“I must say Dr. Hill, I'm very disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed co-ed. You're not even a second-rate scientist!”
- Herbert West, ‘Re-animator’ (1985)
[You can read Part # 1 of this post here.]
Prior to the surprise success of its film adaptation, H.P. Lovecraft’s six part serial ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ had remained a contentious and obscure item within the author’s bibliography.
Predating Lovecraft’s tenure as a doyen of the ‘Weird Tales’ demi-monde, the serial’s completion dates back to his earlier involvement in the slightly more genteel ‘amateur publishing’ scene, originally appearing in six monthly instalments in a periodical named ‘Home Brew’ between February and July 1922. In view of Home Brew’s “semipro” status, it has generally been assumed that the publication of ‘Herbert West..’ represented Lovecraft’s very first paid writing gig (he later boasted that he received five dollars per instalment).
Given that Home Brew appears to have been a primarily humourous / satirical publication, billing itself as ‘America’s Zippiest Pocket Magazine’, and sometimes ‘A Thirst Quencher for Lovers of Personal Liberty’ (whatever that was supposed to imply circa 1922), one wonders how its readership can possibly have reacted to the then-unknown Lovecraft exercising his liberty by banging out a series of inordinately gruesome and morbid variations on the Frankenstein mythos.
Presumably the response can’t have been entirely negative however, given that ‘Home Brew’ went on to publish HPL’s ‘The Lurking Fear’ the following year, prominently announcing it on the cover of their January 1923 edition.
The June 1922 edition of ‘Home Brew’, featuring the penultimate chapter of ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ – billed top left as “The HORROR from the SHADOWS – Better than Edgar Allen Poe [sic]” - alongside what look to be some “pungent jests” at the expense of the era's Women's Movement, and a “Humorous Tale of Hootchers”, whatever they might be.
In spite of this unlikely origin however, ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ remains one of the most alarming, gore-splattered and generally over-the-top horror stories Lovecraft ever signed his name to, as well as one of the most straight-forwardly commercial. In fact, it has often been suggested that Lovecraft composed the story as a deliberate parody of the kind of crude and blood-thirsty tales peddled by the era’s pulps - hence its presence in what was ostensibly a ‘humour’ magazine, I suppose.
Possibly the author even stated this himself at some point (having not ploughed through the entirety of his voluminous correspondence, I’m unsure), but even so, it’s a theory that has never really rung true to me.
For one thing, ‘Herbert West…’ is rendered in dense and atmospheric prose which, though certainly pretty bizarre, is no less tortuously worked over than that of Lovecraft’s quote-unquote ‘serious’ tales, betraying little sign of any obvious ‘gags’. And besides – were there really a sufficient number of similar tales being published in early ‘20s pulps for Lovecraft to undertake a ‘parody’ of them…?
Again, I can’t claim an exhaustive knowledge of the market for weird/macabre fiction in the early 1920s, but I find it hard to believe that there was much of this kind of anatomically explicit, corpse-mangling body horror doing the rounds at the time (indeed, the notorious ‘weird menace’ / ‘shudder-pulp’ subgenre didn’t even make an appearance on America’s newsstands until the 1930s).
In terms of the general extremity of its content in fact, ‘Herbert West..’ often feels shockingly ahead of its time. It’s certainly difficult to locate many parodic chuckles amongst the story’s cannibalised children and literally ankle-deep gore, or in such chilling observations as, “he usually finished his experiments with a revolver, but a few times he had not been quick enough”.
At a push, you could perhaps detect a certain strain of humour in Herbert West’s obsessive single-mindedness, and in his repeated insistence that the horrors perpetrated by his reanimated corpses are simply the result of his being forced to work with raw materials which are “not fresh enough” – elements with could, at a stretch, have provided the impetus for the blackly comic tone which came to define Dennis Paoli’s script for Gordon’s film.
Either way, it is certainly easy to see the kernel of Jeffrey Combs’ performance as West in Lovecraft’s descriptions of the character as, “..a fastidious Baudelaire of physical experiment, a languid Elagabalus of the tombs”, “..gloat[ing] calmly over artificial monstrosities which would make most healthy men drop dead from fright and disgust”. (1)
For the most part though, as with much of Lovecraft’s later work, it is difficult to really judge how much of the laughter and disbelief engendered by the tale’s assorted craziness was intentional, and how much simply the result of HPL’s weird imagination shooting off sparks in random directions, overtaking his ability to effectively convey his ideas in words.
