William Burroughs cities of the red night


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William Burroughs

William S. Burroughs, the world-renowned author of Naked Lunch, Junky, Queer, Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands, Interzone, The Cat Inside, My Education: A Book of Dreams and The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959, is a member of the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters, and a Commandeur de l'Orde des Arts et des Lettres of France. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
First published in Great Britain 1981 by John Calder (Publishers) Ltd.
to Brion Gysin

who painted this book before it was written

to James Grauerholz

who edited this book into present time

to Steven Lowe

for his valuable work on the manuscript

to Dick Seaver

my publisher

to Peter Matson

my agent
to all the characters and their real-life counterparts living and dead

Fore! 9
Invocation 13
Book One

The health officer 17

We see Tibet with the binoculars of the people 25

The doctor is on the market 29

Politics here is death 32

The rescue 38

Harbor Point 40

The private asshole 44

Fever spoor 57

The stranger 60

Shore leave 66

Lettre de marque 70

Are you in salt 75

Horse hattock to ride to ride 80

Port Roger 90

Mother is the best bet 99

Quién es? 108

Even the cockroaches 113

Firecrackers 117

Necesita automóvil 126

Por convención Zapata 133

Book Two
Cities of the Red Night 141

Get out of the defensive position 146

We are the language 151

A cowboy in the seven-days-a-week fight 158

The unconscious imitated by a cheesecake 161

We are coordinated The guard is manifold 165

Big Picture calling Shifty 173

Screen play/part one 177

Cheers here are the nondead 184

The sky is thin as paper here 192

Étranger qui passait 194

Draft riots 198

Tamaghis revisited 203

Where naked troubadours shoot snotty baboons 208

Book Three
Locker room 213

It is difficult in train "A" 220

I can take the hut set anywhere 223

Please to use studio postulated to you 232

A lecture is being given 237

Afterbirth of dream 247

A walk to the end of the world 251

Moves and checks and slays 256

Will Hollywood never learn 261

Argue second time around such a deal 265

Minutes to go 274

We are here because of you 275

Return to Port Roger 286


The liberal principles embodied in the French and American revolutions and later in the liberal revolutions of 1848 had already been codified and put into practice by pirate communes a hundred years earlier. Here is a quote from Under the Black Flag by Don C. Seitz:

Captain Mission was one of the forbears of the French Revolution. He was one hundred years in advance of his time, for his career was based upon an initial desire to better adjust the affairs of mankind, which ended as is quite usual in the more liberal adjustment of his own fortunes. It is related how Captain Mission, having led his ship to victory against an English man-of-war, called a meeting of the crew. Those who wished to follow him he would welcome and treat as brothers; those who did not would be safely put ashore. One and all embraced the New Freedom. Some were for hoisting the Black Flag at once but Mission demurred, saying that they were not pirates but liberty lovers, fighting for equal rights against all nations subject to the tyranny of government, and bespoke a white flag as the more fitting emblem. The ship's money was put in a chest to be used as common property. Clothes were now distributed to all in need and the republic of the sea was in full operation.

Mission bespoke them to live in strict harmony among themselves; that a misplaced society would adjudge them still as pirates. Self-preservation, therefore, and a cruel disposition, compelled them to declare war on all nations who should close their ports to them. "I declare such war and at the same time recommend to you a humane and generous behavior towards your prisoners, which will appear by so much more the effects of a noble soul and as we are satisfied we should not meet the same treatment should our ill fortune or want of courage give us up to their mercy...."

The Nieustadt of Amsterdam was made prize;, giving up two thousand pounds and gold dust and seventeen slaves. The slaves were added to the crew and clothed in the Dutchman's spare garments; Mission made an address denouncing slavery, holding that men who sold others like beasts proved their religion to be no more than a grimace as no man had power of liberty over another....

