If there was a story that Lovecraft fans were eager to see on the big screen, Herbert West – Reanimator was not it. Published as a serial in the early 1920s in what Lovecraft considered a ‘vile rag,’ the tale of a crazed-yet-brilliant doctor’s attempts to resurrect the dead has long been dismissed by critics as being among his poorest work. Indeed, Lovecraft himself despised the process of being made to ‘write to order’ and felt it was nothing more than ‘hack work.’
Yet its cinematic potential was undeniable, containing all the necessary elements for an effective horror movie: the mad scientist playing God, his reluctant assistant documenting the carnage and the eventual retribution of his discarded experiments. Yet it would take over sixty years before cinemagoers were first introduced to the demented world of Herbert West.
Lovecraft had resumed fiction writing in 1917, having turned his attention to amateur journalism through his association with the UAPA. During his time as a journalist he had made several close friends, one of whom was George Julian Houtain. Having served as the fiftieth President of the National Amateur Press Association, Houtain also held several other titles during this time, including Recording Secretary, Official Editor and Executive Judge.
But soon his thoughts turned to publishing and, joining forces with his wife, writer E. Dorothy MacLaughlin, set about launching a humour magazine called Home Brew. Turning to many of his associates, Houtain assembled a selection of offbeat articles from the likes of James F. Morton, a fellow former President of the NAPA. With the magazine claiming to have a ‘sparkling effervescing stimulant of wit and humour,’ it would seem unusual that he would approach Lovecraft about writing a series of short horror stories to be published over six consecutive issues.
‘You can’t make them too morbid,’ Houtain advised his friend, while also requesting that the stories be unrestrained. The six tales had to feature the same protagonists and relate to each other in some way, although each one could tell its own isolated story, providing it began with a summary of the previous episode and concluded with some kind of shock. Lovecraft was not used to being told how to write and found the experience frustrating, but Houtain promised to pay $5 per story, or $30 in total, and as he had never been paid for his fiction before the offer was too tempting to resist.
In a letter to his close friend Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft complained: ‘This is manifestly unartistic. To write to order, and to drag one figure through a series of artificial episodes, involves the violation of all that spontaneity and singleness of impression which should characterise short story work. It reduces the unhappy author from art to the commonplace level of mechanical and unimaginative hack-work. Nevertheless, when one needs the money one is not scrupulous.’
Lovecraft commenced writing what would eventually become Herbert West – Reanimator in October 1921, although at the time Houtain insisted that they be published as Grewsome Tales. Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, they were written from the first-person perspective, in this case an unnamed narrator who assists West in his diabolical experiments. It is through his eyes that the events unfold, first as students at the fictitious Miskatonic University and later as general practitioners, where they continued their meddling with the dead.
This would mark the introduction of Miskatonic University, although the Miskatonic Valley had previously been referenced in his 1920 story The Picture in the House, as had the town of Arkham. Situated in Massachusetts, Arkham would become a recurring location in the Lovecraft universe, where subsequent stories such as The Unnamable, The Dunwich Horror and The Dreams in the Witch House were also set.
Much has been made over the years regarding the similarities between Herbert West – Reanimator and Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published a century earlier when the author was only twenty-one. Both are told as recollections: with Shelley’s story it was Victor Frankenstein describing his tragic tale to an explorer who rescues him from near-death, while in Herbert West – Reanimator it was West’s unidentified assistant. Yet there are significant differences between the two: West is trying to bring the dead back to life, whereas Frankenstein wants to create new life by piecing together parts from several different bodies.
In his book A Subtler Magick: The Writings and Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi comments how West’s attempts to ‘reanimate the dead seem superficially derived from a venerable literary ancestor, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but in fact West’s actual procedure in reanimation (revivification of entire bodies) is very different from that of Victor Frankenstein, who has assembled a composite body from disparate human fragments.’
Even before Lovecraft had completed the writing of the six stories, Houtain published the first in the debut issue of Home Brew, which surfaced in February 1922. From the Dark opened with the narrator looking back on his seventeen-year partnership with Herbert West, as well as the mystery surrounding his recent disappearance. The tale begins while they were still medical students at Miskatonic University, where West’s obsession with resurrecting the dead had resulted in a series of unsuccessful experiments on various animals, ranging from dogs to monkeys.
Each subject, they had discovered, would be revived only to display violent behaviour. Frustrated by his lack of progress, West eventually decided that if they were to succeed they would need to progress to human specimens. But West’s unorthodox beliefs had caused him to not only suffer the scrutiny of his fellow students but also the dean of the university, Dr. Allan Halsey.
