The Lovecraft Reread

What Happens After They Laugh at You at the Academy: “Herbert West — Reanimator”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.

Today we’re looking at “Herbert West—Reanimator,” written between June 1921 and October 1922, and first published in the February-June 1922 issues of Home Brew. You can read it here.

Spoilers ahead.

“It was a repulsive task that we undertook in the black small hours, even though we lacked at that time the special horror of graveyards which later experiences brought to us. We carried spades and oil dark lanterns, for although electric torches were then manufactured, they were not as satisfactory as the tungsten contrivances of today. The process of unearthing was slow and sordid—it might have been gruesomely poetical if we had been artists instead of scientists—and we were glad when our spades struck wood.”

Summary

PART ONE—FROM THE DARK: The narrator and West meet as medical students at Miskatonic University, where West gains early notoriety for ideas about life’s strictly mechanistic nature. The soul’s a myth, and artificial reanimation theoretically possible through chemical means, given a fresh enough corpse. West experiments with animals, but each species requires a different elixir, so he must switch to human subjects. He and narrator fit up a secret lab in a deserted farmhouse. They dig up a young workman drowned and buried unembalmed, take him to the lab, inject West’s solution. Narrator isn’t as materialistic as West, and wonders what a revenant could tell about the afterlife.

Nothing happens. The researchers try revising their formula. Suddenly appalling screams erupt from the darkened lab, expressing “all the supernal terror and unnatural despair of animate nature.” The researchers flee, knocking over a lamp. The farmhouse burns, destroying evidence of their lab, but does the corpse burn, too? People discover the workman’s grave has been disturbed—the one West and narrator carefully refilled. Someone clawed at the earth, bare-handed.

From then on, West looks over his shoulder and fancies he hears footsteps behind him.

PART TWO—THE PLAGUE-DAEMON: The next “breakthrough” occurs while a typhoid epidemic stalks Arkham. West and narrator assist, as does West’s chief antagonist, medical school dean Allan Halsey. Though unwilling to countenance West’s experiments, Halsey is a talented and conscientious physician.When he dies battling the plague, Arkham gives him a hero’s funeral. Afterwards, West persuades narrator to “make a night of it.” They return home around 2 a.m. with a third man hanging between them, as if from a youthful debauch. Soon screaming wakes the house. Our friends are found beaten unconscious. The third man, their attacker, has evidently vanished out the window.

New horror erupts like the embodied soul of the plague. A watchman at Christchurch Cemetery is clawed to death. Eight houses are invaded, fourteen people killed, some eaten. The third night police capture a voiceless creature, more simian than human though its face bears a mocking resemblance to Dr. Halsey’s. They put the thing in Sefton Asylum, where for sixteen years it beats its head on a padded wall. West’s remark makes narrator shudder: “Damn, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!”

PART THREE—SIX SHOTS BY MIDNIGHT: Now licensed physicians, West and narrator start a joint practice in Bolton, choosing a house near the potter’s field. Their biggest “triumph” comes when an illegal prize fight leaves one pugilist, Buck Robinson, dead. West relieves police-wary millworkers of the corpse, but their injections fail. They bury the man in woods near the potter’s field. Next day a child goes missing. West attends his mother, who dies of heart failure that afternoon. The father blames West. That night the researchers are roused by pounding at their back door. Fearful of the bereaved father, West carries a revolver to answer the summons. When he sees their visitor, he empties his revolver, for Robinson has returned, glassy-eyed and mould-caked, bearing between his teeth a small white arm.

PART FOUR—THE SCREAM OF THE DEAD: West tries artificially preserving specimens prior to reanimation. He develops a unique embalming solution. When narrator returns from a vacation, West says he’s tried it on a promising subject. A traveling businessman dropped dead on their doorstep of a heart attack, and West preserved the absolutely fresh corpse. They perform the reanimation, hoping to see a revival of mind as well as body. The corpse writhes as if in mortal struggle, opens eyes “dilated at the memory of its last scene on earth.” And it speaks, coherently, before collapsing back into death.

What it says shocks narrator into realizing how far West has gone in pursuit of his goals: “Help! Keep off, you cursed tow-head fiend—keep that damned needle away from me!”

PART FIVE—THE HORROR FROM THE SHADOWS: By 1915, West has become a celebrated Boston surgeon. He now experiments on detached body parts. He theorizes organic cells and nerve tissue may function independently, and he’s developed an immortal tissue-culture from reptilian embryos. Now he wonders whether consciousness is possible without the brain, and whether there’s any “ethereal, intangible” connection between separated parts. World War I lets him test these ideas. He—and narrator at his insistence—join the Canadian medical corps, aided by a Major Clapham-Lee, who’s secretly studied reanimation under West.

