by Michael Stevens
Two Deleted Entries from The Road To Interzone and the Origin of an Investigation into the Influence, Use, and Appropriation of Other Authors’ Works in the writing of William S. Burroughs
I was in Oklahoma for what was the hot, dry and dusty summer of 1990. It was the summer I read Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Mickey Spillane, Sartre and Glendon Swarthout. The high temperatures, which have a tendency to drive more stable men and women to madness and mayhem, had driven me inside an air-conditioned house with a bunch of books. After suffering through Nietzsche, falling in love with Prince Myshkin and Mike Hammer, and feeling nauseated by Sartre and his self-absorbed prevarications, I picked up a western book called The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout that I’d seen mentioned in William Burroughs’ The Adding Machine. Unbeknownst to me, The Shootist had been filmed under the same name in 1978 and featured John Wayne, as J. B. Books, “the shootist,” in his final role before dying of cancer in 1979.
A few pages into this almost entertaining yarn I was struck with a strange sense of déjà vu. Another few chapters and I was assaulted with full blown recognition, no longer an awkward and misunderstood sense of confusion. It was the encounter between Doctor Hostetler and Books, the “shootist” of the title, that set my mind reeling. First, let me state that upon my arrival in Oklahoma I had ordered a copy of Burroughs’ Tornado Alley from a bookstore in San Francisco. It was a handsome little production and also my first exposure to Charles Plymell‘s publishing company, Cherry Valley Editions. Most famous for the short piece, “A Thanksgiving Prayer”, Tornado Alley had another offering that would reveal to me a new understanding of William Burroughs, the author and master appropriator. By sheer “accident,” a word I will never use again in a piece about Burroughs, I had read Tornado Alley mere days or weeks before I read The Shootist. When I came to an exchange in Swarthout’s novel between the cancer-stricken Books and his doctor, I became aware of a segment of Burroughs’ creative process that I had previously been oblivious to — his appropriation of other writer’s work.
Holed up in a refrigerated room I came upon the following exchange from The Shootist, by Glendon Swarthout:
The doctor cleared his throat. “Books, every few days I have to tell a man or a woman something I don’t want to. I’m not very good at it. I have practiced medicine for twenty-nine years, and I still don’t know how to do it well.”
“Call a spade a spade.”
“How old are you?”
“All right.” Hostetler crossed his legs. “You have carcinoma of the prostate.”
Now the story of The Shootist is one of a man who comes to realize he is going to die young. He then spends his final days seeking a way to die in a dignified and respectful manner. The Burroughs book Tornado Alley is a collection of short pieces. One of them is a four-page story called “Book of Shadows,” in which a man (Lee Ice) finds out he is going to die and subsequently consults his little black book, or his “book of shadows”: “A few calls to make, a few scores to settle…. Nobody ever did him a favor or an injury without being fully repaid.” The following interlaced exchanges are between Lee and his doctor in “Book of Shadows” and Books and his doctor in The Shootist:
“Book of Shadows”:
“You don’t have to beat around the sagebrush with me, Doc. It’s cancer, isn’t it? (…) After all, Doctor, we have known each other for a long time.”
“Can’t you cut it out?”
“It’s too far advanced, I’d have to gut you like a fish.'”
“Book of Shadows”:
“Yes, it’s cancer. Of course, it might be operable… have to go in to make sure, but–” (…)
“Well, how much time would you say? I mean, how much time in which I can get around?
A spasm of pain twisted the man’s body, and he leaned forward onto his cane.
The doctor shrugged. “A month, perhaps two… I’ll give you a prescription. You know how to use a hypodermic?”
“How long have I got?”
“There’s no way to tell. You must be in a lot of pain already.” (…)
“Now.” On the table he set a twelve-ounce bottle filled with purplish liquid.
“Here you are. Your medicine.”
“What is it?”
“Laudanum. A solution of opium in alcohol.”
“Opium? Can”t that get to be a habit?”
