Junkies and Cannibals and Zombies, Oh My! The Abominable Mr. Seabrook

The Magic Island and Asylum

by William Seabrook

 

William Seabrook and surrealist Lee Miller in a series on bondage and sado masochism by Man Ray

Aimée Crocker was acquainted with legendary travel writers Robert Louis Stevenson (Travels with a Donkey in Cevennes) and Mark Twain (The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It) and was friends with the lesser known but equally talented Charles Warren Stoddard (South Sea Idyls). Her memoirs, And I’d Do It Again, is a book about traveling. Traveling through foreign lands and cultures. Inner traveling with the assistance of spirit guides. And traveling through life. While in foreign territories, she would at times throw money around with reckless abandon (she once spent a then exorbitant $2,000 in one week in Hawaii entertaining the king and some friends) while other times she would disguise herself in costume in an effort to blend in and become inconspicuous. She entered exotic lands both to conquer and to be converted.

William Buehler Seabrook (1884-1945) was the king of wacko travel writing. He was a Crocker acquaintance who was a disciple of sorts to Aimée’s good friend, occasional lover and sometimes guru Aleister Crowley. By the early twentieth century, the expanding bourgeoisie had an insatiable desire to experience the exotic cultures of the world. They found vicarious thrills through the adventures of travel writers. Seabrook was willing to go deeper, darker and further than any outsider had before. He flew a four-seater Farman from Paris to Timbuktu. He rode the Arabian Desert with Bedouin horse thieves. He attended hashish orgies with Crowley in New York, participated in voodoo ceremonies in Haiti, communed with cannibals in Africa (he claimed to have later indulged in the practice himself). He was friendly with Aldous Huxley and Jean Cocteau and Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann. Man Ray collaborated with him. Gertrude Stein wrote about him. Seabrook is best known for popularizing the term “zombie” in the West. A string of his bestselling books show an engaged, sympathetic gentleman adventurer hoping to share these strange, hidden delights with the rest of the world.  Seabrook’s desire for exploration knew no bounds. He was, unfortunately, a barely functioning alcoholic who was deeply obsessed with bondage. His life was a series of traveling highs and drunken lows; climbing on and falling off the wagon again and again.

William Seabrook attended Roanoke College in Virginia, received a masters from Newberry College in South Carolina, and studied philosophy at the University of Geneva. In 1915, he joined the American Field Service of the French Army and served in World War I as an ambulance driver. He was gassed at Verdun in 1916 and was later awarded the Croix de Guerre. The following year, he became a reporter for The New York Times. Besides his books, Seabrook published articles in popular magazines including Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair.

He met English hedonist, mystic and ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley at a lunch party and was quickly placed under his spell. Both were “PKs”—preacher’s kids with a gravitational desire to rebel. In autumn 1919, Crowley accepted an invitation to stay at Seabrook’s farm outside Atlanta. With Seabrook’s consent, his wife Katie engaged in sexual rituals with the self-proclaimed “Great Beast.” Seabrook and Crowley also conducted a curious, week-long experiment during which they communicated with each other using only one word, “wow.” This jaunt inspired Seabrook’s only published work of fiction, a short story called, of course, “Wow” and a chapter in his book Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today (which also contains a chapter about meeting Gurdjieff). Seabrook was unhappy working for the Hearst news organization. Believing he had genius as a literary man, he found Crowley the right man to encourage his dreams. Seabrook claimed to be the writer who knew and studied Aleister Crowley most closely during his activities in America from 1914-1919. He thought Crowley was, “the most complex character in the modern world, and one of the most extraordinary in human history.”

Aleister Crowley

In 1923, Seabrook wrote a slushy, sensational expose about Crowley with lurid illustrations after the magi’s new novel The Diary of a Drug Fiend was released and causing a sensation in London. “Astounding Secrets of the Devil Worshipers Secret Love Cult” was a twelve part spring Sunday series for The Indianapolis Star that recounted “The Wickedest Man in the World’s” shenanigans in America and revealed his life in his Sicilian commune, dubbed the “Abbey of Thelema.” Crowley gave the Abbey, located just above the medieval town of Cefalu, a secondary designation “Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum,” The College of the Holy Spirit. He took a band of free-loving, free-thinking acolytes there in 1920 and conducted some of his most extreme excursions into hedonistic “magick” practices. At the Abbey you would find lying around opium, cocaine and hashish as freely as butter and eggs and in warm weather nude sun-bathers, yet according to Seabrook, “even by conventional standards of morality what actually goes on there is no more wicked than the usual life of an average city, where people go clothed, drugs are banned, a thousand laws are in operation and policemen are on every corner.”

