as well as his skewed sense of reality, through the film. In 1990, eight years after his death and with his reputation as a 'cult' author safely established, "Total Recall" was released. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, the film was a box office success, although (perhaps because) the elements of the original PKD story "We Can Remember It For You Wholeasale" were hidden or erased under piles of corpses and hours of gunfire; the remaining sliver of plot "Is this real, or a schizoid delusion?") being reduced to little more than an interesting side-issue. This typical Dickian obsession was rendered meaningless when the film itself wasn't interested in the answer. After all, who cares if reality is genuine or not - Arnie could still shoot it.
Hooray for Hollywood.
Nevertheless, Dick's reputation continued to grow, his lifetime's production of stories being collected together into a five-volume 900,000 word set, and with many of his earlier unpublished novels finally seeing the light of day. However, it is only recently that Dick has started to be seen in a different light, and he has started to rise from the SF ghetto to the point where his work is mentioned in the same breath as Burroughs, Pynchon, Pirandello, and Huxley, his novels, despite containing spaceships, ray-guns and other science fictional staples, now being regarded as rare examples of Twentieth Century Metaphysics. Indeed, many of Dick's works were so ahead of their time that it is only now, some thirty to forty years later, that they can be fully appreciated and understood.
Despite his massive output, Dick generally concerned himself with only a handful of themes, usually reworking solutions to the questions "What is real?", "How do I know that this is reality?", and "How do I know that you're human?". Indeed Dick was obsessed with the concept of authenticity, and frequently made use of such plot devices that only SF could provide him with in order to investigate the idea. His stories and novels are littered with talking automata and simulucra, Dick often making his "fake" humans more human than the actual flesh and blood protagonists. In "Bladerunner" for example, the lead character is a man who kills androids for a living, and yet he falls in love with an android by the end of the novel, discovering that it is nothing more than empathy that seperates man from machine. Similarly, in the stories "The Electric Ant" and "Imposter" both characters lead happy fulfilling lives until they discover that they themselves are machines, their previous lives being nothing more than false implanted memories. However, it is not only the authenticity of humans that Dick questions. As he himself said, "The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of "My boss is plotting against me", it would be "My boss's phone is plotting against me!", and believe it or not he did in fact write many stories using this premise - only Dick could seriously describe homicidal toasters and washing machines. One of his best stories on this theme is "Colony", where a group of colonists are attacked by fake alien objects disguised as towels, belts, and so on. Eventually the colonists climb aboard their rescue ship, only to realise too late that it too is a fake, and that they have wandered inside a malevolent alien.
Another of Dick's favourite themes, and one that was perhaps reinforced by his own personal experience, was that of small honest men being held prisoner in a giant Orwellian Governmental machine. (Interestingly however, this man usually succeeds or comes close to succeeding, in bringing the Government down). It's not hard to see why this idea pre-occupied Dick. He was writing many of his admittedly strange stories in McCartheyite America, and his second wife was involved in radical student politics. In the fifties his letters to a Soviet scientist were intercepted by the FBI, and he was frequently visited by FBI agents who questioned him for hours and also offered him a free University education if he would spy on other students for them, although typically for Dick, he ended up taking driving lessons from one of them. Things didn't improve in the sixties. Dick's work, drug use, anti-Vietnam war activities and involvement with the counter-culture meant that he was frequently under observation. Indeed, many think that Government agents were responsible for the break-in at his home in which only documents and manuscripts were stolen. In "The Penultimate Truth"(1964) Dick described a world where most of the population live in underground bunkers believing that a nuclear war is raging on the surface. In reality the Government officials live in beautiful, massive estates beaming the false images of destruction down to the bunkers to keep the people from discovering the truth. In this novel Dick cleverly captured most American's attitudes to the Korean, and then later, the Vietnam wars - bloodbaths that simply took place in their television sets.
In "The Zap Gun" (1964) both the West and East have stopped expensive weapons research, but instead develop weapons that look powerful but are in fact useless, in order to dupe the populace, whilst in the story "The Mold of Yancy" he describes (yet again wildly ahead of his time) how computers generate the image of the perfect leader, a man who doesn't actually exist, who lectures his people on everything from cookery tips to economic policy.
