Cannibals, Zombies, and Hexes on Hitler: The Life and Times of William Seabrook
The weirdo travel writer is making a comeback after decades out of print.
Upset that the Guéré chief had kept him from partaking in ritual cannibalism and had instead served him gorilla meat, William Seabrook turned to a friend with hospital privileges in order to satisfy his intimate desire to taste human flesh. After procuring the thigh of some recent victim of a nondescript accident, Seabrook threw a dinner party just so others could observe him eating. In Jungle Ways, which purports to be Seabrook's true account of his travels among the various tribes of the Ivory Coast and what was then called the French Sudan, Seabrook devotes an entire section to the specifics of cooked human:
The raw meat, in appearance, was firm, slightly coarse-textured rather than smooth. In raw texture, both to the eye and to the touch, it resembled good beef. In color, however, it was slightly less red than beef. But it was redish. It was not pinkish or grayish like mutton or pork.
According to Seabrook, human flesh tastes like "good, fully-developed veal," and in fact, "no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal." Although only a small part of Jungle Ways, Seabrook's plunge into one of the world's greatest taboos came to define him and his career, which by that point was already strange enough.
In life, William Seabrook was both a man and a caricature: the king of wacko travel writing. Since his death, William Seabrook has remained mostly out-of-print and little appreciated. This September, Dover Publications will attempt to bring him back by reissuing his long-neglected books. The first, Asylum, will be released in September.
Born in Maryland in 1884, Seabrook began his life as a somewhat respectable man. He went to college, took a reporting job with the August Chronicle, traveled through Europe, then returned to America in order to marry the daughter of a Coca-Cola executive and establish an ad agency. Such respectability soon became a separate sort of hell; Seabrook didn't wait for the United States to officially join the Allies and signed up with the French Army's American Field Service as an ambulance driver in 1916.
After the war, Seabrook made a serious attempt at penning big "L" literature and moved in the same circles as other Greenwich Village bohemians. One such bohemian was the puppeteer Tony Sarg, who introduced Seabrook to "Deborah Luris," the woman who would unlock Seabrook's hidden lust for bondage and sadism. But for the most part, he was rejected by the highbrow art set for being a mere reporter with a taste for niche stories about sex crimes and the supernatural. In one instance recounted in Emily Matchar's excellent The Zombie King, the novelist Theodore Dresier made a point of snubbing Seabrook at a party by referring to him as a "yellow journalist."
Although his excursions in Greenwich Village proved emotionally devastating (according to his second wife's memoir, Seabrook was incredibly sensitive to criticism and would get drunk whenever someone of importance put down his prose), Seabrook's time in New York City did allow him to meet Daoud Izzedin, a Lebanese student at Columbia who loved to dazzle his American friends with elaborate stories about the Arab world. Izzedin's stories got a hold of Seabrook, and when Izzedin extended an offer to travel to Beirut, Seabrook accepted. A few weeks later, Seabrook was living among the Bedouins in the Arabian Desert, partaking in ceremonies involving Turkish dervishes, and wandering among the mountains of northern Iraq.
As the years continued and Seabrook's fame increased, he came to be seen as some sort of expert for the common man or the basic middlebrow reader. Seabrook, who made a career out of traveling to countries where white faces were rarely seen or appreciated, wrote of himself as the white American adventurer who, through his open mind, managed to go deep inside the mysterious worlds of African folk religion and Haitian voodoo.
But most importantly, Seabrook got to hear about zombies. Zombies had originally been a part of folk traditions in West Africa and were later imported to the Caribbean during the colonial slave trade. On the fringes of Haitian voodoo, there are many different types of zombies. Zombies could be disembodied spirits or dead humans who had been transformed into animals. But for Seabrook, the only zombie worth studying was the walking dead—the zombi cadavre. Through a mulatto tax collector named Constant Polynice, Seabrook heard a rumor that a group of zombies and their living masters had come down from the mountains in order to work for the American Sugar Company. The zombie masters were a couple, Ti Joseph and his wife Croyance, who had personally dug up the recently dead from their village. They worked their zombie slaves day and night for the company and kept the group's wages for themselves. This scheme would've kept going if Croyance hadn't taken the zombies to a city festival out of pity. There the zombies tasted salt, which had been previously forbidden to them because it had the ability to remind them that they were indeed dead. Once aware of their decaying flesh, the zombies rushed back to their graves while their loved ones busied themselves with murdering Ti Joseph.
Seabrook at first dismisses Polynice's account. Then, while on the isolated island of La Gonave, Seabrook came face-to-face with what he considered to be a zombie. Whether or not this "zombie" was a mentally challenged villager, a drugged servant, or an actual corpse, Seabrook does not say. In The Magic Island, Seabrook oscillates between being rational and prone to mysticism. He brings up the supernatural only to scientifically question it. Then he concludes by iterating that sometimes science cannot explain everything, and that he personally will not fully discount the supernatural. This is the Seabrook style.
When released in 1929, The Magic Island became a bestseller. It directly inspired one disastrously bad play (simply called Zombie) and it helped to inspire an independent horror film called White Zombie. Although he's often falsely credited with bringing the word "zombie" into the English lexicon, Seabrook did more than anybody else to make zombies fodder for horror films and literature in the 1930s.
Ultimately, The Magic Island swallowed Seabrook. By 1933, Seabrook's life of adventure, which included flying across Africa with the French Desert Air Corps and posing in sexually explicit photographs for the avant-garde artist Man Ray, had become the tawdry spectacle of a middle-aged man in decline. His S&M affair with Deborah Luris cost him his first marriage and many friends, while his alcoholism slowly ate away at his remaining powers as a writer. In order to stop this decline, Seabrook volunteered to be committed to the Bloomingdale Asylum, where he was subjected to hydrotherapy and psychoanalysis for seven months. In between, he went through serious withdrawals and a battle with delirium tremens. At the end of it all, he had a new book, Asylum, and a cocktail recipe consisting of "grenadine, Pernod, and London dry gin, which Seabrook described as looking like "rosy dawn" and tasting like "the milk of Paradise."
Asylum was an early example of the celebrity memoir genre, and it proved to be Seabrook's last gasp of greatness. F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of Seabrook's idols, made fun of the book in The Crack-Up. Seabrook was devastated and returned to drinking. His next four books sold poorly and by the 1940s, readers had tired of Seabrook's hocus-pocus-meets-hard-bitten-science formula. Before committing suicide in 1945 via a drug overdose, Seabrook retreated into his obsessions, which included studying ESP, putting hexes on Adolf Hitler, and tying his mistresses up in chains for days on his New York farm.
With zombies in vogue and his books coming back onto the market after decades out of print, maybe old Willie Seabrook, the lost king of the weird, can finally get the recognition and infamy he earned.