The Lost World of James Lee
Until I first held a copy of The Underworld of the East in the British Library sometime in the late nineties, I had my doubts about its existence. I knew it only from an extract in a collection of drug writings from a New York underground press (The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960, 1991) where it was included alongside the usual suspects – Charles Baudelaire, Henri Michaux, Anais Nin, Aldous Huxley – and introduced with a short and scabrous rant against the War on Drugs by William Burroughs. Though the extract was presented as the memoir of a British mining engineer in the South Asian colonies in the 1890s and 1900s, it read suspiciously like a modern pastiche. As various aficionados of the genre had pointed out, its plain and amateurish prose was quite unlike the better-known examples of fin-de-siècle drug-literature; its progressive social attitudes towards non-Europeans, as well as its gung-ho frankness about drugtaking, seemed incongruously modern; and it was odd that nothing seemed to be known about Lee in real life. Some observed knowingly that ‘Lee’ was the maiden name of Burroughs’s mother, and his nom de plume for the first edition of Junky in 1954.
Any suspicion that it was a modern forgery was convincingly rebutted by the frayed and faded cloth jacket and yellowed, foxed pages of the British Library’s copy. When I opened the covers, James Lee had me at the title page: The Underworld of the East: Being Eighteen Years’ Actual Experiences of the Underworlds, Drug Haunts and Jungles of India, China and the Malay Archipelago. It was dated 1935, twenty years after the end of the episodes it related, and it was essentially a travel memoir, offering some of the armchair thrills expected by readers of the genre: a village in the Indian jungle stalked by a man-eating tiger; close encounters with murderous Thugs and dacoits; adventures on one of the first motorcycles in Calcutta in 1903. But its distinctive theme, most unusual for its strait-laced times, was Lee’s voracious drug experimentation. ‘A man deeply learned in every kind of narcotic drugs…among them being opium, hashish, morphia, cocaine, bhang, ganja and many others’, the dust jacket blurb announced, ‘For eighteen years he travelled the world investigating the drug habit and the underworld…the strange effects produced are intimately described’.
In the book’s short opening chapter, ‘About Drugs’, Lee sets out his stall: ‘The life of a drug taker can be a happy one; far surpassing any other, or it can be one of suffering and misery; it depends on the user’s knowledge’. I had recently been commissioned to edit an anthology of drug literature and had been working my way through reams of flowery, decadent 19th-century prose without ever coming across this obvious statement of fact. The doyen of the genre, Thomas De Quincey, had famously insisted that the pleasures of drugs were inseparable from their exquisite pains; his great admirer and translator Charles Baudelaire declared that drugs were a ‘forbidden game’ in which base instincts for self-gratification would always triumph over noble ambitions of self-transcendence. Publishers embraced this trope, which allowed them to sell immorality while absolving them of the charge of promoting it, and De Quincey and Baudelaire’s legion of successors and imitators were happy to encourage the conceit that the ecstatic pleasures they described were only accessible to the elite few who were equally prepared to plumb the depths of hell.
By James Lee’s time, these tropes had hardened into the clichés that still define the tabloid ‘My Drug Hell’ narrative: what goes up must come down; anybody who thinks they have their habit under control is deceiving themselves; drugs are a one-way street to perdition. But Lee, from the opening pages of his book, was having none of it – perhaps because he hadn’t read any of it. He was born in Redcar to a family of colliers and iron merchants and employed in factories from the age of seventeen; his writing makes no reference to the canon of drug literature, or indeed any literature. His style is precise but artless: short, factual sentences, eccentrically punctuated, the work of someone more used to turning out structural engineering reports. His turn of mind is restlessly practical: the proper use of drugs is a problem to be solved. Their pleasures can, with careful attention to doses and combinations, be wonderfully intensified; their pains, with knowledge and self-discipline, can be more or less eliminated.
