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"The best and most thrilling book of exploration that we have ever read … [an] immensely important book." — New York Evening Post
"A series of excellent stories about one of the most interesting corners of the American world, told by a keen and sensitive person who knows how to write." — American Journal of Sociology
"It can be said of many travelers that they have traveled widely. Of Mr. Seabrook a much finer thing may be said — he has traveled deeply." — The New York Times Book Review
This fascinating book, first published in 1929, offers firsthand accounts of Haitian voodoo and witchcraft rituals. Journalist and adventurer William Seabrook introduced the concept of the walking dead ― zombies ― to the West with his illustrated travelogue. He relates his experiences with the voodoo priestess who initiated him into the religion's rituals, from soul transference to resurrection. In addition to twenty evocative line drawings by Alexander King, this edition features a new Foreword by cartoonist and graphic novelist Joe Ollmann, a new Introduction by George A. Romero, legendary director of Night of the Living Dead, and a new Afterword by Wade Davis, Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486799629
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 04/21/2016
Edition description: First Edition, First
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 1,263,848
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Journalist and explorer William Seabrook (1884–1945) possessed a fascination with the occult that led him across the globe to study magic rituals, train as a witch doctor, and sample human flesh. In addition to publishing more than a dozen books, he wrote for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, and Vanity Fair.

Read an Excerpt

The Magic Island

By William Seabrook, Alexander King

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 Joe Ollmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81183-3



Louis, son of Catherine Ozias of Orblanche, paternity unknown — and thus without a surname was he inscribed in the Haitian civil register — reminded me always of that proverb out of hell in which Blake said, "He whose face gives no light shall never become a star."

It was not because Louis' black face, frequently perspiring, shone like patent leather ; it glowed also with a mystic light that was not always heavenly.

For Louis belonged to the chimeric company of saints, monsters, poets, and divine idiots. He used to get besotted drunk in a comer, and then would hold long converse with seraphim and demons, also from time to time with his dead grandmother who had been a sorceress.

In addition to these qualities, Louis was our devoted yard boy. He served us, in the intervals of his sobriety, with a passionate and all-consuming zeal.

We had not chosen Louis for our yard boy. He had chosen us. He had also chosen the house we lived in. These two things had happened while we were still at the Hotel Montagne. And they had seemed to us slightly miraculous, though the grapevine telegraph of servants in Port-au-Prince might adequately have explained both. Katie and I had been house-hunting. We had been shown unlivably ostentatious plaster palaces with magnificent gardens, and livable wooden villas with inadequate gardens or no gardens at all, until we had begun to despair. One afternoon as we left the hotel gate, strolling down the hill to Ash Pay Davis's, a black boy, barefooted and so ragged that we thought he was a beggar, stopped us and said in creole with affectionate assurance, as if he had known us all our lives, "I have found the house for you." Not a house, mind you. Nor was there any emphasis on the the; there couldn't be in creole. He said literally, "M' té joined' caille ou" (I have found your house).

What we did may sound absurd. We returned to the hotel, got out our car, took Louis inside — he had wanted to ride the running-board — and submitted to his guidance. He directed us into the fashionable Rue Turgeau toward the American club and colony, but before reaching that exclusive quarter, we turned unfamiliarly left and then up a lane that ran into the jungle valley toward Pétionville, and there where city and jungle joined was a dilapidated but beautiful garden of several acres and in its midst a low, rambling, faded pink one-story house with enormous verandas on a level with the ground.

Some of the doors were locked; the rest were nailed up. Behind the house were stone-built servants' quarters and a kitchen, also locked. There was a bassin (swimming-pool) choked with débris and leaves.

Who owned this little dilapidated paradise, whether it was for rent, how much the rent might be — these were matters outside the scope of Louis' genius. He had not inquired before coming to find us, and he made no offers or suggestions now.

