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Literature / The Red Night Trilogy

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"The Cities of the Red Night were six in number: Tamaghis, Ba'dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis . . . The traveler must start in Tamaghis and make his way through the other cities in the order named. This pilgrimage may take many lifetimes."

The last major work of fiction by Beat generation author, William S. Burroughs. The trilogy consists of the novels Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983), and The Western Lands (1987).

A deadly new plague, Virus B-23, is sweeping the human race. It causes the skin to blotch and peel, swelling into massive red bumps that spew white pus. Before death, the body shakes in heavy spasms of erotic convulsions. What has caused this new virus? Where has it come from? Is it somehow connected to the six long lost ancient cities that are said to have sat on the banks of an oasis under an glowing red sky? Cities of mutants said to be teeming with radiation from either a massive asteroid or a localized black hole? Is the virus humanity itself, or some mutated component of it? Could it be that the virus is our most basic need, twisted and cultivated into a grotesque perversion? Love? Your guess is as good as ours.

The first book in the trilogy Cities of the Red Night sets up a dual narrative. The first is inspired by Captain Mission's attempt to establish a Democratic utopia in South America, circa 1848. The Articles for his colony of Libertaria would have abolished slavery, outlawed the death penalty and established total religious tolerance. Twenty year old apprentice Noah Blake, and his friends, become deck hands on The Great White, lead by Captain (Opium) Jones. They're eventually shanghaied by Captain Strobe, and his crew of cross-dressing pirates, who are looking for recruits to take down the tyrannical Spanish government. Meanwhile, about two hundred years later, Clem Snide, the Private Asshole (er, Private Eye) is contracted by a man to find his son, Jerry Green, who went missing on a trip to Athens. He's found dead, with his head severed, with body mysteriously embalmed and evidence that it was hanged. Could the culprits be working for the diabolical Countesses de Gulpa and de Vile? Is this just part of a bigger conspiracy? Again, your guess is as good as ours.

Things only get weirder from there. As is typical of Burroughs, the trilogy is a fiendish and surreal mash-up of genres and set-ups. Much like in a dream, events, objects and characters seem to suddenly shift and change, and the casual reader will get very lost, very quickly if they're not paying close attention to what's being said. The Detective and Pirate yarns unravel into a tangle of boy's adventure fantasy, black magic, old western shoot outs, Urban Fantasy, Egyptian, Aztec and Mayan Mythology, high school plays, color comics, memoir, nostalgia, 1920s B-movies, dreams, war stories, Alternate History, stand-up routines, homosexual erotica, and hanging. Lots and lots and lots of hanging. Long scenes of savage and bizarre sex that wouldn't look out of place in the darkest depths of the Internet might make this a Bile Fascination for some and divisive to others. Regardless, the series is an epic adventure, and a fascinating one at that. Dazzling and truly original, it's an experience you will not soon forget.

The series provide examples of:

