William S. Burroughs and the Dead-End Horror of the Centipede God
Mark Dery takes a deep, dark look at the world of Chilopodophobia, compliments of William Burroughs.
In the annals of centipede phobia, William S. Burroughs stands alone. The man loathed the beasts, loathed them with a loathing that would not die. Had he lived to see Web videos of pet centipedes with pinkies (hairless baby mice) in their death grip—a thriving subgenre, on YouTube, of what might be called predator porn—Burroughs would surely have emptied his beloved .38 (a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson, which he slept with every night) into his computer.
In Burroughs’s novels, centipedes are the emissaries of a Venusian fascism, a mind-controlling horror so virulently opposed to free thought, racial tolerance, gay rights, and other mile-markers of human progress—in fact, so hostile to mammals in general and Homo sapiens in specific—that they are literally from another planet. Like the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney’s bad dream about the loss of individualism (whether to suburban conformity or communist infiltrators, we’re never quite sure), Burroughs’s centipedes don’t just want to knock us off our perch as evolution’s crowning achievement; they want to parasitize us, puppeteer us. From his novel The Place of Dead Roads (1983):
Kim realizes the dwarfs…are being processed into centipedes. The centipede eyes are already in place. Eventually the centipede will emerge from the forehead, leaving the dead gray hulk behind.i
At one point in Burroughs’s hallucinogenic shoot-‘em-up, The Western Lands (1987), we join a scientific expedition to the fictional South American island of Esmeraldas, ostensibly to obtain venom samples from giant centipedes but equally “to ascertain to what extent the centipede merits the horror and loathing in which he is, so far as I know, universally held.” ii Our narrator, the expedition’s chronicler, makes no secret of his distaste for the beast. He speaks for Burroughs when he says,
Let me confess that I hate centipedes, above all other creatures on this horrid planet. And I am not alone in this aversion. Many others have confessed to me that they hold a special antipathy for this creature, which is so far removed from the mammalian mold. … There may be people who like centipedes. I have seen people handling tarantulas and scorpions, but never a centipede handler. Personally, I would regard such an individual with deep suspicion. … Now what sort of man or woman or monster would stroke a centipede on his underbelly? ‘And here is my good big centipede!’ If such a man exists, I say kill him without more ado. He is a traitor to the human race.iii
Burroughs’s fiction is famously a genre unto itself—a literary mash-up of “routines” modeled on the wisecracking patter of petty criminals; Conradian accounts of colonial depravity; Kafkaesque visions of nightmare bureaucracies; block quotes from scientific literature, such as the lengthy excursus on centipede venom in The Western Lands; and, most obviously, genre gimcracks lifted from boys’ adventure tales and westerns and, above all, the hardboiled detective stories and pulp science fiction of the ‘20s and ‘30s: deadpan voiceovers, corrupt politicians, cops on the take, viruses from outer space, mutants, alien invaders.
Burroughs’s Venusian centipedes share their arthropod DNA with the bug-eyed aliens in pulp SF. (The monstrosity incubating inside the dwarves in The Place of Dead Roads is from “Planet Venus, where else.”)iv
But they could just as easily have clambered up out of the oil-scummed sump where the bodies are dumped in Raymond Chandler’s noir novel, The Big Sleep. Like Chandler’s oil mogul General Sternwood and his jaded, dissolute daughters, Burroughs’s centipedes reek of moral rot and the corrosions of power. At the same time, they’re emblems of a more general decay. Like the unspeakable eldritch gods in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, they rise at a moment of Spenglerian decline, a degenerate age whose symptoms are atavistic behaviors and belief systems such as the bizarre cult of the centipede in The Western Lands.
