“A pageant of phantoms”

It is not my intention to write a history of narcotics throughout the entire world. … But however far back one goes in human history, one can always come across some “narcotic phantasm” (Witkiewicz, 1928: p. 250).

Jacques Derrida’s influential interview, transcribed as “The rhetoric of drugs” (1990), seeded the idea of drug discourse as based principally on “moral or political evaluations” whereby “malediction and benediction call to and imply one another” (p. 229). Consequently, Derrida argued that the pharmakon itself could be understood “both as poison and as antidote” (p. 235). In his 2016 article on the relation of the Gothic to neo-liberalism and the pharmakon, Barry Murnane recycled Derrida’s point to urge a reconsideration of this conceptually troubled constellation. As both cure and curse, he argued, the pharmacological superintendence of the everyday self in modernity reveals a crisis of being and agency under the regime of neo-liberal capitalism—a kind of Gothic “de-rationalisation” of the individual. Murnane also raised an idea that informs this article: “a larger project on Gothic pharmacologies would be an interesting topic for future study” from Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (p. 229).

This work partially decrypts such a genealogy in drug literature to demonstrate that the “horror” of addiction is imbricated with the horrified recoil from mass modernity. It begins, briefly, with the English Romantics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, whose work crystallised the narco-Gothic, then points to the trope’s historic-generic re-appearance in the mid twentieth century, reading two key drug texts: William Burroughs’ Junky (1953) and Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book (1960).Footnote 1 It concludes with a critical examination of the narco-Gothic’s persistence in Steven Martin’s Opium Fiend (2012), whose subtitle—“A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction”—directly asserts a discursive heritage.

Carol Davison coined the term “Gothic pharmography” (2010) for narratives that chronicle the process, and progress, of addiction. She reads them as underscored by a pattern that moves from initial seduction to eventual, inevitable disablement:

Gothic pharmographies share a significant point of origin in the Faust story as their protagonists, confronted by the irresistible desires and the prospect of unrestricted power, literally or figuratively transact a fatal exchange for the fulfilment of their obsessions … although ingested by the alcoholic/addict for liberating, escapist, and sometimes artistic purposes, drugs not only stymie their aims by enslaving the consumer but also force upon him/her often stark, realistic confrontations with such issues as the inescapability of death and decay and the truth behind various power dynamics (Davison, 2016: p. 205, 208).

Davison’s comments here draw on a vocabulary seeded in the Romantic period then dispensed through the nineteenth century: the “bondage” or “slavery” of opium, with obvious sado-masochistic undertones; opium “slave,” opium “fiend,” the more general “drug fiend” and, later, “dope-fiend.” These were character types, delineated according to a kind of Gothic pathology. Her point about the enslaved “consumer” also echoes previous work on addiction and power.

Philosophers and critical theorists have probed the concept of “addiction” as an organising principle of capitalist modernity. Derrida’s “rhetoric of drugs” spoke to the proximity of the repetition-compulsion syndrome of addiction and capitalism. Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s equally important “Epidemics of the will” (1993) argued that essential processes of Capital, production and consumption, had already been pathologised as addictions: “workaholism” and “shopaholism”. She also observed that the compulsive repetitions of addiction, or anything taxonomised as addictive, neutralised the concept of “free will.”

William Burroughs was a major theorist of this structure of feeling. As Will Self wrote of Burroughs’ Junky: “in describing addiction as a way of life, Burroughs creates a synecdoche through which he can explore the being of man [sic] under late capitalism. His descriptions of the 'junk territories' of the cities his narrator inhabits are, in fact, depictions of urban alienation itself” (1996: p. 9–10). In his Introduction to Naked Lunch (1959) Burroughs skewered attempts to morally police the boundary between licit and illicit consumption. The demonised, underground black market in “drugs” could be properly understood as the doppelgänger of a “white” overground economy.Footnote 2 Black and white economies alike involve abjection and the loss of individual agency: “Junk [heroin] is the ideal product … the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy” (1972: p. 9). This portrait of the abject addict-consumer—trapped, helpless and hopeless in a befouled subterranean world—draws from the Gothic image-bank that historically structures drug writing.Footnote 3

The neutralisation, or cancellation, of free will under the sign of “addiction” precipitated an existential crisis. Any individual self—not just the drug-addict—could be disrupted then voided to the point of mania, neurasthenia or invisibility. In capitalist modernity, the self became a ghost—a dreadful understanding at the epicentre of drug literature. The horror was living yet not living, becoming the living dead, in an urban netherworld. De Quincey vividly recorded the feeling in his Autobiography, where he recounted his first youthful experience of London. He was sensorily deranged by the sprawling capital with its “Babylonian confusion”; “murky atmosphere … gloom and uncertainty … sense of vastness and illimitable proportions which for ever brood over the aspect of London in its interior.” Then, as he darkly reflected:

These are feelings which do not belong by preference to thoughtful people … No man was ever left to himself for the first time in the streets, as yet unknown, of London, but he must have been saddened and mortified, perhaps terrified … in the centre of faces never-ending … eyes innumerable, that have “no speculation” in their orbs … hurrying figures of men and women weaving to and fro, with no apparent purposes intelligible to a stranger, seeming like a mask of maniacs, or, oftentimes, like a pageant of phantoms (1950: p. 138–139).

In this passage, from 1853–54, De Quincey recycled a narco-Gothic trope, first constructed in his Confessions (1821–22), that has informed drug writing ever since: the idea of metropolitan massification, or modernity itself, as hallucination, phantasmagoria and nightmare. It was also a “terrified” apprehension of the disablement of free will and the ghostly emptying of autonomous human identity.