His novel "The Simulcra" cleverly combines both themes - in this story the President is just an android, and his beautiful, seemingly-ageless wife is nothing more than a series of actresses, the real power being held by a Council of whom the people are wholly unaware.
However, whilst many of Dick's fans were, according to him, "wackoes and trolls", he was very popular amongst the European Avant-Garde and the American counter-culture, possibly because many of his stories seemed to resemble an hallucinogenic experience. His popularity amongst the counterculture grew during the sixties, and he was swept up by the "New Wave" of Science Fiction (a period in the late sixties where SF writers experimented with different literary styles and techniques, including many pioneered by the Surrealists and Modernists at the beginning of the century), although he actually changed his own style very little. His involvement with the Group as well as many rumours concerning his drug use, consolidated his status as almost a Poet Laureate of the drug-scene.
Born prematurely in 1928, Dick was a surviving fraternal twin - his sister dying six weeks after their birth. He blamed his mother for his sister's death, as he claimed that she had been neglected, and his obsession with his sister was to prove to be the focal point in both his life and work - critics point to the frequent dualities that his novels and stories express - real/fake, real/unreal, human/android, and SF/mainstream amongst others.
His father left home when Dick was aged six, and it's possible that Dick could have been sexually abused at this time. But for whatever reason, he developed a number of psychological problems, including panic attacks, swallowing difficulties, and bouts of vertigo so debilitating that he would be left bed-ridden. As a result, he had to withdraw from High School, and academic study at University also proved to be near-impossible. Dick was in his teens and working as a TV salesman when he started to write stories, both SF and mainstream. His mainstream literary work languished, but his SF proved popular. In 1953 thirty Philip .K. Dick stories were published, including seven in July alone, and in 1954 he published 28 more.
For much of the fifties he continued to produce interesting but pedestrian pulp-work as a means of supporting his family - between 1955 and 1960 he had six SF novels published and wrote eleven mainstream novels which remained unpublished. The unexceptional nature of his work at this time wasn't helped by Ace Books, his publishers, who would frequently change the stories and titles of novels without informing the writer.
As Karen Anderson, the wife of writer Poul Anderson noted, ["In the fifties "if the Bible was printed as an Ace Double (a paperback containing two novellas by different writers) it would be cut down to two 20000 word halves, with the Old Testament re-titled as "Master of Chaos" and the New Testament as "The Thing with Three Souls"." In 1959 Dick married for the third time, and started to write on a nine-to-five schedule to support his then-wife's taste for an affluent lifestyle. At the same time the dosages of amphetamines which he had been taking for a medical problem since he had been a child, increased. Yet it is without doubt Dick's sixties work which made him famous, and it is his capturing of the sixties zeitgeist whilst setting much of his work in the future that makes it so interesting. Novels such as the Nebula award-winning "The Man in the High Castle" which featured and was written using, the I Ching (the first American novel to mention it, and the work that was most influential in elevating the I Ching to cult status amongst the counter-culture), the aforementioned "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch", "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", and "Ubik" (which resulted in Dick's being elected as an honourary member of France's "College du Pataphysique") caused him to be recognised as virtually inventing the SF novel as a means of investigating reality rather than simply as a form of entertainment. Indeed, many novels utilising the alternate world ("What would the world be like if the Nazis had won the war?") theme that Dick pioneered in "The Man From The High Castle" have been written, including Robert Harris' bestseller "Fatherland". Unfortunately, Dick's effort, while critically acclaimed, was perhaps written, like much of his work, thirty years too soon, and its sales weren't spectacular.
In 1963 and 1964 alone Dick wrote eleven SF novels. He said of his prodigious output, "I'd like to be able to say I could have done it without the amphetamines, but I'm not sure I could have done."
Predictably, his drug intake, which by this time also included hash, acid and mescaline, as well as mountains of speed, both prescribed and street-bought, started to take its toll, both physically (he experienced hypertension and kidney failure that hospitalised him) and mentally (he became so paranoid that he would be bedridden for days, convinced that the FBI, the KGB, the Black Panthers, the police or even former housemates were out to get him). There may be some truth to many of his fears, however. As his marriage ended he turned his house into a haven for all and sundry, and it eventually became known as a safe place to score or sell drugs, attracting various addicts and neurotics. It was then burgled in 1971 with only files and manuscripts being taken.