The final chapter in Seabrook’s 12-part series about Aleister Crowley

Seabrook wrote about the O.T.O. (Ordo Templis Orientis) cult that Crowley headed while it was at its zenith in England at “a time when Isadora Duncan, the dancer; Augustus John, the painter, and Aimée [Crocker] Gouraud were attracted to the ceremonial rites in Crowley’s London house—attracted, no doubt, by their artistic beauty without knowing anything of the hidden mysteries behind them.”

Seabrook was present at a number of “hashish orgies” which went on in Crowley’s New York studio, at 63 Washington Square South. He learned about yogis and “holy men” who employed hashish to help them attain the mystic state of “Samadhi,” or “oneness with the universe.” After experimenting with the fashionable drugs of the time Seabrook concluded that, “You may get glimpses of ineffable beauty and splendor, dazzling, intense, passionless bliss. But there come, too, the awful shapes of delirium and madness, destroying the mind that fails to control and dominate them. The despair and terror of the universe become concentrated in yourself. What poignant agony, what moaning abjectness! What folly to seek paradise in drugs!”

“[Crowley] is a man of extraordinary, almost superhuman, will-power, who had engaged in many other practices that would destroy the body and mind of the average person, and has managed to come through them, scarred but vigorous,” Seabrook wrote. He classified Aleister Crowley as a man who, “plunged into these excesses when it pleased him, and shook them off when it pleased him.” Seabrook did not have those same abilities.

Crowley forewarned the apprentice Seabrook, “the caress of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the artist’s word and it becomes untruthful.” He called William’s series fabulous, meaning “fable and nonsense.” He also demanded 50% of the take for the articles.

The Magic Island

“It seemed that while the zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead. The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life—it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.” — from The Magic Island

In 1924, Seabrook traveled to Arabia and sampled the hospitality of various tribes of Bedouin and the Kurdish Yazidi. His account of his travels, Adventures in Arabia: among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes and Yezidee Devil Worshipers was published in 1927; it was sufficiently successful to allow him to travel to Haiti, where he developed an interest in Haitian Vodou and the Culte des Mortes, which were described at length in his book The Magic Island. The book is credited with introducing the concept of a zombie to popular culture. 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.

William Seabrook by Carl Van Vechten

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. “The eyes were the worst,” Seabrook wrote. “It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring unfocused, unseeing. … I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, ‘Great God, maybe this stuff is really true, and if it is true, it is rather awful, for it upsets everything.’”

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.

Over half a million copies of The Magic Island were sold when it was released in 1929, and Seabrook’s descriptions forever shaped the Western idea of zombies and voodoo.

The Magic Island illustrations by Alexander King

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Asylum

In 1933 Seabrook found his way to Gertrude Stein’s country house in the Rhône-Alpes at Bilignin and invited himself in. The two spent the next evening talking, a strange interlude Stein later wrote about in her memoir Everybody’s Autobiography. She decided that all preacher’s sons drink too much and can’t handle their booze, especially those from Baltimore stock. “He and I sat next to one another and gradually I told him all about myself.” Stein spoke frankly and openly about her brother Leo. William wanted a remedy for his writer’s block. Stein suggested Seabrook quit his expatriate life of dissipation and head home to a more rigid, more disciplined life in the U.S. He knew she was right, but he drove home and drank himself unconscious anyway. He then resolved to leave the South of France and return to New York for psychiatric treatment.

