Weird Acquaintances: William Seabrook and H.P. Lovecraft

The following article is by Benjamin Welton.

Seabrook and future wife Marjorie Muir Worthington

Seabrook and future wife Marjorie Muir Worthington

They were born six years apart, both loved to travel, and both held a lifelong interest in the obscure, weird, and outré. But, based upon current evidence, it’s safe to say that neither man was intimately acquainted with the other. This of course makes their similarities and shared enthusiasms all the more eye-raising.

While H.P. Lovecraft was still a mainstay at Weird Tales, but overall a struggling writer who eked out a meager existence from ghostwriting and editing tales for his numerous friends and correspondents, William Buehler Seabrook (1884-1945) was making a name for himself as an adventurous travel writer with a thirst for the often unnamable. Seabrook’s 1929 travelogue The Magic Island helped to popularize the themes of Haitian voodoo in America and abroad, and in fact it may be the very source that first popularized the word “zombie” in the English language.

While S.T. Joshi, one of Lovecraft’s greatest champions and the modern world’s preeminent scholar of Lovecraft’s life and works, has found no evidence that Lovecraft owned one of Seabrook’s eleven books (seven of which were published during Lovecraft’s lifetime), it is true that Lovecraft most certainly knew about Seabrook. Lovecraft’s personal library did include two volumes edited by Dashiell Hammett – 1931’s Creeps By Night and 1932’s Modern Tales of Horror – both of which featured Seabrook’s short story “The Witch’s Vengeance.” E. Hoffman Price, Lovecraft’s friend, fellow writer, and an amateur Orientalist who set stories in Kurdistan and wrote a zombie tale called “The Walking Dead,” was clearly influenced by Seabrook’s writing and shared Seabrook’s fascination with the Yazidi god Melek Taus. Furthermore, in a May 1936 letter to Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard suggested that “You ought to read…some of Seabrook’s travel books if you want to get a realistic view of French colonial policy.”

A realistic view” is something many contend today when it comes to Seabrook’s accounts. Not only was Seabrook a known alcoholic who voluntarily committed himself to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in order to combat his impulse for drink (this experience was turned into Asylum, a harrowing account that also offers up a few drink recipes), but, as a travel writer who specialized in going places where white Americans were either rare or unwanted, his assertions about the local peoples he encountered are often plagued by all the things that Seabrook wasn’t allowed to see or experience.

Still, the biggest hurdle one must overcome in regards to Seabrook’s writing is his passion for sensationalism. Although a well-schooled journalist who had been a reporter for the New York Times, Seabrook was at heart a Romantic with a flare for making outrageous claims and doing even more outrageous acts. Famously, in his 1930 book Jungle Ways, which details his many travels among the different tribes of French West Africa, Seabrook details what it’s like to eat human flesh. His reason: no one previously had given a satisfactory account. While among the Guéré cannibals in today’s Ivory Coast (or Côte d’Ivoire), Seabrook details the look and taste of cooked human meat:

The raw meat, in appearance, was firm, slightly coarse-textured rather than smooth. In raw texture, both to the eye and to the touch, it resembled good beef. In color, however, it was slightly less red than beef. But it was redish. It was not pinkish or grayish like mutton or pork.

According to Seabrook, the taste of human flesh closely resembles veal. This moment, which occurs in the fourth chapter of the second section in Jungle Ways, is Seabrook’s most often reproduced bit of text. Whenever a murder occurs that involves cannibalism or whenever cannibalism rears its mangled head in the news, it’s a safe bet that some magazine (the Smithsonian Magazine in February 2014) or website (Slate in June 2012) will bring Seabrook’s account back into the spotlight.

At the sake of sounding cynical, it was Seabrook’s goal to be infamous. The impetus behind Jungle Ways, according to Seabrook himself, was his desire to see cannibalism up close. Seabrook knew that such a subject would be lapped up by the press and his literary friends in Paris, and by all accounts he wasn’t disappointed by the response. A similar thing transpired in regards to the book he published one year before.

