“Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.”
“The following is a guest post by The Midnight Mystic Mage.”
Well it has been a while since my last book review and I have had the pleasure of finishing an old classic by my favorite author, so what better time than now to continue with another? This is not a novel but more of a serialized novella, but I still think it is good choice of one to cover here for the blog.
The Re-Animator movies were probably the most famous direct adaptations of Lovecraft stories. There were three in total, I have only seen the first one and found it to be a bit too over the top for my personal tastes. It was a horror/comedy type movie and the gratuitous violence just really turned me off to it, I would still watch the other two just for the sake of giving them a shot though.
So this short story is broken up into 6 parts. Lovecraft was writing it as an ongoing saga for a magazine called Home Brew at $5 per section. It would later be published in 1942 after his passing in Weird Tales a magazine that published many of his stories. As you might be able to infer by the $5 price tag on each story, Lovecraft was not a man of extravagant means. Of course that 5 bucks adjusted for inflation is closer to 65$ but that still is not Rolls Royce money, and Lovecraft lived his entire life in relative poverty although he would write some of the most influential stories of the 20th century and still remains a driving force in weird fiction and popular culture today in the 21st.
So this pulpy tale was divided into 6 sections, the titles of which are as follows. From the Dark, The Plague-Daemon, Six Shots by Midnight, The Scream of the Dead, The Horror From the Shadows, and The Tomb Legions. I would like to first mention a few things before getting to the story. Many fans of Lovecraft’s work including one of the foremost Lovecraftian scholars, S.T. Joshi, are not fans of this story. In fact to take it a step even further than that, Lovecraft himself was not a fan of his own story in this particular instance. He was always very harsh on his own work, but this story was one of his least favorites.
I have got to disagree with all of them in this case though because I found Herbert West to be a very intriguing read. It is a bit derivative of Frankenstein but it is pretty obvious that Lovecraft included those similarities intentionally. It makes it a sort of parody but with different ideas from the original and in his own style. There is the narrator recounting the events of the experiments by letter, and of course the mad scientist whose goal is to bring life back into that which is alive no more. Another quick fun fact is that this is the first mention of Miskatonic University by Lovecraft, which I find to be one of the most interesting and mysterious fictional places in his writings.
So let’s get into the first installment which is titled From the Dark. Our narrator tells us of his meeting Herbert West at Miskatonic University. He became very taken by his ideas that life could be restored once a person died, it was all very fascinating to him and he was his friend and helper with the experimentation. He says right out of the gate though that he can not remember his old friend who has since come to a terrible end without a being overtaken with a great sense of terror.
West had an idea for a chemical compound that could be injected into the corpse after death to “Reanimate” the bodily functions. As it goes with mad scientists, he started off by trying his experiments on animals such as guinea-pigs, cats, dogs, and monkeys. Of course this was not his ultimate goal and he would realize that he needed to move on to human subjects to achieve the results that he was truly after. Once deterioration of the brain and body set it was usually too late to achieve the expected results. This means the two would have to find ways to obtain exceedingly fresh bodies for their experiments, which in and of itself leads the mind to plenty of wretched deeds that might be perpetrated.
It’s funny now that I think of it how Herbert West holds many Atheistic views and they even appear to be a driving force behind his experimentation. He believes there is no soul and that the human body is merely matter which if restarted would be completely the same as before the life left. This turns out to be a fatal character flaw for Dr. West because even his best attempts at bringing the reanimates to life end with horrid monsters almost as if there were no soul when there should be after they are brought back.
It is a strange point for Lovecraft to make, if indeed it was a point that he was trying to make, when he himself was a staunch Atheist for the majority of his life. I have heard that he was once a Pagan who built shrines in the woods to the gods of Olympus, but by this point he had already written letters proving his Atheism such as this letter written at age 28. He was already 30 when writing Herbert West so it makes for a contradictory literary statement if the point I bring up is actually one that he intended to make. Also just for fun here is a poem about the gods of Olympus written by Lovecraft since we are on the topic. Check it out. I can’t seem to find a date on the poem but it is titled To The Old Pagan Religion and it is plain to see his favoritism of the old gods over the more modern ideologies.
Holy mother of tangents, Batman! Let’s get back to the story. So it is easy to see why our narrator would be fascinated by West’s theories, and even why he would want to help with what could be a monumental discovery. In this section we find out that he even goes through the pains of finding secluded areas for them to carry out their studies, so he is without doubt an accomplice to all of the dastardly actions carried out by his associate and mastermind Herbert West. So the two find an old farmhouse that is nice and secluded. They needed to remain out of the public eye of course because their work was condemned by the medical school at Miskatonic University. The two would stalk the local obituaries and needed fresh bodies that were not embalmed, preferably without disease. Finally they made their journey to the graveyard, digging up their first fresh cadaver and bringing the poor youth’s body back to their homemade laboratory full of supplies that were pilfered from the university.