To West, the human body is a machine and death was purely the system failing to work properly. Thus, with the right kind of trigger, or ‘reagent,’ as the narrator states, the machine can be restarted. But all of this was hypothetical until West and his assistant could obtain suitable specimens with which to inject their serum into. West, a man of science, had little interest in the notion of the soul and believed that if the body was fresh enough then reanimation should be possible.
Yet each time they successfully revived one of their subjects there were always side effects: the person that they once were was now replaced by some kind of rabid animal, forcing West to destroy the specimen and start over again. But when they began to arouse suspicion from the faculty, they abandoned their visits to the morgue and instead searched elsewhere for recently deceased bodies.
One such place would be a nearby potter’s field, where the poor, the homeless and the unidentified would be buried. With no known relatives and no one to tend to their graves, West was able to exhume bodies from the makeshift cemetery without being discovered. The corpses would then be taken back to a deserted farmhouse where West and his accomplice would inject and then observe the results, without fear of being discovered or overheard by prying neighbours or the local authorities.
Although they had decided to conduct their experiments away from the university, necessity would force them to steal laboratory equipment from the campus, as well as making use of the incinerator to dispose of the bodies after use. The biggest challenge that the pair faced, other than being discovered, was locating specimens that were recently deceased and thus free of decomposition.
Venturing out to the burial ground in the middle of the night, West and his accomplice dig up the body of a workman who had died earlier that day and take his remains back to a secluded farmhouse, where they inject him with West’s reagent. For the next forty-five minutes they watched and waited, looking for some sign of life from the cadaver laid out before them. Declaring the experiment a failure, West returned to his serum to modify the dose before attempting once again, but while they sat in their laboratory mixing the solution an inhuman noise came from the other room.
Realising that their subject had returned to life, they escaped through the window, knocking over a lamp in the process. Making their way into town, they take refuge in West’s room at a local boarding house, later discovering that the fire had destroyed the farmhouse, although the fate of the reanimated corpse remained a mystery.
The second instalment, The Plague-Daemon, was published in Home Brew the following month. While Lovecraft seemed dismissive about the serial, Herbert West – Reanimator explored several key aspects of the era. During the first decade of the twentieth century there was a nation-wide typhoid epidemic, and while Chicago and Pittsburgh seemed to have the highest death tolls of all the major American cities, even Boston and the surrounding areas had their fair share of victims.
With the mortality rate increasing, West saw the outbreak as a blessing as they would now have an endless supply of dead bodies with which to experiment on. Dr. Halsey, who had worked tirelessly in an effort to nurse the sick and the dying in his community, finally succumbed to the disease himself. Despite his differences with his former dean, West still had respect for Halsey and mourned his passing, yet with his death he saw an opportunity to advance his own research.
In the early hours of the morning West’s neighbours broke down the door to find the two scientists lying unconscious on the floor near an open window. While they denied knowledge of the events of the evening to the police, in truth the reanimated corpse of Halsey had awoken and escaped into the night. No sooner was he loose that stories of violence across the town were reported.
As the narrator revealed: ‘Eight houses were entered by a nameless thing which strewed red death in its wake – in all, seventeen maimed and shapeless remnants of bodies were left behind by the voiceless, sadistic monster that crept abroad. A few persons had half seen it in the dark, and said it was white and like a malformed ape or anthropomorphic fiend. It had not left behind quite all that it had attacked, for sometimes it had been hungry.’
Following three nights of random attacks and mutilation, the assailant was finally tracked down by a hunting party as it stalked the campus of the university. The police captured the lunatic and took him to the nearby Sefton Asylum, where he was locked away safely inside a padded cell.
Despite being rabid and bloodthirsty, the authorities at the institution agreed that the maniac bore a strange resemblance to the late Dr. Halsey, who had been laid to rest several days earlier. Although they had once again achieved the unimaginable by bringing a dead human being back to life, while almost facing death at the hands of their experiment or imprisonment had their crimes been discovered, all West could say regarding the matter was, ‘Damn it, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!’
It is believed that Lovecraft was paid promptly for the first two stories but that Houtain then became unreliable with the subsequent payments. Lovecraft found the writing of Herbert West – Reanimator to be a chore and would regularly write letters to his close friends complaining about the experience.
‘I know not if Mr. Houtain hath told you, that I am become a Grub-Street hack for him,’ he stated in one of his letters, ‘composing at his request a series of six daemoniack tales with the same hero, for his proposed new professional.’ Elsewhere he explained: ‘At first I refused; for fiction written to order is not art, whilst any series involves forcing and repetition of the most unclassical sort.’
