10 Facts About William S. Burroughs

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

With a life as mischievous as his prose, William S. Burroughs—who was born in St. Louis, Missouri on February 5, 1914—was destined for counterculture notoriety. Here are 10 facts about the Naked Lunch author in honor of what would be his 105th birthday.

1. He was a child of privilege.

Though he wasn’t extremely wealthy, Burroughs did come from money. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs, had invented the first functional adding machine and founded what later became the Burroughs Corporation, which manufactured business equipment. Following young Burroughs’s graduation from Harvard in 1936, he began receiving a monthly allowance—which lasted until age 50. This recurring gift provided him with considerable personal freedom (perhaps a bit too much at times).

2. He pulled a van Gogh of sorts.

Where the Dutch painter clipped part of his ear (or possibly the entire thing) and offered it to a prostitute, Burroughs opted to amputate the end joint of his left pinkie finger and presented it to a boyfriend he was obsessed with. He later commemorated this episode in his short story, “The Finger.”

3. He co-wrote a novel with Jack Kerouac.

Burroughs befriended Jack Kerouac in New York City, where they worked together on the crime novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (the pair wrote alternating chapters). Though completed in 1945, the book didn’t see publication until 2008. Burroughs himself wasn’t a huge fan of its literary merits, describing the novel as “not a very distinguished work.”

4. He went one year without a bath.

As vividly related in his drug-addled classic Naked Lunch, Burroughs debauched himself into crippling dysfunction while holed up in a hotel in Tangier, Morocco. Except to answer the call of the needle, he “did absolutely nothing” and “could look at the end of [his] shoe for eight hours.” He didn't change his clothes the entire time, let alone take a bath.

5. He killed his wife.

Though they never officially tied the knot, Burroughs lived with Joan Vollmer as his common-law wife. Together they had one son, Billy Burroughs. They also shared a substance abuse problem, and at a booze-soaked 1951 party in Mexico City, they performed an extremely ill-advised “William Tell act.” This involved a gun-toting Burroughs trying to shoot a glass which Vollmer, rather injudiciously, had placed atop her head. Despite being only 9 feet away, he missed—low. After spending 13 days in jail, Burroughs was bailed out, and later fled the country. The Mexican court convicted him of manslaughter in absentia and sentenced him to two years. By staying away from Mexico, he avoided the sentence.

6. He made artwork with gunfire.

Burroughs later found a less lethal and more creative outlet for his fascination with guns. As with much he did, his style was unconventional: He would generate abstract paintings by using a shotgun to blast cans of spray paint placed in front of the canvas. His splattered creations were first exhibited in 1987 in New York.

7. He disliked teaching.

Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty Images

As with many prominent writers, Burroughs was offered a job instructing others in his craft. But his pedagogic tenure at the City College of New York lasted all of one semester. Discouraged by what he regarded as a lack of student talent, he felt the gig was more of a hassle than it was worth. He subsequently turned down a well-paying position at the University of Buffalo and considered his teaching experience a “lesson in never again.”

8. He acted.

Despite his rather aloof persona and quintessential withered appearance, in the 1980s and 1990s Burroughs enjoyed about as hip an image as one could acquire. Using this cultural currency to pursue an acting career of sorts, he appeared in films such as Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989), in which he played a defrocked priest.

9. He was also involved with music.

Burroughs collaborated with R.E.M. for a new version of their song, “Star Me Kitten,” which appeared on the 1996 album Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired By the X-Files. He also worked with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson on the opera The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, which premiered in 1990.

10. He was exorcised.

Still haunted decades later by Vollmer's death and the “Ugly Spirit” he felt had invaded him, Burroughs received an exorcism performed by a Sioux medicine man in 1992. The ceremony was attended by his beatnik friend, poet Allen Ginsburg.

This article originally ran in 2017.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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13 Things You Might Not Know About H.P. Lovecraft

Crabitha, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Crabitha, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Though it’s been more than a century since H.P. Lovecraft was born, the writer’s weird fiction and cosmic horror remain both influential and problematic. Lovecraft’s ghastly tales of alien gods, bloodguilty families, and collapsing civilizations have influenced authors like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. The new HBO horror series Lovecraft Country—which was created by Misha Green and executive produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out) and J.J. Abrams (Star Wars)—explores 1950s racism via dramatic encounters with Lovecraftian monsters. Check out some facts about this twisted soul from Providence, Rhode Island. (Warning: Some of the sources linked within contain offensive and racist language.)

1. H.P. Lovecraft had a tough childhood.

Born on August 20, 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft grew up under tragic, bizarre circumstances. His father, suffering from what was likely syphilis-induced psychosis, entered Providence’s Butler Hospital in 1893 and died there in 1898. (His mother went into the same mental hospital after World War I.) Lovecraft’s grandfather told him horror stories, and Lovecraft honed his lurid imagination by devouring Edgar Allan Poe and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. After his grandfather’s death, his family fell into poverty, and he had a nervous breakdown before graduating high school.