“It can. An addiction in fact. But in your case–“
The doctor shrugged.
Books scowled. “Yes. What’s it taste like?”
“Terrible. But there’s a consolation. You’ll likely have dreams.”
“Amazing dreams. Perhaps you’ll even have visions. Are you much of a reader?”
Books was looking at the laudanum. “The milk of Paradise — at least there’s alcohol in it. What’s the stuff for?”
“It’s the most potent painkiller we have.”
“Book of Shadows”:
The doctor knew that Lee Ice was well-read — in fact, a learned man.
Yes he knew how to use a syringe.
These two scenes are not identical and every day across the world men are diagnosed with cancer of the prostate. What is striking though is how similar these two scenes are and the purpose of each of the character’s lives following their diagnosis. Both men proceed to seek a dignified death. Burroughs adds his own flavor to the scene and removes a significant amount. Swarthout’s book is a full-length novel and Burroughs’ story is just that, a four-page short story which consists simply of the exchange between Lee and his doctor.
In reference to laudanum in The Shootist, the Doctor quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge and explains to Books how to use laudanum. In Burroughs, Lee already knows how to use a syringe as a result of his use of opium. In Swarthout, Books is not a reader but, in Burroughs, Lee is a well-read man. Clearly this is not a case of plagiarism. It is, though, a clear-cut example of the creative process and a perfect illustration of what John Livingston Lowes referred to as “the deep well” — the place of the unconscious where influence and bits of reading, pieces of overheard conversation and segments of unrelated information coalesce into what we read as the great literature of our time. The hunting and collecting energy of consciousness has dragged the depths of submerged cuts and fragments only to resurface as a completely new construct. The mind of genius is an assimilating force and could exist but cease to be artistically productive in isolation. In case after case, as we shall see soon with The Bladerunner, vivid segments of what Burroughs read are discarded into this deep well and reappear as texts only Burroughs could have written.
The only mention of Swarthout’s The Shootist in Burroughs’ work is a brief mention in “Light Reading,” an essay included in The Adding Machine. Burroughs’ character Audrey Carsons picks some books to read in space and one of them is the Swarthout novel. Many years later, after I started the work for what was to become The Road to Interzone, I was informed by James Grauerholz that Burroughs had created a list of his favorite books, passages of which were to be published in a collection called Granta 52: Granta Anthology of Deathless Prose. Guess what book was on that list. Yes, The Shootist… and take a shot at what year this project was conceived. You got it, 1990. And, as promised, I will use the word synchronous. Mr. Grauerholz provided me the table of contents for this projected, but never published, anthology in 2003 and the books on this list are included in The Road to Interzone. Further research could flush out an even clearer picture of Burroughs’ appropriation of other writers’ work and the extent to which his literary input influenced his writing.
Ten years later (2000), I thought it would be interesting to read Blade Runner: A Movie by William S. Burroughs alongside the original science-fiction novel on which it was based, The Bladeruner by Alan E. Nourse.
Before proceeding I must clarify for and inform the reader about the history and sometimes confusing use of the title Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner takes its name from a book by William S. Burroughs called Blade Runner: A Movie. And as you can see from the copyright page of Burroughs’ screen treatment — “The author wishes to thank Alan E. Nourse, upon whose book The Blade Runner, characters and situations in this book are based.” — he took the name for his work from the science-fiction novel by Alan E. Nourse.
The Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, which starred Harrison Ford and has nothing at all to do with the Burroughs or the Nourse books, is actually based on the classic science-fiction novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Rudolph Wurlitzer and Hampton Fancher (who were involved with the film in the early stages) were responsible for getting the title to Ridley Scott. Philip K. Dick, Burroughs, and Nourse are all thanked in the end credits of the Director’s Cut of the film.
