on 9 May 2009
In this book Ken Hollings examines several key strands in American culture immediately following the Second World War: the fear of nuclear annihilation, the proximity of space (taking the form of flying saucer panics, alien contact fantasies and the more mundane space race against the Soviet Union), the growth of suburbia and the studies of human consciousness that included LSD research and investigations of "brain-washing". As well as narrating events in these areas during the late 40s and the 1950s, he examines the way in which a society's concerns and self-image were fed back to it through the medium of popular culture, in particular science-fiction B-movies (the image of the feedback loop, of course, itself derives from the new science of cybernetics).
There are connections between these spheres, of course: to pluck one example from many, the developer of some of the earliest planned suburban communities had begun his career building secret housing, not appearing on any maps, for workers in the atom bomb programme. Personnel appear and reappear in the different strands of the story to the extent that it can be difficult to keep track, which is perhaps the point. Hollings' modus operandi is the rapid shuffle between narratives, the jump cut that juxtaposes two strands: his chronological framework commits him to this rapid switching, but it is also one of the means whereby he builds up a convincing structure. In the end, this is perhaps not so much history, or at least orthodox "balanced" history (in which one would be required to look more closely at how representative certain figures actually were), as one history, one possible use of the facts, a paranoid riff in which images from reality are selected and juxtaposed in cut-up fashion. Hence the Cabaret Voltaire comparison: both subject matter and technique are closely analogous to the Sheffield Dadaists' work in music.
The caveats about the extent to which this is "history" are not to say, I hasten to add, that what Hollings tells us is untrue - and there are some stories in here that make the blood boil even without the addition of sinister conspiratorial overtones, such as the use of disabled children as guinea-pigs in the ingestion of radioactive substances, or the work of Dr Ewan Cameron (and his British associate William Walters Sargent) in attempting to wipe and reprogramme the human mind, using mental hospital patients as raw material (both men shared what could be described as a robust approach to patient rights, something that Sargent's personal papers, deposited in a public archive and freely available for consultation, bear out). However, history as understood in the academy is not really the point here: the objective is a forensic analysis of a culture, western scientific capitalist consumerism; the way in which, as Ballard told us all along, the public domain is a reflection of inner wants and fears, the stated justification for public actions often a long way from the real motivation; and the way in which this environment shaped the children who were born into it and grew up to be the sixties generation. The experience of all this is rather reminiscent of reading Pynchon's fictions (a comparison Hollings himself draws in the introduction) - a bewildering web of connections, forever on the verge of taking shape and resolving themselves into a clear picture of the big conspiracy, but never quite doing so. Non-fiction novel, paranoid history, prose Cabaret Voltaire LP: read it yourself and decide for yourself (if "they" haven't already planted in your head what they want you to believe....).
on 23 February 2010
If you are a fan of The Illuminatus Trilogy and/or Adam Curtis' work on television (Century Of Self, Power Of Nightmares, The Trap), then you'll be on familiar territory with Ken Hollings' 'Welcome To Mars'.
Welcome To Mars examines the period immediately after WWII, and the American Miltary/Industrial complex's dark mirror of the burgeoning science fiction which was prevalent in the mainstream consciousness of the era. Hollings draws dark parrallels which takes in the 'Red Terror' undercurrents of Saucermen movies, the terrible and true-life tales of the Military/Industrial complex, utopian social engineering and their nutty (and invariably unethical) masterminds, mind control, dreams of life on other planets etc.
Slanted and selective in its view of history (as with Curtis' work), Hollings weaves a captivating and fantastically subversive take on post-war America. Tip-toeing carefully through the muddier parts of American history, Hollings skillfully navigates away from conspiracy theory territory (dont worry, no shape-changing lizards here!), essaying some of the more extreme ideas and experiments borne out of the paranoia of the era. Unbeleivably, nearly all of which are a matter of public record. Less a history, more of a meditation on America's post war empire building days (with one eye gazing at the stars).
Highly reccomended, especially if you can keep your wits, perspective and sense of humour around subject matters like these!
on 27 April 2014
The cover of WELCOME TO MARS is proof positive that a picture can be worth a thousand words. On the copyright page we learn that one Jasmine Hromjak did the Cover Design - and what a potent, poetic, evocative, mind-boggling, nostalgic and so very humorous cover it is! Love, love, love the cover! It speaks in a UFO sighting instant of a time and place and mania and mind-set - and anyone with a smidgin of knowledge about America and the cultural and political climate of the '50's would be hard-pressed not to smile and also shiver some when looking upon this book's amazing cover. I only wish the book itself were commensurate to its cover.
