Lost & Found: Hugh Ryan on W.B. Seabrook

Hugh Ryan

Hugh Ryan introduces us to the zombie’s first cameo in American literary consciousness–and to an author whose life story rivals that of the undead for drama–in this Lost & Found on adventurer, occultist, and discerning cannibal W. B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island.

Voodoo practitioners as depicted in The Magic Island

I’m a sucker for a good monster-origin story.  What’s Cujo with the rabies, Godzilla without the bomb?

So how about this: Imagine a man born at the end of the nineteenth century, the all-American son of a traveling preacher.  He drives a French ambulance in World War I, gets gassed, and receives the Croix de Guerre.  He becomes a reporter for William Randolph Hearst, but something is wrong.  He can’t sit still.  He travels—Arabia, West Africa, England, Timbuktu.  He becomes obsessed with the supernatural and befriends Satanist Aleister Crowley.  He moves to France and cavorts with expats.  Gertrude Stein writes about him.  His sex life is the stuff of morbid pulp novels: bondage, sadism, wife swapping.  He samples human flesh, which he categorizes as “like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef.”  His drinking spirals out of control, and for eight months he has himself institutionalized.  When that doesn’t work, he plunges his arms into a vat of boiling water, hoping that by immobilizing them, he will stop himself from drinking.  Eventually, at sixty-one, after writing nearly a dozen books, he kills himself, destroying the monsters in his mind.

All but one.

That man was William Buehler Seabrook, and though he’s forgotten now, his book The Magic Island midwifed into existence a monster that lives on in undead fecundity, reached out from beyond the grave to top the New York Times best-seller list, meddle with Jane Austen, and routinely scare the crap out of me: the zombie.

“From the palm-fringed shore a great mass of mountains rose, fantastic and mysterious.  Dark jungle covered their near slopes but high beyond the jungle, blue-black bare ranges piled up, towering.”

This is Port-Au-Prince, 1927, as described in the foreword to The Magic Island.  Divided into two parts, each chapter describing a different ceremony he saw or story he was told, the book recounts Seabrook’s forays into the mysterious worlds of Haitian religion and politics—the former infinitely more interesting than the latter.  Seabrook traveled to Haiti with the express purpose of learning voodoo and writing a sensational follow-up to his wildly successful travelogue, Adventures in Arabia.  It was a gamble.  As Seabrook recounts in his autobiography, No Hiding Place, his editor warned him: “No white man can write a book that’s any good about voodoo.”  But this was Seabrook’s shtick.  Travel somewhere exotic, “go native,” and write about it.  It had worked well among the Druze in Syria, and would work later among the Guere in Nigeria.  In Haiti, however, he had his biggest success, and he wrote the book that changed the nightmares of the world forever, although he never quite realized it.

Maman Célie, the matriarch of a large family that included one of Seabrook’s Haitian servants, was his entrance into and guide through the world of syncretic Afro-Catholic-Caribbean spirituality.  Seabrook wrote of Célie: “It was as if we had known each other always, had been at some past time united by the mystical equivalent of an umbilical cord; as if I had suckled in infancy at her dark breasts, had wandered far, and was now returning home.”

As in many good monster stories, from Beowulf’s Grendel to Psycho’s Norman Bates, Seabrook’s life was dominated by mommy issues.  He divided his birth mother’s life into two periods.  There was the beautiful willow girl who was the epitome of what a woman should be; in his earliest fantasies (which may have been aided by doses of laudanum from his Spiritualist grandmother), Seabrook dreamed of taking women like that and tying their hands behind their backs, dangling them by ropes from the ceiling, and chaining them to pillars—fantasies he would carry out, publicly and privately, as an adult.  When she grew older and less attractive, Seabrook came to despise his mother.  He described the mother-son relationship as a “silver cord [that] strangled more struggling males than all the knotted nooses of hangmen and assassins.”  His second wife, writer Marjorie Worthington, believed that every woman he brought into his life (and there were many: wives, guides, prostitutes, teachers, mistresses, lovers) was an attempt to work out his Oedipal issues.  His entwined fear and desire were a large part of what motivated his peripatetic search for mystical salvation.  He looked for women he could control sexually, and for ones who could save him.

Célie was one of the latter, and she became his Haitian mother, the woman who brought him into the community of priests and ceremonies, loas and oduns.  With her he watched white oxen ceremonially butchered, and learned to make fetishes and other religious objects.  But it was a roadside encounter with an unnaturally leaden work crew that brought him to zombies, his major contribution to Western culture.  Here are the first words ever published in English about the zombie: “I recalled one creature I had been hearing about in Haiti, which sounded exclusively local—the zombie…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.”

These zombies were a far cry from the ravening horde of today’s Hollywood blockbusters.  They were dumb brutes, mournful and confused over being pulled from their eternal resting places.  They had forgotten even their own names.  Seabrook (and soon, all of America) didn’t fear the zombie itself—he feared becoming one.  Being turned into a zombie was literally a fate worse than death.  It was the perfect monster for a country terrified of racial ambiguity and miscegenation.  The zombie caught the American zeitgeist for the same reason Seabrook himself did: both flirted with becoming “the other.”  It was the Roaring Twenties and the Harlem Renaissance, a time of blurring racial lines.  Nella Larsen’s seminal novel Passing, published the same year as The Magic Island, told what was for some bigoted Americans the ultimate horror story: that of a mixed-race woman who successfully “passed” as white and married a white man.

When The Magic Island was published, the American press (and Seabrook’s birth mother) were repulsed by the things he had done, and the thing he had symbolically become through his relationship with Maman Célie: black.  In its review, Time magazine stated in dread fascination that Seabrook “himself a white, an American, shared in the rites” of voodoo.  The book quickly led to a boom in American zombie stories.  Movies got in on the action with 1932’s White Zombie, in which a young white woman about to get married is transformed by a lecherous Haitian priest.  Its tagline evoked the era’s fear of white slavery:  “She was not alive…Nor dead…Just a White Zombie performing his every desire.”

Seabrook was only dimly aware of the seismic shift he had brought about in American horror.  When he died in 1945, the zombie as he knew it had become a familiar, if staid, part of the cultural landscape.  New horror stories were more concerned with Nazi experiments and radioactive mutants.  It would be nine years before Roger Matheson would re-create the zombie (in his 1954 book I Am Legend) as the modern, world-annihilating plague that audiences love to fear.

Shortly before he killed himself, Seabrook wrote of The Magic Island, “I’m not building up to assert—to persuade myself or anybody else at this late day—that it was a good book.  I’d give my life to write one good book, as I suppose any author would, but doubt that I ever have, or will.”

What Seabrook wanted was what he had already unknowingly achieved: life after death.  His name may be forgotten, but we owe him a huge debt.  Perhaps another writer was waiting in the wings.  Perhaps the zombie would have crawled here, with our without Seabrook, to spread its contagion upon American shores.  But perhaps not.  The zombie was the right monster for the right moment, and Seabrook, with his unique dichotomies (a white man who saw nothing wrong with saying he wanted to “be Negro,” a dedicated reporter not above exoticizing or exaggerating whole cultures for a story, a man many described as noble even though they disapproved of his sexual peccadilloes), may have been the only one who could have brought them here when he did.  His travelogues may never be republished, his name may be erased from history, but his undead legacy shambles on.

Hugh Ryan is a vagabond with a predilection for activities that get him dropped on his head. He holds an MFA in nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Details, the Advocate, and other venues.