The pair are understandably wary of what behavior will be exhibited once the body is brought back to life. To their dismay the subject does not appear to react to the serum when West injects it. They leave him beside a grave that they dug in the cellar for the purpose. West hoped to mix a new solution and try a different mixture before they had to inevitably bury their failed attempt with hopes for a more successful endeavor in the future.
That however is when they heard “the most appalling and daemonic succession of cries” that either one of them had ever heard. Suddenly forgetting how badly they needed to keep things under wraps the two leaped and bounded their way the hell out of there and ran straight to town. They were able to restrain themselves enough to not cause attention in town, but the secluded house where they carried out their experiments burned to the ground. This was easily explained by a lamp they had left going, but not so easily explained were the fresh claw marks on a nearby grave in an area where they had patted the earth down very carefully.
The next section is titled The Plague-Daemon, in the beginning the narrator recounts many of the events that took place in the first section and mentions that they believed the reason the body did not return to it’s normal mental functioning was because it was not fresh enough and that a dead body must be very fresh in order to be properly reanimated and brought back to a sound mind. West had given up his researches for a short while after the terrible fright brought about in the first section, but of course that did not last for very long.
The narrator and West were doing post graduate work at the University when West smuggled a fresh corpse into the school’s lab and injected it with a dose of his newest serum. The body opened its eyes but did not show much more liveliness than that before falling back into death. The two incinerated the body and decided to never use the University for their experiments from then forward. This was all taking place during a sort of plague or epidemic where people were dying so fast the morgues were having trouble keep up. A wet dream for Herbert West I am sure, many of them were not even able to be embalmed which is just how West liked it.
The Dean of Miskatonic was a bit of a foe to Herbert, not agreeable with his studies of reanimation and strictly forbidding them as far as the school was concerned. His name was Dr. Halsey and he had become a bit of a hero in the public eye due to his determination while fighting off the typhoid plague that was overtaking the city. West’s foe passed away though, surely in no small part to all the stress that he took upon himself in combating the disease and aiding the people. The two went out to have a drink over the situation and make a night of it, when they returned home however their landlady saw that there was a third man between them. This part makes me envision the two straight out of a scene from Weekend At Bernie’s, waving off onlookers and assuring them there was nothing to see there just a few too many drinks is all. This turned out to not be the last the landlady would be seeing of the guys for that night as she was aroused by loud noises from West’s room. After having to break down the door, they found the two unconscious on the blood stained carpet, both very beat up and with nothing to show from who had done it besides an open window and the smashed up bottles from West’s lab.
The same night as the strange series of aforementioned events there was a watchman of the cemetery who was brutally murdered in what almost seemed to be an attack by a beast. There were no animals on the loose that could be accounted for however and the reports made note of a trail of blood leading to a crypt and then out to the woods before dying off. A search party was formed to find the one responsible for the vile acts, though it was not any more comforting to the people of the town once they finally had obtained the one they were in search of. They were able to take him alive and though he was very much a monster of a man, he bore a striking resemblance to the late great town hero, Dr. Halsey. He was admitted to Sefton Asylum where he exhibited very strange behavior such as slamming his head against the wall, West realizing the body was just not quite fresh enough.
The next section I will be summarizing, and the third thus far, is titled Six Shots by Midnight. The two again find a very secluded house after obtaining their degrees from Miskatonic University and becoming general practitioners. They built a laboratory in the cellar for their experimentation and found that the day to day business of the practice became a hassle for them as they wanted to focus their attention on the task of Reanimation that they have so fervently been chasing.
It is around this point that West becomes paranoid. He feels that he is being followed and this is a feeling that he wasn’t able to shake. You know what they say though, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. More on that in a bit though. The duo secured three bodies for their experiments but they all turned out to be failures, one not even showing any signs of life. They find another specimen when there is a fight between two workers at the mill and one of them obviously loses pretty definitively. This too appears to be a failed case as they bury the body and cover all traces of their work.
