cover image Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon

Barbara Hodgson. Chronicle Books, $22.95 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-8118-2411-8

A smoothly guided tour through the history of this often glamorized narcotic, Hodgson's slim volume is handsomely assembled and illustrated with woodcuts, sketches and photographs. It recounts how 19th- and 20th-century writers (among them Baudelaire, Jean Cocteau and Graham Greene) ""elevated the status of a muse""; demonstrates ""the box-office draw of drugs"" in the era of silent film; describes the ""opium clippers,"" sleek Victorian ships designed to transport the drug from India to China; and surveys the multifarious literature of opium-smoking, from firsthand reports of Hong Kong squalor to prurient pulp fiction. Opium was a popular ingredient in all sorts of Victorian and turn-of-the-century medicines. But since most North America opium smokers were Chinese immigrants, the drug provided an occasion for moral panic and anti-immigrant feeling. Far less ambitious and less didactic than Martin Booth's 1998 Opium: A History, Hodgson's volume excels in its plethora of quotes from Dickens, Sax Rohmer and Arthur Symons (represented by a remarkable sonnet), pictures from obscure yet revealing French painters, Chinese photographers and documentation of crusaders and journalists such as P.B. Doesticks, who visited an opium den in New York City's Chinatown and found ""a cube of smoke the size of the apartment, about the consistence [sic] of blancmange."" (Sept.)