Burroughs’s centipede cultists are Max Nordau’s worst nightmare, devolutionary obscenities who aspire to the lowest rung on the Darwinian ladder: the bug. “Faces squirming and crawling on the skull, eyes dilated to black mirrors reflecting a vile idiot hunger,” they congregate naked, wearing nothing but centipede jewelry; their sacrament is a human offering, “a naked man bound to a couch with leather straps.”v Burroughs sets the scene: in an amphitheater crowded with worshippers, a trapdoor opens. “The head of a monster ‘pede emerges, with a stink like a vulture shat out rotten land crabs. The man on the couch begins to scream as the centipede inches out. The ‘pede lifts its head now, with a seeking movement…”vi
Obsession, more than character, plot, or scene, structures Burroughs’s fiction; centipedes are a recurrent motif throughout his work, unchanging as the Mayan codices and temple friezes that fascinated him. In his literary debut, Junkie (1953), the thinly fictionalized “confessions of an unredeemed drug addict,” the smack-addled narrator recounts a heroin daydream in which centipedes and other arthropods rule the ruins of a derelict, post-anthropocene world—a cynic’s eulogy to human potential. “One afternoon, I closed my eyes and saw New York in ruins. Huge centipedes and scorpions crawled in and out of empty bars and cafeterias and drugstores on Forty-Second Street. Weeds were growing up through cracks and holes in the pavement. There was no one in sight.”vii A lifetime later, Burroughs still has centipedes on the brain: in a journal entry written in 1997, the last year of his life, he mutters to himself, “What hideous dead-end led to the creation of the centipede?”xviii The centipede’s reason for being, he decides, is to remind Homo sapiens of the “fall”—evolutionary, not biblical—“we might have taken.”ix
Over all the intervening years, the obsession abides. In Naked Lunch (1959), the centipede is associated with depraved pleasures of the flesh, appetites so monstrous they make the mind heave. Devotees of the Black Meat—“the flesh of the giant aquatic black centipede,” a putrid delicacy that “like a tainted cheese” is “overpoweringly delicious and nauseating”—gorge themselves, vomit, then pig out again until they collapse, a study in debauchery that crosses the Banquet of Trimalchio, in Satyricon, with junk sickness.x In The Place of Dead Roads, the centipede is the devolutionary fate of those who succumb to their basest impulses: Burroughs’s gunslinger protagonist Kim Carsons is tormented by “centipede nightmares” and “wakes up shivering with horror because he knows these hideous…giant centipedes were once (an evil old-woman voice tinkles in his brain) ‘silly little boys like you.’”xii
Obsessively, compulsively, Burroughs returns to the motif of “Death in Centipede,” as he calls it: a victim, presumably a freethinker who dared to challenge the forces of mind control, is lashed to a couch, writhing in helpless terror; looming over him is a monstrous centipede, forcipules at the ready. Control, in Burroughs’s private mythology, is a cosmic conspiracy, personified by the Mayan priesthood that, in his fabulist reading of history, held the populace in telepathic thrall. Death in Centipede first appears in Queer (written between 1951 and 1953) prompting the author to wonder, “Is this literal? Did some hideous metamorphosis occur? What is the meaning of the centipede symbol?”xiii
What, indeed? Burroughs would return to that question throughout his work. There it is, in the “dead-end horror of the Centipede God” rearing his antennae-horned head in Naked Lunch, and there it is, an eternity later, in a diary entry written shortly before his death: “The Centipede Troughs—the man tied to a couch while a foul centipede arches over him. Now remember, they didn’t have horror stories in those days [the pre-Columbian age of the Maya]. Nor sci-fi. So where could an idea like that emerge from?”
More immediately, how did it become such an idée fixe for Burroughs? Biographers note early encounters with centipedes: the big one he caught and preserved in alcohol when he was 10, marooned on a dreary dude ranch in New Mexico with his mother; the bumper crop of centipedes and scorpions he encountered when he attempted, in his mid-thirties, to live the life of a gentleman marijuana farmer in New Waverly, Texas.xiv (Burroughs, ever ingenious, affixed a razor blade to the tip of a stick and whiled away the hours dispatching arcadia’s less attractive inhabitants. One day, he deftly sliced a scorpion into three pieces, only to watch each piece hightail it in a different direction. His companion, Herbert Huncke—a junkie and Times Square hustler who had seen many things in his day—was aghast: “That’s the ugliest thing I ever saw.”)vx
Years before, Burroughs had worked as an exterminator in Chicago and had, by all accounts, warmed to his work. Armed with kerosene spray (for bedbugs), pyrethrum powder (for roaches), phosphorous paste (for water bugs), and arsenic (for rats), he fumigated with a gleeful vengeance: “I have spotted a brown crack by the window sink put my bellows in and blow a load of the precious yellow powder. As if they had heard the last trumpet the roaches stream out and flop in convulsions on the floor.”xvi He developed an uncanny ability to sniff out bedbugs—in mattress ticking, in box springs, or hiding in the wallpaper, even—and seemed to possess roach radar. No mention of centipedes, though.