The grisly entanglement of capitalism and opiate use, consumerism and addiction, has its locus classicus in Karl Marx’s outraged reportage on “the most immediate effects of machine production on the worker.” He quoted official reports concerning the “poisoning” and “stupefaction of children with opiates,” creating “an unnatural estrangement between mother and child.” Here, Marx paraphrased De Quincey’s Ricardian calculus that, by stupefying actual and potential workers, Capital enlarges the human “field of exploitation.” Marx’s incensed accounting of the pains of opium includes a mordant deference to De Quincey’s more equable Logic of Political Economy (1844). Marx’s writing about drugs and De Quincey’s drudging on economic theory exposed the shared, disarrayed semiotic space of opium and Capital; indicating Capital’s usurpation of family life and human labour through the fetish-commodity opium “for the purposes of its self-valorisation” (1990: p. 517–526).

Turning to the issue of an opioid crisis, Marx globalised Friedrich Engels’ localised psychogeographic expeditions in Britain from the 1840s. Engels witnessed the “very extensive use” of opiates “in all great towns and industrial cities in the kingdom”—“a general enfeeblement” and even the “social murder” of the working class by England’s commercial bourgeoisie. “I have seen,” he attested, “multitudes” of “hollow-eyed ghosts,” especially in London, where they appeared “in such startling numbers” (1999: p. 109, 115–116). By the 1860s, Marx’s accumulated data on the Opium Wars warranted his charge that “the extension of the Asiatic markets was enforced by ‘the destruction of the human race’” (1990: p. 587). Engels and Marx’s investigative reporting of the wholesale abjection wrought by the opium traffic, from the United Kingdom to the “Celestial Kingdom,” was a ghastly prefiguration of William Burroughs’ image of addiction as a Gothicised katabasis, leading to that “final place where the human road ends” (1977: p. 133).

“Metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”

Carol Davison’s prescription for the narrative movement of Gothic pharmographies—from the honeymoon period of escapism, desire and seduction to the terminal phase of enslavement and decay—provides a neat template to historically map Romanticism’s relation to the drug experience. The Faustian bargain struck by Coleridge and De Quincey was a tragic transmigration. Initially, they sought to celebrate opium as a super-charger of the Imagination and an insulator, or inoculant, against the depredations of emergent industrial society. In the end, however, it cast them into mental darkness. Opium was a two-faced demon, recalling Derrida’s reading of the pharmakon as both benediction and malediction; as De Quincey’s Confessions recognised, “The Pleasures of Opium” were finally offset by “The Pains.”

Andrew Sherratt notes that the modern concept of “drugs” and its attendant discursive binaries—licit and illicit, use and abuse, medical and recreational—arose “within the context of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution” (1995: p. 1). In Coleridge and De Quincey’s youth, opium tinctures and its drinkable form, laudanum, were ordinary retail-patent medicines and staples on the apothecary’s shelf: in Sherratt’s phrase, unremarkable in a market-place of “meaningful consumables” (p. 6). Coleridge and De Quincey were also acutely attuned to the concrete reality of opium in Britain’s overseas trade. They understood the drug-commodity as central to the East-West commercial axis, and as one consumable among many: “in my time, East-India opium has been three guineas a pound, and Turkey eight,” the economy-minded De Quincey drily noted in his Confessions (1986: p. 72). If opium eating had a mental bonus it also had a literal price: the aesthetic romance of opium sat within a structured market.

Barry Milligan’s Pleasures and Pains (1995) offers a compelling, detailed exposition of the relation of Coleridge and De Quincey to imperial commerce: how the economy of opium-taking is enmeshed and problematised within the generality of commodity trade. For De Quincey, particularly, narcotised midnight rambling implicated him in the economies of London labour and the London poor: the night-markets, the working subcultures of porters and cabmen, and the degrading economy of sex, in the myth-figure of the child-prostitute Ann of Oxford Street and the city’s “many, many myriads” of unnameable “female faces” (1986: p. 64). In the night-markets, the Romantic opium eater eavesdrops on the poor, tentatively converses with them, and passingly infers that he is a “partner in wretchedness,” as he characterises his relationship with Ann (p. 49). He is, however, more proto-flâneur than down-and-out, classing himself above the crowd, not as “a gentleman” but the “son of a plain English merchant”; a student of David Ricardo who is prompted to write a Prolegomena to all Future Systems of Political Economy (p. 61, 85, 101).

Despite passing pretences to empathy with the urban mob, however, De Quincey shared Coleridge’s moral aversion to underclasses and their propensity to intoxication. In their narco-aesthetic, they regarded opium as degraded by its use as a cheap substitute for alcohol. Both deplored opium use among Britain’s “lower orders”—the growing urban proletariat—who did not appreciate the drug’s mystical potential or empowerment as they did. In Opium and the People (1981), Virginia Berridge and Griffith Edwards located this Romantic aversion in the broader context of bourgeois fears about moral and political unruliness and national degeneration (p. 107–108). Most explicitly in the Confessions, De Quincey discriminated himself from the proletarian “herd” (a recurrent word) as author “of the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium: of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member—the alpha and the omega” (p. 75).

In a moment of Romantic perversity Coleridge and De Quincey enchanted opium, elevating it above the quotidian pharmacopoeia and giving it dramatic new significations. They made opium re-signify as part of what Marx later identified as the “religion of everyday life” under Capital—the fetishism of commodities (1991: p. 969). “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing,” Marx wrote in Capital, but on closer analysis “it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” When basic “materials of nature,” like wood—or opium—are transformed into commodities, they are de-natured and conceptually transformed. As commodity, the raw material “evolves … grotesque ideas” and acquires a humanly-created “mystical character” (1990: p. 163–164). This, precisely, was the conceptual alchemy that English Romanticism performed on opium.

Although Coleridge never wrote a full-scale Gothic pharmography, the narrative movement was there in skeletal form in a pamphlet published in 1816. The pamphlet paired two drug poems, “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep,” to tell a story of the progress from a fantasy of power to the reality of abjection. The Orientalist-Gothic of “Kubla Khan” introduced the image of the drugged poet as preternaturally possessed, feeding on “honey dew” and drinking “the Milk of Paradise”: a figure inspiring “holy dread”—the germinal “drug fiend” or drug-taker as folk devil (1969: p. 298). “The Pains of Sleep,” a record of night-terrors and the first poem in English to recount the experience of narcotic withdrawal, was presented as a “dream of pain and disease” (p. 297). The poem cast Coleridge as “a kind of proto-Nietzsche, contemplating the abyss and imagining the abyss staring back at him” (Beattie, 2013). This depiction replays the image of the aged, opiated Coleridge captured by Thomas Carlyle: “Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill … looking down on London and its smoke-tumult … escaping from the black materialisms, and revolutionary deluges” of the time, surveying the abyss of emergent mass modernity (1980: p. 285).

