Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lovecraft 101 - Herbert West Reanimator (Part 1)

Herbert West – Reanimator
Okay, we have been at this project for a while now (coming up on 2 years), and we have had to read a lot of bad stories. I am sorry. We have had some gems, though, so it hasn't been all bad, but we are slowly getting closer to the best known of HPL's work. And this week we take on a very well known story. It is the introduction of Lovecraft's character Herbert West, who was made famous in the cheesy schlock film Reanimator in the 80s (a person fan fave of mine!)
This is among the first of Lovecraft's larger works, and was published in Home Brew magazine as a six-part serial.  And so, to get the most out of this tale, I will be dividing it up into parts so we can dive into a bit deeper.
Part 1
Our story takes place in the town of Arkham, most infamous of Lovecraft's fictional towns, at the Miskatonic University. This place is hidden within old New England in the rural Miskatonic Valley, first mentioned in A Picture in the House. The serial tells of the unholy medical exploits of two men as they leave the University and start their practice. The narrator works closely with a man on the brink of madness as he tries to understand the medical principal that stops the dead from returning to life. That's right, Lovecraft is writing a zombie story, but far predating anything you would expect, and feeling more like Shelley than Romero.
Lovecraft was rather unhappy with this work, not for the humorous tone, which he probably actually enjoyed, but more for the requirements of serialized fiction. Each part had to end with a cliffhanger to draw readers back, and each subsequent installment had to have a recap of those before it, to keep from excluding new readers. Lovecraft was always more of a one off sort of writer. It is often said that this is universally seen as his poorest work, and perhaps his heart was only in it for the 5 dollars per segment, but because of the subject and later adaptations, this has become one of Lovecraft's most famous works.
In part one of our story, titled "From the Dark", we meet our two main characters, the narrator and Herbert West, who were friends and colleagues in school. The narrator explains that he was fascinated with West's theories that the body was merely a biological machine, and therefore, upon death, could just be restarted. This segment then goes into detail about their first attempts to "restart" the dead.
After being thrown out of the labs of the University, they seek a place to do their dark science, in an old farmhouse. Seeking the freshest of bodies for their experiments, the duo turn from scientists to grave robbers raiding the local cemeteries. With each failed attempt to raise the dead, the unstoppable West hunts for fresher and fresher corpses. All hell breaks loose when he finally gets it.

In part two, "The Plague-Daemon", about a year has gone by since the events of part one. Herbert West has been on the run, keeping an eye over his shoulder for the horrible creations he has left behind. West returns to the University where he is still barred by the dean from experimenting on human cadavers. His experiments halted, the duo are without work until a plague of typhus breaks out and the two are called into service as doctors to aid the dead and dying. Suddenly, West goes from having no bodies, to being surrounded by piles of fresh victims.
West has no real luck with these new experiments, until his rival, the dean, drops dead from the disease. West and the narrator steal the body and take it to the boarding house where West is staying. There, they are successful in reanimating the body, but with dire consequences to both them and the town. This is perhaps the first noted literary instance of a cannibal zombie, something that has become so common in pop culture these days, you can't seem to go a few months without a new zombie film coming out.
In part three, "Six Shots by Moonlight", we finally see our protagonists as licensed doctors. They have gone into practice together, conveniently near a cemetery to continue their late night experiments. West is still determined to find full success in reanimation, and the narrator still hopes to see the reanimation of the mind, in hopes of asking the undead questions about the here-after. After some minor success with accident victims, the duo's luck turns around when they encounter a back alley racist convention...err I mean street fight. Okay, here once again, Lovecraft does not shine. He has rather deplorable things to say about the black, Irish, and Italian attendees of this illegal brawl, but we have discussed this part of Lovecraft ad nauseam. A boxer is killed in the fight and West takes the body for his experiments, perhaps the freshest of his victims yet. When the boxer is successfully reanimated, it goes on a voracious killing spree through the town eventually returning to the site of its reincarnation.
I still have no idea how this stuff was published in an amateur humor magazine. There are some humorous moments throughout the stories, especially the odd way in which West mutters that each horrible event is due to the bodies not being fresh enough!

Tune in next week for the remaining three installments and the continuation of my look at Herbert West Reanimator. And if you want to check out the full text, you can do so here: HPL's HerbertWest Reanimator.

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