Are we meant to laugh at the idea of West absent-mindedly depositing the severed head of Major Sir Eric Clapham-Lee in a “hellish vat” of “reptile embryo tissue”? Or at the “shocking riot” later precipitated by the ragged platoon of misfit zombies led by the decapitated airman and his replica wax head, and the baffled press report of their activities recounted by our narrator (“..he was a menacing military figure who talked without moving his lips and whose voice seemed almost ventriloquially connected with an immense black case he carried”)? In what tone of voice are we to read Lovecraft’s description of the final chapter’s titular ‘Tomb-Legions’ as being variously “human, semi-human, fractionally human, and not human at all”?
From a modern perspective, it’s difficult not to find at least some amusement in all this (indeed, the OTT zaniness of the story’s final scenes was captured extremely well by Brain Yuzna’s sequel ‘Bride of Reanimator’ (1990), which incorporates quite a lot of the Lovecraft material excised from the first film), but really, these antics are no more surreal than the kind of off-kilter physical absurdities which frequently pop up in Lovecraft’s later, more ‘serious’ tales. (Just think for instance of the revelation of Wilbur Wheatley’s mutant pineapple body in ‘The Dunwich Horror’, or the wooden head and phonograph apparatus used by the alien Mi-Go to fool our protagonist into thinking he is conversing with a human being in ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’, to name but a few.)
There is certainly little to laugh at however in the heady philosophical themes which ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ dabbles with. Both pre-figuring the bleak ‘cosmicism’ of Lovecraft’s later work and echoing the scientific angst of Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, the passages concerning Herbert West’s explicit desire to “..relegate the mystery of life to the category of myth” through his experiments speaks for themselves, with the mad medical student’s proclamations of his ultra-materialist beliefs feeling very much like a reflection of Lovecraft’s own - especially when our unnamed narrator begins railing bitterly against the cozy, superstitious illusions clung to by the complacent academic establishment, as represented by the Miskatonic University Medical School’s esteemed Dean Halsey.
In contrast to his friend’s militant insistence upon “..the essentially mechanistic nature of life,” our narrator’s nonetheless harbours some hopes of extracting news of the afterlife from the duo’s revitalised subjects (he “..yet held vague instinctive remnants of the primitive faith of my forefathers”, he admits), receiving nothing but chattering gibberish and howls of pain for his trouble (along with a memorable confession of his partners murderous intent). This feels like a dark and gloating dismissal of the ‘soul’ or divine spark within humanity on Lovecraft’s part, directly anticipating the grimly mechanistic view of life underpinning the post-Romero zombie mythos, into whose lineage Gordon’s film would neatly slot itself over six decades later.
However it was intended to be read though, one thing we know for certain about ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ is that Lovecraft didn’t like it, decrying it in later years as worthless hack work which he only bothered completing for the money. (That $5 a month must have bought a lot of ham n’ beans for a young bachelor of Providence in the early ‘20s.)
This distaste for the material was apparently shared by Lovecraft’s primary literary executor, August Derleth, who for decades pointedly excluded ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ from any of the collections of Lovecraft’s work posthumously published by his Arkham House imprint – an omission mirrored by the subsequent mass-market Lovecraft paperbacks of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which tended to replicate Arkham House’s texts wholesale. (2)
Recalling the origins of his film, Stuart Gordon has often stated that, though he’d read Lovecraft, he was entirely unaware of ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ until a conversation about the absence of any contemporary Frankenstein movies led a friend to suggest he check it out as a potential source for his new horror project.
Following up on this lead, Gordon recalls that he was forced to put in an inter-library loan request with the Chicago Public Library, and, six months later, found himself summoned by telephone to consult the dusty, yellowing pile of pulp magazines which the noble librarians had diligently tracked down for him (presumably either the original ‘Home Brew’ issues or a 1941 set of re-prints in ‘Weird Tales’). Impressed with what he read, Gordon convinced the library staff to let him take a xerox of the story’s six chapters, and it is from this copy that the project which eventually became ‘Re-animator’ began to take shape.(3)
“Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!”
- Herbert West, ‘Re-animator’ (1985)
In looking at the way in which Lovecraft’s episodic, repetitious and frequently distasteful tale was transformed into a lean, commercially viable 90 minute feature film by ‘Re-animator’s production team, it will probably prove most instructive to consider the aspects of the story which were removed, and the ways in which their absence affected the remaining material as the project underwent a rather convoluted transition from a filmed theatrical production, to a proposed series of 30 minute TV episodes, to a stand-alone feature.