When “Kubla Khan” was published Coleridge supplied a compositional note to the poem, telling the story of the long, effortlessly-attained “Vision in a dream” aborted by the arrival of “a person on business from Porlock,” leaving only a fragment for posterity (p. 297). In this apocryphal story—best understood as a fable—the rapturously-opiated Poet is reality-checked by the symbolic representative of Business. This is a version of Davison’s progress from ecstasy to abjection and a dramatisation of the “truth” of social “power dynamics.” It is a descent from the high Romantic Sublime to the ridiculous mundane.Footnote 4 Aleister Crowley, drug fiend and implacable hater of the bourgeoisie, recognised this as the fable’s tragic import: “Coleridge did his best under opium, and we owe the loss of the end of 'Kubla Khan' to the interruption of an importunate 'man from Porlock,' ever accursed in the history of the human race” as an avatar of Black Materialisms (2008).

Coleridge embryonically articulated elements of the Gothic pharmography that emerged fully formed in De Quincey’s Confessions. In Davison’s terms, the “literary sub-genre … coalesced several distinct debates” of the period: “the nature of the will and liberal individualism; social oppression and conformity; urban and national degeneration; and British imperialist expansion, which involved the perceived anxiety-inducing sense of Britain’s growing economic dependence on the non-Western world” (2010: p. 70). There was a sense of moral panic too, as Marx observed. He wrote several articles on East-West narcotic commerce for the New York Tribune. In “History of the opium trade” (1858), he posited that from around 1800 a moral inversion appeared, whereby China, “a giant empire … vegetating to the teeth of time,” became locked in a co-dependent “deadly duel” with Britain. Moral tables were overturned: “the antiquated world appears prompted by ethical motives” to resist the drug trade, “while the representative of overwhelming modern society fights for the privilege” of trafficking ruin in the East. It was, “indeed … a sort of tragical couplet, stranger than any poet would ever have dared to fancy” (2007: p. 27). This troubling moral inversion may have been an unconscious substratum for De Quincey’s Confessions, with its terrors of the Orient degenerately visiting itself on the British psyche and body politic.Footnote 5

De Quincey’s Confessions was the blue-print pharmography, fusing the Orientalist-Gothic, opium and a shocked response to urban modernity. It also presented De Quincey as the prototype psychogeographer. The first number of Internationale Situationniste (1958) defined psychogeography as “The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” (Knabb, 1981: p. 45).Footnote 6 In De Quincey’s case this involved an imaginative-hallucinatory re-invention of the experience of urban space, and a transposition of the Romantic cult of pastoral “rambling” onto the darker landscapes of burgeoning cities.Footnote 7 As FS Schwarzbach observed, Britain’s mushrooming cities were “literally and conceptually alien to the articulate and governing classes” and the “dominant image” for picturing them was as “unknown land, 'terra incognita'” (1982: p. 61). The urban explorer De Quincey was the most significant pioneer of that image applied to sprawling London, losing himself in the capital’s unmapped zones:

sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards … and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I confess, baffle the audacity of porters, and confound the intellects of hackney coachmen. I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terræ incognitæ, and doubted, whether they had been laid down in the modern charts of London. For all this, however, I paid a heavy price in distant years, when the human face tyrannised over my dreams, and the perplexities of my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep (p. 81).

At first, opium was an inoculant against the dangers that might have lurked in this urban netherworld. But soon his drug-delirium confronted him with visions of entrapment in subterranean vaults, mazes and labyrinths drawn from Piranesi’s “Imaginary Prisons” etchings—“vast Gothic halls … engines and machinery … on the very brink of the abyss” (p. 106). Examining De Quincey’s use of the words “labyrinth and eternity,” Julian Wolfreys argues in Writing London (1998) that these speech-figures suggest a view of London as a “double abyss of endless space and unending time, spaces beyond mapping and temporality which cannot be registered.” Despite “the precision of reference” and naming of places, London is an unreal city. As Wolfreys writes, “the effect of the city is to invoke a discourse hinting at endlessness” (p. 109)—a non-place, transformed and re-imagined by the mental processes of De Quincey’s psychogeographic wanderings. London is metropolitan space transformed into headspace: an apparition populated by apparitions.Footnote 8

On his endless circumnavigations of the capital’s thoroughfares and baffling by-ways, De Quincey is carried on the human tide along the “great Mediterranean of Oxford-street”—a rhetorical flourish that alludes to co-dependent East-West trade and symbolically plants the inscrutable Orient in London’s heart (1986: p. 57). This trans-hemispheric flow also suggests, or prefigures, how the text’s Orientalist register is confluent with imagery of the city’s crowded topographic unknowableness, its “sphinx’s riddles of streets.” His awareness of the economic co-dependence of Britain and Asia provoked nightmares in which the crowdedness of modern London was transposed into paranoid fantasies of teeming jungles and the threat of ghastly creatures:

Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat … I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos … I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud (p. 109).

“Man is a weed in those regions,” De Quincey wrote of Asia, as a metaphor for his own sense of insignificance in the metropolis: “Great … was the prostration of my powers.” Inasmuch as he barely “lived at all” in London, he sunk “into utter lethargy” and “under the Circean spells of opium … I might, indeed, be said to have existed in a dormant state”—a suspended animation or living death (p. 73, 99, 101). In Confessions, Wolfreys concludes, “drugs are folded into the traces of London as the signifiers of the self evanescing, the subject writing himself into his own oblivion” (p. 111).

