48. J.M. Barrie – Peter Pan (1911)
Burroughs’ transition away from the cut-ups in the 1970s came via the Wild Boys series. This included the titular novel, Port of Saints and (some of) Ah Pook is Here.
Reading Burroughs’ letters from the period, a critical moment of inspiration comes when he is “rereading Peter Pan”. Having never read it myself, I decided to dive in with an eye for Burroughsian moments.
The first thing I noted about the book was the undertone of subtle menace (carefully extracted from the Disney version, of course). The lost boys, who “fell out of their prams” and were stolen away by Peter, live in fear of their leader and are often forced to go hungry when Peter prefers to eat imaginary dinners rather than real food.
Neverland is a violent island. On our first introduction to it, the lost boys are hunting for Peter while the pirates are hunting them, a tribe of Indians hunts the pirates and a pack of wild animals chases the Indians.
“All wanted blood, except the boys, who liked it as a rule, but tonight were out to greet their captain.”
The boys are said to vary in number, with many being killed. Each carries a dagger and none of them can remember their mothers or even what a mother looks and acts like.
This is why, when Wendy gets to the island, the boys confuse her for an enemy and shoot her. In a moment that must have resonated terribly for Burroughs, a crying boy, seeing Wendy’s dead body prostrate on the ground, cries out:
“When ladies used to come to me in dreams, I said, ‘pretty mother, pretty mother.’ But when at last she really came, I shot her.”
The lost boys of the book are not a long way from Burroughs’ wild boys. They have all the violence and masculine isolation from women; it’s just the sex that’s missing. The line of influence is far clearer than one would assume from the Disney version. With a sprinkle of A Clockwork Orange and Brighton Rock, the wild boys practically create themselves.
Peter Pan, at the end of the book, is, we are assured, to live on, “as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless”. The wild boys are certainly this.
Hook also bears strong resemblance to the aristocratic evildoers upon whom Burroughs based much of his own persona (think Brassington, Maldoror, Rimbaud). He went to public school, we are told, and “in his dark nature there was a touch of the feminine”.
His death at the hands of Peter is not, as in the movie, specifically related to the ticking of the crocodile’s clock (in fact, in the book, the clock stopped years ago). Instead, it’s his desire to retain his adult sense of honour and decorum. He duels with Pan until, intentionally leaving his guard open, Pan kicks him. “Bad form!” he cries, falling into the croc’s mouth; justified in a “noble” death.
The showdown of “proud and insolent youth” versus “dark and sinister man” that is staged in Peter’s fight with Hook makes clear the presence of death lurking in the sexual frisson between older and younger men (it’s worth repeating here that Burroughs’ “boys” were all between 16 and 25).
The celestial connection between sex and death in Burroughs’ homosexual worldview is also reflected in the pirates quoting: “never was luck on a pirate ship with a woman aboard”. A quote attributed to the late great Captain Flint.
With all of these aspects connecting Peter Pan to the wild boys and, thus, Burroughs’ wider mythological worldview, it is clear why his rereading of it is such a critical moment for him.
That he calls it a “rereading” suggests he may have known the book as a child (it came out 8 years before his birth, so would have presumably been a popular book still in the 1920s). That it connects with the other books of 1920s childhoods that he reads – Denton Welch, Aubrey Fowkes, Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf – where nannies and playrooms and other late Edwardiana also play roles, show us that the wild boys is not only a phenomenon connected with B-movies and pulp magazines but with his own personal childhood games as well.
A final point regards Burroughs’ convergent approach to mythology. This is not specific to Burroughs, but lies within the nature of mythology itself. I have been thinking of the overlapping figures of Randolph Hearst, William S Hart, Burroughs himself and “The Ugly Spirit” in his work. Now, I am wondering about the role of Ah Pook.
“Ah Pook: the Destroyer”, as he is referred to by Burroughs, is not a major Mayan God. He appears as a minor death demon within the Chilam Balam, although there his name is spelled “Ah Puch”, and, if you squint, might appear in the Popol Vuh as “Ahal Puh”.
That Burroughs fixated on “Ah Pook” rather than Kisin (the main death god) suggests, for me, that he’s connecting the misspelled name with European chaos entities. In Kipling’s Puck of Pooks’ Hill, another highly popular children’s book of Burroughs’ era, we are assured that “Pook is Puck and Puck is Pook”. Ah Puch becomes Ah Pook to be Pook to be Puck.
Puck, for some scholars at least, overlaps with Pan, and Burroughs was already fascinated by Pan thanks to Brion Gysin’s discovery that the “3,000 year old rock band” the Master Musicians of the Joujouka were playing an Islamicised version of the Rites of Pan. Panic features heavily in Burroughs’ “deluge” sections, across all his texts.
Is Peter Pan therefore some English nursery version of Ah Pook the destroyer?
Continued research may uncover more. We shall see.