West’s declined from scientific zeal to perverse addiction to his macabre activities. He’s unperturbed by the charnel debris in his field hospital lab, and the loathsome vat of reptile tissue he cultivates in a corner. When Clapham-Lee’s killed in a plane crash, West doesn’t hesitate to plop his severed head into the reptile vat and reanimate his body. It re-enacts its death struggles, just before German shells destroy the hospital. Narrator recalls a terrible shout from the vat before the cataclysm: “Jump, Ronald [the plane’s pilot], for God’s sake, jump!”

PART SIX—THE TOMB-LEGIONS: Back in Boston, West’s fanatical ruthlessness intensifies. He keeps reanimating isolated body parts, sometimes joining them to nonhuman organic matter. It’s too horrific for print. Simultaneously West’s fear grows of surviving “experiments,” and he speculates what a revenant like Clapham-Lee, trained in reanimation,might do.

West’s latest lab is in a subcellar of his Boston house. While fitting it up, workmen discovered a connection to the neighboring burying ground. Timidity conquering curiosity, West has the ancient vault walled up.

One evening West learns the plague-demon with Halsey’s face has escaped its asylum, violently assisted by a man wearing a wax head and his shambling cohorts. At midnight strange figures deliver a black box from “Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee.” The end has come, West says, but they can at least incinerate—this. They go down to the lab and do so, box unopened. Then narrator notices falling plaster. The wall over the vault crumbles, releasing a charnel stench. The collapse continues, effected by a horde “human, semi-human, fractionally human, and not human at all.” They’re led by a wax-headed figure in a Canadian officer’s uniform, but it’s a mad-eyed monstrosity that leaps on West. The other invaders spring also, and tear West apart. As they bear the pieces into the earth, narrator notes that West’s eyes blaze with “their first touch of frantic, visible emotion.”

Narrator faints. He wakes to find the wall replaced, and so of course detectives don’t believe his story of West’s end. They imply he’s mad or a murderer. Probably he’s mad, but might not have been if the tomb-legions hadn’t been so silent.

What’s Cyclopean: The narrator describes West as “a fastidious Baudelaire of physical experiment—a languid Elagabalus of the tombs.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Re-animation involves a fine appreciation of human distinction, from the sturdy and unimaginative plebian type to the professor-doctor type with its chronic mental limitations, from polyglot Poles with a penchant for stabbing each other to a “loathsome, gorilla-like” black fighter. Oh, and the chemistry required to preserve life differs wildly between races.

Mythos Making: First appearance of Miskatonic University!

Libronomicon: And that mention of Baudelaire is as close as we get to books this week.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Our narrator wouldn’t be mad if they hadn’t been so silent. And Herbert West wouldn’t be mad if they hadn’t, literally, laughed at him at the academy.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Ah, here’s Lovecraft’s contribution to the pulp serial. He apparently disliked the form for its usual weaknesses: the necessary evil of recaps and those obligatory “cliffhanger” endings. Though “Herbert West’s” endings are more shockers, since no damsels are left tied to railroad tracks—or dangling from the crumbling edges of cliffs, for that matter. The first five segments detail steps toward West’s inevitable doom, punctuated by the horror of a particular reanimation. The last details the doom, revenge of the revenants.

“West,” a fairly early effort, isn’t without occasional eerie power. The screaming revenant in the first episode! Why does it scream so, and why is it so desperate to return to its grave? Was death so much preferable to life? Was there an afterlife so alluring it made this world an unendurable regression? Or maybe the soul’s not a myth. Maybe it’s so hard to get a rational, well-behaved revenant because the soul departs at the moment of death, before West could possibly administer his elixirs. Without the soul, what you get is a terrified or vicious animal, sheer impulse, raw hunger. Worse? At the height of your powers, you might create a Clapham-Lee, who has higher cognitive abilities and more refined drives, like that toward revenge. But does that imply a soul or the quintessence of soullessness?

Character-wise, the most interesting thing is Lovecraft’s repeated description of West as small and slender, delicate, blond and blue-eyed–a veritable spectacled cherub, unless you notice the coldness in those blue eyes, the lack of compassion in that soft voice. Monomania rules West and becomes less intellectual, more visceral, over time. He goes from self-absorbed geek to exquisite monster, but always looks innocuous, a banal evildoer who foreshadows the medical monsters of the death camps in that world war neither he nor Lovecraft will live to see.

