In 1928, on a desolate island off the coast of Haiti, the American writer William Seabrook came face-to-face with a zombie. ”The eyes were the worst," Seabrook would later write in The Magic Island, his book about Haitian voodoo culture. "They were in truth the eyes of a dead man." The book sold half a million copies, forever changing popular culture by introducing the zombi cadavre—the walking dead—to the American imagination. Soon after, Hollywood seized on the public’s new obsession, casting Bela Lugosi as an evil Haitian sugar-plantation owner, whose fields are tended by zombies.
From there, movies and books and video games followed. Without Seabrook, there is no Night of the Living Dead, no Walking Dead or Dawn of the Dead or Shaun of the Dead. And yet the man himself, an adventurer and travel writer who less than a century ago was a household name in America, has been lost to history.
In The Zombie King, author Emily Matchar rediscovers Seabrook in all his outsize and eccentric and ultimately self-destructive ways. Here is the writer who not only brought us zombies, but who left his life as an ad man in Atlanta to become an ambulance driver in the Great War, who rode through the Arabian desert with Bedouin horse thieves, who counted among his friends Aldous Huxley and Man Ray and Thomas Mann, who ate human flesh and was compulsively driven by literary insecurity and lifelong sadomasochistic fetishes. Seabrook was a character as big and bizarre as any he ever met or wrote about, and The Zombie King brings him back to strange and remarkable life.
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