“Herbert West – Reanimator” first published in Home Brew nos 1-6, Feb-July 1922.
This is the the sixth entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.
I first encountered Herbert West in the Re-animator movie of the 80s. It's a great movie that I enjoyed a lot – I was just the right age for its gruesome sense of humour – but I remember that slight feeling of disappointment (like when I read the “Statement of Randolph Carter”) that it wasn't really “Lovecraftian”. By this stage I'd read a good chunk of the classic stories, and had an idea of what a Lovecraftian story ought to look like from the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and this gory, campy horror wasn't it.
At the time, I put this down to disrespectful film makers, but when I came to read the story a few years later (it's in the Panther paperback of Dagon) I was surprised at how close the movie is to the tone original. Of course, HPL never indulged the kind of sexual perversity that's in the film – in fact, the story (typically) has no female characters at all – but the film captures the feverish, fruity tone of the story exactly, and Jeffrey Combs is great as West.
I don't know if HPL enjoyed writing this, but there's something gleeful in its gory plots and ghoulish experiments. It's told in six, self-contained parts, each a few pages long, and it's like HPL set himself a challenge to outdo himself in every episode. The stories get gorier and more outrageous one by one until climaxing in spectacularly gruesome style.
My favourite segment is part five, where Herbert West and the narrator go to the trenches of world war one in search of fresh experimental subjects. Once again, I was struck by how contemporary this must have been for Lovecraft. Men of his generation would have been fighting in the war and come back injured, or with tales of horror.
An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia tells us that this one was written to order for a humour magazine called Home Brew, apparently intended as a spicy humour magazine. Lovecraft grandly chafed at writing to order, saying, “Now this is manifestly inartistic. To write to order... reduces the happy author from art to the commonplace level of mechanical and unimaginative hack work.”
Despite his griping, I liked this story the first time I read it, and I like it still. It's comforting to know he does have some kind of sense of humour, and the crescendoing grisliness is deftly played out. Following on from The Nameless City, it's another great story that makes you think that maybe there's something to this Lovecraft guy after all.
Next up "The Music of Erich Zann"