The Magic Island, which is Seabrook’s detailed account of his travels throughout Haiti, is only partially about voodoo and the dreaded death cults that even voodoo practitioners feared. And yet, Seabrook’s testimonials concerning voodoo and zombies are without question the most analyzed parts of The Magic Island. They not only inspired the 1932 film White Zombie, but Otto Penzler saw fit to include one of Seabrook’s accounts as the very first selection in Vintage Crime/Black Lizard’s Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! collection (which includes three of Lovecraft’s stories – “Herbert West – Reanimator” “The Outsider,” and “Pickman’s Model”).

For the majority of the book, The Magic Island is an anthropological travelogue that frequently tackles the thorny issues of race and history. Besides the conflict between Haiti’s small mulatto elite ands its large black majority, the other source of tension present in The Magic Island has to deal with the United States, specifically the United States Marine Corps. From 1915 until 1934, US Marines occupied Haiti and established not only a gendarmerie, but also a government more sympathetic to American interests (the reason for the initial invasion had to do with yet another armed revolution in Haiti that had deposed a standing government). Although US forces produced much-needed infrastructural improvements and built more schools than previous governments or even France, Haiti’s former colonial overlord, Seabrook writes at length about how Southern-style racism, which came to the island via enlisted and junior officers from places such as Alabama, Georgia, and Nebraska, ate at the fabric of Haitian society (which, to be fair, was far from egalitarian and certainly discriminated against darker skinned Haitians). In this regard, Seabrook reads like a progressive ahead of his time.

Later passages reveal, however, that Seabrook, like Lovecraft, was not above some of the racial attitudes of his time and class. Seabrook is quite capable of calling the Haitians “habitually a little comic, a little childish, a little ludicrous.” Furthermore, Seabrook states that Haitians are “easily vulnerable to a certain sort of caricature, like Tartarin and the French Meridionals; then suddenly from time to time something that is essential in the color and texture of their souls…something more than atavistic savagery, but which may trace none the less to their ancestral Africa…some quality surges to the surface of group or individual.” Seabrook’s concept of an ancestral African memory that affects the daily habits of Haitians is not far removed from a similar theory espoused by Lovecraft in Supernatural Horror in Literature:

The shade which appears and demands the burial of its bones, the daemon lover who comes to bear away his still living bride, the death-fiend or psychopomp riding the night-wind, the man-wolf, the sealed chamber, the deathless sorcerer—all these may be found in that curious body of mediaeval lore which the late Mr. [Sabine] Baring-Gould so effectively assembled in book form. Wherever the mystic Northern blood was strongest, the atmosphere of the popular tales became most intense; for in the Latin races there is a touch of basic rationality which denies to even their strangest superstitions many of the overtones of glamour so characteristic of our own forest-born and ice-fostered whisperings.

Northern peoples, as far as Lovecraft is concerned, are genetically and culturally predisposed to produce horror. As an American of almost pure English ancestry, Lovecraft is on the one hand putting forth an explanation as to why so many of Europe’s most haunting legends come from its colder climes (Scandinavia, Germany, the British Isles), while on the other hand subtly explaining why he is so attached to the weird and horrific.

For his part, Seabrook, the son of a Lutheran minister who turned into a Lost Generation decadent years later, shares not only some of Lovecraft’s theories concerning ethno-cultural memory, but he too managed to admire mysticism and the occult without believing a word of it. His 1940 book, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, ultimately concludes that all of the phenomena that Seabrook had experienced or researched could be explained away by rational science. (On a side note, Aleister Crowley, who plays a big part in Seabrook’s occult study, has long been the subject of a baseless urban legend that both Lovecraft and his wife Sonia Greene knew Crowley personally.)

