This article is part of our series about the four stories not included in The Weird. See the Four Stories introduction for more information. – The Editors
The work of J.G. Ballard occupies a unique space that exists at the intersection of science fiction, horror, satire, and post-modern literature. All of these tendencies can be witnessed even within the short space of a story like “The Drowned Giant.” First published in the aptly-named 1964 collection, The Terminal Beach, in it we witness the bizarre appearance and lingering effects of a mysterious giant’s corpse. The story features many of Ballard’s perennial themes — physical grotesqueries and society’s fascination with them, alienation, the juxtaposition of life and death, and a sense of bleakness that pervades the human condition. His themes and stylistic experimentation have traditionally placed him in the science fiction New Wave movement with the likes of other weird authors, such as M. John Harrison and Harlan Ellison, but much of his work resists even this nebulous categorization.
In “The Drowned Giant”, our narrator, along with numerous other anonymous onlookers, witnesses the appearance of a deceased monstrosity and observes the manner in which it decays, undergoes various mutilations, and is distributed piecemeal throughout the unnamed city nearby. The story operates on a number of levels— an exercise in abjection and body horror, a kind of fairy tale in reverse, and a commentary on the fluidity of identity. Ballard deliberately creates no expectation of a rational explanation for the giant’s corpse, as the opening presents the body in a non-emotive, matter-of-fact manner. From the beginning, one can clearly see that the story is going to develop along a trajectory that deliberately goes against the expected narrative development; the story is less about solving the mystery of the giant’s origin (as it ironically decomposes and is dismantled) than it is about exploring the effects upon the town that discovers and distributes it.
In Ballard’s work, humanity’s strange fascinations and conflicting drives become a lens through which we can conceive of our existence as an exercise in weirdness. As time passes and the giant becomes more repugnant, its pieces are severed and repurposed into totems, decorations, and horrific adornments. The relative anonymity of the story’s “I” and “we” – the only identifiers for the characters other than the giant — creates an intensifying sense of unease and makes it clear that Ballard is commenting on the dehumanizing effects, on both observer and observed, of spectacle consumed en masse. Simultaneously, the persistent mutilations — in the name of science, entertainments, and other motivations — serve to erode the identity of the one distinct character in the story. We witness it disintegrating and regressing from “the body of a drowned giant” to something no longer bearing resemblance to a human (“the human likeness I had noticed earlier had vanished again”). As it continues to lose any recognizable identity, it becomes a skeleton, and eventually even its unity as a skeleton is dismantled as “the high curved bones are deserted, battered by the breaking waves, but in the summer they provide an excellent perch for the sea-wearying gulls.”
The anti-gestational tendency of the story forces the reader to confront a fundamental problem found in much of the best literature and science fiction: what is it to be human? If one loses something as crucial as a limb, is one’s identity retained? What about several limbs? A head? As in other of Ballard’s works, this selection illustrates a kind of uncomfortable view of evolution and adaptation; as components of the body are faced with selective pressures, they often adapt other functions that were previously impossible, culminating in a recognizable, distinct specimen made up of such parts. In “The Drowned Giant,” the process occurs in reverse until a distinct identity becomes impossible, but one can never quite pinpoint at what moment it ceases to be a giant and becomes a skeleton, or a disfigured collection of parts. Are the components now discrete wholes of their own and divested of their connection to the strange colossus?
The systematic dismantling of the body is focused on with excruciating detail, often calling to mind the detached, clinical depictions of morbid processes in the works of Kafka, such as the torture mechanism in “In the Penal Colony”. This narrative style is a crucial part of what makes the story so profoundly unsettling; the giant is clearly not too distant a relative from humanity, and yet its fetishized destruction is a product of the all-too-human urge to reappropriate. We are, after all, makers and users of tools and totems. Although the story turns upon a weird premise, the behavior subsequent to the giant’s appearance seems all too normal and loses its spectacular qualities. “With this loss of identity, and the few traces of personality that had clung tenuously to the figure, the interest of the spectators expired.” Like Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People,” there is a kind of unsettling consonance to the human behavior depicted — a challenging effect to achieve for any writer.
While the giant itself is of obvious significance, so too is the manner in which news of its arrival is disseminated and consumed. The anonymous “I” and “we” are linked to the circulation of news about the spectacle that is the giant. Note, particularly, the distinct use of the passive voice in the first two sentences; the giant’s body is acted upon, and the consumers of the news are similarly acted upon, which subtly reinforces the theme of spectacle consumption as a numbing agent. From the beginning, “accounts of the giant circulated around the city” in a fashion that morbidly parodies the later circulation around the city of its constituent limbs, bones, and other assorted components. Over time, the giant’s arrival has been forgotten, but his constituent parts remain and begin to show up in seemingly-random locations. Instead of a giant, it is now a jaw bone, a humerus, a square of skin, etc. Instead of novelty, its pieces are now unremarkable. In keeping with the story’s ironic trajectory, the abnormality of the giant becomes progressively more mundane – a likely commentary on the numbing effects of superficial mass entertainments.
The juxtaposition of the mundane and the spectacular is just one of many such contradictions present in “The Drowned Giant” and the rest of of Ballard’s work. Presented here are life and death, the animate, anonymous collective and inanimate, identifiable singular, utility and futility, the mysterious otherworldly and the rational investigations of science. Decades after publication, Ballard’s speculative work remains as weird as ever, with just as much disquieting relevance to current readers.