Cities of the Red Night (1981) by William S. Burroughs

When Lovecraft began to hit his peaks in the late 1920s a young William Burroughs was cultivating a lifetime hatred of authority during his tenure at the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico. In August 1931, teenage Bill could have gone to a news-stand in Los Alamos town and picked up the latest issue of Weird Tales, there to read about “the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space which the Necronomicon had mercifully cloaked under the name of Azathoth” from Lovecraft’s ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’.
—John Coulthart, Architects of Fear

Thirteen years and change after Lovecraft’s death, in Mexico:

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Somewhere in that grainy black-and-white photo are William S. Burroughs, who would become the godfather of the Beat generation and punk, and R. H. Barlow, the literary executor of H. P. Lovecraft. After Lovecraft’s death, Barlow had gone to university in Kansas City, MO and Berkeley, CA, before emigrating to Mexico in the 1940s. Barlow became an expert in Nahuatl and Mexica anthropology, a professor at Mexico City College, teaches classes on Mayan codices and language.

Low tuition and cost of living combined with the G. I. Bill made Mexico City College a popular destination for American expatriates, including a young William S. Burroughs II, his wife Jean Vollmer, and their children. Burroughs studied the Mayan codices and mythology, suffered opiate withdrawal, experimented with orgone, and engaged in homosexual affairs. On the atmosphere of Mexico City, he remarked:

This is basically an oriental culture (80% Indian) where everyone has mastered the art of minding his own business. If a man wants to wear a monocle or carry a cane he does not hesitate to do it and no one gives him a second glance. Boys and young men walk down the street arm in arm and no one pays them any mind. It is not that people here don’t care what other’s think. It simply would not occur to a Mexican to expect criticism from a stranger, nor would it occur to anyone to criticize the behavior of others.
—William S. Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg, 1 May 1950, The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945 to 1959, 69

Despite Burroughs’ assertion, homophobia was still present in Mexico in the ’50s, and many homosexuals remained closeted. It is believed that fear of being “outed” may have been behind the suicide of R. H. Barlow from an overdose of sleeping pills after a New Year’s Eve party ringing in 1951. Burroughs remarked:

A queer Professor from K.C., Mo., head of the Antrhopology dept. here at M.C.C. where I collect my $75 per month, knocked himself off a few days ago with an overdose of goof balls. Vomit all over the bed. I can’t see this suicide kick.
—William S. Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg, 11 Jan 1951, ibid. 78

This was, as far as is known, the first of Burroughs’ brushes with things Lovecraftian.

The stay in Mexico City was shortlived; on 6 September 1951, Burroughs shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head and killed her during a party. The children were sent back stateside to live with their grandparents, and after protracted legal proceedings, Burroughs left Mexico and was tried in absentia. Burroughs then spent several months traveling through South America, seeking out the drug yagé (ayahuasca), a fictionalized account of which was published as The Yage Letters (1963).

He traveled, and Burroughs’ writing became more experimental and nonlinear; Naked Lunch (1959) brought something like fame, as the book became the focus of an important 1966 obscenity case in the United States. Rome, Tangiers, Paris, London. Mayan codices surfaced in his life again in London, as he sought to collaborate with artist Malcolm McNeill, even arranging to view the Dresden Codex at the British Library, for the work Ah Pook is Here. The complete work never quite came off, though both creators’ parts have been published since.

By 1974 he was back in the United States, in New York City—where just a few years later the Necronomicon by “Simon” was being put together at an occult bookstore called Magickal Childe. As Khem Caighan, the illustrator of the book, put it:

It was about that time that William Burroughs dropped by, having caught wind of a “Necronomicon” in the neighborhood. After going through the pages and a few lines of powder, he offered the comment that it was “good shit.” He might have meant the manuscript too—check out the “Invocation” on page xvii of his Cities of the Red Night. Humwawa, Pazuzu, and Kutulu are listed among the Usual Suspects.
—quoted in The Necronomicon Files 138

The success of the first hardback editions of the Simon Necronomicon gave way to a mass-market paperback. In 1978 Burroughs wrote an essay on this development “Some considerations on the paperback publication of the NECRONOMICON” (ibid. 139), where he said:

With some knowledge of the black arts from porlonged residence in Morocco, I have been surprised and at first shocked to find real secrets of courses and spells revealed in paperback publications for all to see and use. […] Is there not something skulking and cowardly about this Adept hiding in his magick circle and forcing demons to do the dirty jobs he is afraid to do himself, like some Mafia don behind bulletproof glass giving orders to his hitmen? Perhaps the Adept of the future will meet his demons face to face. (ibid)