However, there was some truth to his claim that drugs helped him to write. He wrote 140 pages of "Flow My Tears the Policeman, Said" (1970) in one 48 hour burst. In 1972 he went to live in Vancouver, but after a year there, he claimed he had been kidnapped by men in black suits who asked him lots of questions he couldn't remember. He then had a two week memory lapse, awaking to find himself committing suicide.
He survived and after a stay in a rehabilitation centre he returned to California. Much of his work in the seventies was, as he said himself, an attempt to get rid of the bad karma he felt he'd picked up in the sixties, and novels like "A Scanner Darkly" (1973) are classic analyses of the sixties drug-scene in the U.S.A. However, in 1974 he underwent an experience that was to forever change his life - he believed he had been contacted by God through a beam of information-rich pink light. The communication with the Divine Being continued on and off until his death in 1982, and every day Dick would examine and analyse his experiences in his hand-written journal which he termed his "Exegesis". The voice warned him about an illness that his son had (a malady that was later confirmed by a Doctor), and also caused the radio to play even when not plugged in - a phenomenon that his then-wife also remembers.
He spent much of the rest of his life trying to come to terms with his experiences, and many of his novels of the late 70's and early 80's reflect his concerns - "Valis" and "The Divine Invasion" are very much novelisations of his experiences with God and his subsequent researches.
He wasn't unaware of the strangeness of his life, however. As he said himself, "My God, my life is like the plot of any ten of my novels or stories....I'm a protagonist from one of PKD's books!" But, despite his many personal problems it was around the late seventies that Dick rose out of poverty for the first time in his life, due mainly to reprint fees of his dozens of novels, his overseas popularity in Japan and Europe, and because of a number of screenplay options that had been bought. Unfortunately, in March 1982 Dick experienced a number of strokes and then a fatal heart attack, only months before he planned to visit New York, Paris and Belgium in his search for Maitreya, the future Buddha (now apparently living amongst the Asian community in London and, of course, getting increasingly active as the Millenium approaches).
However, if Dick's work experiences another post-film upswing in popularity, two things will remain certain. Firstly, even though Dick's work is rapidly rising from out of the SF backwater and into mainstream literature, it is more than likely that his full cultural and literary impact will not be recognised for several more decades, when the critics eventually catch up with him, and other writers have stolen even more of his ideas. And secondly, it's also certain that most peoples' perceptions of Dick himself will remain unchanged. Indeed, it is highly probable that they will react in exactly the way that Dick himself predicted in a 1980 letter. ....."He's crazy. Took drugs, saw God. Big fucking deal.""
This is the new short story collection by seasoned campaigner for all things good, free and (anti) Righteous, a certain Mr Leg Iron of "must-read-blog-and-surely-to-do-well-in-this-year's-Total Politics-poll" blog Underdogs Bite Upwards.
Leggy recently complained that there were hundreds of Google searches apparently being undertaken using the search terms "Who is Leg Iron?". Well, these weirdos at least must be happy as we now know - Leggy is a certain K.K. Hillman, of 21 Smoky Drinky Place, Scotland.
He's recently posted a few stories on Underdogs Bite Upwards as a prelude to publishing a collection of his previously-published fiction and, as a writer in my other life (it's not hard to work out who I am - I shamelessly have my writer's blog in my blogroll) I was suitably intrigued.
"Fears of the Old and the New" collects together nineteen short stories as well as a truly brilliant take on Poe's "The Raven" where the horror of the original is replaced with the far more gut-clenching terrors of New Labour:
"Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, In there stepped a one-eyed gorgon of the Monster days of yore. Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he; But with mien of lord and lady, squatted down upon the floor - Sat beside a pile of mended phones that lay upon the floor - Scowled and sulked, and nothing more."
Hillman's stories are proof that economy is a virtue in short story writing; many are only a few pages long and they benefit from this length, their message being conveyed simply and hitting the brain like a finely distilled Scotch rather than being diluted by padding like a weak ale.