We thanked Louis, dropped him at Sacré Cœur, told him to come see us at the hotel next morning, then drove to Ash Pay's and discovered after considerable telephoning that the place belonged to Maître Morel and might be rented for thirty dollars a month. Toussaint, black interpreter for the brigade who dabbled helpfully in everything, would get us the keys on Wednesday afternoon when Maître Morel returned from Saint Marc.

Louis did not come to the hotel next morning, nor the morning after, but when we went with Toussaipt three days later to open the house, we were received blandly by Louis, who was already at home in a corner of the brick-paved veranda to which he had in the interval transported all his earthly possessions, consisting of a pallet, an old blanket, an iron cooking-pot, a candle-stub, and a small wooden box containing doubtless his more intimate treasures. In the pot were the remains of some boiled plantain, apparently his sole sustenance.

Neither he nor we ever mentioned the matter of employing him. Several days were going to elapse before we could move in, but I gave him the keys to the house then and there. I also gave him ten gourdes, the equivalent of two dollars, which was a large sum of money, and told him to buy for himself what was needful, suggesting a new shirt and a supply of food. He was undernourished, and with that new wealth he could feast for a week; the price of a chicken in Haiti is twenty cents.

Returning some days later, I found him with a new pair of tennis shoes, a magnificently gaudy new scarf knotted round his neck, lying on his back in the grass beneath the shade of a mango tree, blissfully and inoffensively drunk, singing a little happy tune which he made as it went, inviting the birds to come and admire his new clothes. His shirt was as before. His whole shoulder protruded from a rent in it. I examined the cook-pot. It contained the remains of some boiled plantain, and it had apparently contained nothing else in the interval. I have told you, I think, that Louis was a saint. Even so, I fear it is going to be difficult to make you understand Louis, unless you have read sympathetically the lives of the less reputable saints and have also lived in a tropical country like Haiti.

Of course when we furnished the house and moved in, we had additional servants — the dull, competent butler, a middle-aged woman cook, and for blanchisseuse a plump little wench with flashing teeth and roving eyes who promptly fell in love with Louis, gave him money, and more intimate favors when he permitted it. Having four servants was not ostentatious in Port-au-Prince, even for us who in New York habitually have none. It was the general custom. We paid the four of them a grand sum total of thirty-one dollars monthly, and they found their own food. The last three were reasonably efficient, as servants, doing generally what they were told; but Louis, who never did what he was told, was nevertheless in actual fact, putting quite aside his fantastic power of holding our affection, the most efficient servant of them all. The things he wanted to do, he did without being ordered, and they were many. For instance, there was the matter of our small sedan. He knew nothing about its mechanical insides and could never learn to change a tire, but he took a passionate pride in keeping it clean and polished. He groomed it as if it were alive. When it came home covered with caked mud he dropped no matter what and labored like a madman. He would never clean up the garden, burn brush, carry stones, but during the first week he anticipated our intentions by appearing with vines and flowers for transplanting, the earth still clinging to their roots, which he had got from God knows where. And these also he attended devotedly as if they were alive in a more than vegetable sense.

He delighted in doing personal things to please us. Sometimes when we thought we needed him he was as tranquilly drunk as an opium-smoking Chinaman or off chasing the moon, but at moments when we least expected anything he would appear with a great armful of roses for Katie or a basket for me of some queer fruit not seen in the markets. On rare occasions, sometimes when drinking, sometimes not, he was hysterically unhappy and could not be comforted. But usually he was the soul of joy. And in the household Louis gradually centered his allegiance and chief concern on me. I mention this because most people, whether servants, kinsfolk, intimate friends, or casual acquaintances, find Katie the more admirable human being of us two. But Louis put me first. He began gradually to give me confidences. He felt, as time passed, that I understood him.