Burroughs stated in a lecture delivered at the Naropa Institute and published in Disembodied Poetics, “I turned this into a filmscript, and Kubrick made it into a spectacular that would be filmed in the ruins of Manhattan devastated by health act riots. (Filming those riots alone would cost five million dollars.) On Rudy Wurlitzer’s advice, I dropped the idea of producing this lavish and impractical film. He said, ‘You’ve got twenty million dollars to spend already — and you’ll have to tear down New York for this film.’ So I’m now turning the script into a novel with another name.”
The Bladerunner (1974) by Alan E. Nourse is set in 2017 in a New York City where medical treatment has gone underground as a result of the Health Riots of 1994. Based on the research of two scientists, Heinz and Lafferty, the government restricts public healthcare to a select few people. If someone visits a hospital for any reason they are forced to be sterilized as a result of hereditary findings that suggest diseases and conditions such as diabetes are being found in more and more of the population. Professor Heinz discovers that modern medicine, by breaking down natural immunity, is causing more, not less, illness.
The underground doctors have helpers called bladerunners that run errands and carry their supplies. This ominous future is also inhabited by groups of people called naturists, who refuse medical treatment in opposition to sterilization. With religious vigor, they protest the medical establishment, the government, and a violent police state. The naturists pose almost as big a threat to the bladerunners and underground doctors as the government.
The main character in this novel is a boy named Billy Gimp, who was in and out of foster homes, orphanages, etc., and doesn’t know his real last name. He is called Billy Gimp because of a lame leg. Billy is a bladerunner and works for Doc, a skilled and well respected surgeon who is a government-employed medical doctor by day and an underground surgeon by night.
The Nourse novel opens with Billy Gimp waking from a dream to find a bug in his room:
He had been dreaming, as usual, and the dream had been unpleasant, as usual. Someone had been chasing him through a strange and unfamiliar wooded countryside, relentlessly closing the gap on him as he had limped down brush-filled gullies and scrambled over windfallen logs, dragging his bad foot painfully as he went. He remembered vividly climbing up a ridge and down into a logging camp where chainsaws had just fallen silent and piles of fragrant pine sawdust were lying about… Sawdust.
In the Burroughs treatment we find the dream:
Flash of nude boy with Mercury sandals and a doctor’s satchel. A boy is seen running through the streets of Lower Manhattan, dodging from one doorway to another as the credits come on. Blowing snow… dogs bark from the windows of derelict buildings. The boy is leaning into the wind, snow in his face. He collapses for a moment, leaning against a tree. He passes a vacant lot with frozen corn shucks. As he runs, the weather gets milder. Frogs jump into a pothole, weeds and bushes grow up through undergrowth and gulleys full of branches. He is clearly running from something now. Sound of a chain-saw behind him. He stumbles and falls and turns screaming as a tree falls on him in a cloud of sawdust.
a short metallic stalk emerging like a periscope from the floorboards, with a tiny pile of sawdust beside it. At the end of the stalk, like the head on a kitchen match, there was a glistening crystal bead.
a short metallic stalk emerging like a periscope from the floorboards. At the end of the stalk, a glistening crystal bead. There is a little pile of sawdust beside the device. Flash of erect penis with a glistening bead of lubricant.
This is a screen treatment of the Nourse novel so of course there are obvious similarities, and much is going to be left out. What we see here is an amalgamated of Nourse’s fiction with the Burroughs’ mythology. The boy (typical of Burroughs’ heroes) Billy Gimp is seen nude in a dream running from some ominous presence. When awakened, the dream is not too different from the reality. The presence of the bug is parallel to an erect penis. In the Nourse novel, Billy is alone in the apartment. In the Burroughs treatment, he is with his lover, Roberts. Roberts is also a character in the Nourse novel, but is not Billy’s lover and does not appear until the end section.