The April 1922 issue of Home Brew would feature the third story, this time exploring the world of illegal prizefighting. At the turn of the century boxing was outlawed in the United States, forcing organisers to host fights in remote areas or venues, where they would often moonlight as ‘exhibitions.’
Only a handful of states would allow the sport to take place legally within their borders, with Nevada passing a bill in 1897 that would allow for boxing matches to take place without fear of criminal punishment.
In Six Shots by Midnight, Lovecraft’s third instalment of Herbert West – Reanimator, the two scientists attend an illegal fight taking place in an abandoned barn between two local boxers. One of the fighters had died as a result and, with the crowd fearful of their secret match being discovered by the law, West and his assistant were able to take the body with no questions asked.
This had provided them with their freshest specimen so far, particularly as he had died from an injury and not disease like Dr. Halsey, and so they disguised the corpse and walked it back to their home for further study.
Lovecraft’s strong opinions on race would be evident during this segment of the serial, as the deceased boxer was African American and, as result, the experiment was not as straightforward as they had hoped. As the narrator explained: ‘Ghastly as our prize appeared, it was wholly unresponsive to every solution we injected in its black arm; solutions prepared from experience with white specimens only.’
Perhaps the relevance of a Caucasian and African American boxer was due to the infamous 1910 fight between heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, who had returned to the ring after a short retirement to defeat his young rival. Johnson had become a strong symbol for the African American culture in America and his victory over Jeffries only served to strengthen that further.
Declaring the experiment yet another failure, West and his accomplice carried the body out to potter’s field and buried it in a shallow grave, as they had done with some of their other specimens. Concerns soon turned to the law, however, as stories regarding a death at an illegal fight began to circulate.
In the middle of the night there is a noise at their door and, with West brandishing a revolver, the pair headed downstairs to investigate the disturbance. But when the assistant opened the door West emptied his gun without hesitation, only to discover that the figure lying dead before them was the boxer they had buried in the potter’s field.
‘The scream of a dead man gave to me that acute and added horror of Dr. Herbert West which harassed the latter years of our companionship,’ said the narrator as he began the fourth tale, The Scream of the Dead. While he had always been West’s willing participant in their exploration of life after death and the notion that the human body could be reanimated with the right stimulant, everyone has their limit and it would seem that West’s continued lack of ethics eventually began to alienate and even disgust his companion.
One day in the summer of 1910 the narrator returned home after an out-of-town trip to see his family, where he was met by an ecstatic West, who had been conducting further experiments in his absence. Their primary concern had always been the lack of freshness in their specimens and West had attempted to create an artificial preservative to keep the bodies from spoiling.
Yet, as his assistant states, another key issue had been trying to obtain a body that had only recently died and thus had not begun to decompose. West claims that his latest subject, which was lying in their laboratory, had arrived at their door looking for directions, before suddenly dropping dead in front of him. Having informed West that he was unknown in the area, this proved to be an opportunity that was too good to resist, and so he had injected the corpse with his new embalming serum in order to slow down the decaying process long enough for his assistant to come home.
Finally his eyes opened as the man returned to life, colour appearing in his cheeks as he attempted to utter a sound. But as the memories of his death returned to him he began to struggle, before screaming, ‘keep that damned needle away from me!’ It was at this point that the narrator realises that it was West who had killed him.
Five years later and the two scientists are serving as physicians for the Canadian army in the Great War. The Horror from the Shadows, the fifth part of the Herbert West – Reanimator saga, takes place in St. Eloi, Belgium, some five kilometres south of Ypres. While Britain had declared war on Germany in August 1914, it would take a further two-and-a-half years for the United States to join the conflict. With a battlefield providing an endless supply of bodies for West to conduct his experiments, they volunteered to serve as physicians for the Canadian troops.
It was not an uncommon practice for Americans to sign up with the Canadian Armed Services, despite the U.S. government wishing to remain neutral. Due to their close relationship with Britain, when war was declared Canadian troops were shipped out to Europe to fight alongside their allies on the Western Front.
Not content with the results of his reagent, during West’s time in Europe he had begun to vary his experiments: ‘He had wild and original ideas on the independent vital properties of organic cells and nerve-tissue separated from natural physiological systems; and achieved some hideous preliminary results in the form of never-dying, artificially nourished tissue obtained from the nearly hatched eggs of an indescribable tropical reptile.
