Spectrum Culture on The Abominable Mr. Seabrook

“Ollmann’s portrait of this long-forgotten, complex figure is essential.” / Spectrum Culture / John Paul / August 2, 2017

In his day, William Seabrook was one of the most highly-regarded, well-respected journalists then roaming the planet. Covering a broad range of topics in distant locales for popular newspapers and magazines, his reports were the stuff of legend, keeping readers on the edge of their seats as he reported on time spent amongst cannibals, witnessing Haitian voodoo ceremonies, living with the desert-dwelling Bedouin and a whole host of other fantastical events. Of course, as with any clever writer, more than a few details of his exploits were embellished in order to make for a better story. Take, for instance, the purported cannibalism: Seabrook did not, in fact, partake of human flesh whilst dining amongst the “savages.” That said, he did manage to procure a bit of the other other white meat back in “civilization,” which he in turn ate in order to lend his falsified account a greater level of believability. Or something.

The reason the name Seabrook fails to strike a chord in the 21st century is largely through his own alcohol-fueled undoing. Despite penning a handful of bestselling books during his creative heyday, all but two have long gone out of print. And the two that remain? They’ve only just recently returned thanks to the efforts of folks like Joe Ollmann, the artist and author behind the newly-released The Abominable Mr. Seabrook. It’s clearly a labor of love, given the rather reprehensible character Seabrook was to become before he quite literally drank himself to death in the 1945.

But before all that, Seabrook led a truly eventful life, one guided by his own limitless curiosity and desire to learn and know more about the people and places that remained off the beaten path. Beginning life in a southern Baptist family, Seabrook’s youth was one of repression and religion. It’s little surprise that later in life he would so fully embrace his more prurient interests, allowing his inner fantasies to come alive. Indeed, a significant chunk of Ollmann’s narrative deals with Seabrook’s S&M/bondage fixation and the lengths to which he went in hopes of satisfying his urges and desires. Yet despite the titillating subject matter, Ollmann never once seeks to sensationalize any of Seabrook’s sexual fantasies played out in real life. Rather, they serve as an interesting personality quirk that has little effect on the rest of his life until his final years.

Following a stint on the front lines during World War I, a time at which he was gassed and forced to leave the battlefield in order to recuperate, his wanderlust became too great to ignore. It was here that he began to truly make a name for himself as he chronicled his extensive time spent living among the somewhat mysterious Bedouin people, relaying fanciful tales of desert marauders, sexual encounters and, finally, a greater appreciation for another culture. This eventually led to his exploring the voodoo religion of Haiti.

If he is known at all today, it is for what came of his time in Haiti. Desperate to understand the ins and outs of voodoo, Seabrook worked to ingratiate himself with the locals, eventually charming his way into bearing witness to a voodoo ceremony. It was here that he would become familiar with the now-omnipresent concept of the zombie. Yes, it was Seabrook who brought the term back to America, and, more than 100 years later, it has permeated virtually the whole of American popular culture. But at the time, zombies were a very real thing, often used as indentured servants or field hands who, despite showing little to no signs of life, continued about their work as though cursed.

Naturally, Seabrook’s voodoo fixation led to that other magickally-inclined sexual explorer, Aleister Crowley. As with all things Crowley, there was a great deal of darkness surrounding the pair’s time together. There isn’t a great deal shared, but one can only imagine what the two together might have gotten up to before tiring of one another. And given Seabrook’s increased alcohol consumption and wild, at times violent, mood-swings, it’s easy to see how even a mutual acquaintance with someone like Crowley could fall apart. More so than anything else, Seabrook’s alcoholism is the toxic glue that barely manages to hold his story together.

Becoming increasingly full of himself in the wake of his successes with the Bedouin and Haitians, he became an insufferable asshole who no longer approached his subjects with even a modicum of respect, instead treating them like circus freaks there to put on a show that he could in turn report back on. It was during this time that he embarked on his legendary descent into cannibalism. And while he didn’t actually do so while living with the “savages,” he did indulge later on, the alcohol having largely warped his mind.

Ollmann uses Seabrook’s downward spiral to frame his narrative, opening with a drunken, disheveled Seabrook mourning his own obsolescence in a crowded bar. From there, we’re drawn into a time slightly prior to in which he is seen typing a memoir of sorts with all but his index fingers bandaged. These interstitial scenes are eventually revealed to be the result of his own request to have a lover force his hands into scalding water in an attempt to prevent him from picking up the bottle. As would be expected, this did not turn out so well and, eventually finding his way back to the bottle and his sexual escapades having come to light, any chance he might have had of making a comeback was abruptly extinguished.

Ever the impartial biographer, Ollmann refrains from passing judgment on any of Seabrook’s actions, instead presenting them in fully-rendered accounts of what transpired. Encompassing some 10 years of research, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is a fascinating look into a very difficult and troubled individual, as well as a cautionary tale for those who spend too much time staring into the abyss. Ollmann’s portrait of this long-forgotten, complex figure is essential.

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