As Dan Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III note in the Necronomicon Files, Burroughs fails to speak specifically about any edition of the Necronomicon in his essay, but the editors of the paperback edition truncated a quote from the essay and slapped in on the back book anyway. The full and unadulterated version they quote:

Let the secrets of the ages be revealed. This is the best assurance against such secrets being monopolized by vested interests for sordid and selfish ends. The publication of the NECRONOMICON may well be a landmark in the liberation of the human spirit. (ibid, 140)

All of these factors—drugs, homosexual experiences, Mayan codicology and mythology, death and violence, studies in the occult, and travels in South America, Africa, and Europe—came together in the experimental novel Cities of the Red Night (1981). Among those ingredients were Burroughs’ tangential brushes with things Lovecraftian. As Khem Caighan and Harms & Gonce note, the opening invocation to Cities is:

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 strench 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 sharpented teeth over stricken cities, to Kutulu, the Sleeping Serpent who cannot be summoned […] 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 practictioners of magic through whome these spirits have been manifested….

NOTHING IS TRUE. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.

Cities of the Red Night xvii-xviii

Harms & Gonce have called Cities of the Red Night a “surrealistic tribute to pulp fiction,” and it may even be that. We know little of what pulps that Burroughs read, but we do know that he read them. The manuscripts for The Yage Letters mention True; Cities of the Red Night includes reference to Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, and Adventure Stories (329); The Place of Dead Roads (1983) includes a short but accurate summary of Frank Belknap Long Jr.’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” from Weird Tales. In one interview, Burroughs said:

I read Black Mask; I remember Weird Tales and Amazing Stories—there were some very good ones in there, and some of them I’ve never been able to find I used some of those in my own work, but I’d like to find the originals, but never could. Who was that guy [who wrote about] “the Old Ones”?

H. P. Lovecraft?

There was somebody else.

Arthuer Machen?

He was another one, too. But anyway, Lovecraft was quite good and earnest. This place right by the—it’s always New England—where there’s vile rural slums that stunk of fish because they’re these half-fish people! It was great.

—”William S. Burroughs: The Final Interview” in Burroughs and Friends: Lost Interviews 66

The book is nonlinear, bouncing back and forth between narratives that interconnect in odd ways, sharing characters, hinting at a bigger picture that never quite resolves. Burroughs had a skill for pulp-style genre fiction, but his greater talent lay in subverting readers’ expectations. Just when you think you know what is going on, the next chapter usually proves you wrong. Plot threads are laid down and then forgotten, or picked up a hundred pages later in a completely different context. The eponymous Cities of the Red Night are simultaneously physical locations that exist before all other human civilizations, places that can be visited, and spiritual stages in a journey of soul improvement.

If you had to give the whole text a label, “experimental novel” works as well as any. The book defies rational analysis because it defies conventions, full stop. The protagonists are almost exclusively violent and homosexual, the sexual situations graphic, genres blend together quickly and easily. Considerable chunks of the text are pure exposition, describing imaginary weapons, occult rites, the structure of a revolution that never happened, cities that didn’t exist, fantastic and impossible combinations of drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, conspiracy theories involving aliens and time travel, and complicated systems of reincarnation.

It is busy book, bursting with ideas and imagery, and quite lavishly indulges in breaking taboos. In many ways, Cities of the Red Night is a regurgitation of long-festering ideas and influences; chunks of the early book seem inspired by the Yage Letters, chunks of the later chapters from Ah Pook Is Here. Those who have read more of Burroughs’ earlier works may get more out of it than those who come in cold, but anyone expecting a trippy read that yet resolves itself into some kind of ongoing revelation a la Robert Anton Wilson’s The Eye in the Pyramid (1975) might want to brace themselves. The end of Cities of Red Night does not resolve; the plot threads are not tied up; characters and ideas are left where dropped, like a child’s playthings.

Maybe next book.

There were two more books, in what is generously defined as a “trilogy”: The Place of Dead Roads (1983) and The Western Lands (1987). There are some nominal connections between the stories, and a great many common themes, but as with Cities of the Red Night there is not really any sort of overarching plot. The scope and characters change, gunslingers in the Old West that seek escape into space, or away from death, and these things are tied together in different ways, but…they are books more suited to sortilege than casual entertainment.

They are also ugly. Burroughs’ sexual tastes at that point in his life were homosexual, and nearly all of the sexual encounters in the book are homosexual, which is fine and maybe to be expected—those squeamish about such things might consider what it is like for a homosexual man or woman to read a book that goes on at length about heterosexual encounters and how they might feel. Yet it is also true that many of the sexual encounters skew young; this was something noticeable in The Yage Letters and is hard to miss in Cities of the Red Night, which includes teenage prostitutes and sexually-active young boys. Female characters are almost absent, and those present often villainous or included solely for purposes of reproduction, and at points in the trilogy this breaks out to straight misogyny where the characters hope to break free of women as essential for reproduction altogether.