“A vein in a mummy”

De Quincey’s narcotic metropolis was the psychogeographic template for drug writers who followed in the nineteenth century: Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire in Paris; the founder of bohemian journalism and “Australian Gothic,” Marcus Clarke, in colonial Melbourne. His influence was perhaps most darkly-luminous in the writings of Fitz Hugh Ludlow, the American “Hasheesh Eater” who made drugged expeditions to New York in the 1850s:

walking through the thronged streets of the great city, I … saw in every face of the vast multitude who hurried past tokens of something despairing and diabolic. The well-known long rows of palatial shops and gaudy windows … hurrying crowds of men upon the pavement who went to their business … the spirit which pervaded all things was that of the infernal. I wandered a colossal city of hell … that terrible ebb and flow of Life in Death (1979: p. 158–160).Footnote 9

A century later, William Burroughs also sensed that New York, and the wider consumer-capitalist world, was phantasmal and infernal. “I can walk around in a strange town and say, 'This is a junk neighbourhood',” Burroughs wrote: “I don’t have to see junkies waiting around for the connection to spot junk territory” (2003: p. 139). As an anthropologist of “junk territories,” Burroughs “travelled sideways into myth and backwards into history to reveal contemporary phantoms” (Lees, 2016: p. 4–5). Allen Ginsberg, who had already pictured Burroughs as “a deranged Faustian master” (Watson, 1995: p. 114), wrote an appreciation of his landmark Gothic pharmography, Junky, just before its publication in 1953: “It would be too great a presumption to compare such a localised world of horror as that of junk, with the universal Inferno of Dante, and yet that comparison … is what may happily arise in the mind of the trained reader” (Ginsberg, 2000: p. 381–382). Ginsberg also observes that Burroughs’ forensic psychogeographies were the work of an “invisible man, explorer of souls and cities; whose exact-prosed Junky showed process of police-state chemical conditioning” (2000: p. 379).Footnote 10

Burroughs peddled and attracted the vocabulary of Gothicism. As he said of his junk-confederate, Alexander Trocchi, “he used to shoot me up … my veins were gone [but] Alex could find a vein in a mummy”—meaning himself (Campbell and Niel, 1997: p. 160). He was critically viewed as a Gothic artefact and zombie by Marek Kohn: “There must be some trickery, some voodoo neurology of the kind on which he has expended so much prose, that keeps the ancient drug and gun fetishist walking and talking. Our greatest undead author” (1987: p. 143). And although Junky is usually read as a realist text, it exhibits what Jeannette Marks called “the phantasmagoric power of Coleridge” (1925: p. 97) and De Quincey’s urban circulations.Footnote 11

Junky trades in Gothicism, despite its apparently “hard-boiled” influences, form and fame. Its author had a phantom-like persona. Its dope-fiend narrator William Lee—“shadowy … hovering between cool existentialism and junk-death” (Watson, 1995: p. 147)—is Burroughs’ doppelgänger.Footnote 12 And its contents incorporate the ectoplasmic quintessence of Gothic pharmography—not just the addict-narrator’s desire for power and disempowerment by junk, but also America’s addiction to pharmacological population control. For Burroughs, the dual need for control systems to be imposed and for people to resist them dates from the epochal enclosures and traumatic urbanisation required for Capital’s experimental production of an industrial workforce—“the overpopulation made possible by the Industrial Revolution”:

There is simply no room left for “freedom from the tyranny of government” since city dwellers depend on it for food, power, water, transportation, protection, and welfare. Your right to live where you want, with companions of your choosing, under laws to which you agree, died in the eighteenth century (1982: p. xv).Footnote 13

Capital’s phantasmagoric renovation of pre-industrial cities into Piranesi-like prisons overarches Burroughs’ fascination with mind control, urban populations and the constriction of public space—“no room left.” “Cityscapes crowd Burroughs’s fictions,” Kathryn Hume writes in her study of his “phantasmic geography”: “Cities are the gridded and walled spaces where procrustean power is applied [in the interests of] narrow, prudish, mind-dead norms.” However, “Control is not yet total in Burroughs’s world; one can still find loopholes in the governance system through which drugs can be obtained or biotechnical experiments pursued, but the very nature of dense population demands disastrous limitations on freedom” (1999: p. 118–119).Footnote 14 The inescapable “fact” that the Industrial Revolution heralded “mind-dead” masses—throngs, to reprise De Quincey, with “‘no speculation’ in their orbs … a pageant of phantoms”—stalks Burroughs’ works from Junky onwards. Thus, even the haunting is doubled: “Not only is capitalist society haunted by the junky, its phantom double, but also capitalist society haunts the junky” (Murphy, 1997: p. 55).

Junky’s pageant of phantoms points to the narco-Gothic strain of its genealogy. Alluding to Alan Ansen’s 1956 description of Junky as an “anthropo-sociological travelogue” (Harris, 2005: p. xxvi), Oliver Harris argues that the text “mimics the ethnographic field report, detailing the territories and habits of various urban American subcultures and documenting their emergence or decline in the immediate postwar era” (Harris, 2002: p. x). Superficially, Junky seems to recount events “in a relatively straightforward paratactic manner, like diaries” (Cooper, 2012: p. 62–63). Yet although it is often “reckoned to be Burroughs’ one straightforward story,” Junky diverts itself with a “strange, double-take logic” (Harris, 2002: p. x). “The text is shot through with unaccountable moments, hauntings of memory and hallucinations, glimpses of lost pasts and imagined futures, sightings of the spectral and uncanny. There are visions of horror … and instants of supernatural wonder” (Harris, 2003: p. 68).