Mission explored the Madagascar coast and found a bay ten leagues north of Diégo-Saurez. It was resolved to establish here the shore quarters of the Republic—erect a town, build docks, and have a place they might call their own. The colony was called Libertatia and was placed under Articles drawn up by Captain Mission. The Articles state, among other things: all decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation.

Captain Mission's colony, which numbered about three hundred, was wiped out by a surprise attack from the natives, and Captain Mission was killed shortly afterwards in a sea battle. There were other such colonies in the West Indies and in Central and South America, but they were not able to maintain themselves since they were not sufficiently populous to withstand attack. Had they been able to do so, the history of the world could have been altered. Imagine a number of such fortified positions all through South America and the West Indies, stretching from Africa to Madagascar and the East Indies, all offering refuge to fugitives from slavery and oppression: "Come to us and live under the Articles."

At once we have allies in all those who are enslaved and oppressed throughout the world, from the cotton plantations of the American South to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and the whole Indian population of the American continent peonized and degraded by the Spanish into subhuman poverty and ignorance, exterminated by the Americans, infected with their vices and diseases, the natives of Africa and Asia—all these are potential allies. Fortified positions supported by and supporting guerilla hit-and-run bands; supplied with soldiers, weapons, medicines and information by the local populations ... such a combination would be unbeatable. If the whole American army couldn't beat the Viet Cong at a time when fortified positions were rendered obsolete by artillery and air strikes, certainly the armies of Europe, operating in unfamiliar territory and susceptible to all the disabling diseases of tropical countries, could not have beaten guerilla tactics plus fortified positions. Consider the difficulties which such an invading army would face: continual harassment from the guerillas, a totally hostile population always ready with poison, misdirection, snakes and spiders in the general's bed, armadillos carrying the deadly earth-eating disease rooting under the barracks and adopted as mascots by the regiment as dysentery and malaria take their toll. The sieges could not but present a series of military disasters. There is no stopping the Articulated. The white man is retroactively relieved of his burden. Whites will be welcomed as workers, settlers, teachers, and technicians, but not as colonists or masters. No man may violate the Articles.

Imagine such a movement on a world-wide scale. Faced by the actual practice of freedom, the French and American revolutions would be forced to stand by their words. The disastrous results of uncontrolled industrialization would also be curtailed, since factory workers and slum dwellers from the cities would seek refuge in Articulated areas. Any man would have the right to settle in any area of his choosing. The land would belong to those who used it. No white-man boss, no Pukka Sahib, no Patróns, no colonists. The escalation of mass production and concentration of population in urban areas would be halted, for who would work in their factories and buy their products when he could live from the fields and the sea and the lakes and the rivers in areas of unbelievable plenty? And living from the land, he would be motivated to preserve its resources.

I cite this example of retroactive Utopia since it actually could have happened in terms of the techniques and human resources available at the time. Had Captain Mission lived long enough to set an example for others to follow, mankind might have stepped free from the deadly impasse of insoluble problems in which we now find ourselves.

The chance was there. The chance was missed. The principles of the French and American revolutions became windy lies in the mouths of politicians. The liberal revolutions of 1848 created the so-called republics of Central and South America, with a dreary history of dictatorship, oppression, graft, and bureaucracy, thus closing this vast, underpopulated continent to any possibility of communes along the lines set forth by Captain Mission. In any case South America will soon be crisscrossed by highways and motels. In England, Western Europe, and America, the overpopulation made possible by the Industrial Revolution leaves scant room for communes, which are commonly subject to state and federal law and frequently harassed by the local inhabitants. There is simply no room left for "freedom from the tyranny of government" since city dwellers depond on it for food, power, water, transportation, protection, and welfare. Your right to live where you want, with companions of your choosing, under laws to which you agree, died in the eighteenth century with Captain Mission. Only a miracle or a disaster could restore it.