  • Alternate History: One of the main plotlines in Cities of the Red Night involves democratic, egalitarian pirate colonies loosely based on historical fact. In Burroughs' version, these pirate utopias successfully repelled Spanish and other European colonies and persisted as beacons of liberty through history.
  • Artistic License – History: Many, but perhaps the most glaring non-science fiction example is that Cities of the Red Night has Noah Blake as the son of an English gunsmith in early 1700s Chicago. At that time, there were only American Indian villages in the area that is now Chicago. The French didn't colonize it in any significant numbers until the mid to late 18th century, and it didn't become an English-speaking city until the 1790s.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Played with in the case of the female Iguana Twin in Cities of the Red Night. While described as a masculine-acting young woman throughout the story, the final chapter cuts to a school play where she's portrayed by a male actor.
  • Ascended Extra: Clem Snide, a minor character in Naked Lunch, is one of the principal protagonists in Cities of the Red Night, and in a completely different role.
  • Author Appeal: Most of Burroughs' obsessions figure prominently in all of his novels, so there's no surprise at the numerous hangings and erotic asphyxiations, homosexual sodomy scenes, opiate and other drug use, and of course the centipede imagery.
  • Author Avatar: Kim Carsons in The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands, as well as both Audrey Carsons and Noah Blake in Cities of the Red Night are stand-ins for Burroughs in his youth. The Old Writer/William Seward Hall in The Western Lands and The Place of Dead Roads are fictionalized versions of Burroughs at the time he wrote the books.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: Centipedes and other venomous arthropods appear throughout the novels as objects of fear and revulsion, including an entire chapter in The Western Lands.
  • Body Horror: As in all of Burroughs' work, characters are often afflicted with rashes, lesions, and boils from various sexually transmitted diseases at the mundane end, while at the Surreal Horror end of things, we have centipedes erupting from a man's phallus (The Western Lands) and men transforming into plant-like blobs with only their genitals intact (Cities of the Red Night)
  • Cast Full of Gay: Most of the characters are gay males, with personalities modeled after Burroughs himself and/or his close friends and former lovers. In the Pirate storyline, the pirates in question actually create their own Gayborhood.
  • Demoted to Extra: Dr. Benway, a prominent character in Naked Lunch, only makes a few brief cameo appearances in the trilogy. Interestingly, in Cities of the Red Night Benway is given a Heel–Face Turn. While in previous incarnations he's a technocrat serving authoritarian regimes, he now applies his medical expertise to help freedom fighters.
  • Everyone Is Armed: Burroughs was a lifelong gun enthusiast, so references to different designs of firearms and their effective use appear throughout the trilogy, particularly The Wild West scenes in The Place of Dead Roads. Most of his protagonists don't go anywhere unless they're armed to the teeth.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Most of Burroughs' characters are, like the author himself, confirmed misogynists. A key theme throughout these works is the establishment of all gay, all male utopias where women are only necessary for reproductive purposes (usually through artificial insemination, sometimes through sex with the more bisexually inclined characters).
  • I Love the Dead: A German soldier has sex with the freshly hanged corpse of a young man in The Western Lands as Berlin is being overrun by Soviet troops.
  • Manly Gay: The lead characters in the trilogy are homosexual men in the roles of traditionally masculine archetypes: pirates, Wild West gunslingers, highwaymen, and private investigators. These Author Avatars see women and effeminate gay men as corrupters of pure masculinity.
  • Mind Screw: Typical of Burroughs' fiction, it's not clear what events are actually occurring as opposed to dreams and hallucinations in a character's mind. This is especially prevalent in Cities of the Red Night, where characters and events cut back between modern times, the early 1700s, and mythologized ancient times. Doubles as Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane in a lot of instances.
  • Mockstery Tale: Cities of the Red Night features a story of a private eye called Clem Snide on the trail of a missing teenage boy who gets involved in a story featuring dark cults, government conspiracies and ancient civilizations, obviously mirroring and parodying the pulp fiction cliches of the time. However, the storyline becomes increasingly surreal and incoherent, and the detective's story remains unresolved (one of the sequences even suggests that it could have been a fever-induced dream of a yet another teenage boy).
  • No Woman's Land: Quite literally so. In Cities of the Red Night, the pirate commune is all male, their only contact with the opposite sex is once a year for reproductive purposes. Similarly, in The Western Lands, the eponymous paradise is envisioned as being all-male.
    • These homosexual male paradises are contrasted with the female-run dystopia of Yass-Wadah in Cities of the Red Night.
  • Out with a Bang: The virus in Cities of the Red Night induces not only rashes and lesions, but spontaneous orgasms before the patient's death. There are also numerous scenes of men ejaculating after having their necks broken in a hangman's noose.
  • Refuge in the West:
    • In The Place of Dead Roads the Old West offers a living space for individuals who are outcasts in mainstream society because of their rejection of social, religious, and sexual norms.
    • Within the novels' mythology, Paradise is known as the Western Lands, which is actually the name of the trilogy's last book.
  • Surreal Horror: A great deal of the narrative reads as nightmarish dreams or hallucinations - both of the Body Horror and Eldritch Location varieties, especially in Cities of the Red Night for the former and The Western Lands for the latter.
  • Weird West: The Place of Dead Roads centers around a gunfighter in the American West who is also fascinated with magic and occultism, and the story features many supernatural elements.

Alternative Title(s): Cities Of The Red Night, The Place Of Dead Roads, The Western Lands