In The Abominable Mr. Seabrook (Drawn & Quarterly), Joe Ollmann begins with a reflective preamble called “Me and Mr. Seabrook,” part of which reads, “I realized that no one knew about Seabrook’s work— all his books were out of print at the time…” I imagine no one is familiar with Seabrook’s work now, but many of us Baby Boomers would have come across his bestsellers on our parents’ bookshelves. That’s certainly how I discovered him—i pulled Adventures in Arabia from Mom & Pop’s cabinet, and then avidly sought out Seabrook’s other work, some of which was still available in used bookshops. William
Seabrook wrote with gripping veracity about other cultures, mysterious individuals and altered states of mind. It is said that Seabrook popularized the term “zombie” in the west, with the 1929 book The Magic Island. I used to wonder if he also introduced the remote region of Timbuktu into the Western vernacular, with 1934’s The White Monk of Timbuctoo. He wrote about his own life, No Hiding Place, with the same adventurous spirit. Curiously, Seabrook’s second wife, Marjorie Worthington, wrote a biography called The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, which varies considerably from Seabrook’s account. At one point she concluded, “Willie […] always told the truth. His truth.” It reminds me of the one-liner: “There are always two sides to a story and they’re both true.” A touching foreword from Ollmann reads, “The biggest thing I realized is the heavy responsibility of biography […] I really didn’t want to make a mess of Willie’s life, messy as it was.” I feel compelled to assure him he’s made no mess at all. His tribute to William Seabrook couldn’t be more thorough, or more respectful. Two of Seabrook’s books have recently been reprinted: The Magic Island (his adventures in Haiti) and Asylum (his adventures in a psychiatric hospital). So far, they’ve been slow to regain popularity. Ollmann’s biography, on the other hand, is snowballing; there are already a dozen holds on The Abominable Mr. Seabrook at my local library.