2. H.P. Lovecraft’s iconic monsters have murky origins.

When Lovecraft, at age 5, lost his grandmother, his mother and aunts wore eerie black mourning dresses. His subsequent nightmares may have inspired his black-winged, demonic Night-Gaunts. Another of his monsters, Dagon, is a water denizen with a “hideous head” and “scaly arms,” and the name, which Lovecraft first used in a 1919 short story, matches that of the Biblical god of the Philistines. And the infamous Cthulhu, a gigantic octopus-dragon hybrid, may reflect Lovecraft’s hatred of seafood.

3. H.P. Lovecraft co-wrote a short story about Egypt with Harry Houdini.

In 1924, the editor of Weird Tales paid Lovecraft $100 to write “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” based on Houdini’s claim that he’d once been kidnapped and trapped underground near the Great Pyramid of Giza. Lovecraft figured this was bogus, but did extensive Egyptological research. The legendary magician offered Lovecraft more projects, but died in 1926 before they could collaborate further.

4. H.P. Lovecraft struggled to support himself.

Reclusive and socially inept, Lovecraft scraped by financially, sometimes by living with his family, sometimes being supported by his wife Sonia Greene. He wrote more than 60 short stories, plus some novels and novellas, but also penned an estimated 100,000 letters to friends and fans. Sometimes he skipped meals to pay for postage.

5. Metal bands are obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft.

Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be” invoke Lovecraft’s greatest monster, as does Cradle of Filth’s “Cthulhu Dawn.” Black Sabbath’s “Behind The Wall of Sleep” is inspired by a 1919 Lovecraft story. Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth derived his stage name from Azathoth, one of Lovecraft’s gods. The list goes on.

6. H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness influenced the movie Alien.

Alien writer Dan O’Bannon was influenced by Lovecraft’s 1936 novella about an ill-fated Antarctica expedition. Both stories involve explorers getting attacked by mysterious creatures in an unfamiliar environment, and the Alien somewhat physically resembles Cthulhu. Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed the facehuggers and chestbursters in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic, released a surreal art book entitled Necronomicon, named after Lovecraft’s oft-cited spellbook.

7. Providence, Rhode Island, abounds with H.P. Lovecraft-related tourist attractions.

The city features the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences store and Lovecraft’s grave, among other highlights. Plus, Brown University houses the world’s largest collection of Lovecraft papers.

8. H.P. Lovecraft had a love-hate relationship with New York.

While residing in Brooklyn, Lovecraft enjoyed roaming around the Big Apple in search of ideas and hobnobbing with other literary types in the Kalem Club. However, 1927’s “Horror at Red Hook,” a story set in the neighborhood and involving occult sacrifices, displayed his xenophobia.

9. H.P. Lovecraft loved cats.

In a pompous essay entitled “Cats and Dogs,” he wrote: “The cat is such a perfect symbol of beauty and superiority that it seems scarcely possible for any true aesthete and civilised cynic to do other than worship it.” Horror stories like “The Cats of Ulthar” and “The Rats in the Walls” also reflect his penchant for felines. As a boy, Lovecraft owned a black cat whose name was a racial slur.

10. H.P. Lovecraft was extremely racist.

There’s no avoiding it: Lovecraft’s fiction, poetry, and correspondence include bigoted statements about Black, Jewish, and Irish people—among many other backgrounds. He admired Hitler and supported white supremacy. Recently, his troubling legacy has come under the microscope.

11. The World Fantasy Awards stopped using H.P. Lovecraft statuettes after the 2015 awards.

These awards, which have taken place annually since 1975, honor the best fantasy fiction published the year before. Winners used to receive a small bust of Lovecraft. That tradition ended due to his racist history. YA author Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper) petitioned to replace it with an Octavia Butler statuette. However, in 2017, the organizers unveiled a new design with a tree in front of a full moon.

12. A Wisconsin publishing house pumped up H.P. Lovecraft’s fame after his death.

If August Derleth and Donald Wandrei hadn’t co-founded Arkham House in Sauk City, Wisconsin, Lovecraft’s work might have languished in obscurity. After Lovecraft died of cancer at age 46 in 1937, Derleth and Wandrei wanted to put out a hardcover anthology of his fiction. When no established publisher bit, they published The Outsider and Others themselves in 1939. More omnibuses followed, and over the decades, Lovecraft became a household name.

13. H.P. Lovecraft continues to influence popular culture.

Besides Lovecraft Country, there are lots of recent reimaginings to choose from. South Park spoofed Cthulhu in 2010. Lovecraft’s influence on the 2016-launched Netflix series Stranger Things is well-documented. Between 2016 and 2018, Mark Hamill and Christopher Plummer lent their voices to the animated Howard Lovecraft film trilogy by Arcana Studio. Also, Nicolas Cage stars in the 2019 movie Color Out of Space, based on the Lovecraft story of that name.