There is a family locally that loses their child, a boy of 5, and the mother is not able to take the stress and worry. She passes away from a weak heart and the father wants to kill West for not saving her life. The police being in search of the mill worker and the angry father did not help West with his state of paranoia in the least. The narrator is also very worried and having trouble sleeping when West comes barging in with a revolver and a flashlight. There is apparently a banging at the door late at night and the two are aware that there is no pleasant guest that could be awaiting their answer. They make their way out a different door and then West empties all six shots of the revolver into the visitor. The visitor is none other than the mill worker whose body they had buried after what they believed to be a failed attempt at reanimation.
Section four is titled The Scream of the Dead and in it we find the narrator returning from a long visit to his parents to hear West claiming that he has solved the problem of freshness which had been such a problem for them in their quest. He had an embalming compound that he hoped would artificially preserve bodies to allow them time to do their thing and get to Reanimating. West has a body in the cellar that has been given the compound and the way that he came about getting it was perhaps the luckiest and most unlikely way of all.
The man was a traveler who had gotten off the train and walked for a long way to find the factories, when he stopped at their home to ask for some directions he simply dropped dead, right there on the spot. He had nobody who knew him in town, no family back home that was waiting on him, he was the perfect cadaver, delivered under the most perfect circumstances imaginable. The attempt to bring life back into the body is a success but he screams at the two in terror, calling West a fiend and begging him to keep the needle away from him.
Section five, and the second to last section that Lovecraft wrote for the magazine is titled The Horror from the Shadows. This is the section where Herbert West decides that the best place for him to continue his studies is by joining the Great War as a surgeon. The narrator enlists as well so that he may continue to assist West with his experimentation. Obviously he decides this because of the abundant supply of fresh bodies that the war will most definitely provide him. It is in this section that our narrator finally begins to see a change in West that he does not like in the least. He does not appear to be following his life’s work of Reanimation for the usual scientific purposes that did usually drive him. He begins to see a type of bloodlust or addiction to the morbid practices that he carries out that are not as understandable as his former fascinations.
West began to experiment on the detached parts of bodies, attempting to gain functionality in bodies with no brains, and carried out strange experiments with the flesh of both animal and man. There would be shots fired off inside his hospital rooms where he was working, and West began using the tissue of reptiles to try and better preserve and gain functionality in the severed limbs amongst other things.
West came about a specimen who was a named Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee D.S.O. (That’s a mouthful), and who had actually studied secretly under West in Reanimation and was a surgeon himself. His body was in horrible shape for he had fallen from the sky after being shot down in his plane, but West put his head into the reptile tissue which was to help preserve it for later experimentation, and began his tests on the body of his fallen friend. The body sprang to life and they heard a voice calling out as if still experiencing the fall that brought about his demise.
Now for the final section which is titled, The Tomb-Legions. It starts with West’s accomplice relaying that West had disappeared a year ago now and that if he had tried to give the police the real story about his disappearance, they would simply have not believed him. West had become fully immoral towards the end of it all, and actually murdered one of the bodies he obtained with some type of chemical compound that he injected. The narrator also began to feel very wary of the way that West looked at him, almost as if he saw him as another possible specimen. The last house that West owned was an old colonial-style house overlooking a graveyard, not this time because he needed the specimens for these ones were all far too old, rather because he had come to like that type of macabre setting and found it to be a suitable environment.
At Sefton Asylum there was a very strange event that unfolded. A military figure had come with a group of silent cronies and appeared to be talking as a ventriloquist with his voice coming from a black case that he carried. Of course the man’s face turned out to be made of wax which was revealed when the hall light fell on it and caused it to melt. They demanded and then forced the release of the cannibalistic monster who had once been Dr. Halsey.
Not surprisingly West and his accomplice soon after receive a surprise telegram from a strange group of people. There was a box that they handed West sent from Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee. The two quickly incinerated the box but were not relieved for directly after the plaster began to give way in the cellar. The army of Reanimates lead by the fallen surgeon who was West’s lone success if you could call it that, were removing the stones from the wall one by one. They tore West to pieces before the eyes of our narrator, and left him behind for a lifetime of questioning his own sanity and wondering if what he saw could be what had truly happened. They took the fragments of West back into the crypt of the cellar wall with them and he would never be seen again though police and investigators could find no trace of anything suspicious that might have happened.
The 8-Bit Review
There were parts that were genuinely creepy such as West turning into a bloodthirsty mad man later into the story. A part that really stuck out for me was when he began to look at his dedicated and longtime friend and assistant as if he wanted to use him for one of his psychotic experiments. He seems almost like a scientist straight out of a Nazi death camp or Unit 731 in Japan. It just seems like an unnatural trait to be so comfortable with death and to even seek it out after experiencing such horrors as they do even early on in the story. Sure there are plenty of people who are desensitized to death that are not monsters like West’s character, but there is just something off about him and everything that he does and wants to do through his experimentation and research. That being said the story isn’t without it’s silly parts but I think that is just part of it being a serialized pulp type story for a magazine. Definitely out of character for Lovecraft, but I really enjoyed even those parts.
