Wednesday, October 29, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator

Cody leafs through the short story that spawned a franchise.

Largely ignored during this brief career as a writer, H.P. Lovecraft has gone on to become one of the most highly revered authors in the horror genre over the seventy-seven years since his death. His works have inspired the likes of Stephen King and been the basis for over one hundred films, although sometimes his name has been slapped on movies purely for marketing purposes.

Perhaps the most famous cinematic adaptation of Lovecraft's work to date is Stuart Gordon's 1985 film Re-Animator, based on the serialized story Herbert West - Reanimator, which was first published in 1922, divided into six parts that appeared in the pages of Home Brew magazine over six months. For each chapter, Lovecraft was paid $5.

Herbert West - Reanimator is basically a take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with the story told from the perspective of the faithful assistant to a mad doctor, who sticks by his friend's side no matter how terrifying and twisted the situation becomes.

The narrator tells the story from the year 1922, a year after Herbert West himself disappeared. The storyteller had been close companions with West since they first met while studying together at Miskatonic University Medical School more than seventeen years before. During their school days, West proved to be obsessed with death and in particular the idea that it could somehow be overcome with "calculated chemical action". Mixing up solutions and elixirs, West began experimenting on the corpses of animals, trying to bring them back from the dead... and sometimes seeing signs of success in his experiments, although never to a satisfactory degree. Eventually, he decided that he had to focus his experiments not on beasts, but on human subjects.

The six chapters of Herbert West - Reanimator present some of the most notable and shockingly horrific events that occurred during West's seventeen years of experimentation. The struggle of finding corpses that are adequately fresh, the lengths to which he'll go to in order to have as many dead bodies at his disposal as possible - even joining the military to serve in World War I simply so he can use the mortally wounded for his own agenda. The appalling results of his endeavors.

West is able to reanimate several dead people in the story, but at no point does it ever appear that his subjects will be able to rise and go on to live as they did before. Rather, the dead rise as violent, murderous, cannibalistic creatures, on a couple different occasions rampaging through town and racking up a body count. And yet this never slows West down in his pursuits. As time goes on he even becomes less interested in bringing a person back intact, instead trying to reanimate separated body parts.

But a man can only dabble in such horrible, dark, illegal hobbies for so long before it catches up with him in some way. And it does. As the narrator tells us in the second sentence of the story, Herbert West disappeared...

After years of hearing the Lovecraft hype and watching movies inspired his works, my recent reading of Herbert West - Reanimator was the first time I have ever actually sat down and read one of his stories. When someone or something has gotten as much praise as Lovecraft has in recent decades, it's hard to bring anything new to the table when discussing them, but I have to say that, despite the fact that Herbert West is apparently regarded as one of his weakest stories, I was rather impressed by it.

I was especially struck by Lovecraft's choice of words. I might find his prose maddening (which would be fitting for Lovecraft) if I tried to consume an entire novel of it, but for such a short story as Herbert West I enjoyed it. Lovecraft was clearly a very intelligent man, and from his words and descriptions it wouldn't be surprising if he were a bit unbalanced, too. He comes off as someone who sees the world in a different way than the rest of us.

He has a way of describing things in such a manner that truly speaks to the genre the story is in and brings to mind some wonderful imagery, my favorite line being one in which he writes that "terror brooded with bat-wings".

Unfortunately, Lovecraft was also a known racist, a fact which rears its head in one of the middle chapters. There is a clear sign of of-the-time (and perhaps deeper) ignorance that may be found offensive.

As a fan of the Re-Animator films, I enjoyed picking up on the elements that made it into the movies. Re-Animator wasn't a by-the-letter adaptation and the screenwriters had to greatly expand on the premise and scenarios to get a feature film out of them, but its plain to see what parts had direct influence on the films and were worked into both Re-Animator and its first sequel, Bride of Re-Animator.

Herbert West - Reanimator isn't a great work, but it's one worth giving a quick read, particularly given the impact it has had on horror fandom.

Originally published on Yahoo Voices.

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