17. Laurence M Janifer – Bloodworld (1965)
I continue to dig into Burroughs’ sci-fi reading habits. Burroughs was a committed reader of both classics and pulp trash, and this is a prime example of the latter.
Bloodworld is a piece of cheap S&M titillation with writing so stultifying that the reader is left wondering if they are the one being tortured.
Janifer, its author, readily brags that this is his twenty-first book, and that he writes under thirty different pen names. Such bloody-mindedness must be respected as the prose itself reads not only like someone’s first attempt at novel writing, but at writing fiction in general.
I flick to a random page:
“’You are fit to know the events of our city and our Council’
“The words pleased me, as was natural, but frightened me as well, for I would take no place, have no position, until he had gone, and he had intimated nothing to me of such an event: my fear seemed even more intense than my pleasure at that moment. But I had learned never to argue with my father, or to question him more intensely than he desired to be questioned, so that I only said: ‘What events are these?’
“’We are in the midst of difficulty,’ he said. His eyes closed for a second and then, re-opening, fixed on me with a hard and vacant gaze. ‘You have heard of Frei-San’, he said, and of course I knew what he meant.”
The description, as you can see, is brutally omnipresent. The dialogue, which can be hard to follow even on its own, is drowned in quagmire of endless, minute and highly repetitive description.
Nobody can say a sentence without us learning what their feelings are at that moment, who fixed who with what glance and what one character thinks another character might say next.
All in run-on sentences.
Perhaps I should have expected this from pulp fiction. I’ve read pulp before, but in retrospect it must have been the best of a very bad bunch. Burroughs, impressively, must not have been as allergic to bad prose as I am.
He could wade through a lot of bad writing in order to get to the ideas. I suppose that I too, for the sake of this project, must follow him.
So what did Burroughs see in Bloodworld?
Well, the publisher has done a good job. It features a titillating cover of a bald naked man whipping a naked blonde girl with a glowing, blood-red planet in the background.
The blurb: “A bizarre and alien culture threatened to sever man’s link with his own humanity!”
So, a planet of sadomasochists, right? I can see why it peaked Burroughs’ interest.
And yet there is a distinct lack of torture scenes in the novel. There is a whipping near the start, and one of the protagonist’s friends brag of hospitalising his victim for three months. Later there’s talk of a Lady who uses acid-drenched gloves to caress, slap and violate her female victims.
These victims are the Bound; a caste who inhabit windowless Remand Houses, and serve only as playthings of an elite: the Lords and Ladies of the Council.
The narrative focuses mostly upon this society. Sadly, the question of how such a society would actually work is left underdeveloped. We are simply told there is no crime, no work, abundance in all things.
There is a touch of Romeo and Juliet at the start, where our protagonist is shown to have fallen for a Bound Girl. This is replaced by a murder mystery – a Lord is murdered and a Bound has escaped – although this too is dropped prior to a solution.
Finally, it turns into a fable of revolution, where the young Lords and Ladies rise up and form their own Council, destroying their society in the name of “fun”. Whether the Bound are freed or not is ignored and instead we focus on our protagonist escaping in an ancient, buried starship.
Burroughs, reviewing the book as part of his Academy series in Mayfair, generously interpreted it as “a satire on self-righteous respectability”. The repressed violence of the bourgeoisie.
If it is a satire, it is a bit on-the-nose. The oppressors torment the oppressed for their pleasure.
I suspect that Burroughs’ generosity came from the mid-narrative appearance of the character Thonn. Thonn is from an ancient family, so cannot be outlawed, yet must live on the outskirts of the settlement due to his inappropriate use of the Bound.
Thonn “uses Bound Men for his pleasure”.
Not only is Thonn “unnatural” in preferring male victims to female, he also prides himself in developing exquisite mental torments. Pains beyond the physical. He turns suffering into an art form, devising ever more nuanced methods of torture.
He also bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Godfather of the Beats:
“He was tall, thin, to be sure, almost to the point of emaciation, with eyes that seemed largely and finely to burn and hands that were extensive and white, as if he had never used them even on a man in the remand houses but had instructed instead attendants always to do his bidding while he stood on, and watched, and laughed.”
This devilish Thonn appears and then disappears, only to receive a surprising mention at the end of the novel:
“Thonn seems to me the most important of us all, the most finished and complete of our world, and most misunderstood.”
I suspect this late mention may simply have been an attempt by “Janifer” to tie together narrative strands which, by that point, had broken entirely loose from his control.
Burroughs, however, offers an alternative reading in his review. He sees in Thonn a mysterious character working behind the scenes, perhaps not unlike his own Mr Hart. Someone who pushes obscenity to its ultimate extremes in the name of existential Control.
Like the Mayans, however, whose failure to develop crop circulation meant that they farmed their soil into barrenness, Thonn (like Hart) eventually burns out the capacity of his victims. The Bound cease to scream, to suffer; some barely react to the Lord and Ladies’ punishments at all.
Death need Time like a junkie needs junk. The Bound are a habit, and Thonn’s systematic overuse demands bigger and bigger doses of pain and suffering to satiate it. In the meantime, the Bound are ruined for the rest of the society. Their capacity to suffer has been drained entirely by Thonn and his minions.
Burroughs is doing quite a bit of projecting here. I did not take any of this from the story. Thonn, for a start, is never mentioned in connection with the Bounds’ burn-out. There are a whole cast of characters – Dancer, Griselda, Dr Roye – who are responsible for the uprising, and they seem to be a satire on student radicals, rather than agents of Thonn.
But it is interesting to see Burroughs identifying these themes in the work of others. It suggests important things about his reading; that he is always looking for explorations of his own ideas, for example, and that he will, if necessary, wilfully misread a writer’s work should the misreading work better for his purposes.
Burroughs is not an academic, after all, and creative reinterpretation of other’s work is at the core of his literary philosophy.
I wouldn’t mind taking the scissors to Bloodworld. If I removed the needless description, the waffle, the run-on sentences, the constant adjectives; I think I could get it down to a neat thirty pages.
Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing what other forgotten gems of sci-fi Mr Burroughs has got waiting for me.