Besides a shared philosophy and an interest in using science as a way to approach the supernatural, Lovecraft and Seabrook are most tightly connected by their passion for Arabia. As a child, Lovecraft was encouraged by his beloved grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips to read The Arabian Nights. It was during this phase that Lovecraft created the name “Abdul Alhazred,” the mad poet from Yemen who authored the Necronomicon. Lovecraft would later revisit the Arabian deserts as well as the mountains of northern Iraq in such stories as “The Horror at Red Hook,” where Lovecraft speaks of the Kurdish Yazidis as the “last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers.” “The Horror of Red Hook” was first published in January 1927, nine months before the publication of Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes, and Yezidee Devil Worshippers.

In Adventures in Arabia, Seabrook makes the shocking claim that the Yazidis (which Seabrook spells as “Yezidi”) are not only “devil worshippers,” but that they maintain an extensive network of seven towers in Asia that are all devoted to their blasphemous rituals.

Stretching across Asia, from North Manchuria, through Tibet, west through Persia, and ending in the Kurdistan, was a chain of seven towers on isolated mountaintops; and in each one of these towers sat continuously a Priest of Satan, who by “broadcasting” occult vibrations controlled the destinies of the world for evil.

In typical Seabrook fashion, no further evidence is given for this claim other than his own experiences in northern Iraq. Seabrook’s assertion is not only false because Kurdish Yazidi culture does not stretch into China or Tibet, but it also unwittingly subscribes to the idea that the Yazidis, who worship the “Peacock Angel” Melek Taus, are in fact adherents to a faith which worships a fallen angel, i.e. a demon. This idea has long been used as justification for Yazidi persecution by their Muslim and Christian neighbors, and in 2014 the terrorist group ISIS once again invoked the charge during their extended genocide against the Yazidi population in northern Iraq (this violence continues on still, although recent Kurdish military advances have halted them somewhat).

Again, despite the many circumstantial clues that point towards a knowledge of one another’s work, there is no conclusive evidence that either Lovecraft or Seabrook were fans of one another. They were, however, men and artists who shared similar obsessions, and in a twist of fate, they share similar, if inverted legacies. While he was alive, Lovecraft was little celebrated and most of his fans knew him only from his various appearances in the pulps. Lovecraft’s fame and his reputation as one of the 20th century’s greatest practitioners of the horror story came only after his untimely death in 1937. Seabrook, on the other hand, was popular and widely read during his lifetime. But, after committing suicide in 1945, Seabrook has been for the most part quietly forgotten, with a large part of his oeuvre falling out of print. Fortunately, Dover Publications is currently in the process of rereleasing Seabrook’s books once again, with Asylum appearing as early as September 2015. Fans of obscure literature have much to rejoice about with Seabrook’s return to print, plus Lovecraft scholars might find a passage or two that jumps out at them that as particularly eldritch. 

2 responses to “Weird Acquaintances: William Seabrook and H.P. Lovecraft

  1. Great article on Seabrook. It should be noted that Seabrook had NO anthropologic training and The Magic Island was widely condemned for spreading misinformation.

  2. Hi Mike, thanks for sharing this with us. What strikes me the most about this is how Seabrook’s sensationalistic reporting and out-and-out lieing to gain fame and fortune is mirrored by the current scandels involving well-respected members of the press who have manufactured tales of their own heroism. Why tell the truth when lies are more exciting and make more $$$$ ? In my opinion journalism today is totally comparable to the 1920’s and the “yellow journalism” of the past. The media is so obsessed with spreading and misreporting “end of the world” stories, such as Y2K, the Mayan Prophecies, and how the Hadron Large Collider was going to create a black hole when it was switched on. The worse part about this is how so many people listen to this garbage and believe it. The media is so well-respected and trusted that nobody seems to understand that reporters and their organizations can lie just like anybody else. So in counterpoint to this article, although there are similarities between the two writers, there is one BIG difference between Lovecraft and Seabrook: Lovecraft never tried to pass off his fiction as reality.

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