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Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; Herbert West – Reanimator

celebrating the campy horror of Herbert West – Reaminator

It is uncommon to fire all six shots of a revolver with great suddenness when one would probably be sufficient, but many things in the life of Herbert West were uncommon.”

Welcome back for another Blind Read! We’re tackling Reanimator this week and yowza, there is a heck of a lot going on here in a story that is absolutely not a typical Lovecraftian story.

Lovecraft was commissioned to write an episodic tale, in which each segment was published subsequently in each issue of the magazine. I have to admit, that after reading the story I did a tiny bit of research into the story, because of how… well… unlike his other stories it was and found that Lovecraft himself called the process of writing for the magazine “manifestly inartistic” because of how the magazine editor wanted it structured. You can feel Lovecraft’s disdain as he writes the story and the further you get into it, there is an aspect of camp that can absolutely be considered Lovecraft’s subtle dig at how much he hated the project. Ironically that bit of camp invigorated film makers from (obviously) Stuart Gordon to Sam Raimi.

But we’ll get to all that soon. Let’s dive in, shall we?

We start the story with a very strange statement which sets up the unreliable narrator right off the bat: “Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”

Excuse me, what?

He was your friend in college and… in after life? Is the narrator trying to say that they are friends still after death, or does he just mean that they were friends after college? This is a strange statement because immediately after it we find that West disappears in a “sinister manner.” Lovecraft isn’t one to mince words like this… he tends to be vague, but very precise. So what is our narrator telling us here? Well we wont get the answer to that until the very last sentence of the story.

The narrator states that he can only speak of West in terror because of the “wonder and diabolism of his experiments…” and instantly we understand that West was enamored by the dual nature of life and death. West believes that there could be developed, a method to delay death, or “overcome it artificially” by a “calculated chemical reaction.

West immersed himself in these experiments during college using his home brew formulas on animals with varying levels of success, but “since the same solution never worked alike on different organic species, he would require human subjects for further and more specialised progress.”

Ridiculed by Miskatonic University staff and students, he is soon told that he cannot continue this line of study by their dean, “the learned and benevolent Dr. Allen Halsey.”

While the narrator describes this rejection from the Dean, we get our first philosophical rumination. “Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called ‘soul’ is a myth...” (We’ll talk more about Haeckel later) Relying on this thesis West looks for fresh human bodies in an effort to re-animate them. He knows that if the flesh deteriorates too much then the process wont work, so the two men (narrator and West) “followed the local death-notices like ghouls...” and moved out to a farm house for its remoteness. The idea being that they can grave rob and bring the bodies to the house without being seen.

It takes a while, but they finally procure a body with enough freshness so they try the formula. They wait far longer than they think they should and nothing happens. Disappointed, they move into the next room and continue to work, while “…from the pitch black room we had left there burst the most appalling and daemonic succession of cries that either of us had ever heard.”

The two men are so terrified by the ululations and the crashes of destruction coming from that room that they tear from the place and head home, only to hear the next day that the house burned down with nary a glimpse of their reanimated corpse.

And this is all in the first chapter.

There are one or two exceptions, but this first chapter reads like a standard Lovecraftian story. The descriptions, the prose, the tone, it could basically be all out of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but then we move into the second chapter and find the story stalls.

From the first sentence we understand a plague of typhoid has devastated the town, and we rehash the theory behind the freshness of the bodies. We hear again from Dr. Halsey, who tells West in no uncertain terms that he must stop his research.

Then the story devolves for a page or so. From the perspective of the narrator we get into a rant about religion and ethics. He calls the “professor-doctor” type “the product of generations of puritanism...” and “whose worst real vice is timidity” with “…sins like Ptolemaism, Calvinism, anti-Darwinism, anti-Nietzscheism, and every sort of Sabbatarianism and sumptuary legislation.”

The narrator is railing against morals with an almost Ayn Rand fanaticism. You remember the scientist which we mentioned earlier? Haeckel? Without a doubt a brilliant man who created our classifications for families of living creatures (phylum, kingdom, etc,), BUT was a proponent of scientific racism and eugenics. Yeah, you heard that right. The man the narrator (and probably Lovecraft) is lauding as a genius, believes that there are scientific reasons why some races and creeds are better than others and that we should use eugenics to resolve the problem. You want to know who else got his main ideas from this man? Adolph Hitler. Also a German fanatic who was coming into power as this was being written. One has to wonder if the magazine Lovecraft was writing for had “specific leanings” and that’s why these elements are in this story and so prevalent (seriously, like the whole story), as opposed to his other stories. I wont mention it beyond this but there are some horribly racist things stated in the next chapter, worse than anything I’ve read in Lovecraft so far. Suffice it to say that there are some really interesting things in this story with plotting and style (and perhaps, just maybe, Lovecraft was using this hate as a device, but we’ll see that later), but if these themes are triggers IN ANY WAY, never read this story. It’s not even in the top 50% of Lovecraft anyway, and if it weren’t for the 1985 movie, I don’t think this story would have any historical longevity.

Whew! Sorry, had to leave that disclaimer. Anyway…

There’s a wake at the end of this chapter for Dr. Halsey (he died of typhoid) and West and the narrator tie one on, “making a night of it” and are seen later, after midnight, walking home with a third man in their arms. There’s a kerfluffel in West’s boarding room that night and when the landlord comes to investigate, they find West and the narrator bloodied and the window broken.

There’s a trail of blood and “remnants of bodies left behind...” There is even evidence of these bodies being chewed on. The police follow the trail until they find the fiend, who bears a startling resemblance to Dr. Halsey. The beast is captured and put into Arkham Asylum and the two heroes take a breath of relief as the chapter ends. But before it does, we get the first evidence of camp that will carry through to the 1985 movie.

