The Zombie of Great Peru: Or the Countess of Cocagne was written in 1697 by Pierre-Corneille Blessebois (not to be confused with Pierre Corneille, the dramatist). Doug Skinner has recently translated the book from French to English for Black Scat Books, who describe the novel as “a memoir of occultism, seduction, slapstick, and humiliation, set in the racial and sexual hothouse of colonial Guadeloupe. It contains the first appearance of the word ‘zombie’ in literature.”
The Oxford English Dictionary credits Lake Poet Robert Southey as the first English writer to use the Z-word, in his 1819 History of Brazil, so Blessebois scooped him by more than 100 years in French. But the zombies of Southey and Blessebois are a far cry from the classic zombies of voodoo lore, even as voodoo zombies are quite different from the science-gone-wrong revenants in contemporary movies, comic books, and television, like The Walking Dead, I Am Legend, Night of the Living Dead and its many sequels.
Most etymologies link the word zombie to West Africa as a variation of nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish, as in an object believed to have supernatural powers), and possibly from a Louisiana Creole derivative of sombra, meaning shade, and by extension, a phantom or ghost.
Robert Southey’s use of the word was discussed by Marina Warner when Richard Marshall interviewed Warner for 3:AM Magazine:
“And this word in their language means devil,” writes Southey. But Coleridge writes in the margin, “No, this word does not mean the devil, it means a devil”…he’s basically telling Southey that he’s giving the mistaken impression that this man is the devil, but it doesn’t mean that, it means that he’s a spiritual force, a vital essence…
In The Zombie of Great Peru, the narrator promises to give a beautiful girl magical powers in return for sex. He tricks her into thinking she is invisible.
Most of the online information I found on Blessebois is in French, but I did discover a reference to him in a review of someone else’s book. The journal Caribbean Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2007, features a book review of The Libertine Colony, a non-fiction study by Doris Garraway. The reviewer, Alix Pierre, points out that Garraway chose not to base her findings on the better known “writings of… enlightenment luminaries” because those writers avoided the specifics of France’s involvement with slavery in the Caribbean colonies. “Consequently,” says Pierre, Garraway’s analysis is based on “published descriptive narrative sources from the Old Regime French Caribbean,” including “missionary histories and relations (by Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre, Raymond Breton, and Jean-Baptiste Labat), and narratives of adventure and transgression (written by Alexander Oexmelin and Pierre-Corneille Blessebois).”
Translator Doug Skinner has contributed to periodicals including Fate, The Fortean Times, Strange Attractor Journal, Cabinet, and others. He took time out from getting ready for a book reading to answer a few questions from me.
Bill Ectric: How did you first hear about the Zombie of Great Peru?
Doug Skinner: I first read about it in a book by Guillaume Apollinaire, “Les Diables Amoureux” (The Amorous Devils”). It’s a collection of his Introductions and essays on erotic and libertine literature, which I was considering translating, since Apollinaire is now in the public domain. I decided not to, but was intrigued by a piece on Blessebois and “The Zombie.” I found a few editions of it online, read it with amazement, and was surprised to find that it had never been translated, although it’s cited in a number of books as the first use of the word “zombie,” and as an early(possibly the first) example of French colonial literature. I should point out that there are no zombies in the modern sense of the word: at that time and place (Guadeloupe, 1697), a zombie was a ghost or demon.
BE: Would it be correct to assume that this book contains what is now referred to as “adult content?” If it were a movie, would it be NC-17, or is that a subjective judgment?
DS: Well, the book belongs to the genre of libertine literature. The main intrigue is that the Countess of Cocagne offers Blessebois sexual favors if he makes her a zombie, so he pretends to be a sorcerer to take her up on her offer. It’s not particularly explicit, mostly a lot of deception, humiliation, slapstick, and drunken hijinks, interspersed with pious asides. There’s also a very rude poem, in which Blessebois assesses every part of the Countess’s body. Blessebois’s other works are dirtier: in particular, he put out a number of pornographic books vilifying his former fiancée, Marthe de Hayer.
BE: Was Blessebois part of any literary group or movement?
DS: Nobody in his right mind wanted anything to do with Blessebois. He led a long scurrilous career as arsonist, murderer, gigolo, pimp, mercenary, deserter, pornographer, and writer of religious literature. The authorities repeatedly imprisoned and banished him, until they finally sent him off as a galley slave to the French colony in Guadeloupe. And there he had the adventures he recounts in Zombie.
BE: Who did he murder? What did he set on fire?
DS: He killed his girlfriend’s husband, M. de Verdin, in Normandy in 1674. He marked the occasion with a poem boasting about how much money she’d given him and what great sex they had. And in 1670, he and his brother Philippe burned down their mother’s house in Verneuil, apparently to destroy some tax records. He spent his time in jail entertaining his mistresses and writing insulting acrostics about his enemies. His life was so cartoonishly awful that some earlier scholars thought he might have been a hoax, but he left an ample paper trail, since he was always in trouble with the law.
BE: Zombie includes an introduction by Guillaume Apollinaire. Can you tell me a little about Apollinaire?
DS: Oh, Apollinaire was wonderful. He was one of the great poets of the 20th century, and one of the pioneers of picture and pattern poems. His poem “Zone” is a blast (there’s a translation by Beckett, of all people). He was steeped in history, mythology, and folklore, loved the fantastic and outrageous, and wrote experimental work and championed it in others. He coined the word “surrealism.” He also wrote plays, opera libretti, short stories, and novels – although some of his novels were ghostwritten. And as I said, he was also fascinated by the history of erotica, editing old works, and writing some cartoonish smut himself. He was by turns brilliant, trivial, hilarious, puzzling, fashionable, and somewhat sleazy. Read him!
BE: Do you think there is a lot more untapped literature waiting to be rediscovered?
DS: Oh yes. Of course, some literature is familiar in one country, but unknown in another. My next translation (to be published by Black Scat Books in the fall) is an 1899 novel by that peerless French absurdist, Alphonse Allais. The Blaireau Affair is a tasty satire on small town politics and legal bureaucracy, laced with a ridiculous but charming love affair. It’s never been out of print on France, and inspired no less than four movies, but hasn’t been translated until now.
BE: On another subject, can you tell me a little about the Richard Shaver exhibits you’ve presented?
DS: I’ve long been interested in Shaver, and am one of the lucky few to own one of his paintings. I’ve given talks on him in galleries and at Fortean gatherings, and written about him for “Fate” and other magazines. The only exhibit I’ve been involved with was one at the Four Walls Gallery in Brooklyn a number of years ago (I forget the year). The director, Mike Ballou, and I hung a tree with old copies of “Amazing Stories” and “Other Worlds,” and Mike made wall sconces from Shaver’s rock photos. I read some of Shaver’s poems and stories in a plywood cave. It was very Shaveresque. More recently, I contributed an introduction to the second volume of “Rokfogo,” a beautiful book on Shaver’s artwork by Richard Toronto.
BE: Well, if you ever do another Shaver event, I hope to attend. Doug, I want to thank you for taking some of your valuable time to answer a few questions.
DS: Thanks, and keep up the good work, Bill.
Interview by Bill Ectric
Bill Ectric wants to believe he can erase the line between science and mysticism. His novel, Tamper, is about growing up in the 1960s obsessed with unexplained mysteries. On the internet, Bill’s writing is featured on Literary Kicks, Sein und Werden, Spolia, Empty Mirror Books, Candlelight Stories, Red Fez, Boston Poetry, and other places no doubt.