This book is dedicated to the Ancient Ones, to the Lord of Abominations, Humwawa, whose face is a mass of entrails, whose breath is the stench of dung and the perfume of death, Dark Angel of all that is excreted and sours, Lord of Decay, Lord of the Future, who rides on a whispering south wind, to Pazuzu, Lord of Fevers and Plagues, Dark Angel of the Four Winds with rotting genitals from which he howls through sharpened teeth over stricken cities, to Kutulu, the Sleeping Serpent who cannot be summoned, to the Akhkharu, who such the blood of men since they desire to become men, to the Lalussu, who haunt the places of men, to Gelal and Lilit, who invade the beds of men and whose children are born in secret places, to Addu, raiser of storms who can fill the night sky with brightness, to Malah, Lord of Courage and Bravery, to Zahgurim, whose number is twenty-three and who kills in an unnatural fashion, to Zahrim, a warrior among warriors, to Itzamna, Spirit of Early Mists and Showers, to Ix Chel, the Spider-Web-that-Catches-the-Dew-of-Morning, to Zuhuy Kak, Virgin Fire, to Ah Dziz, the Master of Cold, to Kak U Pacat, who works in fire, to Ix Tab, Goddess of Ropes and Snares, patroness of those who hang themselves, to Schmuun, the Silent One, twin brother of Ix Tab, to Xolotl the Unformed, Lord of Rebirth, to Aguchi, Master of Ejaculations, to Osiris and Amen in phallic form, to Hex Chun Chan, the Dangerous One, to Ah Pook, the Destroyer, to the Great Old One and the Star Beast, to Pan, God of Panic, to the nameless gods of dispersal and emptiness, to Hassan i Sabbah, Master of Assassins.

To all the scribes and artists and practitioners of magic through whom these spirits have been manifested....
Book One
The health officer
September 13, 1923.

Farnsworth, the District Health Officer, was a man so grudging in what he asked of life that every win was a loss; yet he was not without a certain plodding persistence of effort and effectiveness in his limited area. The current emergency posed by the floods and the attendant cholera epidemic, while it did not spur him to any unusual activity, left him unruffled.

Every morning at sunrise, he bundled his greasy maps—which he studied at breakfast while he licked butter off his fingers—into his battered Land-Rover and set out to inspect his district, stopping here and there to order more sandbags for the levees (knowing his orders would be disregarded, as they generally were unless the Commissioner happened to be with him). He ordered three bystanders, presumably relatives, to transport a cholera case to the district hospital at Waghdas and left three opium pills andinstructions for preparing rice water. They nodded, and he drove on, having done what he could.

The emergency hospital at Waghdas was installed in an empty army barracks left over from the war. It was understaffed and overcrowded, mostly by patients who lived near enough and were still strong enough to walk. The treatment for cholera was simple: each patient was assigned to a straw pallet on arrival and given a gallon of rice water and half a gram of opium. If he was still alive twelve hours later, the dose of opium was repeated. The survival rate was about twenty percent. Pallets of the dead were washed in carbolic solution and left in the sun to dry. The attendants were mostly Chinese who had taken the job because they were allowed to smoke opium and feed the ash to the patients. The smell of cooking rice, opium smoke, excrement and carbolic permeated the hospital and the area around it for several hundred yards.

At ten o'clock the Health Officer entered the hospital. He requisitioned more carbolic and opium, and sent off another request for a doctor, which he expected and hoped would be ignored. He felt that a doctor fussing around the hospital would only make matters worse; he might even object to the opium dosage as too high, or attempt to interfere with the opium smoking of the attendants. The Health Officer had very little use for doctors. They simply complicated things to make themselves important.

After spending half an hour in the hospital, he drove to Ghadis to see the Commissioner, who invited him to lunch. He accepted without enthusiasm, declining a gin before lunch and a beer with lunch. He picked at the rice and fish, and ate a small plate of stewed fruit. He was trying to persuade the Commissioner to assign some convicts to work on the levees.

"Sorry, old boy, not enough soldiers to guard them."

"Well, it's a serious situation."


