“Herbert West—Reanimator“


“Herbert West—Reanimator“
   Short story (12,100 words); written from early October 1921 to mid-June 1922. First published as a serial (under the title “Grewsome Tales”) in Home Brew(February, March, April, May, June, and July 1922); rpt. WT(March, July, September, November 1942, September, November 1943); first collected in BWS;corrected text in D; annotated version in An2 and CC.
   The story is narrated by a friend and colleague of Dr. Herbert West; both he and West attended the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham and later went on to experience various adventures as practicing physicians. It was in medical school that West derived his peculiar theories about the possibility of reanimating the dead. These views “hinged on the essentially mechanistic nature of life; and concerned means for operating the organic machinery of mankind by calculated chemical action after the failure of natural processes…. my friend believed that artificial reanimation of the dead can depend only on the condition of the tissues; and that unless actual decomposition has set in, a corpse fully equipped with organs may with suitable measures be set going again in the peculiar fashion known as life.” The six episodes of the story show West producing more and more hideous instances of reanimation. In the first, West injects a serum into a corpse, but it seems to produce no results; the two doctors bury the corpse in the potter’s field, only to learn later that it came to life after all. In the second, West reanimates Dr. Allan Halsey, who as head of the medical school had vigorously opposed West’s experiments and had died in the typhoid epidemic that raged through Arkham. Halsey creates havoc throughout the city before he is caught and locked up in Sefton Asylum. In the third, West and the narrator have set up practice in the small Massachusetts town of Bolton and attempt to resurrect an African American — an amateur boxer named Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke” — but seem to find that the serum “prepared from experience with white specimens only” will not work on him; later they learn otherwise. In the fourth episode the narrator, returning from a vacation with his parents in Illinois, finds West in a state of unusual excitement. He has designed an embalming fluid that will preserve a corpse in a state of freshness indefinitely and claims that a traveling salesman who had come to visit West had died unexpectedly and would therefore serve as a perfect specimen because of the freshness of the corpse. When it is reanimated, the narrator finds that West’s account of the matter is not wholly accurate. The fifth episode takes us to the horrors of the Great War, where West and the narrator have enlisted in a Canadian regiment in 1915. West now seeks to put into practice still more eccentric views on the reanimation of the dead and does so in a loathsome manner. The sixth episode finds the two doctors in Boston after the war, and it ends with the various reanimated bodies returning to tear West to pieces and bear off the fragments of his corpse through ancient underground tunnels leading to a cemetery. George Julian Houtain, an amateur colleague of HPL, commissioned “Herbert West—Reanimator” for the early issues of his professional humor magazine, Home Brew. As such, it is difficult to deny that the tale is — or in the course of writing became—a parody, not only of itself but also of lurid supernatural fiction. HPL complained of his reduction to a Grub Street hack by writing a “manifestly inartistic” ( SL1.158) serial story, but he seems to have enjoyed the task. Some commentators state that HPL was not fully paid the $5 per episode promised by Houtain, but letters confirm that he received complete payment.
   It has commonly been assumed that the obvious influence upon the story is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818); but the method of West’s reanimation of the dead (whole bodies that have died only recently) is very different from that of Victor Frankenstein (the assembling of a huge composite body from disparate parts of bodies), and only the most general influence can be detected. The core of the story is so elementary a weird conception that no literary source need be postulated. The story is the first to mention Miskatonic University, although the name Miskatonic had been used in “The Picture in the House” (1920). Five of the six segments are set in New England. Bolton, the setting for the third episode, is the name of a real town in east-central Massachusetts; but it was not a “factory town” as HPL describes it, but rather a tiny agricultural community. This has led Robert D.Marten to assume that HPL did not then know of the existence of the real Bolton and coined the name independently. In the first segment the mention of the “deserted Chapman farmhouse beyond Meadow Hill” probably alludes to “the large Chapman house” ( SL1.108) in Providence, which burned down in February 1920.
   See Robert D.Marten, “Arkham Country: In Rescue of the Lost Searchers,” LS No. 39 (Summer 1998): 1–20.

An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. .

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