Hillman's approach reminds me a lot of Stephen King or later Ramsey Campbell; normal, everyday suburban settings - involving a man with raucous chav neighbour or a middle-aged divorcee who spends too much time in the pub and inadvertantly makes his own impression on Christmas - settings which highlight the creeping horror that later emerges to even greater effect.
But I was also reminded of those old Pan Horror collections or the 70s Hammer Horror TV show, where modern settings are still somehow suffused with Gothic Horror. In stories like "The Skull", where a couple inherit a house complete with yellowed skull, or "The Transformation Ritual," "Drinking Buddies" and "Hell.net" which transpose vampires, magic circles and demonic invocation into the modern age.
But there is a vein of dark humour that runs through the stories. Hillman doesn't take himself too seriously, and, like Roald Dahl, amongst the satire, horror and occasional gore there are also laughs to be found. Here stories like "The Beer Monster" and "Last Christmas" shine. In the former,a man disgruntled with the all-night parties of his heavy-drinking neighbour, manages to buy a six pack of lager which contains a homicidal genie that will kill the first person it sees. There are unforeseen consequences to this, consequences which, having read his blog, I suspect he would like to see befall all "Righteous" who are so thin-lipped and joyless that the very smell of smoke or alcohol makes them retch.
As no stranger to the question, "What is real?" in my own stories, I particularly enjoyed "The Imagination Virus" which deftly shows us the effects of a virus that can alter our own perception of reality and "Telephone Pest" which could have come from Philip. K. Dick's pen circa 1957.
Hillman's prose style isn't flashy; but it's witty, economical and invites you into the worlds in the collection, which is surely what all good prose should aim to do.
Overall, this is a great little collection, although I have to admit I was disappointed that it didn't contain a story called "One Stop After Marchway", which manages to pull off the trick of being both funny and clever at the same time. That said, it can still be found at Leg Iron's blog, here.
Well worth a read.
The book can be bought from Amazon or downloaded and read on the PC. More details (including a Discount Code that gets you 15% off the price of the print version) here.
Byron doesn’t turn but beckons me over. I find another gap in the board and peer through at the street outside. “I’ve got them worked out,” he says. “They don’t come out till noon, and they come out one by one until there are hordes of them out there.” There are maybe eight or nine of them out there, pale, thin, spotty. Dirty tracksuits hanging from malnourished frames, the peaks of Burberry caps jutting from under raised hoods. They’re standing aimlessly in small groups, smoking and spitting, shifting their weight from trainer to trainer. Occasionally one would break away and kick a nearby car, “Mess u up, shiiiite.” Or they would pick up a nearby brick or piece of wood and throw it at one of the nearby houses. “Braapp!” “What are they doing?” Byron turns to me and smiles. “What they always do.” There are some females out there, too, baggy tracksuit bottoms and overtight T-shirts exposing flabby bellies, hair scraped back tightly, large gold hoops hanging from their ears. One of them stumbles over to a nearby wall, pulls her tracksuit bottoms down, and crouches against the wall, an expanding pool of yellow liquid forming beneath her. One of the males lurches over and pulling down his own tracksuit pins her against the wall. He lurches and grinds for a few seconds then turns and rejoins the group – “Fuked that fit bitch, innit” – and there’s a chorus of grunts, braaaps and safes, as the female reaches between her legs and scrapes out his mess with her hand and flicks it on the ground. A younger one is sat in the gutter, mindlessly hunched over a brick, tapping it with his hands before growing bored and throwing it at a nearby house. They yell out and shout at intervals, for no apparent reason, smoking and drinking cheap cider and vodka. A car pulls up, an old Corsa, but with bits of plastic and chrome hanging off it so it looks like a tank. Loud music blares out of it, thudding bass and clattering hi-hat, and some of them gather around it, jostling and grunting their appreciation. Byron whispers, “This is just the beginning. It gets worse until three or four in the morning, then for no reason, they’re gone.” “Where do they go?” “I don’t know. But it’s like this everywhere.” A small group are playing with fireworks, lighting them then throwing them at each other. I see large groups of them streaming into the McDonalds and the nearby Job Centre. They’ve somehow managed to get the doors open and are loping in and out, shouting and swearing. “What are they doing?” I say. “Why do they come here?” Byron joins me at the window, still munching on his cereal. I follow one group as it moves from the Job Centre to the McDonalds, kicking over rubbish bins as they do so, then another group split from the horde outside JGB Sports to go to the McDonalds. “Why the Hell are they just moving from one place to another?” The first group have now wandered from the McDonalds and are loping over to JGB Sports. Byron follows their movements disinterestedly as he shovels Coco Pops into his mouth. “Partly instinct. Memory. What are they used to do. These were important places in their lives."
