Joe Ollmann’s new book is a biography of William Seabrook, an American hack writer and explorer (no, I hadn’t heard of him before, either) who died, having taken an overdose of sleeping tablets, in 1945. Best known now as the man who is credited with popularising the word “zombie” in English, Seabrook is what you might describe as a pretty juicy subject. An occultist who briefly hung around with Aleister Crowley, and whose other pals included Gertrude Stein, Sinclair Lewis and Aldous Huxley, he was also a one-time cannibal and sexual sadist who liked to hang his female “research assistants” from the roof of his barn.
The son of an itinerant Maryland minister, Seabrook began his career as a reporter in Atlanta and New York. However, in 1925, he gave up the newspaper life and headed to the Middle East, where he lived with the Bedouin, the Druze and the Yazidi of Iraq, experiences he recounted in his first book, Adventures in Arabia.
A surprise bestseller, he followed it with further volumes about Haiti (The Magic Island) and Africa (Jungle Ways). Both bulged with wild exaggerations. He claimed, for instance, to have eaten the flesh of a human being in Liberia, when in fact what he had been given was ape (only later, in Paris, did he really eat human meat, purloined for him by an associate who worked at a morgue). But they made him briefly famous, and the journeys involved in their creation helped to keep at bay the deadening ennui and lack of self-esteem from which he would suffer throughout his life.
By now, however, Seabrook was a raging alcoholic. Increasingly desperate, in 1933, he checked himself into an asylum in the hope of drying out. This gave birth to another book – his treatment involved being wrapped for days at a time in wet sheets, an experience which, thanks to his fetish for bondage, he rather enjoyed – but he did not manage to stay off the booze for long. His final decade was one long hangover, punctuated by episodes of violent self-harm. (He once pushed his hands into scalding water, believing that if they were badly burned, he would not be able to pour himself a whiskey.)
Ollmann spent 10 years researching Seabrook’s strange, ramshackle life, and it shows: his book is wonderfully rich and detailed. Nothing seems to escape his attention or his compassion, whether we’re talking about Seabrook’s interest in S&M (Ollmann traces it to his childhood) or about the long-suffering women in his life (Ollmann sees things from their side, too, even as they enable his drinking). His drawings of Seabrook, blunt-lined and scratchy, are a perfect match for his personality, which is at once charming and repulsive, fascinating and frustrating, while his depictions of such things as camel raids and tribal dances have a romantic, overblown quality, almost as if they are only figments of Seabrook’s imagination. In a way, of course, they are. In the end, this is not so much a simple biography, as a book about writing, and just how painful it can be when the words on the page don’t adequately match the pictures in a man’s head.