On William Buehler Seabrook's The Magic Island

First published in Tin House on March 1, 2011. Purchase the issue here.

I’m a sucker for a good monster-origin story.  What’s Cujo with the rabies, Godzilla without the bomb?

So how about this: Imagine a man born at the end of the nineteenth century, the all-American son of a traveling preacher.  He drives a French ambulance in World War I, gets gassed, and receives the Croix de Guerre.  He becomes a reporter for William Randolph Hearst, but something is wrong.  He can’t sit still.  He travels—Arabia, West Africa, England, Timbuktu.  He becomes obsessed with the supernatural and befriends Satanist Aleister Crowley.  He moves to France and cavorts with expats.  Gertrude Stein writes about him.  His sex life is the stuff of morbid pulp novels: bondage, sadism, wife swapping.  He samples human flesh, which he categorizes as “like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef.”  His drinking spirals out of control, and for eight months he has himself institutionalized.  When that doesn’t work, he plunges his arms into a vat of boiling water, hoping that by immobilizing them, he will stop himself from drinking.  Eventually, at sixty-one, after writing nearly a dozen books, he kills himself, destroying the monsters in his mind.

All but one.

That man was William Buehler Seabrook, and though he’s forgotten now, his book The Magic Island midwifed into existence a monster that lives on in undead fecundity, reached out from beyond the grave to top the New York Times best-seller list, meddle with Jane Austen, and routinely scare the crap out of me: the zombie.

“From the palm-fringed shore a great mass of mountains rose, fantastic and mysterious.  Dark jungle covered their near slopes but high beyond the jungle, blue-black bare ranges piled up, towering.”

This is Port-Au-Prince, 1927, as described in the foreword to The Magic Island.  Divided into two parts, each chapter describing a different ceremony he saw or story he was told, the book recounts Seabrook’s forays into the mysterious worlds of Haitian religion and politics—the former infinitely more interesting than the latter.  Seabrook traveled to Haiti with the express purpose of learning voodoo and writing a sensational follow-up to his wildly successful travelogue, Adventures in Arabia.  It was a gamble.  As Seabrook recounts in his autobiography, No Hiding Place, his editor warned him: “No white man can write a book that’s any good about voodoo.”  But this was Seabrook’s shtick.  Travel somewhere exotic, “go native,” and write about it.  It had worked well among the Druze in Syria, and would work later among the Guere in Nigeria.  In Haiti, however, he had his biggest success, and he wrote the book that changed the nightmares of the world forever, although he never quite realized it.

Maman Célie, the matriarch of a large family that included one of Seabrook’s Haitian servants, was his entrance into and guide through the world of syncretic Afro-Catholic-Caribbean spirituality.  Seabrook wrote of Célie: “It was as if we had known each other always, had been at some past time united by the mystical equivalent of an umbilical cord; as if I had suckled in infancy at her dark breasts, had wandered far, and was now returning home.”

As in many good monster stories, from Beowulf’s Grendel to Psycho’s Norman Bates, Seabrook’s life was dominated by mommy issues.  He divided his birth mother’s life into two periods.  There was the beautiful willow girl who was the epitome of what a woman should be; in his earliest fantasies (which may have been aided by doses of laudanum from his Spiritualist grandmother), Seabrook dreamed of taking women like that and tying their hands behind their backs, dangling them by ropes from the ceiling, and chaining them to pillars—fantasies he would carry out, publicly and privately, as an adult.  When she grew older and less attractive, Seabrook came to despise his mother.  He described the mother-son relationship as a “silver cord [that] strangled more struggling males than all the knotted nooses of hangmen and assassins.”  His second wife, writer Marjorie Worthington, believed that every woman he brought into his life (and there were many: wives, guides, prostitutes, teachers, mistresses, lovers) was an attempt to work out his Oedipal issues.  His entwined fear and desire were a large part of what motivated his peripatetic search for mystical salvation.  He looked for women he could control sexually, and for ones who could save him.

Célie was one of the latter, and she became his Haitian mother, the woman who brought him into the community of priests and ceremonies, loas and oduns.  With her he watched white oxen ceremonially butchered, and learned to make fetishes and other religious objects.  But it was a roadside encounter with an unnaturally leaden work crew that brought him to zombies, his major contribution to Western culture.  Here are the first words ever published in English about the zombie: “I recalled one creature I had been hearing about in Haiti, which sounded exclusively local—the zombie…a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life…it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive.”

