Herbert West-Reanimator: The Complete Lovecraft #34

Opinions are, as someone famous once vulgarly said, like arseholes, everyone body has one, and they stink up the place when let loose… Herbert West – Reanimator is a tale that inspires many opinions.  S.T. Joshi, who has carved out a career as a Lovecraft scholar opinion on old ‘Herbert’ is summed up as:

“Herbert West–Reanimator” is “universally acknowledged as Lovecraft’s poorest work.”

Which is somewhat damning, but also a relatively bold statement, for one thing, it’s not Celephais and not being Celephais alone debunks that statement as far as I am concerned. Yes, I am aware that I am a voice in the wilderness when it comes to my utter distaste for Celephais, but at the same time, I suspect I am not alone in my opinion that Celephais is a festering pile of twaddle. I also suspect I am not alone in disagreeing with Joshi because ‘Reanimator’ may have its problems, but it is far from the poorest piece of Lovecraft’s fiction. Indeed, quite a few people like it rather a lot…

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S.T.Joshi is, however, in good company in his disparagement in one sense at least, as the old tentacle hugger himself was far from happy with it. He reputably claimed he wrote it only for the $5 fee per instalment he received from Weird Tales. He was far from a fan of writing serials, with their need for a chief hanger at the end of every ‘episode’, and a recap beginning every instalment. It wasn’t his usual style, and reanimator was the only out and out serial he ever wrote. His later works in a longer format were often serialised without the trappings of the serial. It’s a fair criticism as when you read the story with modern eyes those recaps and the built up to ‘cliffhangers’ are a little on the painful side, and yes it’s not the journey you expect when you read Lovecraft. It’s also far more pulp than any of his usual writings. There is little that could be considered literary art going on here, and not the usual slow creep towards impending doom that is oh so familiar with Lovecraft’s work.

Yet, despite its derision by Lovecraft aficionados, Reanimator also managed to be the most successful of all Lovecraft’s tales when it comes to the film industry and indeed other media like radio and comics. The story has a much broader appeal in comparison to other Lovecraft stories. It doesn’t have the same issues that make so many other attempts to bring Lovecraft to the big screen faltered. It has a story that can be told on a simple level which certainly doe sit no harm. It’s a mad scientist makes monsters story after all. Both Hollywood mainstream and its ‘B’ movie studios have been using the same basic idea for many decades. It has all the tropes of Frankenstein without the self-consciousness. 1985’s reanimator was probably the most successful of several adaptations and spawned two sequels. There is even a new reanimator reboot movie is expected in 2018, because as we all know Hollywood producers love a reboot at the moment…

It is also important to remember old ‘Herbert’ also managed to break new ground in horror. This was one of first if not the first widely published story which framed the reanimated dead as mindless flesh-eating monsters. Thus it gave birth to a genre in this respect. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula is to vampires, Lovecraft’s Herbert West is to zombies. No Herbert then perhaps no ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘Day of the Dead, Light Supper of the Dead…  Georgio Romano owes Lovecraft a bit of a debt here in the inspiration stakes. The popular cultural image of the zombie was born in this tale. The argument can be made that without ‘reanimator’ no one would be enjoying sitting down to watch Rick Grimes have another bad day in ‘The Walking Dead’. Ultimately for all the cultish following, Lovecraft has through his tales of Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth and there is an argument to be made that the much-disparaged Herbert West has had the bigger and more longest lasting impact on popular culture than anything else Lovecraft wrote. It’s rather a shame therefore that he was not overly proud of this creation…

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Importantly for me, if you put aside that irritating recaps at the beginning of every instalment this is a good read, which is all you should really be measuring a story on. While far from the best Lovecraft story, it’s certainly not the worst. The pulpy nature of it adds to its appeal for me as well, but I grew up on Saturday morning Flash Gordan serials, rerun on the BBC as cheap kids programming. There is an aspect of the serial formate I genuinely enjoy, and I love a good B movie. Also as I am working through these tales in the order they were written this is the longest Lovecraft story so far. While it is in effect six short stories following a common narrative it is still something I have been aching for if truth be told since I started this blog series, a take which has some story arc to it, indeed the characters have space to develop, something the pure short form disavows. While Lovecraft’s other long works are novella’s and the one novel they still sit in the future. For now, we are still in 1922 and at a stage where Lovecraft was still trying to find his audience in many regards, indeed doing this serial opened up the likes of weird tales and other magazines to Lovecraft which until then he had never had. After Herbert Lovecraft’s stories were much more in demand, and many of his older tales are first published after Herbert West. It was, for all ist faults his breakthrough piece and without his Reanimator, we may never have heard of old tentacle face and the rest at all.

Yes, it’s pulpy, and yes it’s not your usual Lovecraft fayre, but it’s none the worse for that. While the old Tentacle hugger and his more devoted minions may look upon it with a certain scorn, it has both an important place in the cannon and its own charms. There is something infinitely interesting in the way Herbert becomes steadily more and more a ‘Mad’ scientist as his story develops. Lovecraft doe a great job of describing this slow decline towards madness edged with logic and a cold sanity that puts his work beyond mere concepts of morality. When we first meet him he is messing about with mice in the lab in a quest to find a way to return men to life. By the end, he is lest interested in restoring a semblance of a true life back to men as to animating dead tissue in the form of amputated limbs attached to bits of lizards and other macabre imaginings. While the narrator, the Igor to his Doctor Frankenstein, steadily goes from a form of hero worship to terrorised victim incapable of breaking away from his abuser. There is horror and humanity in this tale, the latter is something Lovecraft has been known to lack. There is also a few elements that it could do without, the darker stuff like Lovecraft’s innate racism is kicking about, which I would sooner edit out that the what I admit are annoying recaps at the start of each episode. Overall though it’s a fun story, it’s pulp qualities adds to its charm more than they detract, and so I’ll give it four tentacles.

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No doubt the old Tentacle hugger and the purest Lovecraftian scholars will disapprove. But it’s fun damn it, and if anyone wants me I’ll be down in the lab making plot zombies to unleash of the nye sayers…

Further Lovecraftian witterings 

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3 Responses to Herbert West-Reanimator: The Complete Lovecraft #34

  1. planetstef says:

    I like it. It’s one of his more approachable stories and probably one I’d recommend to someone who’d never read Lovecraft. Also – and it might just be me – it seems to feel less dated than some of his other stories, which might explain its popularity. It’s not my favourite though… I’ll tell you when you get to it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. darrack1 says:

    Thank god it’s not just me who likes it then 🙂 You’re, not the first person to say its less dated than his other stuff. When I was doing my research ( shockingly, I do actually do some ) It was a comment that seemed to come up a lot. I think it’s because it has a whole old style retro feel that makes it read like someone is writing in a deliberate pastiche of 1920’s serials. Possibly because that’s what old tentacle hugger was writing himself…
    ‘I’ll tell you when you get to it…’ that’s slightly ominous 🙂

    Like

  3. Pingback: The Lurking Fear: The Complete Lovecraft #37 | The Passing Place

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