Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Art: The men who brought the zombie to America.

Recently, Publisher's Weekly, casting about for good news in an increasingly bleak biz context, has taken notice of, get this, some sort of uptick in consumer interest for zombie books. I doubt that readers of this blog will be particularly surprised at this President-Garfield-still-dead grade reportage, though the story does show that, really, this publishing "movement" is basically two books: Brook's World War Z and the Austen mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The former's 200,000 copies sold puts it in the realm of genuine hit (20,000 is a solid performance while 1 million puts you in Harry Potter territory), while the latter's rep looks secured on the basis of printing data (600,000 copies, the book's in its 16th printing already), though actually sales data has yet to surface. No doubt the other titles mentioned fetch a pretty penny or two for their publishers, though the data provided suggests that we're looking at two huge redwood trees and a lot of otherwise undifferentiated ground clutter.

Furthermore, to put this new phenom into perspective, the last book in the Twilight series sold 1.3 million copies in its first day of release. Even if every single copy of P&P&Z printed sold – which is unlikely – that single YA vamp book would trounce the combined sales of both titles. For those curious, the sales for the entire series are just south of 30 million. Next time you see somebody bashing the vampire romance franchise, imagine Stephenie Meyers responding, "These jabs sting, but then I just rub some money on the wound and that seems to ease the pain."

Charges of coming late to the not-much-of-a-party aside, the article's author gets extra points for comprehensiveness – the article ranges from Image Comics' excellent Walking Dead series to teen tales like Never Slow Dance with a Zombie - and a gazillion extra points for name dropping the father of American zombies: William Buehler Seabrook.

A restless and often self-destructive man, William Seabrook became a journalist and travel writer known for his extreme tales of far-of lands, retold with lurid detail for the subscribers of Cosmo, Reader's Digest, and Vanity Fair. An uneven and disciplined writer, given over to deploying now embarrassingly simplistic cultural and ethnic stereotypes, much of Seabrook's literary legacy is justly forgotten. However, three major milestones in American literature remain his. In Asylum , Seabrook turned his stay in the Bloomingdale mental institution in New York into the first celebrity rehab memoir. In Jungle Ways Seabrook gave American literature is only extended description of the taste of human flesh produced by a professional writer: "It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable." Finally and most importantly, in The Magic Island, Seabrook's sensationalist account of his wanderings in Haiti, the author introduced American audiences to the zombie.

It is sometimes erroneously stated that Seabrook introduced the word to the English language, though evidence for the term stretches back to at least the mid-17th century. However, these earliest uses are often vague references to various aspects of Caribbean and South American religions or are now archaic reference to culturally specific phenomenon, such as the resurfaced corpses of the buried dead unearthed by seasonal flooding. What Seabrook did was link the term zombie specifically to the concept of a person raised from the dead, and presented this definition in such a lurid way as to kick off a craze for the reanimated corpses in pulp lit and film. Seabrook's Island hit the shelves in late 1929. By 1932, Lugosi was starring in White Zombie.

The Magic Island includes original illustrations by the mysterious Alexander King, a once prolific and now obscure artist whose bio is lurid as Seabrook's. An abrasive man who was, at times, a painter, a failed playwright, and late night television regular, he was briefly an art thief and was busted after boosting 50 prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

King's images, shown below, are the first images of the walking dead to reach American shores.

[UPDATE: The ever on top of things Zoe has found a link to an online edition of The Magic Island. Check the comments for the URL. Thanks Zoe!]


zoe said...


how exciting! and the story is online, even, free to read.
thank you!

CRwM said...


thanks for finding a link. I'll put a notice in my original post. I don't know if the free copy has the art and photos, but the hardcopy includes photo plates and several other awesome, but non-zombie King illos.