‘Two biological points he was exceedingly anxious to settle – first, whether any amount of consciousness and rational action be possible without the brain, proceeding from the spinal cord and various nerve-centres; and second, whether any kind of ethereal, intangible relation distinct from the material cells may exist to link the surgically separated parts of what has previously been a single living organism.’
Although he ran a medical hospital for the wounded and dying troops, West also worked with his assistant in the laboratory, conducting experiments on his fresh specimens. The most significant of these subjects was Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, the man responsible for West serving in Belgium and, the narrator claimed, also had a morbid interest in reanimation.
It would be ironic then that his headless corpse would find its way into the care of West, where his severed head was preserved in a ‘vat of pulpy reptile-tissue.’ Following a series of experiments, the body finally began to twitch and stir, eventually sitting upright on the table. Yet what would prove to be the most shocking moment was when they heard a strange voice coming from the vat, recalling the final seconds of its life.
Lovecraft completed the writing of the final chapter, The Tomb-Legions, in June 1922, just weeks before its publication. Despite all his reservations and negativity about the experience, his work was completed on time and, as promised, the stories remained unrestrained, coming to a conclusion in issue six of Home Brew.
It has been a year since West had disappeared and his assistant had been the primary suspect, yet a lack of evidence had allowed him to remain out of prison. Still haunted by both their disturbing experiments and his friend’s shocking demise, the narrator tries to make sense of West’s obsessive quest and eventually fate. By this point they were residing in an old house near a burial ground, where they continued to conduct their experiments undisturbed.
Yet an article in the newspaper had reported on an incident at Sefton Asylum, in which a mysterious figure with a ‘wax face’ and ‘eyes of painted glass’ had broken into the institution to liberate the killer who had resembled the deceased Dr. Halsey.
After receiving a strange package addressed from Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, they soon found themselves surrounded by their discarded experiments: ‘Their outlines were human, semi-human, fractionally human, and not human at all – the horde was grotesquely heterogeneous. They were removing the stones quietly, one by one, from the centuried wall. And then, as the breach became large enough, they came out into the laboratory in single file; led by a stalking thing with a beautiful head made of wax.’
West finally pays the price for meddling with nature when he is torn to pieces, with Clapham-Lee carrying away his head as the figures returned from where they came, leaving the assistant unconscious but unharmed.
Houtain published the final instalment in July 1922, with the story sharing an issue with fellow weird fiction writer and close friend Frank Belknap Long. It would take several months after the publication of the last chapter for Houtain to pay Lovecraft the remaining money that he owed him for his work. Eventually he would settle his debts, as well as advancing Lovecraft $10 towards another serial to be included in his magazine.
The Lurking Fear was written in four parts during November 1922 and published in Home Brew from the following January to April. It would not be until five years after Lovecraft’s death that Grewsome Tales were republished, this time under the name Herbert West – Reanimator in cult fiction magazine Weird Tales.
Over the years many critics have not been kind to Herbert West – Reanimator, dismissing it as inferior to his usual standard of writing and also suffering from being written in a serial format. ‘Of all Lovecraft’s stories, those comprising Herbert West – Reanimator are perhaps the most forgettable,” stated author L. Sprague de Camp.
In Comedy-Horror Films: A Chronological History, 1914-2008, writer Bruce G. Hallenbeck concurred: ‘Herbert West – Reanimator is not one of Lovecraft’s better tales; it’s over-the-top, clichéd and blatantly racist. It has very little of the ‘cosmic horror’ for which the author (would) ultimately become famous.’
Kevin Boon, in his essay The Zombie as Other: Mortality and the Monstrous in the Post-Nuclear Age, claimed that the story could perhaps be seen as the first example of cannibalism in a zombie fiction, due to Dr. Halsey having devoured some of his victims.
Whether or not Herbert West – Reanimator deserves to be held in the same high regard as Lovecraft’s more celebrated work, such as The Dunwich Horror or The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the story is still significant for several reasons. First of all, it was the first piece of fiction that Lovecraft would receive payment for and thus can be considered his professional debut. It also departed from the common portrayal of zombies at that time, many of which took inspiration from the voodoo urban legends of Haiti, which were first introduced to American pop culture through the 1929 publication of William Seabrook’s travel journal The Magic Island.
Many of the subsequent works of fiction would portray the undead as mindless ghouls who are enslaved by a sinister master, often as forced labour or to carry out their evil biddings. But with Herbert West – Reanimator showing zombies as hideous monsters that were uncontrollable, it was inevitable that it would one day serve as the basis for a horror movie.