And what has all this to do with the dark mysteries of Voodoo? you may ask, but I suspect that you already know. It was humble Louis and none other who set my feet in the path which led finally through river, desert, and jungle, across hideous ravines and gorges, over the mountains and beyond the clouds, and at last to the Voodoo Holy of Holies. These are not metaphors. The topography of Haiti is a tropical-upheaved, tumbled-towering madland of paradises and infernos. There are sweet plains of green-waving sugar cane, coral strands palm-fronded, impenetrable jungles of monstrous tangled growth, arid deserts where obscene cactus rises spiked and hairy to thrice the height of a tall man on horseback and where salamanders play; there are black canyons which drop sheer four thousand feet, and forbidding mornes which rise to beyond nine thousand. But the trail which led among them and ended one night when I knelt at last before the great Rada drums, my own forehead marked with blood — that trail began at my own back doorstep and led only across the garden to my yard boy Louis' bare, humble quarters where a tiny light was burning.

In a cocoanut shell filled with oil the little wick floated, its clear-flamed tip smaller than a candle's, and before it, raised on a pile of stones such as a child might have built in play, was a stuffed bag made of scarlet cloth, shaped like a little water-jug, tied round with ribbon, surmounted by black feathers. Louis had come on tiptoe shortly after midnight, seeing me reading late and Katie gone to a dance at the club, whose music floated faintly across from Turgeau in the stillness. He explained that a mystère, a loi, which is a god or spirit, had entered the body of a girl who lived in a hut up the ravine behind our house, and that everywhere throughout our neighborhood, in the many straw-thatched huts of the ravine, likewise in the detached servant quarters of the plaster palaces of American majors and colonels, hundreds of similar little sacred flames were burning.

Thus, and as time passed, confidence engendering confidence, I learned from Louis that we white strangers in this twentieth-century city, with our electric lights and motor cars, bridge games and cocktail parties, were surrounded by another world invisible, a world of marvels, miracles, and wonders — a world in which the dead rose from their graves and walked, in which a man lay dying within shouting distance of my own house and from no mortal illness but because an old woman out in Léogane sat slowly unwinding the thread wrapped round a wooden doll made in his image; a world in which trees and beasts talked for those whose ears were attuned, in which gods spoke from burning bushes, as on Sinai, and sometimes still walked bodily incarnate as in Eden's garden.

I also learned from Louis, or at least began to glimpse through him, something which I think has never been fully understood: that Voodoo in Haiti is a profound and vitally alive religion — alive as Christianity was in its beginnings and in the early Middle Ages when miracles and mystical illuminations were common everyday occurrences — that Voodoo is primarily and basically a form of worship, and that its magic, its sorcery, its witchcraft (I am speaking technically now), is only a secondary, collateral, sometimes sinisterly twisted by-product of Voodoo as a faith, precisely as the same thing was true in Catholic mediaeval Europe.

In short, I learned from Louis that while the High Commissioner, his lady, and the colonel had called and taken tea in our parlor, the high gods had been entering by the back door and abiding in our servants' lodge.

Nor was this surprising. It has been a habit of all gods from immemorial days. They have shown themselves singularly indifferent to polite company, high-sounding titles, parlors, and fine houses ... indifferent indeed to all worldly pride and splendor. We have built domed temples and vast cathedrals, baited with glories of polychrome and marble to trap them, but when the gods come uninvited of their own volition, or send their messengers, or drop their flame-script cards of visit from the skies, it is not often these gilded temples or the proud of the earth they seek, but rather some road-weary humble family asleep in a wayside stable, some illiterate peasant girl dreaming in an orchard as she tends her sheep, some cobbler in his hut among the Alps. Perhaps in their own far-off celestial sphere the gods are surfeited with glory, and only for that reason visit earth at all. Perhaps they suffer from some divine nostalgie de la boue. Always when rich, mighty temples are erected where once the humble stable stood, there is a risk that the bored gods will betake themselves elsewhere without saying au revoir. And perhaps it was through some such habit of the gods as this that mortal I, who have stood with bowed head and good intentions in so many of this world's great gilded cathedrals, mosques, and temples, have never felt myself so close to the invisible presence of ultimate mystery as I did later, more than once, beneath straw-thatched roofs in the Haitian mountains. And this despite up-cropping naivetes, savageries, grotesqueries, superstitious mumbo-jumbo, and at times deliberate witch-doctor charlatan trickeries that must be included too if I am to keep this record honest.