Later that year, on December 5, 1933 (the day Prohibition was repealed) Seabrook, then one of the most successful travel writers in the world, was committed at his own request and with the help of some of his friends to Bloomingdale, a mental institution in Westchester County, near New York City, for treatment for acute alcoholism. The hospital did not normally take drunks, but his powerful friends had pulled strings. After a few days in withdrawal, he underwent a regimen of psychoanalysis, hydrotherapy, and rest, lounging on the lawn in his free time, tinkering in the wood shop, and receiving Swedish massages. He remained a patient of the institution until the following July and in 1935 published an account of his experience, written as if it were no more than another expedition to a foreign locale. Asylum (An Alcoholic Takes the Cure) was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. In the preface, he was careful to state that his books were not “fiction or embroidery.” It would be the first celebrity rehab memoir. And while he was a petulant and demanding patient, Seabrook also appeared to have developed at least some psychological self-awareness at Bloomingdale. He wrote:

I was forced to see sober a panorama that had been nothing but a miserable series of “runnings away from myself” since earliest childhood, and in which I now fully realized for the first time, neither whiskey nor the particular trade I had adopted were anything more than incidental. I took sober stock and saw that dissatisfaction, a sense of my own inability to arrive at a harmonious adjustment in any environment—sporadically dotted with flights and attempted escapes—had been the whole pattern of my life. I had run away ineffectually at 6 to be a pirate as all children do, and instead of getting maturer powers of adjustment as I grew older, I had been running away ever since… Now I knew that all the time I had been running away from something, and that the thing had always been myself. And now I was locked up where I couldn’t run away, either by boat or bottle. I had to stay with myself and look at myself and it wasn’t pleasant.

The book became another best-seller.

In a time before 12-step programs, support groups and rehab centers, there were no other options. What emerged was, according to literary critic Ryan Holiday, “not just quite possibly one of the first modern addiction/recovery memoirs, but perhaps the most honest and haunting accounts of the struggle for mental health in literature. You cannot turn a page in the book without watching him bump, unknowingly, into the basic principles of 12-step groups and the patterns of behavior we now associate with depression and addiction.” Holiday includes Asylum in his list of 24 Books You’ve Probably Never Heard of but Will Change Your Life. (The list also incidentally includes Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Stories).

The Adominable Mr. Seabrook is a graphic biography by cartoonist Joe Ollmann who spent seven years researching Seabrook’s life, interviewing surviving family and accessing long neglected archives, in order to piece together the peripatetic life of a forgotten American writer. Ollmann illustrates (literally) how Seabrook’s alcoholism and multiple attempts at recovery formed the core of his personal narrative. The details of his wrongdoings and relapses provoke greater and greater horror. Seabrook’s transformation into his own zombie – a wrinkled, bug-eyed ghost of himself – is genuinely frightening.

His alcoholism was slowly eating away his remaining powers as a writer. Seabrook went through serious withdrawals and a battle with delirium tremens at the asylum. At the end of it all, he had a new best-seller, but also 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.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of Seabrook’s idols, identified with Seabrook’s struggles in The Crack-Up. “William Seabrook in an unsympathetic book tells, with some pride and a movie ending, of how he became a public charge. What led to his alcoholism or was bound up with it, was a collapse of his nervous system.” Both he and Fitzgerald were alcoholics who cracked.

Seabrook’s Hitler hex party was documented by Life Magazine

On a cold night in January 1941, Seabrook set out to put a hex on Adolph Hitler, a strange event that was documented by a Life magazine photographer who followed him and a small group of young journalists and recent co-eds to a cabin in the western Maryland woods. The men wore overcoats and trilbies, the women stockings and victory-roll hairdos. He pulled out a Hitler dummy. Together they began chanting, “We curse you by every tear and drop of blood you have caused to flow. We curse you with the curses of all who have cursed you!” Then they pounded nails into the dummy and decapitated it with an ax. Hitler continued bombing London throughout the year and later invaded the Soviet Union…

William Seabrook died Sept 21, 1945 at aged 59 of an overdose of sleeping pills, nineteen days after WWII ended.

The even more abominable Aleister Crowley on hearing the news wrote an entry in his diary: “The swine-dog W. B. Seabrook has killed himself at last…”

from The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, a graphic biography from award-winning Canadian cartoonist Joe Ollmann (2017)

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Further reading:

The Adominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann