The Man Who Brought Zombies to America

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A substantial review of the new edition/reprint of William Seabrook’s memoir, Asylum, in the London Review of Books…

Dover Press has reissued William Seabrook’s 1934 memoir Asylum, an account of his self-committal to a mental hospital in an attempt to cure his chronic alcoholism. Seabrook, who committed suicide in 1945, is probably most famous now for introducing the zombie to American popular culture in 1929, but he was also a bestselling journalist, travel writer, pulp anthropologist, Great War veteran, primitivist, sadomasochist, occultist, and fellow traveller among the Modernists in New York, London and Paris.

He published photographs in the Surrealist journal Documents, edited by Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris, and a short story or two, but was mainly known for his self-mythologising travel books and disarming memoirs. In No Hiding Place (1942) he psychoanalysed his penchant for ‘putting chains on ladies’. He paid Man Ray to photograph Lee Miller in masochistic poses. Seabrook’s second wife, the novelist Marjorie Worthington, later discussed his kinks in The Strange World of Willie Seabrook.

Intimately connected with his sadomasochism was a lifelong interest in the occult. Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today (1942) included an account of his friendship with Aleister Crowley. In 1919, Crowley visited Seabrook for a week of ritual experiment at his farm in upstate New York. They communicated solely by various inflections of the magic word ‘Wow’.

Seabrook’s book on witchcraft was cast in the rhetoric of the sceptical researcher, looking for proof in an open spirit of inquiry but bewildered at the extent of credulity. London, he said, ‘houses more strange cults, secret societies, devil’s altars, professional “Sorcerers” and charlatans than any other metropolitan area on Earth.’ He repeated stories of sympathetic magic and spoke of attending black masses in London (‘rather a bore unless one gets a kick out of blasphemy’). At the start of the Second World War, Seabrook was the subject of a photo-story in Life magazine when he hosted a magical ceremony to issue a hex on Hitler…

Source: The Man Who Brought Zombies to America « LRB blog

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