I believe my score would be higher if I read the story in a series of magazines as it was meant to be read. As it is it tends to be very repetitive in nature. Lovecraft has to rehash everything that happened previously in the beginning of each section and seems to hit on many of the same points. I felt like I read Herbert West saying he needed the bodies to be more fresh a few too many times and it was a bit of an annoyance to have things explained to you that you just read as if it was something that you had never heard. Like I said though basically all of this can be explained away because of the way that the story was released.
It is a parody/re-telling/re-imagining of Frankenstein in many ways. The character of Herbert West is more of a mad scientist as we know the character to be today than Dr. Frankenstein himself. There are many wonderful blogs and debates about these two stories comparatively on the interwebs if interested just search the two and see, there is plenty of great reading on the topic. I feel that Lovecraft had some very well-developed characters with West and the Narrator, and did a wonderful job looping things back around to be worked into the story as things wore on and West became more and more immoral with his work. He telegraphs things that are going to happen and then explains them as if we the audience would have no idea of the conclusion, but that is just one of Lovecraft’s writing quirks that people either love or hate, and there are many more quirks with his writing that can be polarizing to be sure.
West becomes a monster as the story progresses, and just as in the story that inspired this one there are many conclusions and inferences to be drawn from the tale that is portrayed. He begins with a purely scientific interest in the process of Reanimation which for him makes perfect sense. He is a medical student first of all, and who would not be interested in finding a way to bring life back to that which is alive no more whether they were in med school or not? He slowly loses sight of the main goal though and becomes very deranged with his studies, losing all sensitivity towards human life.
For me a huge cautionary theme that could be drawn from this are towards the many terrible cases of human experiments. The Holmesburg Prison Skin Experiments where Dr. Albert Kligman saw his “Acres of Skin”, of course the previously mentioned Unit 731 and Nazi experiments, and if you start digging down that rabbit hole there are just countless other atrocities like them.
There is internal conflict with our narrator about West’s experiments and growing callousness, the conflict of paranoia that is building inside of both our main characters, and the rising tension of the revenge that is finally taken by the monsters that West has inadvertently created through his testing and experimenting. There is definitely plenty of conflict and cliffhangers from section to section that likely lend themselves to the format in which it was written to keep readers picking up that next issue.
Page Turner: 9/10
This was probably the most addicted I have gotten to a Lovecraft story so far, again due in large part to the way that it was written in installments. I still prefer other stories by him over this one such as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Call of Cthulhu, or At The Mountains of Madness. This story has a particular quality to it though that had me itching to read the next section or find out what was about to happen next.
Herbert West draws much from the influence of Frankenstein as I have previously mentioned, but it is not at all the exact same story and Lovecraft tells it with his own unique voice. While Frankenstein focuses more on creating a monster and not wanting to take responsibility for your own actions as far as I understand it, Reanimator focuses on becoming lost in a scientific fascination and becoming the monster while your actions inevitably come back to bring you to your demise. One might be easier to relate to than the other but I believe it is because West is focusing on a more large scale issue rather than personal. There are many other lessons to be drawn from the story but I am speaking of the main one that I came away with.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
It has definitely become a favorite Lovecraftian tale of mine and I have really enjoyed taking an in depth look after finishing it. I will attach the link to the story on HPLovecraft.com beneath in case any of you decide you would like to check out the whole thing in its entirety or think you might be interested in finding a different Lovecraft story that you might be into. He is an incredibly influential author and once you start to look for his fingerprints in modern movies and games you might be quite surprised how far reaching his influence really is.
All of his writings are in the public domain so you can easily find any story of his that you might have wanted to check out that you have heard about to read for free. I would recommend anyone to at least give it a look though his style does not please all. Speaking of giving looks, thank all of you for giving me a look and hopefully I will be able to get back to my usual self after the long hours and grueling Texas heat of summer but I am glad to at least get one review in for the month of August which has been a tough one. There is actually a tornado warning right now for my area due to Tropical Storm/Hurricane Harvey so hopefully The Great Old Ones and Cthulhu will be merciful towards us this week as the storm continues on. Thanks again everybody!
Aggregated Score: 7.6
The Midnight Mystic Mage is the resident writer of sublimereviews.wordpress.com, a reviewer of games, books, and film, and a fan of all things horror and spooky. Follow the link… if you dare!
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