Let’s face it, the holidays are a miserable time of year for many people. Writers have mined this fact for pathos and much dark humor in stories featuring low-rent mall Santas, squabbling family dinners, inept home invaders, and King of the Hill’s resident sad sack, Bill Dauterive. Most narratives of unhappy holidays end with some kind of redemption—someone discovers a Christmas miracle, the real Santa shows up, the Grinch’s heart grows to nearly bursting from his chest, Ebenezer Scrooge repents….
What if the redemption is one down-and-out junky sharing his only fix with a man suffering from kidney stones—that is, after the junky spends the day trying to steal enough to buy heroin, finds a suitcase containing two severed human legs, and finally scores a little morphine by goldbricking at a crooked doctor’s house? That’s the plot of William S. Burroughs’ story “The Junky’s Christmas,” which appeared in the 1989 collection Interzone and thereafter achieved some notoriety in two adaptations from 1993.
The first (above)—produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel—-animates a reading by Burroughs in Claymation, with appearances from the man himself at the beginning and end. The story ends with a Christmas miracle of sorts, the “immaculate fix” the main character Danny receives as if from heaven after his unselfish act. It ain’t Frank Capra, but it’s a lot closer to some people’s real lives than It’s a Wonderful Life’s angelic visitation.
Also in 1993, Burroughs collaborated with another artist plagued by addiction, entering a studio in Lawrence, Kansas with Kurt Cobain to read an earlier version of “The Junky’s Christmas” titled “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him.” (Hear it in the fan-made video above.) This version of the story also has the suitcase full of severed legs, but this time the recipient of the junky’s charity is a disabled Mexican fellow addict suffering from withdrawal. Underneath Burroughs’ deadpan, Cobain plays bars of “Silent Night” on a guitar that sounds like it’s being strangled to death. You can read Burroughs’ earlier unhappy Christmas story in full here. And if you’re still not bummed out enough, check out Nerve’s “Ten Most Depressing Christmas Songs Ever Recorded.”