"Burr's stories are hard to categorize, as they're not strictly horror or fantasy per se. However, all are imbued with a dark flood of macabre images that continue to disturb and haunt long after reading. The stories carry a core psychological reality (even the more surreal), layered with pathos and fatalism wrapped in punkish sensibilities. Each narrative in Ugly Stories feels like a complete and nuanced world inhabited by isolated souls walking a dark, lonely road.As difficult and uncomfortable as it is to see ourselves sometimes in the darker aspects and recesses of art and literature, we are somehow compelled to stare into that abyss. Burr's collection just happens to make it all worth the pain."
Read this review in full at THE HARROW.Garvan Giltinan, The Harrow
"This is a collection of short stories that steadfastly refuses to be shoehorned into any genre niche, though those who enjoy horror will assuredly find much of what they like within its pages. If you pinned me down and asked for a writer James Burr is similar to, my answer would be Russell Hoban, though even that may be stretching a point, with perhaps a hint of the early Vonnegut. These stories are not ugly, though they often touch on aspects of life that are, and you don't need to have model girl/boy looks to read them, just an open mind and a willingness to embrace a young writer whose work is that little bit off the wall, but refreshingly so."Peter Tennant, Peter Tennant's Case Notes, BLACK STATIC.
Burr is not merely a "new" voice, he is a fresh voice – a different and disturbing voice - and one deserving of your attention. His work is not easily categorized, which may, or may not, be a good thing. There are certainly horrific elements to Mr. Burr's fiction, but also what can be more readily described as "dark fantasy" and even, perhaps "Bizarro" fiction. .....There is also a dry, sardonic, and often satirical humor running through much of the stories in the book. The stories in this collection worked, for me, because they were not merely "different," but because they truly were disturbing to me, as a reader, and many of the stories stayed with me long after I'd finished reading it. Be forewarned - these stories ....... require, perhaps, a bit more effort on the part of a reader; but those looking for something a bit different and challenging, will be handsomely rewarded. This book is highly recommended.
Read this review in full at HorrorworldNorm Rubenstein, HORRORWORLD
"Ugly Stories for Beautiful People feels like a book in its own little world. I don't mean to suggest that its stories never joined the party – a glance at the list of previous publication credits will reveal that they did – but there is a certain sense that this book stands to one side, that it's doing its own thing, as it were. The collection begins and ends with a story called BobandJane and its postscript, about a couple who are so very much in love (Burr's prose conveys this superbly) that, yes, they don't perceive reality as it is – and, at the very end, their bubble may just be starting to burst. Not just a neat story, it serves as a summation of the whole book, a book which covers a range of human emotion, precarious relationships and equally precarious realities (and there may not be much difference between the two); and whose intriguing constituent parts form a complete, intriguing entity."
"This reviewer has read countless collections of fiction, in many genres, many eras. That being said, Ugly Stories has got to be one of the oddest. That could be a negative, yet in this case, Burr's strong imagination and plaintive, yet very effective prose manages to pull it off. Odd, unique, very cool, and extremely readable, this collection is recommended for anyone looking for something different - or for one of us who isn't one of the beautiful people!"