These zombies were a far cry from the ravening horde of today’s Hollywood blockbusters.  They were dumb brutes, mournful and confused over being pulled from their eternal resting places.  They had forgotten even their own names.  Seabrook (and soon, all of America) didn’t fear the zombie itself—he feared becoming one.  Being turned into a zombie was literally a fate worse than death.  It was the perfect monster for a country terrified of racial ambiguity and miscegenation.  The zombie caught the American zeitgeist for the same reason Seabrook himself did: both flirted with becoming “the other.”  It was the Roaring Twenties and the Harlem Renaissance, a time of blurring racial lines.  Nella Larsen’s seminal novel Passing, published the same year as The Magic Island, told what was for some bigoted Americans the ultimate horror story: that of a mixed-race woman who successfully “passed” as white and married a white man.

When The Magic Island was published, the American press (and Seabrook’s birth mother) were repulsed by the things he had done, and the thing he had symbolically become through his relationship with Maman Célie: black.  In its review, Time magazine stated in dread fascination that Seabrook “himself a white, an American, shared in the rites” of voodoo.  The book quickly led to a boom in American zombie stories.  Movies got in on the action with 1932’s White Zombie, in which a young white woman about to get married is transformed by a lecherous Haitian priest.  Its tagline evoked the era’s fear of white slavery:  “She was not alive…Nor dead…Just a White Zombie performing his every desire.”

Seabrook was only dimly aware of the seismic shift he had brought about in American horror.  When he died in 1945, the zombie as he knew it had become a familiar, if staid, part of the cultural landscape.  New horror stories were more concerned with Nazi experiments and radioactive mutants.  It would be nine years before Roger Matheson would re-create the zombie (in his 1954 book I Am Legend) as the modern, world-annihilating plague that audiences love to fear.

Shortly before he killed himself, Seabrook wrote of The Magic Island, “I’m not building up to assert—to persuade myself or anybody else at this late day—that it was a good book.  I’d give my life to write one good book, as I suppose any author would, but doubt that I ever have, or will.”

What Seabrook wanted was what he had already unknowingly achieved: life after death.  His name may be forgotten, but we owe him a huge debt.  Perhaps another writer was waiting in the wings.  Perhaps the zombie would have crawled here, with our without Seabrook, to spread its contagion upon American shores.  But perhaps not.  The zombie was the right monster for the right moment, and Seabrook, with his unique dichotomies (a white man who saw nothing wrong with saying he wanted to “be Negro,” a dedicated reporter not above exoticizing or exaggerating whole cultures for a story, a man many described as noble even though they disapproved of his sexual peccadilloes), may have been the only one who could have brought them here when he did.  His travelogues may never be republished, his name may be erased from history, but his undead legacy shambles on.

On Richard Halliburton's "Glorious Adventure"

First published in Tin House #45, Fall 2010.

I first came across Richard Halliburton during a layover in Brooklyn on my way from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New Orleans. I was moving because I’d failed to find work as a deckhand in the Caribbean, my goal for the winter. The main problem was I knew nothing about sailing--an issue that never stopped Halliburton, an adventurer who was eventually lost at sea while trying to navigate from Hong Kong to San Francisco for the 1939 World’s Fair.

Brooklyn isn’t on the most direct route between Puerto Rico and Louisiana, but it’s where my stuff lives--one shelf in a friend’s living room, a plastic bin in her basement. I drop by a few times a year to exchange sweaters for shorts, T-shirts for thermals. Living out of a backpack is a great way to make stories, but it does not encourage exploring your roots. When, in my reading, I found hints of a gay man born in 1900 who swam the Panama Canal, crossed the Alps on an elephant, and made the first recorded winter ascent on Mount Fuji, I was determined to read every word he’d written. It felt like finding a picture of my great-grandmother and recognizing my eyes in her wrinkled Irish face.

Not that I’ve done anything half as grand as Halliburton. At nineteen, he left Princeton for a semester to work on a merchant marine vessel bound for Europe; I left Cornell at twenty-one to go cross-country for a few weeks on a Greyhound bus. Not quite as romantic. But I recognized a longed-for spiritual ancestor in the man who wrote, “Those who live in the even tenor of their way simply exist until death ends their monotonous tranquility.”

Finding his books turned out to be a journey in itself. The Glorious Adventure languished deep below the accessible parts of the Brooklyn Public Library, its wandering heart momentarily stilled by the vagaries of popular acclaim. If the punch card was accurate, The Glorious Adventure had been borrowed twice in the last sixty years. The thick, ragged pages were cold from their long interment, and as my finger traced the map drawn on the endpapers I felt I was holding the relic of a saint. Saint Halliburton, patron of fagabonds and hobosexuals; of traveler kids with dogs and dreadlocks; of myself and my friends.

