Asylum

The Drink

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Members of the So Red the Nose Club should read Asylum to discover what lies in store for incautious imbibers of Gin and Pernod.

1 PART GIN
1 PART PERNOD
DASH OF GRENADINE

Pour Over Large Lumps of Ice
Do Not Shake

– From So Red the Nose

It’s pretty ironic to have an alcoholic drink based on a book about rehab. Or is it actually the opposite of irony, since a drunk is surely a cocktail expert? #thingsenglishteachersshouldknow

Surprisingly enough, William Seabrook was the first of our authors to have the brilliantly simple idea of combining absinthe and gin, the 1930’s two most favorite liquors. The flavor of this drink is pretty straight forward: if you like absinthe, you’ll like the Asylum, as it’s definitely the dominant flavor.

The brand Pernod went back to its “original recipe” absinthe in 2013, so we can be tentatively confident of its authenticity, and it is certainly strong in the anise department, both color and flavor-wise. A mere dash of grenadine — while delicious — is not really enough to offset it.

By the way, most bottles labeled “grenadine” contain nothing more than sugar water (or corn syrup water, as it were). Authentic grenadine is a simple syrup made from that fruit of the gods know as the pomegranate. The truly dedicated can boil their own grenadine, although I was reasonably happy with this one. Unfortunately, neither will produce the same technicolor red as Dye #40, but it’s a small price to pay for that tangy sweet flavor in the real stuff.

The Book

BookCover

I am an adventure writer of sorts, and I write this mainly as the story of a strange adventure in a strange place.

– From Asylum

Insulin_shock_therapyI don’t know about you, but I sometimes find blogging about authors who also designed cocktails based on their own works from a very narrow time period to be kind of a grind. After sifting through enough “so what?” and “who cares?” and “seriously, no one cares,” one can’t help but ask oneself, “why did I take on such a project in the first place?”

William Seabrook. William Seabrook is why.

William Seabrook: Connoisseur of witchcraft, voodoo, and the occult. Practitioner of cannibalism and sexual sadism. Author of the first ever zombie book, which was adapted into the first ever zombie movie.

I can’t even tell you how excited I was to get to this one.

Alas and alack, the memoir Asylum may have been one of his least freaky stories. In it, this well-traveled adventure writer tries his hand toward capturing a strange band of natives from a new exotic locale: Bloomingdale Mental Institution, where he had himself committed to treat his dangerously severe alcoholism.

Bergonic_chairBut it’s not this kind of insane asylum, or even this kind. In fact, Asylum is one of the more positive portrayals of metal health treatment I’ve seen from any era.

I mean, it helps to remember 1933 was post the exposés of asylum abuses and pre the horror shows of shock therapy and lobotomies, so Seabrook managed to lose his marbles in that small sliver of time when he could be unreservedly optimistic about the wonders of modern psychiatry.

And, besides a few hiccups here and there, Seabrook’s voluntary imprisonment was an overall very positive experience. He gets along well with the staff — with one petty exception –, only rebelling in amusingly minor ways: dancing with another patient against orders, having his friends on the outside send him giant boxes of prunes and threatening to stew them on the floor, encouraging one delusional patient to create an in-house shoe shine shop (unsurprisingly enough, mental health workers aren’t big fans of make-believe).

Bloomingdale_Insane_Asylum_of_New_york_hospital

Bloomingdale Insane Asylum

If anything, Seabrook admits the institution spoiled him. He describes it as a middle aged kindergarten class, where the guys who usually sign your paychecks are assigned crafts, led through mild physical exercise, and gently redirected when they misbehave. Seabrook and the other desperate were completely willing to trade dignity for a freeing lack of responsibility.

But while the staff have their amusing moments, the patients are the real stars of the show. And Asylum does more than anything else I’ve read to destigmatize the mentally ill. All of the characters Seabrook sketches feel like perfectly normal people, even if they are people who happen to howl at the moon once awhile. They are laborers, doctors, heirs, Hollywood directors, barely out of high school, elderly, personable, funny, snobbish, insightful. The institution is just a way station for most of them, a small blip in a much fuller and more interesting life story.

One of my favorite stories is of a man who has what we readers know to be Tourette’s syndrome. He and his new wife are utterly terrified, both of his own disease and those of his temporary roommies. On top of all that, times being what they were, the couple were disconsolate at the thought of bringing dishonor to the family by going to one of “those places.”

Bloomingdale_Insane_Asylum,_ManhattanBut they soon learn what Seabrook already knows, and what mental health advocates are still fighting to be recognized today: “…most forms of mental derangement …[are] no more to be ashamed of than having been physically smashed up in a motor accident.” Soon enough, the wife is buddying up to the other patients and cheerfully planning for her husband’s return, having gone from acute terror to hope in just a matter of months.

This sadistic occultist can write some pretty heartwarming stuff at times, let me tell you.

Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?

Ward_for_women,_a_mental_hospital_in_Britain._Wellcome_L0015465As disappointed as I was to get stuck with the feel-good Seabrook work, I cannot deny Asylum was a completely enjoyable, accessible read. Seabrook’s humor and insight can carry his true story just as well as his fictional ones.

Of course, I couldn’t resist doing some research to see if he managed to stay on the wagon. Sadly, despite our author’s confidence in psychiatric treatment, he eventually succumbed and committed suicide by drug overdose in his early 60’s, exactly ten years after Asylum‘s publication.

So, this Halloween, as you watch The Walking Dead or Dawn of the Dead or Shaun of the Dead, throw out that zombie cocktail and instead raise an Asylum in honor of the man who brought those demons to life, where they continue to thrill us even 60 years after he lost the fight with his own.

You are discovering William Seabrook at the right time, my friends. Not just Asylumbut also The Magic Island are being re-released this year, complete with comic book- style covers and introductions. 

Next time: The fall fun continues with a cocktail with “pumpkin” in its name. This one is anything but basic, though.

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