Most obviously, we have the filmmakers’ decision to shift the action to the present day – a budgetary necessity which allows Herbert West’s depredations to play out against a drab backdrop of generic hospital corridors, basement operating rooms and college dorms, immediately reclaiming the vast quantities of dough which would no doubt have been shelled out on vintage sets, costumes and period appropriate medical equipment, but perhaps also jettisoning Lovecraft’s wildly-wrought atmosphere of squalid, Edwardian gothic creepery in the process, foregrounding realism and losing that cherished sense of a world in which pieces of crockery, minor ailments and weather alike can all be justifiably described as ‘unnameable’.
Naturally, modernising the story meant ditching the outbreak of ‘plague’ which consumes Arkham in the story’s second chapter (‘The Plague-Daemon’), claiming the life of the esteemed Dean Halsey. (In typically over-wrought fashion, Lovecraft here make it sound as if the Black Death has finally reached New England – “..and then had come the scourge, grinning and lethal, from the nightmare caverns of Tartarus,” etc.) Also crossed out at this point, one assumes, was the entirety of chapter #5 (‘The Horror from the Shadows’), which sees West and his unnamed assistant enrolling in the Canadian Army as volunteer medics prior to the U.S.A.’s entry into World War One, thus allowing them to take advantage of the steady supply of fresh meat offered by the carnage of the Western Front. (4)
Though elements from both these chapters were cleverly integrated into Paoli’s eventual shooting script, we can nonetheless imagine the profound sense of relief producer Brian Yuzna must have felt as he consigned the pages detailing these assorted episodes to the office waste paper bin.
When interviewed by the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast in 2009, Stuart Gordon also made clear that another section of Lovecraft’s tale never considered for adaptation was chapter # 3 (‘Six Shots by Moonlight’), in which West and the story’s narrator find themselves providing medical assistance to an illegal boxing ring, eventually administering their re-agent to the body of a deceased black pugilist, with predictably catastrophic results. (5)
Though this chapter is rich in potentially cinematic imagery, the main reason for its omission will, I think, be immediately clear to most modern readers. Namely, it represents one of the most noxious examples of racism in Lovecraft’s fiction, rivalled only by his singularly disturbing 1925 tale ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. Alongside the inevitable outburst of choice ‘othering’/dehumanising verbiage thrown in the direction of the “negro” boxer here furthermore, it’s interesting to note an even greater quantity of hatred is directed toward the Italian and Irish population who comprise the “polyglot” labour force of the fictional factory town of Bolton.
Forcibly reminding us of Lovecraft’s deep-rooted fear and loathing of pretty much everything in the world except Anglo-Saxon men of proven aristocratic lineage, his characterisation of these recent immigrants as a kind of brutal, barely sentient under-class is spiteful and ignorant in the extreme, leaving a bad taste in the mouth which significantly undermines the ghoulish pleasure we might otherwise take in the chapter’s memorably horrific finale – an image which in itself would likely have proved a bit too much for even the most liberal of rating/censorship boards, had it made it to the screen in the mid ‘80s. All in all then, no surprise perhaps that this entire episode met with a clear “no f-ing way” from the budding filmmakers.
Yet another element excised from the film meanwhile was the story’s aforementioned philosophical angle, with the tightly paced horror/action/comedy formula understandably offering little opportunity to mull over the finer points of West’s materialist zealotry (although the motif of the re-animators attempting to obtain a message from the after-life is amusingly reprised in the “you…. BASTARD” exchange between West and Dr Hill’s severed noggin).
Rather than being consciously rejected by Gordon and Paoli however, one imagines that this aspect of the story was side-lined simply because it felt unnecessary to re-state it in the context of the mid 1980s.
When Lovecraft was writing, his strident expression of an almost misanthropically cruel scientific atheism, alongside his portrayal of the human body as profane, dead clay powered only by crude, electrical impulses, must have seemed a shocking, or at least provocative, statement of intent. Sixty years later however, such a stance was pretty much the default expectation for an audience of horror fans shaped by the work of Romero, Fulci and Cronenberg (not to mention the increasingly grotesque run of European Frankenstein movies which proceeded them in the ‘60s and ‘70s). Wasting time allowing the characters to pontificate about it would simply have been surplus to requirements. Zombies, man - we get it.
