Saturday, May 21, 2011

Still here: William Burroughs' vision of the Apocalypse

Some end of the world this turned out to be today: bright blue skies, the usual round of bills in the mailbox, the cat's incessant meow waiting to be fed. Mmmmph. About the only danger to life and limb on this bright Saturday will be whether or not the potato salad has been left out too long on the picnic table in the sun.

Those waiting for the ride of the Four Horsemen or the arrival of the heavenly legion will have to re-calibrate their calendars for another season. It was interesting to have a little spring scare, a Halloween bump-in-the-night, for a few days anyway.

The thrill of contemplating The End led me to re-consider the growing contributions to Apocalyptic fiction (secular division), and pulling down William Burroughs' truly scarifying Cities of the Red Night. Published in 1980, Cities of the Red Night is part of a trilogy (including The Place of Dead Roads in 1984, and finally, The Western Lands, 1988) in which Burroughs is the master of disaster from the personal to the universal, the greying misanthrope giving reign to his darkest thoughts about the human condition.

The book is dark and discomfiting, and very trippy. Plague, check. 18th-century pirates, check. A crew of very ill, very doomed lost boys, check. But there's also a contemporary element of detective fiction slamming the elements of time and space together like H.G. Wells after dropping a tab of LSD in a visit to Owsley Stanley: a time-tripping Apocalypse that would make the Mayans tremble with anticipation.

Here's a brief sample, certainly not for the squeamish, but who really expects the end-of-the-world to be a polite waltz? This is merely the Invocation and a summoning of forces to witness the End of Days, which (after all) is merely the beginning chapter to something else. Burroughs dedicates his tale to those who have been waiting ... waiting patiently ... since ancient days:

Everyone's Uncle Bill: "Everything is permitted"

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 suck the blood of men since they desire to become 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 Zagurim, whose number is twenty-three and who kills in 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, Godess of Ropes and Snares, patroness of those who hang themselves, to Schmuun, the Silent One, 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 the Assassins.

To all the scribes and artists and practitioners of magic through whom these spirits have been manifested ....


An LA Times reviewer wrote of the book: "... In it, the world ends with a bang — and a barely perceived whimper, disguised by the wicked smile of one of the most dazzling magicians of our time." The Invocation is a kind of Dante-esque welcome to the hell-on-earth in Cities of the Red Night, if the reader can stand it. It's just a shame all of Burroughs' welcome wouldn't fit on an interstate billboard this week: now, that would really be a traffic-stopping event.

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