By the 1890s, when Lee began his drug career, a chorus of expert medical opinion had ready diagnoses for the new figure of the ‘drug addict’ or ‘narcomaniac’. The condition might be hereditary; the subject might be a criminal ‘type’, a neurasthenic or mental defective, or someone who had acquired by social contagion the ‘degenerate habits’ of ‘inferior races’. Lee would presumably be an example of this last category, since he was introduced to drugs through contact with Asian cultures, but he explained his motives in simpler terms. ‘I was getting fed up with life in England’, he wrote, ‘where one had to do just as the next fellow did…to wear the same kind of clothes, with a collar and tie, and talk about football or horse-racing or be considered no sport’. He took up drugs for the same reason that he exchanged his early career as a draughtsman in the steelworks of Sheffield and Teesside for a post as a teaching assistant in London, and then applied for a job as a mining foreman in Assam: to have a more interesting life.
This first overseas assignment took him to a small settlement in India’s remote north-east frontier, where British influence gave way to the territory of the Naga hill tribes. The mine for which he was responsible was a tunnel through solid coal, which was hacked into tubs and barrels by the male workers and carried away by the women on their heads. He noted with interest that the workers chewed betel-nut and were often high on bhang, or ‘Indian hemp’, and was curious to learn more. One day, speaking to one of the female workers, he learned that she had fled an arranged marriage in the Central Provinces for a life of hard labour in this remote outpost. Her name was Mulki; they eventually married, and she accompanied him to England on his visits home. It would become Lee’s habit to seek out solitary postings where he could immerse himself in local society and avoid his fellow-Europeans who distanced themselves from the natives, ‘affecting to consider them as inferiors’.
Before long, he found himself suffering the chills and fevers of the endemic malaria and paid a visit to the local doctor, a ‘fat and jolly’ character whom he refers to as ‘Dr. Babu’. The doctor had a remedy to hand: an injection of morphine that left Lee ‘simply purring with content’. Dr. Babu sent him home with a syringe kit and a tube of morphine tablets, and he took to spending the heat of the day luxuriating with his new ‘hobby’ and ‘dreaming rosy dreams’. After a while he noticed that he was chronically constipated and decided to quit the habit, but he found it harder than he expected. So this was ‘addiction’: in most drug literature the inevitable destination, but in Lee’s narrative only the beginning of the journey. ‘Sir’, Dr. Babu informed him, ‘morphia is a very strange medicine…it is very difficult to give up but it can be done’. So saying, he injected Lee with half a grain (about 30mg) of cocaine. The new drug dealt promptly with the constipation and removed the morphine craving, but it gave him insomnia in exchange. The ever-resourceful Dr. Babu had a solution for this too: ‘perhaps because I treated him differently from the way most Europeans treated the educated Indian’, Lee was invited back to his home to smoke a few pipes of opium, which ‘procured a profound and refreshing sleep’.
Lee embarked on a systematic process of self-experiment to rid himself of his inadvertent habit. He reduced his intake of morphine and cocaine in turn with carefully calibrated doses, and developed a detox regime that he spells out in detail, grain by grain. ‘These two drugs’, he discovered, ‘are in a certain way antidote to each other’: each could be used to reduce the cravings for the other, and both gradually watered down. He took to using this cure on his return trips to England: the six weeks of the voyage was just enough to allow him to step off the ship at Portsmouth healthy and drug-free. The broader insight to which this led him was that ‘one drug alone spells disaster’: only with combinations of different drugs, interspersed with periods of abstinence, could their desirable effects be maintained.
More assignments across India, then Sumatra and China, turned up more drugs, which generated ever more interesting experiences. ‘I was now able to use large quantities of any particular drug for a time without harming my health in the slightest’, he wrote, ‘in fact I seemed to benefit by it in every way’. He added bhang and hashish to his repertoire, and found he could produce ‘strange waking dreams’ by eating hashish and injecting cocaine through the night. With this combination his reveries materialised before his eyes in visionary trances lasting for many hours, in which he was surrounded by spirits and saw the future evolution of humanity spread out before him in a vast panorama.
