Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon


152 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55054-672-4
DDC 362.29'3





Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


Clearly a labor of love, this beautifully designed and generously
illustrated book takes readers on a sumptuous journey into the world of
opium. Its focus, writes the author (who also designed the book), “is
on the wealth of images and literature celebrating or condemning this
fabled drug, and on the artists, writers, and photographers who have
tried to capture the essence of opium’s allure.” We also learn about
the composition of the opium poppy, the historical uses of opium, the
production of opium, the complexities of the opium trade (which found
countries “caught up in the conflict between condemning the vice and
the need for tax revenue from opium”), women as opium smokers, the
mechanics of opium smoking, the Chinatowns where the activity was
concentrated, and the effects of anti-drug legislation on opium use.

Within the world of letters, Oscar Wilde, Jean Cocteau, Charles
Baudelaire, Thomas De Quincey, and Graham Greene were among those who
indulged. One writer who firmly resisted the lure of the poppy was Mark
Twain; after touring San Francisco’s opium dens, he commented that
“the stewing and frying of the drug and the gurgling of the juices in
the stem would wellnigh turn the stomach of a statue.” Anti-drug
crusaders evinced a combination of revulsion and moral indignation.
“Opium-smoking throws whole families into ruin, dissipates every kind
of property, and ruins man himself,” wrote the author of The Land and
the People of China: “It wastes the flesh and blood until the skin
hangs down in bags and their bones are as naked as billets of wood.”
Racist stereotypes figured prominently in both fictional and
nonfictional treatments of the Chinatowns.

The book’s illustrations depict everything from opium smokers in
stoned repose to sensational pulp-fiction covers. An advertisement for
Mariani Wine features a testimonial from Pope Leo XIII trumpeting the
“beneficent effects” of the coca-laced tonic. Elsewhere, two languid
toddlers caress a giant bottle of opium-laced cough syrup.

Rounding out this delightful volume are notes, an extensive
bibliography, and an excellent index.


Hodgson, Barbara., “Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/2374.