In the Burroughs treatment, Roberts is seen as a fellow bladerunner and a companion. He helps Billy kick drugs, which Burroughs has given Billy as an imperfection, in exchange for the Nourse defect, a gimp leg. There is a warm exchange where Billy and Roberts flip a coin to see who will fix dinner. This companionship is much deeper than the one between Billy and the token female, Molly Barret, who appears in the Nourse novel as the Doc’s assistant. At the end of the novel there is an exchange between Molly and Billy which implies a tension that was noticed nowhere in the novel until that moment. Billy seems happy about the prospect of furthering his relationship with a female who had previously only been a coworker. Molly is suspiciously absent from the Burroughs treatment, as is Katie Durham, the other female character from the Nourse novel.
The nurse is okay. The anesthetist is drunk about half the time, so Doc and I have to pinch hit sometimes.
Where’s that fucking anesthetist? The anesthetist reels in dead drunk. “He’s shit drunk. You’ll have to take over Billy.”
In his treatment, Burroughs has portrayed Doc from the Nourse story as a sort of Doctor Benway.
I am surprised that Burroughs ignored another passage from the Nourse book:
— but that was not all that was bothering Doc. Deep in his mind there was another worry. Far more ominous, yet strangely undefined, chipping away stubbornly at his subconscious. It was something quite aside from Billy Gimp or the Hardy Boy — a cold, relentless sense of impending disaster that Doc could neither shake aside or identify.
Compare this to Burroughs’ description of the “Ugly Spirit” from Queer:
a feeling of loss and sadness that had weighed on me all day so I could hardly breathe intensified to such an extent that I found tears streaming down my face… This heavy depression and a feeling of doom occurs again and again in the text… the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
Another character occurring in both the Nourse novel and the Burroughs screenplay is Professor Heinz. In Nourse’s novel, Rupert Heinz is led to the “frightening hypothesis: that the miracles of medical progress in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries might in some cases, have ultimately led to more human illness, rather than less.” And in Burroughs’ version:
Professor Heinz addressing a class: “…The conclusion seems unmistakable. The medical miracles of the 20th Century, by destroying natural immunity, result in more illness rather than less… deadly outbreak of adult diphtheria in the early 1990s… And still more alarming the incidence of hereditary degenerative diseases… Where can this proliferation of recessive genes end? (…) In plain English, sterilization is now the price for any medical care.”
The penultimate scene in Nourse, the action scene, is set in a tavern (Burroughs calls it the Silver Dollar Bar). Billy makes contact with Roberts, his first appearance in the novel, who is at the tavern. He is with some companions, fellow bladerunners, and comes across as a bit hardened. After Roberts contacts one of his suppliers regarding Billy’s story he is confronted by a group of Naturists. “‘Hold it, Bud,’ he rumbled, ‘What’s in the package?’ ‘That’s my business,’ Roberts said, ‘And any lousy bladerunner with bootleg medical supplies is my business,’ the big man said, ‘hand it over'”. Burroughs cuts back on the dialogue here. After a big fight scene, Doc comes in and saves the day in both stories.
In the novel, Doctor Long takes Billy from the tavern and gets him to the hospital with little exchange. In the Burroughs treatment, Billy asks, “‘Doc, what’s the date?'” The doctor’s response: “‘January 18th.’ ‘The whole date Doc.’ ‘January 18, 1914.'”
In Nourse this end sequence is a hallucination induced by illness, but in Burroughs it is a dream. It can be seen as a cyclical sequence that returns to the beginning of the actual on-screen treatment, where Billy is seen running through the city nude with Mercury sandals. Compare the two ending sequences.
“– you’re the Boy Heroes of the Plague City, and Health Control knows it.” He tossed a pile of newspapers on the bed. “Take a look.” Billy blinked at the banner headlines, ILLEGAL MEDICS HEROES IN FLU CRISIS
Snow blurs into confetti, streamers, cheering crowds in Times Square. Advertisement shows animated figure in lights running across the Manhattan skyline.
Billy is seen to have blown a hole in time. Both books end with Billy staring out of a hospital room window at the Manhattan skyline.