On his travels he took to asking the locals about medicinal and magical plants, and offering to pay for any samples. During a long assignment in Sumatra, where he supervised the construction of a goods railhead on the jungle coast, he discovered two which he believed to be unknown to western science. ‘Drug No. 1’, as he called it, produced not inner visions but true hallucinations, in which his wooden hut became an enormous space populated by ‘spirit-like faces and forms of many nations’, many in the advanced stages of leprosy, which hovered around him, along with ‘faintly luminous globes, which some instinct told me were the souls of unborn children’. ‘Drug No. 2’ was in its way even more remarkable: it restored him swiftly to perfect sobriety and health from even the most extreme intoxication, and was a panacea for any minor ailment. He reduced the plant to a concentrated brown powder that he took to carrying it with him everywhere on his travels, and referred to it as ‘The Elixir of Life’.
After my visit to the British Library I sourced my own battered copy of Underworld online and mined it for passages to include in my anthology (Artificial Paradises: A Drugs Reader, Penguin 1999). In the process I established that any copyright for the text had been lost over the decades through a succession of publishing mergers, and I found a small press who were prepared to reprint it (Green Magic, 2000). This cost me my prized copy of the book, which had to be chopped up for scanning, but I found another one quickly enough, better and slightly cheaper. The reprint generated a small but interesting postbag. A death certificate turned up, revealing that James Sidney Lee had made it to the age of 77, succumbing to liver carcinoma in Dulwich Hospital in 1951; with this I was able to locate his will, which left his modest estate to his sister in Redcar. I was contacted by a surviving relative, his great-nephew, whose mother dimly remembered him from her childhood in the 1930s, though his reputation for drugs and ‘living in sin’ meant he was rarely invited to family gatherings.
The publisher also received a letter from an elderly gentleman named James Gilman who had spent many years on Lee’s trail, and specifically on the hunt for Drugs No. 1 and 2. He had, apparently, joined a botanical expedition to Sumatra in the 1980s where he had found the spot where Lee had stayed, located the overgrown remains of his railhead in the jungle and spoken to an old man who remembered him from his childhood (‘the Dutchman’, he called him, as all Europeans were known to that generation of Indonesians). James had collected plant samples, and believed he had identified Drug No. 2, but it had either rotted in transit or been purloined by other botanists. His files and records from the expedition were stored in a garage somewhere that he was now too old and frail to dig through.
James did, however, come through with one astonishing document: the coroner’s report into the death of Mulki, in London in 1915. Lee mentions this in the book, in a curiously vague aside: ‘Poor girl, she died suddenly in London, while we were staying at a small private hotel in Bow Lane, Cheapside, from an overdose of some drug, I think morphia’. The coroner’s report, which includes Lee’s testimony, is much more specific. The couple had just arrived in London, where the wartime Defence of the Realm Act had recently prohibited the sale of morphine and cocaine; Lee had nonetheless managed to acquire some from one of his old haunts, a pharmacy named Ray’s in Holborn. He returned to the hotel, where he and Mulki both took a normal dose, but she suddenly lost consciousness. He rushed her to Bart’s Hospital where, to his horror, the duty doctor injected her with further shots of morphine and cocaine. In his deposition Lee testified that Mulki was ‘alive and breathing’ at this point, but ‘after that the doctor said she was dead’, The doctor, however, recorded her death as misadventure, and its cause as ‘heart failure – her habit of injection of these drugs cocaine and morphine would quite account for it’. I found a short report in The Times of the following day that repeated this verdict, adding: ‘Like nearly all Indians, she was in the habit of taking drugs’. Even twenty years later, Lee was evidently unwilling to re-litigate the incident in print.
A while later I was contacted by a small French publisher who wanted to put out a French translation and asked me to write an introduction. This was a chance to assemble an outline of Lee’s life, and to include the tragic story of Mulki’s death. After its publication (Les Tribulations d’un Opiomane, 2009) I received a courteous email from New York from a most unexpected source, the writer Nick Tosches. I was aware of his interest in the subject – his longform feature piece, ‘Confessions of an Opium Seeker’, was published in Vanity Fair in 2000 to wide acclaim – but had no idea that his search for the vanished world of opium dens had set him on Lee’s trail.