What’s with the narrator, though? I can see why a young guy would be dazzled by West’s intellectual fireworks, his audacious experiments, but after that first screaming corpse? After the plague-demon? After Buck Robinson bringing home a proud little present, like a cat successful in the hunt? After the St. Louis businessman, perfectly fresh because West did the slaughtering himself? And narrator has his humanities, his capacity for disgust and horror. They’re not the perfect pair we see in “The Hound.” Yet narrator sticks with West to the end. He claims he does so out of fear. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a Voldemort-Peter Pettigrew kind of thing: fear tempered by fascination, a susceptibility to the charisma of power, a hope for scraps. Or maybe this is simply the narrator Lovecraft needs to get his story told. Against all sense, our POV character has to stay near the center of the action, or else we don’t get a seat for the show. In a way, in this kind of narrative, the narrator’s motives don’t matter. He’s a tool, a spyglass.

High literature, it’s not. It’s pulp, no pretense intended.

Last, with hope to expand on the topic in the comments: Here Lovecraft is, bringing corpses back to life again! Actually, for the first time in a big way. In the same year, 1921, the Outsider will return to a cadaverish life through some obscure process of will. In 1926 and “Cool Air,” another pair of doctors will devise a “scientific” way to reanimate the dead, minds intact but at the cost of high air conditioning bills. Alchemy and magic will do the trick in 1927’s Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The desperation of a transferred brain will get even a much decayed corpse onto a doorstep in 1933. The idea of immortality comes up in “Herbert West,” too, though it’s not emphasized. Another big topical through-thread for Lovecraft.

I’m feeling like this story, clunky in many ways, is fertile ground from which greater tales will spring. Plus those screams, damn it, those screams of the dead! And then, their silence.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Two men live in isolation, hiding activities that they find shameful but cannot resist, and which their neighbors would condemn if they knew. But get your mind out of the gutter and into the freshly turned grave. After all, this is a Lovecraft story, and two men whose intimate friendship excludes all other close relationships… well, they’re probably just summoning things man was not meant to know. I’d have to check, but I’m pretty sure that in early 20th century Massachusetts the fines for this were actually somewhat lower than those in place for more carnal interactions. (In the late 90s the latter were still on the books, and one of my hallmates kept track of what he owed. But he wasn’t prone to necromancy, so I never got the exact figures for comparison.)

Where were we? Oh, right. Joshi claims this is universally acknowledged as Lovecraft’s poorest work. It’s a weird sort of universal derision that results in numerous adaptations to film, stage, page, and graphic novel, and that makes this one of Howard’s better known pieces. It’s seriously flawed, sure, but the over-the-top visceral necrophobia makes for a compelling read anyway.

The story suffers notably from the serial format, but the biggest problem is gratuitous Degenerate-Dutch-style whinging. The Polish people that a doctor would only treat for the sake of easy access to bodies, the random bouts of phrenological pseudo-analysis, the reanimation serum that needs drastic reformulation between white people and African Americans—this sort of offensive thing is central to several stories made extremely awkward thereby, but here it just seems tacked on. “Herbert West” would have worked fine—better—without any such nonsense. But there it is. Howard was just in a mood, and wanted to talk about how awful those “foreigners” were, so he did.

Lovecraft’s letters describe this as a Frankenstein parody, and plenty of references lampshade that connection. I try to ignore this aspect of the story, because I have all the feels about Shelley’s masterpiece. I have no patience with any treatment that ignores (as this does) the monster’s initial morality and sensitivity, or Dr. Frankenstein’s lousy mothering. But I like “West,” so I don’t think of it in that context except to note that “I want to make this inhuman monstrosity OMG I made an inhuman monstrosity RUN AWAY” has noble—or at least traditional—origins.

More interesting than the Frankenstein connection, this story also roughly follows the Orpheus myth. Herbert West, beautiful genius, goes down into the underworld to retrieve… anyone he can get his hands on, but let that pass… and his failures and near-successes drive him to desperation. Eventually, this results in him getting torn apart by maenads. Or something. It gives the ending some sense, anyway. More sense than, “And then he suffered for his hubris, as must all who meddle in mortality.”

The other thing lifting this above so many don’t-meddle stories is that it is, in fact, a Mythos story. So. We know that West’s experiments needn’t be in vain. Given a little more luck, his experiments could have been successful. Like the breakthrough discovered by the old doctor in “Cool Air,” for example. Or by the necromancers of Salem and Providence. And we do, after all, keep getting throwaway lines about how Herbert West doesn’t age. I wonder if he knows perfectly well that reanimation is possible, and that’s what drives him.

And if that’s the case, what happened? Who’s responsible for his youthful good looks? Why did they do it, and why didn’t they keep him around afterwards? Much to brood over. Which may be why this story, for all that’s wrong with it, seems to stick with so many readers, myself very much included.

 

Next week, in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Return of the Sorcerer,” maybe translating the Necronomicon is not the world’s healthiest idea? Better outsource.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land and “The Deepest Rift.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. The second in the Redemption’s Heir series, Fathomless, will be published in October 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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