Burroughs had expressed interest in J.W. Dunne’s books and theories multiple times throughout his career, so we know that this idea isn’t remote.
(J. W. Dunne’s time theory, documented in his books An Experiment with Time and The Serial Universe, was the result of self-experimentation through close observation of his dreams and subsequent events that seemed to indicate a trend of precognition. Dunne concluded that time is not linear, as is commonly thought, but is instead a series of events taking place simultaneously. Past, present and future are happening all at once. In dreams we are less bound by conventions of thought, and therefore we are able to see past, present, and future as coexisting layers.)
In Blade Runner: A Movie Burroughs appropriates not just one author or idea but multiple sources. Consequently, it is not a surprise to discover not only J. W. Dunne but L. Ron Hubbard and Wilhelm Reich. Look at the scene where Burroughs assigns Benwayesque attributes to the Doctor Long character, “‘Shut up, you’ll give my patient an engram…’ Doc screams back.” And in regards to Virus B-23, the “virus of biologic mutation” Doktor Unruh von Steinplatz
calls it Unruh’s Disease. U.D. is characterized by an itching burning erogenous rash in the genitals and surrounding areas, accompanied by an uncontrollable sexual frenzy. U.D. victims undergo bizarre changes in pigmentation during intercourse, and these changes are genetically conveyed. U.D. was extracted by the Herr Doktor by exposing the crystal skulls to D.O.R.-Deadly Orgone Radiation- in a highly magnetized pyramid.
Blade Runner, A Movie is an important work for studying Burroughs’ fiction and his use of appropriation. It serves as a guideline for understanding not only the structure of his novels to come but also provides the reader a clear vision of the methods Burroughs used, borrowing from other writers’ works and making them his own. The book is presented as a film treatment, yet we see all of the Burroughs methodology, mythology, and use of language — from packs of wild boys and anti-government naturists to deadly orgone radiation, serial time skips, and virus theory.
From that hot summer in 1990 stumbling upon Book of Shadows as a Burroughsian rewrite of a western novel to my later parallel reading of Bladerunner and Blade Runner: A Movie, I have come some distance in developing a basic understanding of some of Burroughs’ methods. Still I am in the dark, but now with a match I can see isolated images, pieces of the puzzle that with enough exposure will form an elaborate depiction of a web of associations.
For many years my research library formed an imitation of Burroughs’ library. This was not necessarily intentional but resulted from the massive collection of books used to research the work that became The Road to Interzone. That dream started in 1990 and culminated in 2000 after eleven years of reading. Unfortunately, in 2004 I discovered that a bibliography was inevitable. My parallel readings and side-by-side comparisons could fill multiple volumes of speculative criticism that would cost thousands of dollars and years and years of time. I settled for what I consider a pretty all-inclusive bibliography of Burroughs’ reading. What I succeeded in doing there was to create a document of sources, a sort of Q, or the lost gospel of William S. Burroughs.
My hope is that The Road to Interzone will get Burroughs fans studying his reading and a thousand eyes will see what two cannot. There will be more hot, dusty, and soul-blistering Oklahoma days, and there will be a near infinite number of curiosity seekers, so with this essay and the upcoming release of the second edition of The Road to Interzone I wait anxiously to read the studies and observations of future William Burroughs scholars. I hope to revel at the excitement of others’ discoveries and know that maybe I had a hand in getting the ball rolling. And as for what Oliver Harris called the “secret of fascination,” let it come down and let us enjoy the fruits of future revelation and until next time, as Burroughs was fond of saying, Via con Dios.
3 thoughts on “The Blade Runner and The Shootist”
A very insightful article Michael. An artist can never be free to change if he/she does not act on their gut instincts and impulses informed by the culture they live as part of. The Road to Interzone is an informative far reaching book essential if studying, researching or just searching for clues about WSB`s reading habits.
With the new edition of Blade Runner having just been published, it’s a great time to revisit this wonderful piece of scholarship.