The source of Burroughs’s centipede fixation lies, most likely, in his Mexico City days. In 1949, he enrolled, on the G.I. bill, at Mexico City College, where classes were taught in English. He took Spanish classes and, following his longstanding interest in anthropology, courses with the pioneering anthropologist R.H. Barlow, “learning to speak Mayan, and taking a course in the Codices” he claimed, in a letter to his friend Allen Ginsberg.xvii
Barlow was a singular figure: a trailblazer in his field, fluent in the Aztec language of Nahuatl and an authority on Mayan codices, he was, in an unlikely coincidence, a boyhood friend of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. A writer of weird tales himself, he ended up the executor of Lovecraft’s literary estate. To complicate matters, he was also a closeted homosexual, haunted by the “subtle feeling that my curious and uneasy life is not destined to prolong itself.”xviii Too true: a student with a grudge exposed him; convinced the ensuing scandal would ruin him, Barlow locked himself in his room and swallowed 26 Seconal capsules. Pinned to his door, his suicide note read: “Do not disturb me. I want to sleep a long time.”xix It was written, in an act of commendable aestheticism, in Mayan pictographs.
Barlow’s lectures, along with a trip to the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacan, opened a time portal to the cruel, beautiful world of the ancient Maya; Burroughs stepped through it, bringing back a stock of images and ideas that would furnish his imagination for a lifetime. To be sure, he viewed Mayan society, cosmology, and pictorial writing through the lens of his obsessions, personal and political. “Burroughs radically reworked the role of Maya priests to meet his own thematic needs,” Paul H. Wild confirms, in his essay “William S. Burroughs and the Maya Gods Of Death: The Uses Of Archaeology.”xx Burroughs’s thought-controlling Mayan theocracy, manipulating the serfs through pictographs and punishing thought criminals with Death in Centipede, is pre-Columbian pulp fiction. His idiosyncratic remix of Mayan history is driven by his bohemian antipathy to authority and his fascination with language as a technology of social control—a fascination encouraged by the fact that his uncle Ivy Lee practically invented the dark art of P.R., and by his formative exposure to Alfred Korzybski’s “general semantics,” a system of linguistic philosophy founded on the notion that “the map is not the territory,” i.e., language’s representation of reality is not the thing itself. Then, too, the priests’ choice of Death in Centipede as their method of ritual sacrifice—in reality, decapitation or the removal of the heart were the preferred modes—owes a lot to Burroughs’s deep-dyed horror of centipedes.