Stuart Gordon’s 1985 campy masterpiece.

To conclude the chapter West says: “Damn it, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!” Queue slight chuckle and eye roll.

The third chapter begins with the quote from the start of this essay and we spend over half of this chapter re-hashing the previous two. Then West and the narrator, because they are doctors, are asked to oversee an illegal boxing match. One of the pugilists is knocked unconscious and West declares him dead. They take the man and inject him with the formula, hoping that he is recently dead enough for it to work, but the man comes back as a monster, raging at them, and West puts it down with his revolver.

The next chapter is interesting if only because the prose is so simplistic as opposed to the majority of Lovecraft, and the plot so kooky, that it really feels as though Lovecraft is mentally done with the project, as if the only reason he is continuing it is for the money.

Three quarters of the chapter re-hashes the previous ones, until a travelling salesman comes around and “suddenly dies” on West’s porch. West uses the formula on him and when the man re-animates. We understand that West killed him because of his statement when he revives: “Help! Keep off, you cursed little tow-head fiend – keep that damned needle away from me!”

Then suddenly because WWI is going on, West decides he needs to go to the battle front to get fresh body parts to see if he can reanimate them. Some of the most atmospheric writing comes here and there is a bit more waxing poetic on the idea of the soul versus the mechanics of the body, but there isn’t much more to go on. The reader can feel Lovecraft’s disdain for the project bleeding through the text.

Then finally we get the last chapter where we get more re-hashing and a Halloween haunted house moment where one of the reanimated creatures is wearing a wax mask (check the very last quote in this essay). This triggers a campy moment where all the creatures West has reanimated come back and break through a plaster wall. The creatures are apparently angry at West for reanimating them so they “tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.”

Servants find the narrator unconscious the next morning with West gone and an “unbroken plaster wall.” The servants state he was either mad or a murderer, and we get the last line which brings it all together: “But I might not be mad if those accursed tomb-legions had not been so silent.”

I sat for quite some time after reading this last line. He might not be mad if they had not been so silent. Meaning that he was mad as a hatter the entire time, and everything that we’ve experienced through his eyes were the ramblings of a potentially very dangerous madman. The perspectives on race, religion, science versus the soul, and all that malarkey that we spiraled into, was really just a madman capable of murder and probably much worse. Lovecraft is saying “nope, that was all from a crazy person, so you shouldn’t actually believe any of it.”

Don’t believe me? Lovecraft left us clues.

Remember the first line we talked about earlier? About how the narrator knows West “After Life?” The narrator tells us all along that West is the one reanimating everyone. West is the one killing people. But if the narrator knows West “after life,” then that means that he has killed West and reanimated him, making the narrator the real monster here, not West. In fact because of the unreliable narrator form, the entire story is subject to speculation, because it was probably the narrator who had been doing all the killing and reanimating all along.

We also know that from the very beginning the that West is missing. But in the last paragraph the narrator tells us that West was torn limb from limb. Throughout the story there are contradictions like this. For example: The narrator is a doctor but he doesn’t understand that Jewish, black, and white people (the only examples he gave) have the same internal organs.

There is also the fact that when they went to war and got to see the battle fields, the narrator, as a doctor felt that “Some of these things made me faint, others have convulsed me with devastating nausea, while others have made me tremble...” Really. You’re a field doctor who has killed creatures you brought back to life, done autopsies, looked at desiccated and chewed on corpses without a second thought… but a battlefield makes you faint. I at first thought this was a failing of the writing, but now because of other evidence I think it was a stylistic, unreliable narrator choice.

Throughout the story the narrator lovingly says that West, is “…a calm, blonde, blue-eyed scientific automaton...”, like, multiple times (I think I counted four times). In this exact same way. Yet we have a character call West a toe-head, a slang debasement for a blonde white person. It was odd at first that there would be a slang word against a white person in this story given the hate speech toward others, but what I realized is that the hate speech all came from the narrator, and the other characters in the story (Dr. Halsey, this salesman for example) didn’t hold these same views and railed against what the narrator thought. Those horrible racist, classist, and bigamous statements were from the perspective was an extremist insane psychotic.

The largest evidence of this? This story is too campy, too simplistic, too direct to be a serious Lovecraft story. I’ve spent the better part of two years reading and analyzing his work and I’ve not come across anything like this story. This was a very specific idea that was written for a very specific audience and he got paid $5 a chapter to do it. I get the feeling that he was asked to make it this direct, so the subversion of expectations was his way of sticking his middle finger to the proprietor and the audience.

Join me and read along as we cover “Pickman’s Model” next week!

Postscript:

I’ve stated that the prose in this story is much more simple than most Lovecraft (admittedly making it more accessible to a larger audience), but there were a few moments of brilliance here and there. My favorite examples are as follows:

A touch of colour came to cheeks hitherto chalk-white, and spread out under the curiously ample stubble of sandy beard. West, who had his hand on the pulse of the left wrist, suddenly nodded significantly; and almost simultaneously a mist appeared on the mirror inclined above the body’s mouth.

In a dark corner of the laboratory, over a queer incubating burner, he kept a large covered vat full of this reptilian cell-matter; which multiplied and grew puffily and hideously.”

I can still see Herbert West under the sinister electric light as he injected his reanimating solution into the arm of the headless body.”

His expressionless face was handsome to the point of radiant beauty, but had shocked the superintendent when the hall light fell on it – for it was a wax face with eyes of painted glass.”

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