Racism is prevalent, although a bit complicated. Burroughs’ protagonists are almost always white and male, like Burroughs himself. Stereotypes based on race and ethnicity are common, often exaggerated for comedic or scatological effect, and racial pejoratives aren’t uncommon. It’s unclear sometimes how much of this is Burroughs’ deliberate taboo-breaking and how much of it is just Burroughs’ own prejudice, the drug-addicted, homosexual gringo globetrotting the world, trying to keep one step ahead of the criminal convictions, carrying the remnants of early 20th century colonial attitudes with him where he went.

Is it Lovecraftian? Is anything of Burroughs? The Simon Necronomicon certainly had its influence, however small, on Cities of the Red Night and its sequels; The Place of Dead Roads has absorbed a chunk of “The Hounds of Tindalos” into its literary DNA. Burroughs even had a story published in a Lovecraftian anthology: “Wind Die. You Die. We Die.” (1968) appeared in The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute To H. P. Lovecraft (1994); it contains not one word in reference to the Mythos or Lovecraft. Yet Ramsey Campbell in the introduction to that book observed:

Burroughs has fun with pulp in very much the same way that Lovecraft parodied such stuff in his letters. (7)

Which is certainly true. Lovecraft and Burroughs were both working with some of the same building blocks—quite literally in the case of “The Hounds of Tindalos”—albeit to different purposes and with a vastly different sense of aesthetics. John Coulthart in his essay “Architects of Fear” draws this comparison as well, and says of Cities of the Red Night:

Burroughs’ cities are brothers to Lovecraft’s Nameless City, and to Irem, City of Pillars, described in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as the rumoured home of the Cthulhu Cult. The Cities of the Red Night are invoked with a litany of Barbarous Names, a paean to the “nameless Gods of dispersal and emptiness” that includes the Sumerian dieties that Burroughs found catalogued in the ‘Urilia Text’ from the Avon Books Necronomicon, and which includes (how could it not?) “Kutulu, the Sleeping Serpent who cannot be summoned.” In Burroughs work the ‘Lovecraftian’ is transmuted, the unspeakable becomes the spoken and the nameless is named at last, beneath the pitiless gaze of Burroughs’ own “mad Arab”, Hassan I Sabbah, Hashish Eater and Master of Assassins. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

Burroughs remains one of the most influential postmodernist writers of the 20th century. Lovecraft, through however many degrees of contact, was an influence on Burroughs. Distinguishing between the shades of their joint influence on subsequent authors is like trying to put a crowbar under a fingernail to see what lies underneath. That is the creeping nature of literary influence; like one of Burroughs’ fictional viruses, it gets into almost everything, and often comes from unlikely sources at unexpected times.

You don’t have to have even read Lovecraft to be influenced by him.

Which is both a very Lovecraftian and a very Burroughsian thought.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Night Voices, Night Journeys” (2005) by Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦)

Outstanding stories always leave the reader in silence.

But one very special type of outstanding story, after silencing them, stimulates them into furious action. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), foreword to Night Voices, Night Journeys 2

“Night Voices, Night Journeys” (2005) by Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦) is the title story of the first volume in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series from Kurodahan Press, edited by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健). It is the English-language translation of the 2002 story 夜の聲 夜の旅 (Yoru no Koe, Yoru no Tabi); the translator was Edward Lipsett.

This is a story about revelation. In Shanghai, the femme fatale Azie is the plaything of her master, the last in a long line of those who possess her. Yet this is not a story about human trafficking or sex slavery. That is the frame of it, the red herring. Onion layers of truth are peeled back, one at a time, bandaids ripped off as the reader starts to understand what is actually going on…and when you finally get it, when the realization of who and what “Azie” is finally comes together, there’s a desire to go back from the beginning and read it again.

At the same time, this is also a story about how images translate across cultures, in particular how certain images of the Cthulhu Mythos have been interpreted and popularized in Japan.

Lovingly, those fingers toyed with her ear.

Those fingertips, moving so skillfully, soothed along the perfectly-sculpted rim of her ear, cupping; the trace of a fingernail. […] The rhythm of his fingers. She lay on the bench seat, facing upward, body stretched out to him. To his fingers. His incessant, gentle, ravenous fingers.