Read this review in full at Hellnotes.David Simms, HELLNOTES
"It's always a pleasure to find an anthology that's well written and unique and that strikes a chord long after turning the final page. Ugly Stories For Beautiful People is just such a collection.These loosely linked stories begin with Bob and Jane, A Fable in Two Distinct Parts, about a couple whose adoration for each other is all-consuming. Foetal Attraction is deftly narrated by a pregnancy kit that wants nothing more than to deliver the happy news of impending motherhood to its rather unsavory owner. In The Dada Relationship Police, a man discovers that a shadowy group seems to know every aspect of his life and his relationships. In The Byronic Man, a man must decide how far he'll go to make himself attractive to the opposite sex. Burr takes a satirical look at what could happen when humans' proclivity for pretentiousness suddenly runs amok in It. And in the "postscript" story, Bob and Jane make a final disconcerting discovery…From the darkly twisted, to humorous to stories filled with illuminating social commentary, Burr's innovative speculative fiction is an insightful, and sometimes disturbing exploration of the human psyche. Read Ugly Stories For Beautiful People in its entirety for its full effect -- James Burr's work exemplifies what a well crafted short story is all about." Rating -- 3 out of 3 books
"Burr brings to life an almost zoological variety of characters, a sweeping menagerie of insipid drug dens, high art soirees, faltering romances, madness, and the ever-present reggae. Burr convincingly weaves together the various societal strata of London and Barcelona from beggar to bureaucrat, acid-head to activist, and brings them to life to co-exist side by side in the same heartbroken, disillusioned universe.Ultimately, Burr's view alternates between the sentimental bitterness of failed romance and a sweeping image of modern life in all its sickness and beauty. Burr's writing, like his characters and his world, fluctuates from the simple to the complex, from the vulgar to the sublime. It is as if Burr cannot decide whether he wants to indict society or glamorize it.And because that's the point, Ugly Stories for Beautiful People is worth a read."
These stories offer a wry sideways look at modern life and culture, twisting and turning the quirks of everyday life into something recognisable and yet entirely odd - like a caricature, perhaps. There are common themes: is what we call reality really real? How can our own minds fool us? Can simple statements and thoughts help use see the true reality from within our mindless everyday haze? There is also an obsession with relationships - and specifically what happens when they come to an end.....Ugly Stories for Beautiful People is a good collection of entertaining speculative fiction, which I would recommend without reservation. "
The most interesting thing about James Burr's stories, in my mind, is the use he makes of urban fantasy. In Burr's stories, the mundane creates the fantastical. When a real-life issue is loaded enough, when the mundane pressure grows and grows, then reality will twist and expand, and the impossible will occur. What Burr really pulls off well, then, is resonance. His stories are powerful because they are about pain, conflict, and emotions, and he tries to pick the ones that will be so powerful the reader will believe they are strong enough to warp reality. The impossible happens because the characters desperately want it to—and so Burr grants their wish. The bleak, depressing nature of these stories shows us full well how much confidence Burr places in humanity's desperate desires."
Ziv Wities, THE FIX
"Burr's short stories defy categorization. The stories vary in length and range in type from a tale told from the point of view of a pregnancy stick to the story of two people who are so in love with each other that they literally become one. The format of the book is also unusual. It has no table of contents, and the stories just sort of flow into each other. If there is a theme to the collection, it is about how the characters' perceptions prevent them from seeing the reality around them. Burr is a talented storyteller with an impressive imagination. His stories will be appreciated by readers of horror, bizarro fiction, and those who just like good writing. Recommended."
"The majority of the book is brilliantly written, with the basis for many of the stories involving relationships between wives/husbands, boyfriends/girlfriends, people/drugs, that range from the perverse (BOBANDJANE) to the bittersweet (Ménage Á Beaucoup). My personal favourite is probably ‘Life Is What You Make It’, involving as it does a woman dealing with grief in such a bizarre way that she’s fundamentally altered the structure of reality. [...] It might not be too bold to say the world needs more writers with fresh and weird ideas, and James Burr falls firmly into that camp."
"This collection could just as easily have been called Ugly Stories For Unsettling Contented People, for to enter the world of James Burr is to step into a region where reality is fluid and to be happy, or at least settled, is to be in incomplete possession of the facts. Once you enter, reality fractures in surprising and innocuous places. It was the shortest tales which for me had the greatest impact -- the delusions and, ultimately, kindness revealed in Mutton Pie; the pace and linguistic inventiveness of The Byronic Man; and best of all from this collection, It, which is a gem of a story, at once hilarious and horrific, a story which leaves you envying the author its premise while admiring the perfect balance with which that premise is developed. The best test of such a collection is the success with which the author inveigles you into their world. In this case, I finished the book in the food court of a shopping mall, put it down, looked around me, and waited for the cracks to show. "