We exchanged notes, and Nick kept me scrupulously updated on his findings. Witnessing him at work was a privilege and an education. He was resolutely old-school in his methods, with a home reference library that seemed to cover everything (the Liddell & Scott English-Greek lexicon was always at his elbow) and a mastery of official records, from 19th-century parish registers in Middlesbrough to turning Lee’s name up on ships’ passenger lists. He used Mulki’s full name on the coroner’s report to deduce her family origins and their caste profession (cattle herders) and somehow, without leaving Lower Manhattan, identified her unmarked grave in Manor Park cemetery on the edge of Epping Forest. He traced Lee’s family back through two generations of iron and coal workers in North Yorkshire and Teesside; as he worked you could feel the industrial grit and grandeur of the Victorian north-east rising into existence as vividly as the 1930s Steubenville, Ohio from which Dean Martin emerged in the unforgettable early chapters of his Dino (1992).
We met once in person, in 2012, when he visited London. He was staying at the Dorchester Hotel on a confidential assignment, and was in a wry and elegiac mood about the publishing business. Sleuthing after James Lee was, in his mind, what real writing was all about; but gone were the days when he could simply follow his nose on an absorbing story, moored to his publisher only by an annual lunch with a trusted editor. He refused to pitch glib book proposals to ignorant sales and marketing departments, and had no interest in the digital future: as he wrote later, ‘Nothing good will come of this vapid, postliterate new tweet-text-twaddle world’. He recalled ‘the wondrous vanished bookshops that brought us such discoveries and made us what we were!…Over, all of it, over the hills, dying or dead. But so be it. Onwards in the dark of night like tomb-robbers of the XXth Dynasty into the Valley of the Kings.’
The following year Nick sent a final dossier, closing the case. He had filled in the background to James Lee’s world in often staggering detail, but the man himself had left no personal traces that could anchor his book to the rest of his life. ‘Attempts to locate letters, papers, notebooks, and diaries of Lee, often retracing the trails of the indefatigable James Gilman, have proven futile’, he wrote. The minor errors of date, place and fact he had found throughout Underworld suggested that Lee wrote it from memory rather than referring to notebooks or journals. Alleged photos had failed to materialise, and no surviving relatives had an old suitcase in their attic containing dusty vials of powder labelled ‘Drug No. 2’. There were still a few official records to chase down – passport applications, perhaps a military service number? – but these seemed unlikely to change the big picture. James Lee was real beyond doubt, and his travels had certainly taken place, but the private man was lost to history.
In 2019 I was visiting New York and picked up the thread. Nick was keen to meet despite grumbles about his health, but the week before I arrived his email went dark, and his death was announced a few days later. I crossed his path at that time in the vaulted art deco reading rooms of the New York Public Library, where I had ordered up from the William Burroughs archive the box containing Burroughs’s fragmentary writings on James Lee from the early 1970s. The paper slip on which previous requests were scribbled in pencil contained a single word, ‘Tosches’. The typewritten pages included a filthy, proto-Wild Boys routine about a polymorphous orgy in a Chinese opium den, and an unpublished preface to Underworld of the East, which had clearly lulled the ‘hard man of hip’ into an unusually genial and unguarded register. Lee’s book, Burroughs wrote, was ‘conjured from the unpolluted air of the 19th century’, when drugs were pure and legal and the Elixir of Life was on hand to negate any ill effects. ‘And so we leave James Lee’, he concluded, ‘in his quiet bungalow after a day’s work in the open air, judiciously selecting and rotating his drugs. A happy and nostalgic book’.
Despite its hard core of admirers, The Underworld of the East seems destined to remain, at best, a minor pulp classic. Lee doesn’t really fit with the current vogue for psychedelics in exotic cultures: he was too interested in white powders and needles, too unsentimental and too dismissive of spiritual flim-flam. In an era where film and TV reboots of Sherlock Holmes are still obliged to find ironic and non-threatening substitutes for his cocaine injecting, I’m not holding my breath for a James Lee movie. Yet his solitary book retains a peculiar power. It may be no great work of literature, but there’s a world inside it that can’t be accessed from anywhere else, and still has plenty of secrets to give up.
A version of this piece first appeared in the Quietus in January 2022
related book: Psychonauts