Louis and I began to go wandering in the hills together and sitting under trees, where he would tell me of the names and attributes of the many Voodoo gods — Papa Legba, guardian of the gates, who was the most benevolent; Damballa Oueddo, wisest and most powerful, whose symbol was the serpent; Loco, god of the forests; Agoue, god of the sea; Maitresse Ezilee, who was the mild Blessed Virgin Mary; Ogoun Badagris, the bloody dreadful One whose voice was thunder. There were dozens of them, it seemed. It was like a nursery lesson in Greek mythology, except that to Louis these were not myths, they were more real than he or I. No need to catalogue all their names here; most of them will fall naturally into the record later. Perhaps before the book is ended I shall try to compile a table of theological Voodoo statistics, but it will not be as congenial a task as sitting with Louis under a palm tree.

One afternoon, quite of his own volition, he began telling me of the ritual ceremonies in which these gods were worshiped, and soon I realized he was eye-witness recounting things quite unknown to the outside world and extraordinarily at variance not only with fiction and stage versions of Voodoo ritual, but with the few records extant of persons who have claimed a direct knowledge. He was telling me, in his own rich creole, of choral processionals all robed in white, of men and women grouped, antiphonally chanting, of a sacred black bull covered with embroidered draperies, glittering with adornments, with lighted candles fastened to its horns, led to the sacrificial altar.... "Ah, monsieur," he cried, excited, "it was belle! belle! belle!" He was seeing it once more as he sat there. I could tell it in his eyes. He was trying to make me see it. But now, lost in his own memory vision, he could only repeat that it was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Belle was a word Louis seldom used, probably because everything to him was beautiful, just as everything was holy to St. Francis, and a special phenomenon would have to be superlatively beautiful before he felt the fact worth mentioning. Only two phenomena in our immediate lives had hitherto, separately, called forth the adjective: Claire and the peacock. The peacock had been given us by Major Davis, but it was not aware that it belonged to us; it followed Louis about as if he were its mate. "Oh, la belle bête!" he exclaimed when it first spread its tail, and he called it by no other name thereafter. When Claire had appeared from New York to visit us, Louis had exclaimed with like ecstatic spontaneity, "Oh la belle dame!" She will forgive me for suggesting that this was extraordinary. She had beauty, yes, but not of a flagrant kind. Leo Katz, sunken in mystic portrait painting, had limned her as a saint, and might as easily have made her a sibyl or a she-devil, but the social herd in Port-au-Prince, as at home, found her more often strange than surpassingly lovely. Louis was quick enough at remembering names, and hers was easy, but during her entire stay with us he found no other name for her. It was always "the beautiful beast," and always "the beautiful lady."


Excerpted from The Magic Island by William Seabrook, Alexander King. Copyright © 2016 Joe Ollmann. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Joe Ollmann
Introduction by George A. Romero
Foreword to 1929 Edition
PART ONE: The Voodoo Rites
I. Secret Fires
II. The Way Is Opened and Closed
III. The Petro Sacrifice
IV. The "Ouanga" Charm
V. Goat-Cry Girl-Cry
VI. The God Incarnate
PART TWO: Black Sorcery
I. The Altar of Skulls
II. ". . . Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields"
III. Toussel's Pale Bride
IV. Celestine with a Silver Dish
PART THREE: The Tragic Comedy
I. A Blind Man Walking on Eggs
II. A Nymph in Bronze
III. "The Truth Is a Beautiful Thing"
IV. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President!"
V. But the Truth Becomes Somewhat Tangled
PART FOUR: Trails Winding
I. The White King of La Gonave
II. The Black Queen's Court
III. A Torn Scrap of Paper
IV. Portrait of a "Gros Negre"
V. "Polynice and His White"
VI. The "Danse Congo"
VII. "No White Man Could Be As Dumb As That"
VIII. Portrait of a Scientist
IX. Morne la Selle Adventure
X. The Soul of Haiti
From the Author's Notebook

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