H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Reanimator (1922) is arguably one his best known stories, though the author disparaged it as “hack” work, claiming at one point that his “sole inducement is the monetary reward…” Joshi relates how Lovecraft felt frustrated and limited by the conventions of serial fiction, but suspects he may actually have enjoyed working on this project. Certainly the ebullient grotesqueness of various episodes suggests that the author was having some fun. Though Lovecraft enthusiasts may not consider this story one of his best, it is one of the very few to survive translation into film relatively intact. (The 1970 film The Dunwich Horror, may be another.)
The version I have is in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (2014) edited by Leslie Klinger, which preserves the six part serial format, and supplements the text with dozens of helpful marginal notes and illustrations. Each section recapitulates the events of the previous installment but also reiterates unfinished business, in particular, the suspicion that several of West’s earlier experimental results may still be shambling about, relentlessly making their way towards him. These repetitions enhance the enjoyment of the story in my view, and offer a rare instance where Lovecraft seems to address his readers directly.
Lovecraft’s fiction shows a recurring preoccupation with certain themes and images. He is very consistent with the dark matters on which he ruminates. It is fascinating to see certain motifs show up again and again, and identify parallels among his various stories. Early on in Herbert West: Reanimator, Puritanism is criticized for its rigidity and restraint of personal freedom and intellectual exploration. Nearly identical diatribes can be found in The Unnamable (1925) and The Picture in the House (1919).
The arrangement of two male characters, one passively subservient to another who is reckless and monomaniacal in his research, is duplicated in several stories. Here are examples of the narrator’s perspective from various works by Lovecraft:
“…for they were terrible studies, which I pursued more through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination. Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him.”—The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920)
“Our quest for novel scenes and piquant conditions was feverish and insatiate—St. John was always the leader, and he it was who led the way at last to that mocking, accursed spot which brought us our hideous and inevitable doom.”—The Hound (1924)
“So as I drove the crowd away I told him he must come home with me and be my teacher and leader in unfathomed mysteries, and he assented without saying a word.”—Hypnos (1923)
“…I could not resist the imperious persuasion of one determined that I should accompany him in my usual capacity.”—Herbert West: Reanimator (1922)
In the early 1920s it seems that someone was often leading an avatar of H.P. Lovecraft astray, drawing him out of the safety and stifling conventionality of his Puritan heritage, but leaving him stranded in a realm of horror and madness. Some have ascribed this particular motif and related imagery to repressed homosexuality, though there is no clear substantiation of this. At any rate, in terms of the importance of his work, Lovecraft’s sexual orientation is ultimately irrelevant.
However, another way to look at Lovecraft’s “bromantic” relationships is to consider what the arrangement of male characters may suggest of Lovecraft’s personality. Are these fictional relationships an expression of Lovecraft’s divided soul? Hypnos is interesting because it suggests at the end that the narrator and his partner were actually the same person, one the doppelgänger of the other. Herbert West: Reanimator ends on a similar note: After the final conflagration, West cannot be found. He supposedly has been either dismembered or incinerated or both, but the narrator is now accused of madness and murder. The wall that had separated their last secret laboratory from an ancient tomb filled with vengeful raging zombies is now weirdly intact—did it ever actually fall?
There are other interesting parallels among some of Lovecraft’s early work. An almost gleeful focus on the contents of graveyards and “receiving tombs” can be found in The Hound, Herbert West: Reanimator, and the notorious Lovecraft-Eddy collaboration The Loved Dead (1924), all appearing around this time in Lovecraft’s career. In all three tales a morbid fascination with collecting and interacting with dead things culminates in exceedingly rough justice administered by the undead. Despite his materialism and avowed atheism, these early tales display overt religiosity and conventional morality.
In Herbert West: Reanimator, the advent of some new horror is heralded by a flurry of allusions to “the nightmare caverns of Tartarus”, or “a noxious afrite [demon] from the halls of Eblis”. When a plague of typhoid arrives providing West additional experimental subjects, “devils danced on the roofs of Arkham”. One of West’s reanimated subjects is likened to “the embodied dæmon-soul of the plague itself.”
Herbert West: Reanimator is for the most part a pre-Mythos tale, and like The Horror at Red Hook (1927) derives some of its weird imagery from vaguely Judeo-Christian or Greek and Roman mythological sources. (The latter story contains appearances by Satan, Lillith, incubi, succubi, Moloch and so forth.) As Lovecraft developed his ideas about the supernatural, these conventional entities were later replaced with impersonal, extraterrestrial, cosmicist beings like Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep.
In a couple of places in the story Lovecraft has his mad scientist dispute the existence of a mind or soul separate from the material body. Tellingly, the narrator expresses occasional doubts: “I myself still held some curious notions about the traditional “soul” of man, and felt an awe at the secrets that might be told by one returning from the dead.” Later in the story he makes these remarks about his friend West’s point of view:
“I did not wholly disagree with him theoretically, yet held vague instinctive remnants of the primitive faith of my forefathers; so that I could not help eyeing the corpse with a certain amount of awe and terrible expectation.”
S.T. Joshi and others have noted that the end of the story seems to contradict the materialism espoused in the opening sections. The zombies catch up to West and the narrator, and their revenge is coordinated by a talking, disembodied head. Because this is in direct opposition to the materialistic view laid out at the beginning of the story, Joshi believes these scenes are intended as parody.
But another possibility is that Lovecraft’s wavering between materialistic and supernatural understandings shows a tension—present in much of Lovecraft’s work—that was never resolved. Which is a good thing! It is the view here that the possibility of mind or spirit existing separately from matter is a key assumption of horror literature, without which it becomes unintelligible or reduced to mere exaggerated science. One wonders if Lovecraft understood this at some level.
Aside from these more abstract considerations, the story can be enjoyed for its unrestrained zombie mayhem and outrageousness. As his concepts took form, one can imagine Lovecraft and perhaps some close colleagues brainstorming a series of gruesome “what-ifs”: What if the reanimated body had been damaged in some ghastly way at the point of death? What if just parts of the body were reanimated? What if the reanimated corpse could talk? What if only the body but not the head were reanimated? What if you reanimated the head and kept it alive in a vat full of undifferentiated reptilian muscle tissue? Lovecraft’s outré speculations in Herbert West: Reanimator form a significant contribution to the field of zombiology, and West’s gruesome dismemberment near the end has been replayed in dozens of zombie movies ever since.