Thursday, February 28, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "Herbert West -- Reanimator"

Spooky Synopsis: Herbert West wasn't your ordinary physician. Possessed of a brilliant intellect and ambition as strong as steel, he didn't want to merely understand the mysteries of the human body. He thought he comprehended its nature well enough. To him, man was nothing more than animated meat and the mind simply the action of chemicals in motion. No, what West wanted to grasp was the fundamental principles of such matter. Put more plainly, he wanted to raise the dead. He would administer a range of experimental substances to the recently departed over the years, and be rewarded with a twitch here, a fluttering eyelid there, and finally a vicious skeleton dance as the dead surged up in mindless violence. Yet the dead never regained the faculties of mind they possessed while living. This led West to even more feverish experimentations as he sought to secure fresher and fresher bodies, despite the fact that his experiments populated the world with idiotic travesties of nature that feasted on human flesh -- travesties that would eventually seek the destruction of their maker.

Lovecraftian Language: "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. It is, for instance, not often that a young physician leaving college is obliged to conceal the principles which guide his selection of a home and office, yet that was the case with Herbert West. When he and I obtained our degrees at the medical school of Miskatonic University, and sought to relieve our poverty by setting up as general practitioners, we took great care not to say that we chose our house because it was fairly well isolated, and as near as possible to the potter's field."

Eerie Evaluation: "Herbert West -- Reanimator" reads a bit like a bachelor's secret stew recipe: "Throw everything into the pot, crank up the heat, and keep stirring." Mad scientists. Zombies. Resurrection men. Killer plagues. Wartime savagery. It's all there, and it works very, very well -- most of the time. Lovecraft serialized the story in six parts, necessitating a plot synopsis at the beginning of each and every section, which quickly grows tiring. Also, he apparently felt it necessary to not only praise philosophical materialism, but to insert not-so-subtle jabs at organized religion. Worse, though, is when his latent racism bubbles up as West tries to revive a felled black boxer:
"He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life -- but the world holds many ugly things."
I feel uncomfortable even reproducing those two sentences, and it's a shame that Lovecraft felt the need to include them, because the rest of the tale truly chills. West's hubris leads him to commit horrible crimes. His cannibalistic creations might have some excuse for their abominations, yet he has nothing to blame but his own pride. The ending comes like a quiet apocalypse, wrath falling in silence worse than any scream. Unlike "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family," Lovecraft's prejudice here merely mars the action rather defining it. But it still was enough to knock "Herbert West -- Reanimator" off of the five-shoggoth pedestal it would've otherwise occupied.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):


To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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