The Dark Dreams of William Burroughs

Kill Your Darlings

a film directed by John Krokidas
Estate of William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs in the Hotel Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangier, 1961; from Patricia Allmer and John Sears’s Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs, published by Prestel

Some writers have a style that readers must absorb and adopt, and for fans of William Burroughs, the compulsion can be a little hallucinogenic, particularly for vengeful teenagers with a plan to shock their parents. The irony is that Burroughs is probably the most adult American writer of his generation. He commands his own reason, and to read Burroughs is briefly to make contact with a Burroughvian version of oneself. You stagger back, newly paranoid, from a hundred pages of his novel The Soft Machine (1961), wondering about the degree of state control embedded in your life.

That’s how it goes. Having, say, enjoyed the smiles and services of your postman for many a year, you will suddenly, après Burroughs, wonder if the postman is not in fact a strangely mutated cockroach feeding government lies through your mailbox. With a head full of Burroughs you are apt to enter your own Interzone, a place where real things and dreams are indistinguishable. He had magical skills for liquefying reality and bombing your mind.

Everything becomes a little Burroughsy when I try to remember what happened in Lawrence, Kansas, on August 2, 1997. It was the hottest afternoon I had ever experienced. I had come from Lowell, Massachusetts, and I wasn’t alone; there was a BBC director with me, a cameraman, a sound man, and a researcher. We were making a film about Jack Kerouac’s time on Desolation Peak, about the roots of his alcoholism, and we were booked to interview Burroughs at his home in Lawrence. Before getting on the plane, we spoke to him on the telephone and he said that Kerouac’s mother had made him drink. I think it was me who told him to keep it fresh for the cameras.

Cut to Kansas, where the air conditioning was broken at the Hampton Inn and where I was almost relieved to hear the telephone ringing in the early hours. I went down to the lobby to hear from Burroughs’s friend and manager, James Grauerholz, that the novelist had died in the hospital the previous evening at 6:30. Grauerholz suggested that we come the next day and film at the house. “Bill loved the BBC,” he said. The whole thing passed like a Burroughs routine, we were dazed, and I took some flowers the next afternoon to 1927 Learnard Avenue, a red-painted bungalow with four steps up to a porch with a white fence around it.

There was a strange humming. The crew hung back in the car as I walked up to the screen door and peeked through. I thought I saw the singer Patti Smith and I definitely saw the poet John Giorno…

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