A near-forgotten cannibal occultist
The scratchy and slightly cartoonish style of Ollman’s graphic biography of William Seabrook is surprisingly well suited to the now-obscure travel writer, sadist and designer of bondage gear
The Abominable Mr Seabrook Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly 2017 Pb, 316 pp, illus, bib, ind, £15.90, ISBN 9781770462670
If the Lost Generation-era journalist, travel writer, occultist, cannibal and sadist William Seabrook hadn’t existed, we’d have had to invent him. Joe Ollmann – author of the UFOthemed graphic novel Science
Fiction (2013) – encountered Seabrook’s eccentric oeuvre over a decade ago, but it is frustratingly unavailable, apart from a few reprints including The
Magic Island, which introduced the zombie into popular culture, and Asylum, a memoir of his attempt to overcome alcoholism. Ollmann felt “sort of obligated” to tell Seabrook’s life story and in the graphic biography The
Abominable Mr Seabrook, he has produced a portrait that is entertaining, nuanced and tragic.
Seabrook was gassed at the Battle of Verdun in 1916 while in the American Ambulance Field Service of the French Army, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Diary of Section VII, privately printed in 1917, is a memoir of those experiences. That year, Seabrook joined the
New York Times as a reporter, but soon transitioned to travel writing. In 1924, his travels took him to Arabia, where he was welcomed as family by a Bedouin tribe and the Kurdish Yazidi. On the strength of Adventures
in Arabia (1927), he travelled to Haiti, where he became immersed in the Cult of Death and ‘voodoo’ culture, shockingly described in The Magic Island (1929). Encouraged by its positive reception, Seabrook undertook a well-funded trip (described in Jungle Ways, 1930) to West Africa, where he claimed he ate human flesh with a cannibal tribe. He later admitted that he had not been allowed to join in the ritual; instead, he purchased human flesh from a hospital, then cooked and ate it. Seabrook’s somewhat perfunctory exposé of ritualistic occultism, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today (1940), in which he proclaimed that none of his experiences were without rational scientific explanation, was not published until a decade later. He includes an account of Aleister Crowley’s visit to his upstate New York farm. They conducted a weeklong experiment wherein their communication was limited to a single word: “wow”. Seabrook adopted similar verbal restrictions during his later ritualistic, sadomasochistic, parapsychological ‘research’. Seabrook’s 1930s output – Air
Adventure (1933) and a study of a defrocked monk in the French Sudan ( The White Monk
of Timbuctoo, 1934) – was less impressive. His alcoholism worsened and in late 1933, he committed himself to a mental institution for six months.
Asylum (1935), which achieved critical and commercial success, should have marked a career revival, yet, aside from his last work, the cathartic autobiography No Hiding Place (1942), Asylum remains a noteworthy outlier.
While Ollmann provides insightful literary criticism of and biographical context for Seabrook’s work, it is his life and not his writing that receives primary attention, in particular his sadism. “The key to a locked man is his supreme want”, Ollmann quotes Seabrook as saying. Seabrook’s supreme want
involved women in chains, an obsession he traced back to an almost hallucinatory childhood memory of being led by his laudanum-addicted grandmother to an imaginary ruined castle in which a young woman was chained to a throne. Seabrook married three times, but his fetish strained his first two marriages to breaking point. His appetite for bondage and sadism, if The Strange World of Willie
Seabrook (1966) by second wife Marjorie Muir Worthington is to be believed, was epic. He hired young women, whom he bound and gagged, and designed his own bondage gear; Man Ray photographed him with a restraint around the neck of photographer Lee Miller. Seabrook married a final time in 1942 and divorced the same year. He committed suicide by drug overdose in 1945.
Ollmann’s intention was to allow as little editorial interference as possible, and yet it is perhaps unavoidable. He depicts Seabrook’s escapades – be they foreign travel or S&M – in the same scratchy, cartoony style (best described as a marriage between Edward Gorey and Eddie Campbell) that underlines Seabrook’s tawdriness and desperation. Moreover, his nine-panel per page visual structure seems a neat counterpoint to the messiness of Seabrook’s life. After all, Seabrook is, on the surface, unlikable, a difficult subject for a biography, and yet it is this depravity and weakness of character that arguably prove to be Seabrook’s most fascinating traits.
Ollmann’s portrait is surprisingly sympathetic, convincingly arguing that, despite Seabrook’s many failings, he was not altogether unredeemable. He was a sexual deviant and selfdestructive, yet also talented and quite charming. He could churn out hack work yet also produce, whatever its veracity, disarmingly honest, insightful and heartbreaking autobiography. As a result of his late-stage alcoholism, Seabrook was unable to repeat earlier successes and failed to keep up with changing literary tastes. His downfall, Ollmann argues, was his failure ever to recognise the possibility for renewal or redemption. In Ollmann, Seabrook has found that most enviable of posthumous advocates: the sincerely engaged, yet humane biographer.
The medium of graphic biographies has exploded in recent years; just three decades ago, there were only a handful of practitioners (Jack Jackson and Art Spiegelman to name two) using this promising format. Ollmann, who primarily writes fictional comics that read like autobiography, is a Johnny-comelately to graphic biography, yet with The Abominable Mr
Seabrook, he has produced one of the form’s more memorable recent entries. It easily takes its place among the best the medium has to offer.
“He travelled to Haiti, where he became immersed in the Cult of Death and voodoo”