Reprising Marx and Engels’ view of the havoc Capital wreaks on the family, Burroughs begins the preface to Junky with a note on the monstrous birth of addictive consuming practices during and after the Second World War: “the ideological rock upon which cold war American internal security stood is unpatriotically libelled by turning the wholesome material and spiritual comforts of the family into a Gothic house of horrors” (Harris, 2003: p. 74). When the horrific “narco-travelogue” proper opens, Burroughs’ double, William Lee, is in New York.Footnote 15 He starts his “confessions” by forecasting a loss of self-control. He is warned that junk is the “worst thing that can happen to a man. We all think we can control it at first. Sometimes we don’t want to control it” (1977: p. 8). His first experience of morphine is a cine-Gothic vanitas suffused by the city’s commercialised phantasmagoria:

I lay down and closed my eyes. A series of pictures passed, like watching a movie: A huge, neon-lighted cocktail bar that got larger and larger until streets, traffic, and street repairs were included in it; a waitress carrying a skull on a tray; stars in the clear sky. The physical impact of the fear of death (p. 7).

As Carol Davison observes, the Faustian pact with drugs forces the consumer to confront death and decay. Burroughs recalled his own first junk-injection in a bustling world of commodity trade, consumption and infection unto living death: “I was alone … moving past warehouses or something … I was sick” (Miles, 2000: p. 62). In Junky, Burroughs has Lee re-imagine the overground world of capitalist spectacle as a phantasmal Interzone: “103rd and Broadway looks like any Broadway block. A cafeteria, movies, stores … This is junk territory. Junk haunts the cafeteria, roams up and down the block, sometimes half-crossing Broadway to rest on one of the island benches. A ghost in daylight on a crowded street” (1977: p. 28–29).

Later, having moved to Mexico City, Lee’s horrors intensify: “When I closed my eyes I saw an Oriental face, the lips and nose eaten away by disease … faces, hieroglyphs, distorted and leading to their final place where the human road ends, where the human form can no longer contain the crustacean horror that has grown inside” (p. 133). As Will Self notes: “The fear that adumbrates Lee’s experience of junk is never directly named; instead, it is indicated by the way the narrative voice itself swims into the reader’s consciousness, as if out of some indefinable darkness, an inchoate place where stories are begun but never completed. For Junky is a book not simply about heroin addiction, but really about the existential predicament of modern man [sic] in its broadest sense” (1996: p. 8)—the De Quinceyan sense of helpless isolation in metropolitan vastness.Footnote 16

“The whole chemistry of alienation”

Alexander Trocchi’s novel-memoir Cain’s Book (1960) announces itself directly as a critique of capitalist modernity’s recursive existential and opioid crises. Trocchi is also the most prominent exponent of a psychogeography that affords critical insights into the literature of addiction and its grappling with Capital’s market-place phantasmagoria. Psychogeography, an experimental praxis that deconstructs simplistic oppositions between inner space and outside world, between real and imaginary maps, has a special purchase in reading Trocchi’s experimental text.Footnote 17

Cain’s Book has been read as “an autobiographical novel in the form of a junkie’s journal” (Marcus, 1990: p. 386), rated alongside Naked Lunch—or dismissed as ersatz: “just a sub-Burroughs junkie type thing” (Irvine Welsh in Campbell and Niel, 1997: p. 17)—and canonised as “a Beat classic” (Wark, 2011: p. 128). However, its “radically heterogeneous form” defies one-dimensional definitions: “Cain’s Book is a Beat novel only in so far as it is an Existentialist novel in so far as it is a Situationist novel in so far as it is a De Quincey-esque drug novel and so on” (Cooper, 2012: p. 65).Footnote 18 McKenzie Wark reads it as a “Situationist text”: it demonstrates, for instance, Trocchi’s in-depth exploration of “the practice of playing with time, with time outside of both labour and leisure” (2011: p. 128). Wark connects Trocchi’s philippics against the “virtue” of wage-labour and paeans to Homo Ludens—“play is more serious than work”: “the ovens of Auschwitz are scarcely cold. When the spirit of play dies there is only murder”—and “the Age of the Doctors” (Trocchi, 1992: p. 19, 183, 245).Footnote 19 In Wark’s reading, the “world of spectacular medicine,” medicating “whole populations” and rendering “a whole biosphere … comfortably numb,” is integral to Capital’s repetition-compulsion: “constantly reintegrating the human body into the uniform time of production and consumption, for a time that repeats the same steady intervals without end” (2011: p. 128–129).

Cain’s Book can be read at once as a Situationist psychogeographic report and a Romantic narco-Gothic text. For this interpretation some bearings can be taken from Trocchi himself. “I had started taking drugs in Paris early in 1951, ’52,” he said in 1962: “I … had the same prejudices against drugs as … most people [until realising] that the greatest poem in the English language ['Kubla Khan'] was written under opium” (Campbell and Niel, 1997: p. 144). Also, recalling De Quincey having “inoculated myself” with laudanum for “the general benefit of the world” (1986: p. 92–93), Trocchi’s heroin fixes were immunisation shots in his fight against

anxieties and worries—from the atom bomb to what is going on outside in the street. … I am immediately transported [by heroin] into a world where I am immune from all these worries that besiege me … experiencing a tremendous, artificial if you like, but a tremendous elation, and an inviolability. … therefore, I am able … with this good feeling inside me, to get on with the job … and that is precisely why I have found that to … use it in my case, has been a Godsend (Campbell and Niel, 1997: p. 146–147).

Repetitive-compulsive inoculation against the impinging external world is a leitmotif of Cain’s Book. Trocchi’s Baudelairean “job” was not only to immunise himself against bourgeois society but also to attack and undermine it. “Trocchi has a task, an almost military duty to attend to. Several times [in Cain’s Book] he talks about being confronted by the 'enemy,' against whose charges fixing gives him an instant 'Castle Keep,' an enclave against which he can hold out: against his age, morality, stupidity, capitalism’s work ethic, the lot” (McCarthy, 2006). Affirming the point, the second section of Trocchi’s book takes an epigraph from Jean Cocteau’s Opium (1930): “Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death” (Cocteau, 1968: p. 36).

