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Running Wild

Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard

"In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom."

The problem with being prescient is that sooner or later the rest of the world catches up with you, leaving your predictions, once innovative and shocking, entirely out-of-date. It could be argued that such a fate has befallen "Running Wild."

Written by J.G. Ballard as a response to the Hungerford massacre, "Running Wild" outlines, in forensic detail, the peculiarities of a strange killing spree. The entire adult population of a gated, upper-middle-class, suburban enclave along the Thames valley, is dead, their children abducted. Over the course of the book, a psychiatric advisor from Scotland Yard will piece together the various clues and oddities surrounding the case until the shocking truth becomes clear.

Running Wild [J.G. Ballard, 1988]:

When Ballard wrote the book in the late 1980s, the concept of the "spree killing" was something of a rarity in the UK. Crimes like the massacre at Hungerford weren't supposed to happen. Not in suburban England. Among other crimes, we had terror attacks and abductions, domestic violence and robberies gone wrong, but the appearance of something as senseless but seemingly well-orchestrated as the massacre in Hungerford was shocking in its lack of precedence.

The Hungerford massacre occurred on the 19th of August 1987. Michael Ryan, a 27-year-old unemployed handyman and gun enthusiast, shot dead 16 people, including a police officer and his own mother, before shooting himself. His final words to a police negotiator, "I wish I'd stayed in bed", grimly captured something of the banal existentialism of the whole ordeal, and the selfishness of the violence itself.

The Hungerford Massacre (BBC Documentary) [Teresa Hunt, 2005]:

Carrying a handgun and two semi-automatic rifles while dressed in full camouflage, Ryan must have cut a surreal figure as he stalked the streets of this quiet English suburb, opening fire on anyone he encountered. It's the incongruity of the image that's terrifying. Ryan as the displaced soldier of fortune; the relic to some forgotten conflict, wandering suburban streets as if patrolling an occupied territory, searching for a war that only exists in his own tortured mind.

Ballard in particular must have been fascinated by this image and the machinations of this kind of violence that was almost performative in its public exhibition, as the narrative of "Running Wild", sparse and to the point as it is, seems to exist specifically to facilitate a discussion on the senselessness of a crime like that of Hungerford, but also like many of the other senseless spree-killings that have followed in its wake.

It is here where Ballard's prescience has been diminished. Without engaging in spoilers, the mystery surrounding the massacre at Ballard's fictional Pangbourne Village eventually leads to a conclusion that its central character, Dr Richard Greville, and his colleagues on the periphery of the narrative, consider too shocking to entertain. Unfortunately, for those of us that have lived through the deplorable murders of James Bulger and Ana Kriégel, or the massacres at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech and others, it appears sadly less shocking, instead merely predictive of a kind of violence that is now all too common within western society, and a breed of perpetrator that would have once been considered above suspicion.

Written as a series of journal entries in a largely cold, professional voice, "Running Wild" is never exploitative or salacious in its enquiry. It attempts, quite admirably, to understand through hypothetical conjecture, how a crime like Hungerford, which, from the outside in, appeared totally senseless and without intent, could happen in a setting as incompatible as the leafy narrow streets of suburban England, and in doing so, allows the reader to ruminate on subsequent but similar atrocities, such as the massacres carried out by Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane Scotland, Martin Bryant in Port Arthur Tasmania, Derrick Bird in Cumbria England or Omar Mateen in Orlando Florida.

If the book fails to offer any concrete reasons for why such crimes not only occur but have seemingly become a pandemic in the decades since its initial publication, then it's by no means a flaw. Instead, it's the inability of both the writer and his central character to fully explain or comprehend this expression of violence that makes it all the more unsettling.

Artwork by Stanley Donwood for the 4thEstate re-issues of Ballard's work [Photographer unknown, 2015]:

What Ballard does arrive at, however, is a theme of social conformity and the notion of violence as an act of rebellion. There's a satirical aspect to this in which the author goes to great and often darkly comic lengths to centre the affluence and cultured leanings of the Pangbourne residents as a stark contrast to the violence brought against them.

Throughout his career, Ballard has concerned himself with the idea of social regression; of seemingly cultivated and civilized societies descending into levels of primal violence and corporeal degradation. In this context, the violence becomes a protest against societal order; an attempt to regain a sense of self by disrupting the organized structure and routine of suburban middle-class civility; a kind of ideological terrorism.

Ballard would return to the same theme in several of his later books, specifically "Cocaine Nights" (1996), "Super Cannes" (2000), "Millennium People" (2003) and "Kingdom Come" (2006) respectively. In each of these books, a random act of violence propels the narrative forwards.

As the world continued to change and crimes like the one depicted in "Running Wild" became sadly more widespread, Ballard continued to ask questions; placing such seemingly senseless bursts of performative violence within a context of political terrorism, the homogenous, depersonalized nature of twenty-first century existence, and the growing rise of the kind of specifically British fascism that ultimately led to Brexit.