A classicist who longed for critical acclaim as well as popularity, in The Glorious Adventure Halliburton traveled the route Ulysses took in The Odyssey. By attaching himself to a great historical figure, Halliburton hoped to be elevated beyond the derisory title of “book club writer” with which he was labeled after the publication of his first work, The Royal Road to Romance. In many ways, The Glorious Adventure, despite being published in 1927, could be on the current nonfiction bestseller list. Our protagonist, bored with the modern condition, shakes off monotony and reconnects with what is vital--except in Halliburton’s case, the softening effect of urban life had to do with talkies and roadsters, not iPhones and McDonald’s.

The Glorious Adventure opens with Halliburton stultifying in his Manhattan apartment, jealous of “every sailor that would wave farewell to the sky-line of New York, and turn his salt-stung face to some strange enchanted land beyond the far horizon.” Within a chapter, he and his “friend” Roderic are attempting the first recorded ascent on Mount Olympus in modern history. (Halliburton was a man who did nothing in half measures.) He goes on to swim the Hellespont, spend a night in the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops, and attempt to run the route that killed Pheidippides and created the modern marathon.

Though some have criticized The Glorious Adventure for purple prose, it has that irrepressible sense of hope and wonder that abounds in travel literature of the Roaring Twenties and disappears with World War II. In the opening chapters, he worries that a massive thunderstorm is the result of offending Zeus. When Roderic scoffs at this idea, Halliburton writes,

Yet even if he were right and rid of all illusions, and even if I were only inspired by crazy dreams to crazier action, was I not the richer of the two for having indulged myself in the poetic notions of that fine old Greek god faith? Its fancy, its grace, its lyrical appeal . . . these things the rationalists can not know or love. They have their faith of reason, but their hearts still have no language.

In other adventures, Halliburton broke into the Taj Mahal, crossed Africa by prop plane, and lived in Devil’s Island, the infamous French colonial prison. His works inspired generations of travelers and writers, perhaps most famously Susan Sontag, who wrote, “Halliburton made me lustfully aware that the world was very big and very old; that its seeable wonders and its learnable stories were innumerable; and that I might see these wonders myself and learn the stories attached to them.” Yet despite the carefree tone that enchanted Sontag and others, Halliburton was endlessly worried about two things: the respect of literary critics and the mercurial rise and fall of his bank account. Reviewers wrote off his early books as juvenile and overblown, fit only for women’s tea clubs. Yet they were wildly successful, with both The Glorious Adventureand The Royal Road to Romance spending years on the bestseller lists. His later books, more universally praised, never sold quite as well, though perhaps this has more to do with the economic situation of the 1930s than any intrinsic change in his writing. It seemed he could never have both critical praise and popular success, and despite his boastful, boyish persona, his ego was fragile. He labored over each harsh review and rejection letter, driving himself to ever more elaborate and dangerous stunts that were ever more removed from the joyful and self-directed wanderings of his early work.

Halliburton lived a particular species of the American dream, the life of a profligate traveler, constantly setting off for new horizons. Yet there was a nightmarish quality to this peripatetic life, demanding as it did always more; nothing would ever be enough. He came from a genteel southern family of the affluent yet striving variety: his father was a civil engineer turned Tennessee land speculator, his mother a music teacher. He attended private school and Princeton. Yet his family’s wealth seemed only to allow Halliburton a view of how much further up the social ladder he might still climb. Sitting on the lowest rung of the highest tier, he hungered for more. Here is the dark side of meritocracy: the inability to ever be content.

Money treated Halliburton like he treated the world: it flowed through him, never staying for long. His parents financed his first adventures, and though he later supported them for many years, his letters to friends, well-off relations, and publishers were full of demands and pleas for more money, advances on books not yet written, and higher percentages of royalties. The life of the freelancer seems to have changed little in the last hundred years.

Halliburton was not oblivious to his fiduciary ineptitude, and after the success of The Glorious Adventure, he instructed his publishers to sink most of its revenue into investments. This was 1927; two years later, his one shrewd financial move would be checked by the stock market crash. In the end, he begged money from everyone he knew to build The Sea Dragon, a traditional Chinese-style junk that he planned to sail across the Pacific. Friends and professionals alike told him the boat could not handle the trip, but his need for both money and acclaim would not let him turn back. On March 23, 1939, he disappeared at sea and was presumed dead, though neither his body nor the wreck was ever definitively identified. Like many caught in his spell, I still imagine meeting Halliburton, gray-bearded and strong, a guy on each arm, living on the beach or in a Parisian pension, his light undimmed by the passing of a century, recounting the tale of his adventure in the lands beyond death.