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

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books - Eric Hoff­man

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”

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