Interviewed in 1983, after almost thirty years of heroin addiction, Trocchi avowed that his psychogeographic take on urban modernity was enriched by sharing in the praxis of the French revolutionary Guy Debord: “a man who could discover a city” and peripatetically re-imagine and re-describe places, quoting “from Marx, or Treasure Island, or De Quincey” (Marcus, 1990: p. 385, 388). But Wark identifies an intellectual schism between the two: for Debord the creation of existentially transformative “situations was always a collaborative project, of love and play and boisterous rivalry as a means of effacing bourgeois consciousness. For Trocchi it was a much more grim and solitary business, a lone self-purgation amid the purgatory of other people” (2011: p. 129).Footnote 20

In keeping with narco-Gothic projections and purges of the self through authorial doubles, like Burroughs’ use of William Lee, Trocchi devised a first-person narrator who is his doppelgänger—Joe Necchi. In Cain’s Book, New York is the central purgatorial site for Necchi’s Sartrean self-purgation:

Before I ever went there I heard that Paris was dead, and later I heard that Greenwich Village was dead … but I never found any place dead where a number of men and women for whatever reason tried to strike permanently against uncreative work. In those places I found dissent, sedition, personal risk. And there I learned to explore and modify my great contempt (1992: p. 220).

These connections, however, did not resolve Trocchi’s purgatorial, Piranesian mind-set. He was constantly conscious that the “proliferation of vast projects in human engineering and the resultant threat to the integrity of the individual, is a direct consequence of the sudden emergence of the mass. Ortega y Gasset speaks of the 'vertical invaders,' referring to the hundreds of millions of men of no tradition being born into history through a trapdoor—a consequence of the Industrial Revolution” (Trocchi, 1991: p. 171).Footnote 21

The representation of urban purgatory in Cain’s Book is influenced by Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956). The poem has a ghostly presence and resonance in Trocchi’s text, particularly in the passages where Necchi, working, living and shooting-up on a barge, or scow, transports materials for Manhattan’s vertical expansion; one of the fleet of “floating coffins” (Trocchi, 1992: p. 181) that tugged from the piers and canals jutting in and out of Manhattan, plying the Styx of the black Hudson River, out to the blacker Atlantic. Some key Ginsberg lines seem to crystallise Necchi’s fate: “They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!” (1995: p. 132).Footnote 22 Necchi retreats from the shadow of Moloch’s grimly-rising towers, to the imagined safety of his scow-cabin and the instant “Castle Keep” of heroin (Trocchi, 1992: p. 31, 34). But his floating-coffin cabin entombs him, and heroin’s Keep turns out to be a prison: narcotics are eventually a form of indenture, bondage or erasure.Footnote 23 In the end, like his narrator, Trocchi could not escape the fact that the drug that insulated him against modernity also trapped and emptied him: “Heroin is an essential weapon in Trocchi’s nihilistic armoury … junk, for Trocchi, is a moveable void: taking that void around the city with him, in him, he ensures that he inhabits negative space constantly” (McCarthy, 2006). Perhaps he read intimations of his own mortality and the voiding of identity in the forlorn figure of the female junky “Fay”:

Under heroin one adapts oneself naturally to a new habitat. It is possible to live in a doorway, on someone’s couch, or bed or floor, always moving, and turning up from time to time at known places. Fay, owning nothing but the clothes on her back and ridden by her terrible craving, is more than anyone the grey ghost of the district … She invokes horror, disgust, indignation, a nameless fear. She is the soul’s scavenger, the unexpected guest, a kind of underworld Florence Nightingale always abroad with her spike and her little bag of heroin. She is beyond truth and falsity (Trocchi, 1992: p. 36–37).Footnote 24

Fay might be “beyond truth and falsity,” but she is also narcotically frozen in an amoral sub-universe—like Trocchi himself.Footnote 25 Trocchi incisively mapped and commingled the phantom worlds of “the chemical sublime” (McConnell, 1967: passim) and the commercial slime—“Nilotic mud” or Thamesian trade (De Quincey, 1986: p. 109)—of commercialised modernity, but was finally an isolated drug slave, hooked on, and kept by, “the ultimate merchandise.” As Sue Wiseman reflects:

Heroin is presented as an acknowledgement, rather than an evasion, of alienation. But—problematically—while heroin is used by the book as a literal addiction to disrupt the addictivity of social organisation, and stylistically to disrupt the bankrupt structures of the commodity-novel, heroin in turn attains in the text a ritualised and fetishized treatment. It becomes the ultimate reified commodity (1994: p. 263).Footnote 26

As Joe Necchi says, the “ritual” of shooting heroin “is born of a respect for the whole chemistry of alienation” (1992: p. 33). Necchi espouses the existence of anti-bourgeois conspiracies within the junkie community, yet recognises that its modus operandi destroys its own members rather than subverts Capital’s overarching shock system: “there is a confederacy amongst users, loose, hysterical, traitorous, unstable,” its entropy engendered by the need “to lie and cheat and steal, even from the friend who gave one one’s last fix” (1992: p. 73)—no end of alienation.

“Nothing remains of that old world”

A few months before he died in 1997, William Burroughs noted in his journal: “Book reading now: Junk, by Linda Yablonsky” (2000: p. 248). Yablonsky’s roman à clef, The Story of Junk (1997), invoked and mimicked Burroughs in several ways. Reviewers observed that her psychogeography of seedy-smart New York was shaded by Burroughs’ Junky, but the most striking Burroughsian aspect of her novel was its debt to the master-addict’s pronouncement on “junk” as the “ideal product” and “ultimate merchandise.”

The Story of Junk begins with the protagonist, an aspiring writer, working as cook in a hip restaurant then turning to another kind of catering. She becomes a heroin dealer and user, soon disappearing in the metropolitan abyss: “I no longer stand out among the living ghosts in the street … I’m not the same person I was.” She inhabits a crawling sub-universe: “a swarm of bodies slinking in and out of guarded doorways” to buy then “shooting-up in empty lots” or “nodding on the hulks of abandoned cars … hawkers stand on street corners calling out the brand names” of their junk. “To a tourist, it must look like a casbah from hell” (p. 67), recalling the souk-like bedlam of De Quincey’s London. It’s a world where everything tends to entropy and everything is junk, from the decaying urban landscape to heroin and junk bonds; and the book plots economic parallels—the drug trade, the New York art market and Wall Street in the mid-eighties era of capitalist excess:

By the middle of summer, the junkie grapevine has been usurped by working journalists. Every night on the news and every week on the front page of the Times there are detailed reports on the activity of the East Village drug trade. It’s as if the neighbourhood had its own Dow Jones. They give the locations and the brand names and the best hours of the day to make the best buys (p. 69–70).

