Zombies and the Search for the Edible Other in ‘The Abominable Mr. Seabrook’

Joe Ollman’s new graphic biography is a revelation, showing the darkness and the light in the life of the man who introduced zombies to the world.

The Abominable Mr Seabrook
Joe Ollmann
Drawn and Quarterly
January 2017

It’s 1945 and this man, Seabrook, he walks into a bar. He orders a Zombie and a bottle of cognac. The cognac is for drinking; the Zombie, it’s just a prop.

“You want the little umbrella and everything?” the bartender asks.

“I don’t mean to drink it, son.” Seabrook replies. “I merely want to look at it.”

The Zombie, the drink, was invented in 1934 by Donn Beach and served at his “Don the Beachcomber” restaurant. It’s a fruity drink, made with rum.

The zombie, the undead creature for which the drink is named, was invented by this man, Seabrook.

He didn’t really want to merely look at the drink, despite what he said to the bartender. He wanted to talk about it or, rather, about the origin of the name. Here he was, a drunken sot, his name soon to be forgotten. But what a life he had lived, what a life. After more than a few drinks he wanted to talk about it to anyone who would listen. He wanted to talk about his life and his books and his travels, about the things that made him unique, that made him human, that made him something more than a zombie.

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, Joe Ollman’s magnificent new graphic biography of William Seabrook, is a revelation, showing the darkness and the light in the life of the man who is remembered, if he is remembered at all, for introducing zombies to the world.

A member of the “lost generation” — and friend of Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Aleister Crowley (the Great Beast himself!) — Seabrook was a popular and best-selling author of travel books and memoirs. He was, I suppose we can say, one of the original gonzo journalists. In the ’20s he found a home in a Bedouin community and wrote about it in 1927’s Adventures in Arabia. Next, he managed to find acceptance among Haitian practitioners of Voodoo and wrote about it in 1929’s The Magic Island, a book that brought Haiti’s secret practices to life as never before and introduced the shambling undead zombie to the larger world. In 1930’s Jungle Ways, Seabrook recounted his travels in Africa. In 1935’s Asylum, he wrote about his struggles with alcohol and his experiences in a mental institution as he fought to overcome his lifelong curse.

There were more books along the way, but it was these four that built his reputation, or destroyed it, as the case may be. His willingness to adapt to Islam while in Arabia was shocking to his readers. His willingness to put his own personal demons on display was, too. His story of the fleshy darkness of voodoo was titillating. And his claim, true or not, that he had eaten human flesh while among the tribes of Africa, was nearly too much for the public to bear.

In Ollmann’s telling, Seabrook’s journeys into the heart of the Other began from a place of genuine interest and wonder but descended, with his success, into a place of paternalism and pride. In the Arabian desert, he lived as a brother among equals. In Haiti, he entered humbly into the Holy of Holies. But in Africa he was carried in a litter on the shoulders of other men, was treated like a king and acted like one, too.

Seabrook’s descent into paternalism was marked by the disintegration of his personal life. There was, of course, the drinking. But there was also a sexual obsession with violence and sadism, an obsession that, combined with the drink, ruined his relationships and brought shame to himself and eventual real harm to those that he lured into his traps.

Abominable, that’s the word in the title. Abominable.

Ollmann does something remarkable in The Abominable Mr. Seabrook. It would be remarkable in the pages of a traditional biography, it’s even more so here, in this graphic story told in mostly nine-panel pages. He shows us a life. He shows us the darkness and the light. He shows us the wonders of Arabia, Haiti, and Africa and the hell of Seabrook’s personal life. Seabrook is up and down. Sober, then drunk. Writing, then unable to write. Healthy, then horribly broken. He’s charming, then he’s a cad. He’s a young man with promise, then he’s an old man who has lost his soul.

In a way, I suppose, Ollmann’s obsession with this life and his insistence on telling us this story of the dark and different Seabrook is a bit like Seabrook’s own obsession. Seabrook followed the Voodoo rituals until he watched the girl and the goat go under the knife; he could not look away. He pleaded with the African kings until they did what he wanted, performed their dark and dangerous tricks, put the forbidden food before him on the table. Seabrook, driven by demons and drink, went looking for and revealed to the world the Different, and showed us the Other. Ollmann does the same. Seabrook’s bloody life is as shocking as the bloody rituals that he observed.

I confess that Seabrook’s story, and Ollmann’s too, cuts especially close to my own life. Like Seabrook, I’ve been something of an explorer of the Other. I’ve spent years seeking contact with those who live different ways of life. Seabrook found the Other in the foreign, in other lands and in other countries. I have found it in the subcultures of the Western world. He went to Arabia and to Haiti and Africa. I have gone to the desert in the American Southwest in search of extraterrestrials, or at least in search of the people who see them. I have accompanied Bigfoot hunters stalking their elusive prey in the wilds of Texas and squirmed my way through an Arkansas cave seeking an entrance to the Hollow Earth. I have camped with the Brotherhood of Satan and watched from arm’s length the Black Mass unfold.

Seabrook’s books were a lot more successful than mine. He was a better writer, for sure. Unlike me, he was not trained to keep an academic distance from his subjects; he dove right in. But there are similarities between us, for sure. I understand the path that he took. I understand the challenge of finding common ground, a place to stand, among people whose beliefs and behaviors seem weird and strange. I understand the struggle to represent the difference without falling into paternalism or insult.

I’ve been alone in a bar, drinking scotch instead of cognac, and felt the urge to tell it all. This is what I have done. This is who I am. This is what proves I’m alive and not a zombie. These encounters with the Other, they are what make me alive.

I confess, too, that I understand something about Ollmann’s obsession with this abominable man. I have my own obsessions. Ollmann’s muse is William Seabrook, mine the Hollow Earth/Flying Saucer popularizer, Richard Shaver. Shaver’s life fascinates me in the way that Seabrook’s now does. Seabrook was broken by his alcoholism and his sexual obsessions, Shaver by his schizophrenia. They both found a way, through that brokenness, to give the world something new. They both force those who pursue them to confront the Other, to find the souls of humans in the damnedest of places.

It’s important, I think, to keep Seabrook (and Shaver) alive, to reanimate them for our times. Seabrook’s genuine interest in other cultures went the way of Western paternalism, but it started, Ollmann shows us, with a genuine desire for understanding, a desire to make the Bedouin life, the Voodoo rituals, and even the devouring of human flesh, something understandable, something human.

It is, I think, that encounter with other humans, with human Others, that makes us more than zombies, that makes us truly alive.

Today, we are at each other’s throats, ghouls out for flesh, cannibals all. We build walls to keep the Other out. We close the border and seek to criminalize lives and loves that are not like our own. We march on the temples of the alien gods under the banner of our own abominable, and alternative, truths.

Ollmann has offered us a gift, a graphic life of an abominable man. It’s good to meet an abominable man like Seabrook, to see his good and his bad laid bare. It’s good to see this man. Seabrook, drinking cognac and considering the Zombie. It’s good to see a human where we expect to see a monster.

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