Far more of a shocker for the Lovecraft purists who dutifully rocked up to witness ‘Re-animator’ upon its release in 1985 must have been – brace yourselves – the addition of a female character to the story… and one who persists in going to bed with men, and taking her clothes off, even!
We needn’t dwell too much here upon Lovecraft’s pointed avoidance of the feminine within his fiction, but suffice to say, whilst nine out of ten horror fans would probably agree that Barbara Crampton’s performance as Megan Halsey adds immeasurably to ‘Re-animator’s success as a movie, her presence must similarly have proved the last straw for some of the dustier defenders of the author’s literary legacy.
Indeed, by systematically nixing the story’s gothic/period atmosphere, metaphysical pondering and overtones of racist/classist white male hysteria, Gordon and his collaborators transformed ‘Re-animator’ into a sleek, contemporary, audience-pleasing horror movie, so far removed from the ‘feel’ of its contentious literary precursor that, given the story’s obscurity at the time the film was made, they could probably have gotten away with not crediting their source material at all, had they wished to. Scrub out the script’s references to Arkham and Miskatonic, and in all likelihood, only a handful of scholars and ‘Weird Tales’ obsessives would even have noticed the theft. And, in the pre-internet era, what would a few spluttering editorials in ‘Crypt of Cthulhu’ have mattered anyway?
But, Gordon and Yuzna are honest gents, and they did credit their sources, even allowing executive producer/Empire Pictures head honcho Charles Band to proudly trumpet “H.P. Lovecraft’s classic tale of terror..” on the film’s posters and other marketing materials. In fact, this billing gels rather nicely with the film’s bold, orchestral score (from Band’s brother Richard), it’s luminescent animated credits sequence, and the broad, theatrical acting styles favoured by Gordon, all of which help lend a touch of literary ‘classicism’ to proceedings, squaring the circle of Lovecraftian cinema to that date by evoking the conventions of the Corman/Poe cycle of the 1960s, whilst at the same time rekindling the frayed links between horror cinema and Lovecraft/Weird Tales fandom for a new generation of insurgent, VHS-rocking gorehounds.
Whether any of the comparative flood of Lovecraft adaptations that have made it to the screen in subsequent decades have matched up to ‘Re-animator’s success as a perfectly formed entertainment is debatable, but making a Lovecraft movie is always a bold move, and I’d contest that even the wonkiest and most misguided attempts to do so have helped enrich our culture in some small fashion. Certainly more-so than the yawning void which preceded ‘Re-animator’s release through the ‘70s, that’s for sure, and for breaking the “unfilmable” curse, we owe Gordon, Yuzna, Paoli and co. a mighty thanks.
(1) Elagabalus = Roman emperor from 218 to 222AD who rose to power aged 14, and died aged 18 in an assassination plot reportedly orchestrated by his own grandmother, following a reign characterised by an unprecedented degree of sexual depravity and religious idolatry. Boy, those Romans, eh? (Thanks Wikipedia.)
(2) As far as I’m aware, the first publication of ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ subsequent to it’s original appearance in ‘Home Brew’ and the 1942 re-print in ‘Weird Tales’ came in Arkham House’s 1987 anthology ‘Dagon and Other Macabre Tales’, the final collection in a three volume set of Lovecraft’s work edited by S.T. Joshi, which has been widely reprinted ever since. Though Arkham House claimed the contents of these collections were “selected by August Derleth” (who passed away in 1971), one naturally suspects that the inclusion of ‘Herbert West..’ must have been influenced by the recent success of Gordon’s film. (Source.)
(3) Although I don’t have a print source for this story, you can hear Gordon reiterate it in various place – the 2007 ‘Re-animator: Ressurectus’ documentary, his director’s commentary track for the film, and during his aforementioned guest appearance on the above-mentioned H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, to name but a few.
(4) One writer who clearly did recall Herbert West’s adventures on the Western Front is Kim Newman, who includes West as a minor character in his WWI-set ‘Anno Dracula’ sequel ‘The Bloody Red Baron’ (1994), which sees him operating a deranged field hospital of pain, working under the tutelage of his equally misunderstood predecessor, the notorious Dr Moreau.
(5) Episodes 24 and 25 of the podcast, for the record – if you’ve enjoyed reading all this, you’ll probably find them worth a listen.