Of course, the fingers would love not only her ear. He would surely walk them elsewhere. From her ear, on down, to other parts. those unique fingertips, slick with saliva pungent with the scent of myrrh, would glide from that other place to yet another spot, rich in so many secrets, never ceasing their mysterious dance.
—Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦), Night Voices, Night Journeys 181

ED2Book
Necronomicon Ex Mortis, The Evil Dead 2 (1987)

H. P. Lovecraft first mentioned the Necronomicon in his short story “The Hound” (1924). Although given little description there, it is in good company alongside:

A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held certain unknown and unnamable drawings which it was rumoured Goya had perpetrated but dared not acknowledge.

This was the beginning of the Necronomicon‘s association with anthropodermic bibliopegy and the strange and varied library of Mythos tomes which continues on even today. While Lovecraft himself did not bind it in human leather, other creators did, and the idea was given visual form in the Evil Dead franchise as a series of props that still possessed discernible human features on cover—including a distorted face on the front cover and an ear on the back cover.

The films in the Evil Dead series made their way to Japan. The image of the Necronomicon Ex Mortis became strongly associated with visual representation of the Necronomcion in various Japanese Mythos artwork, most recently appearing as the inspiration for the volume in Tanabe Gou (田辺剛) in his adaptation of “The Hound”:

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Excerpt from H. P. Lovecraft’s The Hound and Other Stories by Tanabe Gou

It is a fine point as to whether or not “Azia” takes the form of a literal woman in Inoue Masahiko’s story; the prose often deliberately obscures the details from the unknowing reader until practically the end. The idea of the Al Azif becoming a nubile female was a major conceit of the series Demonbane (デモンベイン, 2003), but “Night Visions, Night Journeys” predates that work, and the approach is much more subtle. “Azia” is in many senses an object, the reader gets her view but she does practically nothing, being utterly passive, something to be possessed by different masters.

It is in miniature a history of the Necronomicon in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, from the view of the Necronomicon, and that is fantastic enough when the realization hits, but even more fantastic when the reader sees how cleverly and carefully the work was done. For example, in the story when it is written:

She had donned an Islamic robe for him, plucking the Egyptian qanoon.
—Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦), Night Voices, Night Journeys 196-197

Is a reference to:

Mediaeval Jews and Arabs were represented in profusion, and Mr. Merritt turned pale when, upon taking down a fine volume conspicuously labelled as the Qanoon-e-Islam, he found it was in truth the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, of which he had heard such monstrous things whispered some years previously after the exposure of nameless rites at the strange little fishing village of Kingsport, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”

That is only brushing the surface of things; “Night Voices, Night Journeys” is a tremendously fun story for fans of the Mythos, with many more references both subtle and explicit. The reader’s sympathies lie with “Azia” (or “Nekkie” as the others call her), who is innocent of the uses that her various “Masters” put her secrets to, yet is forced to witness every evil end, her skin absorbing the spilled blood. It’s imagery that translates very well, especially if you’re familiar with the sources being drawn from—but the story is much more than a nostalgic retread through the pages of Lovecraft.

There is a scene at the end where “Azia” faces an audience—and that is us, the readers.

“They’re your fans. They love you.”

“But… those horrible faces…” she said, shivering. “They’re all my sacrifices.”

“No, your recipients. The recipients of your saga,” he corrected.
—Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦), Night Voices, Night Journeys 200-201

How could it be otherwise? The Mythos has always been about reader participation; the reader always brings their prior knowledge of the Mythos with them to each new story they read, building their own canon, putting together pieces of the puzzle. For readers who have never read “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” the reference to Innsmouth in “The Thing on the Doorstep” is meaningless—as may be the reference to the limousine driver from the port town in “Night Voices, Night Journeys.” To read about the Mythos and play the game of connections is to be a part of it, whether or not the reader ever creates anything to expand on it themselves.

If there’s a criticism with “Night Voices, Night Journeys,” it’s that certain absences in representation are more apparent. Lovecraft never had any female characters in possession of the Necronomicon, so none of the “Masters” in the book are female. There are in fact no other female characters in the story, aside from the brief passage where the books whisper to each other on the shelves. The gendered perspective of “Azia” as both female and passive and sensual might be interpreted as borrowing on sexist tropes, although in this case that appears to be entirely incidental. A byproduct of the raw material for the story rather than any deliberate statement being made by the author.

Which is certainly true for many other Mythos stories as well. Still, it would be interesting to see how “Azia” would take to having a Mistress caress her instead of a Master—or if there was some fundamental difference in how a woman might use and interpret the Necronomicon. But that would be a different story altogether; “Night Voices, Night Journeys” is about the way “Azia,” simply by existing, twists those around her…and it is fascinating and fun.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).