Here, as Murphy says of Burroughs’ Junky, capitalist society is haunted by the junky but the junky is haunted in return—“usurped”—by Capital. Any perceived distinction of overground and underground economies becomes a categorical collapse—they are indistinct. This moment of collapse, the fusion of white and black markets, is also a prominent theme of Steven Martin’s narco-autobiography Opium Fiend (2012). The text follows a curve of return to the discursive framing of drugs and addiction in the Romantic era, with its Gothic trace-elements.

From the opening line—“Halloween, that day of symbolic horrors, seemed an appropriate time to stop” smoking opium (2012: p. 3)—Opium Fiend trades in a Gothic narco-history. It also salutes literary ancestors: De Quincey, Baudelaire and Jean Cocteau—“Across the decades [Cocteau], too, was speaking to me: 'The dead drug leaves a ghost behind. At certain hours it haunts the house'” (p. 362). Martin’s haunted house is an apartment in Bangkok’s Chinatown, in a decayed block once “the height of comfort and modernity” but “now an eyesore on a stretch of the river” with “black mould growing on the walls” (p. 81). He lives amidst an urban cacophony in the city’s most populous district, near an old cathedral with “crocodile-head gargoyles” (p. 82).

A bare week after his Halloween attempt to quit Martin resumes his habit, descending a Dantean circle “into some previously unvisited level of opium surrender” (p. 305). The teeming metropolis becomes nightmarish and unbearable, a frenzied danse macabre: “the noise of inane carousing … human revelry had begun taking on a sinister quality … The world outside my apartment now seemed a hideous and brutal place.” He deliriously imagines himself as lead-player in a movie—The Omega Man—and his apartment is a place of “sanctuary and civilisation … while outside chalky faced mutants clad in soiled cowls shriek and howl” (p. 296–297).

Martin discovers that he inhabits a phantasmal realm in another more significant way, too. There is an old passageway near his apartment which was once known as “Raw Ghost Alley”—the heart of Chinatown’s drug dens. “The news that I was living in Bangkok’s old opium quarter didn’t surprise me … I was ready to believe that fate had drawn me to the neighbourhood” (p. 258), as if he had no choice or free will in the matter.Footnote 27 After some etymological probing, Martin notes that the Thai phrase “phi dip directly translates into English as 'raw ghost,' but the meaning is actually more akin to 'the living dead'”:

In other words, opium smokers in old Bangkok were thought of as zombies—people dead to the world yet still walking around among the living … I didn’t think the imagery these words evoked was meant to paint opium habitués as slack-jawed ghouls. Instead, I felt the meaning probably conveys the idea that opium smokers were withdrawn and no longer took an interest in society (p. 259).

Although he understands these linguistic shades, Martin eventually succumbs to the English idea of raw ghosts—real disembodied spirits of the past. As a collector of authentic, antique opium-smoking paraphernalia, Martin purchases five rare pipe bowls. He learns that these are called “Tomb bowls”—robbed from a “century-old grave”—and that “smokers in old times were buried with opium and tools to smoke … so they will not suffer in the after-life” (p. 295). His nocturnal “ritual” is smoking opium in the meticulous, almost formal, traditional fashion: “my entertainment was watching myself conduct a nightly black mass” and raising the dead (p. 291). He becomes “morbidly fascinated by the idea of using paraphernalia that had for a century been cradled by a corpse. I imagined a link between myself and this long-dead smoker whose spirit was soothed by the presence of opium … and I was sure that the original keeper of these bowls … would break into an admiring smile upon seeing me put them to work” (p. 296). In Martin’s psychogeography, the Raw Ghost Alley precinct and his apartment are re-imagined as a liminal zone where he can summon and commune with the ghosts of narcotic history.

As his uninterested narco-ancestors withdrew from society, so Martin follows their fade-out from modernity: “my feelings of uniqueness at being able to smoke opium … morphed into a cold sense of superiority. I felt no kinship with people … their worldly joys and desires struck me as absurd.” He is contemptuous of the phantasmagoric market-place, where people line-up “for blockbuster movies or to eat in trendy restaurants or to buy the latest version of some video game”—a ghastly spectacle of compulsive consumption. Thus, there is “euphoria in what felt like the ultimate act of rebellion against modern society. Opium was setting me free” (p. 297). He comes to see “life with the detachment of a hermetic sage” (p. 355).

This is disingenuous—if not momentarily self-delusional. As Martin knows, quoting narco-literary forebears, “Opium is the Judas of drugs, that kisses and betrays” (p. 288); “Opium plays a siren’s tune on the piano of [the addict’s] nerves” (p. 80); and, in his own directly Gothic terms, “Opium is a charismatic lover who takes you to heaven, giving you years of warmth and affection, and then, like a schizophrenic, inexplicably and without warning begins putting you through hell” (p. 395). This last image conjures the archetypal figure of the Demon Lover from mediaeval balladry, revived in the Gothic-Romantic era in works such as “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan,” pathologised here for the twenty-first century. Martin medicalises his plight elsewhere, though terms such as “lobotomised,” digestive “hibernation” (p. 292) and “paralyzing depression” (p. 355) are as much about an existential death-in-life as they are a physical state—the “extinction of desire” and loss of will (p. 297). Pretensions to freedom notwithstanding, the drug fiend is abject and his only remnant desire is for opium’s “sweet oblivion”—the end of everything (p. 396).

A key narrative thread in Opium Fiend concerns Martin’s progress from childhood collecting to adult addiction: a variant of the Bildungsroman, in which the obsessive child is father to the compulsive man. Martin is an internationally recognised historian, scholar, demographer, archivist and curator of the lost art of traditional opium smoking and its artefacts—ornate pipes, bowls, lamps and more obscure paraphernalia. He also becomes a practitioner, and his story traces this addiction back to nursery life.