Farnsworth did not press the point. He simply did what he could and let it go at that. Newcomers to the district wondered what kept him going at all. Old-timers like the Commissioner knew. For the Health Officer had a sustaining vice. Every morning at sunrise, he brewed a pot of strong tea and washed down a gram of opium. When he returned from his rounds in the evening, he repeated the dose and gave it time to take effect before he prepared his evening meal of stewed fruit and wheat bread. He had no permanent houseboy, since he feared a boy might steal his opium. Twice a week he had a boy in to clean the bungalow, and then he locked his opium up in an old rusty safe where he kept his reports. He had been taking opium for five years and had stabilized his dosage after the first year and never increased it, nor gone on to injections of morphine. This was not due to strength of character, but simply to the fact that he felt he owed himself very little, and that was what he allotted himself.

Driving back to find the sandbags not there, the cholera patient dead, and his three relatives droopy-eyed from the opium pills he had left, he felt neither anger nor exasperation, only the slight lack that had increased in the last hour of his drive, so that he stepped harder on the accelerator. Arriving at his bungalow, he washed down an opium pill with bottled water and lit the kerosene stove for his tea. He carried the tea onto the porch and by the time he had finished the second cup, he was feeling the opium wash through the back of his neck and down his withered thighs. He could have passed for fifty; actually he was twenty-eight. He sat there for half an hour looking at the muddy river and the low hills covered with scrub. There was a mutter of thunder, and as he cooked his evening meal the first drops of rain fell on the rusty galvanized iron roof.

He awoke to the unaccustomed sound of lapping water. Hastily he pulled on his pants and stepped onto the porch. Rain was still falling, and the water had risen during the night to a level of twelve inches under the bungalow and a few inches below the hubcaps of his Land-Rover. He washed down an opium pill and put water on the stove for his tea. Then he dusted off an alligator-skin Gladstone bag and started packing, opening drawers and compartments in the safe. He packed clothes, reports, a compass, a sheath knife, a 45 Webley revolver and a box of shells, matches, and a mess kit. He filled his canteen with bottled water and wrapped a loaf of bread in paper. Pouring his tea, the water rising under his feet, he experienced a tension in the groin, a surge of adolescent lust that was stronger for being inexplicable and inappropriate. His medical supplies and opium he packed in a separate bag, and as an added precaution, a slab of opium the size of a cigarette package, wrapped in heavy tinfoil, went into his side coat pocket. By the time he had finished packing, his pants were sticking out at the fly. The opium would soon take care of that.

He stepped from the porch into the Land-Rover. The motor caught, and he headed for high ground above the flood. The route he took was seldom used and several times he had to cut trees out of the road with an ax. Towards sundown, he reached the medical mission of Father Dupré. This was out of his district, and he had met the priest only once before.

Father Dupré, a thin red -faced mad with a halo of white hair, greeted him politely but without enthusiasm. He brightened somewhat when Farnsworth brought out his supplies and went with him to the dispensary and hospital, which was simply a large hut screened-in at the sides. The Health Officer passed out opium pills to all the patients.

"No matter what is wrong with them, they will feel better shortly."

The priest nodded absently as he led the way back to the house. Farnsworth had swallowed his opium pill with water from his canteen, and it was beginning to take effect as he sat down on the porch. The priest was looking at him with a hostility he was trying hard to conceal. Farnsworth wondered what exactly was wrong. The priest fidgeted and cleared his throat. He said abruptly in a strained voice, "Would you care for a drink?"

"Thank you, no. I never touch it."

Relief flooded the priest's face with a beneficent glow. "Something else then?"

"I'd love some tea."

"Of course. I'll have the boy make it."

The priest came back with a bottle of whiskey, a glass, and a soda siphon. Farnsworth surmised that he kept his whiskey under lock and key somewhere out of the reach of his boys. The priest poured himself a generous four fingers and shot in a dash of soda. He took a long drink and beamed at his guest. Farnsworth decided that the moment was propitious to ask a favor, while the good father was still relieved at not having to share his dwindling supply of whiskey, and before he had overindulged.