In The Soft Machine (1961), the narrator flaunts his “knowledge of Maya archaeology and the secret meaning of the centipede motif.”xxi In light of Burroughs’s claim to have studied the codices” at Mexico City College, Wild thinks it likely that the writer’s “extreme imagination” found “stimuli in the exotic images of the extant codices as well as in images on temples and stelae.”xxii For instance, he “could have seen a wall painting from Chichen Itza showing a sacrificial victim held hand and foot as the [priest] opens his chest while a giant serpent or centipede rears over the scene,” the two animals being more or less interchangeable in archaeological descriptions, since “the glyphs for serpent and centipede are nearly indistinguishable.”xxiii (Whatever its true identity, the animal in question was purely symbolic, in any event.) Wild also locates the possible source of Burroughs’s references to priests costumed as centipedes in the Maya murals discovered in Chiapas, Mexico, at the archaeological site of Bonampak: “The murals feature a royal procession with a retinue of figures in fantastic costumes whom Burroughs could easily [have construed] as priests.”xxiv
As for “the secret meaning of the centipede motif,” Wild’s close reading of the Burroughs canon leads him to conclude that, in the novelist’s mythos, “centipedes result from the death of affect”; inversely, “people bereft of feelings become centipedes.”xxv In The Ticket That Exploded (1962), for example, we learn that centipedes are the product of an alien heat “that kills emotions and animates a bundle of nerve wires.” Likewise, in Naked Lunch, a Cold War American deprived of his well-earned neuroses and well-founded paranoia—in effect, of his feelings and free will—ends up a mindless insect controlled by the twitchings of his nerve wires.xxvi When Doctor “Fingers” Schafer, a.k.a. “The Lobotomy Kid,” presents his triumph of psychosurgery, “The Complete All-American Deanxietized Man,” at the International Conference of Technological Psychiatry, the man’s “flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach…”xxvii “Brain-raped” by forcible lobotomy, Schafer’s patient is, mentally and morally, a bug.
Burroughs’s centipedes are fascist architects of social control, like the Mayan priesthood in their centipede vestments, or, alternately, dehumanized products of it, like Doctor Schafer’s Deanxietized Man-turned-monster centipede. “Incapable” of the mammalian trait of “feeling or returning love,” to quote a YouTube commenter horrified at the sight of giant centipedes feasting on baby mice, they epitomize the inhuman. Yet, paradoxically, they also embody the inhumane in each of us, the unfeeling, rapacious thing just waiting for the right circumstances—concentration camp, corner office, church confessional, wherever Control can do whatever Control wants—to emerge, leaving the dead gray hulk of the human behind. After all, said Burroughs, displaying the unshakable faith in humanity for which he was well known, “We’re all black centipedes at heart.”xxviii
Illustration: Rob Beschizza
i William S. Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), 270.
ii William S. Burroughs, The Western Lands (New York: Viking Press, 1987), 86.
iii Burroughs, ibid.
iv Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads, 270.
v Burroughs, The Western Lands, 98.
vii William S. Burroughs, Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk” (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 23.
viii William S. Burroughs, Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (New York: Grove Press, 2000), 29.
ix Burroughs, Last Words, 129.
x William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: 50th Anniversary Edition (New York: Grove Press, 2009), 51.
xi Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads, 269.
xii William S. Burroughs, Queer: A Novel (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 95.
xiii Burroughs, Last Words, 97.
xiv “The big one he caught and preserved in alcohol”: See Barry Miles, Call Me Burroughs: A Life (New York: Twelve, 2013), 31. “The bumper crop of centipedes and scorpions”: See Ted Morgan, Literary Out- law: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988), 146.
xv Morgan, Literary Outlaw, ibid.
xvi William. S. Burroughs, Exterminator! (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 5.
xvii Paul H. Wild, William S. Burroughs and the Maya Gods of Death: The Uses of Archaeology (West Chester University, 2008), unpaginated; archived in “WSB And Maya,” a discussion topic on RealityStudio.org.
xviii O Fortunate Floridian: H. P. Lovecraft's Letters to R. H. Barlow, S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, ed. (Tampa, Florida: University of Tampa Press, 2007), 408.
xix Lawrence Hart, Accent on Barlow: A Comemmorative [sic] Anthology (San Rafael, CA: TK, 1962), 9, quoted in Leon H. Abrams, Jr., Katunob 16 (Greeley, Co: Museum of Anthropology, University of North Colorado, 1981), 13.
xx Wild, William S. Burroughs and the Maya Gods of Death, ibid.
xxi William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine (New York: Grove Press, 1992), 23.
xxii Wild, William S. Burroughs and the Maya Gods of Death, ibid.
xxvi William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 127.
xxvii Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 94.
xxviii Conversations with William S. Burroughs, ed. Allen Hibbard (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mis- sissippi, 1999), 57.
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