William Seabrook ought to be one of the most famous names in horror. This American pre-gonzo gonzo author and adventurer only went and invented the freakin' zombie; if that isn't an iron-clad claim to fame, what is?
Yet he's largely forgotten by modern audiences. My copy of the Magic Island, Seabrook's Haiti reminiscence, is an Armchair Traveller 1989 reprint of the 1929 original, and for a while there, unless you haunted antiquarian bookstores, this was your only option. There have been reprints since, thank goodness.
In his day, Seabrook was one of the most famous popular authors going - exactly the kind of author, in fact, whose work might be found on the shelves of your Bookhounds' shop. He went to Africa to live among the cannibals, Arabia to see the Bedouins, Haiti to discover the secrets of voodoo, and the asylum to find out what it was like to recover from chronic alcoholism.
That was his besetting sin. Seabrook was a lifelong alcoholic. He spent his entire career drinking across the planet, stopping in now and again to turn out very readable copy. He learned the trick by working for Hearst's papers, and despite everything he never really lost it.
He did his best to lose everything else. Never a contented man, his trick is to find his way into what he thinks is happiness - whether it be tramping across Europe, almost penniless, to owning his own cotton farm, or being partner in a successful ad agency in the 1920s - and promptly throw it away, in search of more happiness. He married three times, and each time it ended badly, though his first marriage was probably the most successful.
His trip to Arabia, in 1924, was a spectacular success, and gave him material for his first big international smash hit, Adventures in Arabia: among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes and Yezidee Devil Worshipers, published in 1927. It gave him the credibility and funds to go to Haiti, where he found inspiration for his Magic Island, published 1929.
That was the very first time anyone saw, and described, the zombie. A creation of Haitian magic, Seabrook said the animated dead man resembled a lobotomy patient, animate, yet incapable of thought. This idea was later turned into the main plot for White Zombie, a poverty row horror quickie that caught fire largely thanks to Bela Lugosi's performance as 'Murder' Legendre.
This is one of the few times a traditional zombie, as described by Seabrook, appeared on screen. Haiti's merely a backdrop here, voodoo barely mentioned. It's Transylvania-by-the-sea, with a plot that doesn't bear close examination. Magic was dropped from zombie lore in later films, starting with White Zombie's sequel, Revolt of the Zombies. In that film zombies are created by means of a secret formula, not the end result of a particular religious ritual; part Lugosi-style hypnotic magic, part alchemical science. Soon zombies became creatures of mad science, cooked up by lunatics and Nazis for unholy purposes. Then George Romero and his investor friends make Night of the Living Dead in 1968, another poverty row quickie, made for gore-loving drive-in audiences. The word zombie isn't even used in the film; to the terrified cross-section of Americana trapped in a deserted farmhouse, the approaching dead are flesh-eating ghouls. That didn't matter. Nobody really cared where zombies came from any more. Night hints at a scientific explanation, blaming strange radiation scattered by a rogue Venus probe, but explanations weren't necessary. Zombies roamed. They ate the flesh of the people they murdered. They could be killed by a shot in the head, nothing else. That was all anyone needed to know.
Speaking personally, while I admire Seabrook as an author, I've always distrusted him as a historian. His stories are just too sensational, too gonzo, too perfect. The Magic Island is a case in point. Seabrook sees everything and tells all, each story more incredible than the last. The zombie story isn't even the most outrageous tale in the book; my personal favorite is the wedding feast, but the account of an actual voodoo ceremony complete with 'human sacrifice' is another strong contender. He's a ballyhoo author to his core, going to sensational places and emerging with even-more-sensational stories. Can the man who gets paid for churning out colorful stories be trusted to tell the truth?
The thing is, Seabrook's the first. Nobody knows what a zombie is, before he sees one and tells the world. What if he was lying? Or exaggerating?
What if there were no zombies, before Seabrook made them up?
That would make Seabrook the inventor of possibly the only truly American horror icon. Vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, Mister Hyde, the Frankenstein monster - they all come from other sources, often European. If Seabrook exaggerated, if the zombie came from his imagination and a healthy dose of white rum … Nobody questioned him. It was taken on faith that Seabrook knew what he was talking about. In his wake came a teeming host of quasi-anthropologists, folklorists, adventurers, looking for voodoo, looking for excitement, looking for monsters. The Haitians knew how to milk credulous foreigners for everything they could get …
Joe Ollermann takes the reader on a guided tour of a colossal, life-long, booze-filled cock-up. Seabrook slowly destroys himself, and his talent, page by page. His sexual appetites, his love of adventure and corn liquor, his peerless imagination, sensationalism and bravado, all combine to create a disaster that some writers would give their soul to emulate. Make no mistake, Seabrook was the man to beat, in his heyday.
In the end, he beat himself. There are few moments more harrowing than the first pages of this novel, showing Seabrook at his worst, almost entirely destroyed, drinking his way across New York. He's on the brink of suicide - but can he pull himself out of the pit, for his ex-wife and young son, if for no other reason?
So, why should you pick this up?
First, if you have any love for the 1920s-1930s, this is the book for you. Seabrook saw and did everything, and knew pretty much everyone, from Maya Deren and Man Ray to Aleister Crowley and Theodore Drieser. It's a slice of history, from start to finish.
Second, if you're a Keeper looking for a useful patron, walk-in NPC or similar, William Seabrook's your boy. He's seen Timbuctoo and Brooklyn too. He'd fit in Masks of Nyarlathotep, Horror on the Orient Express or any of the classic stuff. Moreover, as hinted, he'd make an excellent walk-in for a Bookhounds campaign. Or a Dreamhounds campaign, for that matter, given his links with prominent surrealists and his travels to Paris in its bohemian heyday.
Third - well, it's a tragedy. We should remember our tragedies. For all his faults - and God knows there were many - there's something compelling about this poor soul's life. He spirals into a self-destructive black hole with, seemingly, no chance of redemption, and all you can think is, it could have been stopped. But would Seabrook have been happy if it had?
Finally, if you write, and you've wondered if it's worth it, if it can be good - read this book. Here's a man who knew success and disgrace, money and poverty. See if he has anything to tell you.