The young Martin was a collector of things: “seashells and colourful stones … postage stamps,” fossils, coins, military medals and finally “foreign banknotes.” His fascination with all things Oriental is stimulated by paper money—Asian banknotes “with their colourful and idealised images of native peoples, elephants, and pagodas, were miniature works of art.” His Orientalist obsession includes antiques—fetishes “that had been banished from the lives of their previous owners.” Martin becomes “convinced that certain inanimate objects had feelings” and “these discarded things seemed to call out to me” (p. 19–20), shaping the sensibility of the adult opium smoker who conjures spirits.

This boyhood commodity fetishism, endowing objects with “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” is shrouded in Gothic atmospherics, articulating Martin’s disappearance from the modern world into the narcotic shadow land. “I was the alchemist, the one who had rediscovered how to work these long-forgotten implements” and to prepare “the elixir” he writes, officiating in De Quincey’s narcotic “true church”; “a high priest … vested with the powers to perform these mysterious rites … I had relearned the ancient craft and brought these hallowed rituals back from near extinction” (p. 13–15). Subsequently, he realises that buying antique smoking paraphernalia and the drug itself are equal investments “in opium futures” (p. 298), though neither pursuit has a future.

The opium antique collector sits at the margin of the respectable antiquarian economy, a zone of skulduggery, “cloak-and-daggery” (p. 229), duplicity and deception. When Martin’s obsession with opium artefacts moves inexorably to opium smoking, the collecting economy spectrally merges with the underground drug trade: esoteric opium antiques and opium itself are equally “meaningful consumables”—fetish objects for an otherwise meaningless existence. Eventually he realises the horror of it. He does not own the commodity—it possesses him. As he knew from childhood, when he emptied his “junk drawers,” scattered their collectible contents on the floor and sat “frozen, unable to discard anything” (p. 299), his identity was defined by both senses of “possession.”

At a nodal point in the book, Martin reflects that “mindless acquiring is common,” but for most people collecting is simply “a momentary high”—“Like compulsive shoppers, their 'collecting' is a form of compulsive behaviour.” In contrast, he tries to differentiate himself from the mindless capitalist herd: “Real collectors … become so obsessed … that they can think about nothing else”—self-consumed by their habit. This triggers a sense of disturbance and doubt as to whether his own consuming identity is unique: “deep inside I still wonder. Is what I do no different from the hyperconsumer who tries to keep up with the latest technology?” (p. 85)—or, indeed, from ancestral, narco-elite consuming monsters like De Quincey, Burroughs and Trocchi.

As a self-fashioned connoisseur of opium arcana and smoking rites, Martin idealises the pre-modern world of beautiful things and patient pleasures: “people nowadays want instant gratification,” he said in an interview, but “opium smoking is slow and old fashioned … how many would be obsessed enough to go to the extremes that I did in order to pick up an old-time opium habit?” (Sauer, 2013) Ironically, however, his disappearance from modernity as a hermit-sage is facilitated by postmodern technologies. Martin inhabits the narcotic shadow land, with its magical implements, hallucinations and apparitions; and the digital economy enables him to keep it hidden and to himself, alone, in his apartment-sanctuary. He can do business, dealing antiques in internet auctions or on e-bay and Amazon; he does his research with Google and Wikipedia. Most importantly, he constructs a normalised fantasy life for the benefit of publishers and old friends—like millions of others everywhere, everyday, who counterfeit identities on-line.

But the nexus of virtual dissembling and addiction gives Martin’s narrative a special resonance. Technology is the perfect means for concealing his drift into opium obscurity. On-line, he can mimic what opium has already accomplished. His digital dissembling and addiction’s gradual psychic dis-assembling are the same. On the internet and on drugs he has become a simulacrum—a mere cipher, the empty image of a voided self. In that sense, even digital postmodernity shades into opium’s ancient, hidden underworld; and Martin warns would-be smokers that “nothing remains of that old world” (2012: p. 264)—nothing, that is, except a slow painless “vanishing,” the “extinction of desire” and spectral after-images of smokers past and himself (p. 297).

Bathed in darkness, Opium Fiend is a testament to the enduring discursive importance of the Gothic in drug literature. By invoking, then embodying, the folkloric opium smoker of old, Martin’s Opium Fiend performs a return of the repressed—or irrepressible. The book is a re-haunting of the contemporary popular imagination by a spectre driven underground, temporarily banished from history but never fully exorcised. Introducing their anthology Drugs and Narcotics in History (1995), Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich riffed on Marx and Engels to ask: “Are drugs a spectre that is haunting the world at the present time?” (p. 1). Opium Fiend answers the question emphatically. In the end, opium fiends are consumers par excellence, and their obsessive-compulsive “addictions” are the paradigm of a dreadful inertia: the paradoxical condition of living yet not living in the regime of capitalist modernity.

This article has argued for the importance of drug writing as a serious site of critique. The narco-Gothic, or Gothic pharmography, has proven to be historically durable. Superficial sensationalisms can be deciphered, decrypted, to reveal a sustained concern with disturbed ontological questions—the broader human predicament under the regime of Capital. A critical examination of Gothic-inflected drug texts is not a cultural remembrance of things past but, rather, a reminder that the lineaments of the “sub-genre” have a persistent after-life. They represent a complex discursive nexus: “knotty problems” of conceptual “alleys,” to re-orient De Quincey’s phrase. They are involved in a “deadly duel” where the free-spirited narcotised subject confronts and recoils from the horrific spectacles of urban modernity; they anatomise the crises of free will and co-dependence, and testify to the boundary-erasure of black and white economies, revealing the “overground” itself as based on a phantasmal inner logic. Reduced to “ghosts,” drug writers also dramatise another overarching idea: that the principle of “addiction” governs capitalist modernity and terminates in an existential dead-end.