Being a baby boomer myself, I was familiar with a great many of the topics covered in Ken Hollings' book - mainly those dealing with UFO sightings and the sci-fi films of the decade. The author assigns each chapter to a year in covering American cultural, political and scientific happenings, as the book's subtitle indicates. While the chronological deluge of people, places and things held interest it did so only up to a point: the point where it seemed I was reading a more densely packed "birthday" card, the kind that lists all the happenings in the year you were born, from the miraculous to the mundane. So that is what this book became, in the end. It is a blink-and-miss it approach that over time grows exceedingly tedious. A tidal wave washing everything and anything up on the shore of a reader's scrutiny. I dare say, if someone knows next to nil about this seismic decade in American history, the book may seem to be written in Greek. I know that if one never saw the films discussed, the discussions would by-and-large seem decidedly confusing, pointless and vague. I would guess Hollings is after both style and substance - but the substance of the book, in the end, becomes its style - and the adrenaline rush of raw data with which the book begins ultimately wears itself out rather quickly, like an undisciplined boxer giving too much too soon and exhausting himself for later rounds and thereby losing the bout. The fact that some of the info Hollings serves is tainted doesn't make matters any better.
A few examples of errors I picked out of the whirlwind read: on page 76 Hollings claims that the reason Scotty, the newspaper reporter in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, fails to photograph the electrocution of "The Thing" is due to "some unconscious act of clemency." You see, in Hollings' tortured read of things, he believes Scotty feels a need for some sort of "clemency" because of the imminent executions of the actual atomic spies, the Rosenbergs. According to Hollings, Scotty also stops dead in his recounting of the notorious photo shot by a reporter with a camera strapped to his ankle, a picture of the electric chair execution of Ruth Snyder in 1927. The reason Scotty stops relating the story of the earlier execution is because he knows "history is about to repeat itself" via the Rosenbergs. See what I mean by tortured? Hollings is just trying too hard to find cross-cultural connections that just are not there. Truth is, Scotty doesn't continue with the Snyder story because the Thing is drawing nearer to the final confrontation with the Earthlings. And the reason Scotty doesn't photograph the electrocution of the Thing isn't due to any act of clemency at all! Simple truth is..Scotty faints! His failure to get a single photograph of the Thing is a running joke throughout the entire film.
Here is another: on page 244, Hollings says that Rod Serling got the inspiration for the TWILIGHT ZONE debut episode "Where is Everybody?" from taking a "walk across an empty sound stage." Actually, it was a walk through an empty village set at the back lot of a movie studio. This isn't my being picayune. If you are familiar with this TZ episode, you will appreciate the difference between an empty stage and an empty village. Another: on page 240-41, Hollings misrepresents William Castle's THE TINGLER "as the first movie ever made about LSD" and that because of its subject "the kids in the Midnight Spook Pit are just going to love it." While it is true that this movie shows the first LSD trip in mainstream film - a trip taken by none other than Vincent Price - to say that the movie itself is "the first movie ever made about LSD" is simply disingenuous. Hollings also gets it wrong when he writes that the Price character takes his trip whilst alone, while two other characters are off on a date. In truth, the assistant and girlfriend watch the entire trip from the other side of a lab door. On page 241, Hollings totally misrepresents the one touch of color in the otherwise black and white film. In the film, the blood in a bathtub and running from a sink faucet are red. The color in this sequence - wherein a man is trying to scare his wife to death - has absolutely nothing to do with a LSD trip. To hear Hollings tell it, though, is quite astonishing: "Shot in lurid color while the rest of the film remains in dreary black and white, the hallucination sequences look like a heart-stopping, grotesque, zonked-out parody of THE WIZARD OF OZ." He goes on waxing erroneously: "William Castle takes teenage America for a ride through the chemically enhanced brain; and the boys and girls all seem to like what they see." And more nonsense: "William Castle is the favorite uncle of America's healthy, socialized youth. With the aid of rubber fright masks and bathtubs filled to the brim with fake blood, he is now introducing his kids to the Wonderful World of LSD." If I were a member of the Castle family, I would probably sue because none of what Hollings says about Castle or THE TINGLER is true.
Just as it isn't true that - according to our author on page 249 - "debris thought to be from the crashed Roswell saucer was first examined" at Fort Hood, Texas. Fort Worth Army Air Field, yes, but not Fort Hood. But it seems our author is trying to connect Elvis - who completed his basic training at Fort Hood - to the UFO in Roswell to Lee Harvey Oswald and the Texas military base in order to make some sweeping statement about American culture and craziness. But the connection just isn't truly there, but only in the author's overwhelmed head. So after finding these mistakes relating to things I know about, I uncomfortably wonder what else Ken Hollings got wrong in his book. And in reading a book dealing in large part with the paranoia of a time and place, feeling paranoid in any degree with regards to the veracity of what one is reading...is just not a good way to feel.