"I want to get through to Ghadis if possible. I suppose it's hopeless by road, even if I had enough petrol?"

The priest got a map and spread it out on the table. "Absolutely out of the question. This whole area is flooded. Only possibility is by boat to here ... from there it's forty miles downriver to Ghadis. I could lend you a boat with a boy and outboard, but there's no petrol here...."

"I think I have enough petrol for that, considering it's all downstream."

"You'll run into logjams—may take hours to cut through ... figure how long it could take you at the longest, and then double it ... my boy knows the route as far as here. Now this stretch here is very dangerous ... the river narrows quite suddenly, no noise you understand, and no warning ... advise you tot ake the canoe out and carry it down to here ... take one extra day, but well worth it at this time of year. Of course you might get through—but if anything goes wrong ... the current, you understand ... even a strong swimmer ..."

The following day at dawn, Farnsworth's belongings and the supplies for the trip were loaded into the dugout canoe. The boy, Ali, was a smoky black with sharp features, clearly a mixture of Arab and Negro stock. He was about eighteen, with beautiful teeth and a quick shy smile. The priest waved from the jetty as the boat swung into midstream. Farsnworth sat back lazily, watching the water and the jungle slide past. There was not much sign of life. A few birds and monkeys. Once three alligators wallowing in a mudbank slid into the water, showing their teeth in depraved smiles. Several times logjams had to be cleared with an ax.

At sundown they made camp on a gravel bank. Farnsworth put water on for tea while Ali walked to the end of the band and dropped a hook baited with a worm into a deep clear pool. By the time the water was boiling, he was back with an eighteen-inch fish. As Ali cleaned the fish and cut it into sections, Farnsworth washed down his opium pill. He offered one to Ali, who examined it, sniffed at it, smiled, and shook his head.

"Chinese boy ..." He leaned over holding an imaginery opium pipe to a lamp. He drew the smoke in and let his eyes droop. "No get—" He put his hands on his stomach and rocked back and forth.

By the afternoon of the second day the stream had widened considerably. Towards sundown Farnsworth took an opium pill and dozed off. Suddenly he was wide awake with a start, and he reached for the map. This was the stretch that Father Dupré had warned him about. He turned towards Ali, but Ali knew already. He was steering for shore.

The silent rush of the current swept the boat broadside, and the rudder wire snapped like a bowstring. The boat twisted out of control, swept towards a logjam. A splintering crash, and Farnsworth was underwater, struggling desperately against the current. He felt a stab of pain as a branch ripped through his coat and along his side.

He came to on the bank. Ali was pushing water out of his lungs. He sat up breathing heavily and coughing. His coat was in tatters, ozzing blood. He felt for his pocket, and looked at his empty hand. The opium was gone. He had sustained a superficial scratch down the left hip and across the buttock. They had salvaged nothing except the short machete that Ali wore in a sheath at his belt, and Farnsworth's hunting knife.

Farnsworth drew a map in the sand to approximate their positing. He calculated the distance to one of the large tributaries to be about forty miles. Once there, they could fashion a raft and drift downstream to Ghadis, where of course ... the words of Father Dupré played back in his mind: "Figure the longest time it could take you and then double it...."

Darkness was falling, and they had to stay there for the night, even though he was losing precious travel time. He knew that in seventy-two hours at the outside he would be immobilized for lack of opium. At daybreak they set out heading north. Progress was slow; the undergrowth had to be cut step by step. There were swamps and streams in the way, and from time to time deep gorges that necessitated long detours. The unaccustomed exertion knocked the opium out of his system, and by nightfall he was already feverish and shivering.

By morning he was barely able to walk, but managed to stagger along for a few miles. The next day he was convulsed by stomach cramps and they barely covered a mile. The third day he could not move. Ali massaged his legs, which were knotted with cramps, and brought him water and fruit. He lay there unable to move for four days and four nights.

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