Herbert West is perhaps the best-known of Lovecraft’s human characters. While no one would call him “well-developed,” he’s less of a cipher than HPL’s people usually were. So much so that he caught the attention of many subsequent writers, who delved deeper into what made him tick.
In other words, I know that most of you reading this have also read Audrey Driscoll’s “Herbert West” series. (If you haven’t, you should.) Lovecraft’s sketch pales in comparison to the sprawling epic she wove out of his flimsy raw material.
Prior to reading Friendship of Mortals, my favorite interpretation of Herbert West was that of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which produced two song parodies that tell you everything you need to know about the character as Lovecraft saw him. The solstice carol “Slay Ride”:
“The work was slow and sordid in a really morbid domain. / Herb was a workaholic with a cold, diabolical brain.”
And these lines from their Fiddler on the Roof parody, “To Life”:
Papa dear, I want to marry Herbert, since he has a power once reserved for God.
I never could say ‘no’ to you, my darling. Even though young West should face a firing squad.
But, today I am reviewing the original tale, not any Herbert West-inspired novels, filks, or musical comedies.
So, Herbert West is this scientist, who, get this, reanimates corpses. Can you believe it?
Apparently, Lovecraft created this as a parody of Frankenstein. Or so Wikipedia claims, citing something somewhere in Lovecraft’s massive body of correspondence. I would like to find a verbatim quote from the author himself on this, because the book doesn’t really feel like a parody. At least, to the extent that parodies are supposed to be funny.
Also, Herbert West is the antithesis of Victor Frankenstein. Whereas Shelley’s scientist is mad only to the extent he is prone to wild flights of passionate emotion and expressing himself in florid romantic speeches, West is hyper-rational, dispassionate, amoral, and unsentimental. Where Frankenstein is wracked with debilitating guilt, West is a sociopath, driven by a desire to prove his theories correct no matter what the cost.
Maybe Lovecraft’s point was that if anyone was going to bring dead bodies back to a kind of “life,” it would be a ruthless and unemotional scientist, not someone who sounds suspiciously like a Byronic poet. And, I guess he’s probably right.
Still, if you’re after the big laughs, Herbert West is not the place to find them. It’s a story in six parts, but each part is essentially the same as the others:
- West reanimates a corpse.
- Reanimated corpse starts wrecking everything.
- West and the narrator conceal their involvement.
This gets tiresome after Part Two. Even Lovecraft got tired of it, and (again Wikipedia is the source for this) only kept writing it because it paid him the princely sum of five dollars per part, which in those days was enough to buy a month’s worth of groceries.
In many ways, it’s an anti-Lovecraftian Lovecraft story. The monsters, far from being eldritch abominations beyond the comprehension of mere human minds, are just zombies. Admittedly, zombies were more of a novelty a century ago than they are today, but still.
To summarize, it’s one of Lovecraft’s worst stories, and even Lovecraft himself would agree. Possibly, he even meant for it to be bad. But he didn’t even do that right, because it’s not quite bad enough to be funny. It’s just… there.
Once you’ve read Driscoll’s novels, the original barely even feels like a story. More like a synopsis or a bulleted list of plot developments. If you have read those already, this is barely worth reading, except maybe as a curiosity.
So, that’s it for the review. Now, I’m going to talk about something else unrelated, which may or may not be of interest.
There is no “cover” proper for Herbert West–Reanimator. The Wikipedia page only shows this disaster. When people talk about the Golden Age of Pulp Art, they ain’t talking about that.
But the post feels naked without an image of some sort. So, I searched the free picture library WordPress provides for some stock art of mad scientists:
I kind of want to see a movie about mad scientists with these two, not gonna lie.
For some reason, though, I’ve always pictured Herbert West as looking and acting like a blond Tom Lehrer. Basically, a guy with the manner of a brilliant and likable young professor who is happily oblivious to how appalling what he’s saying is.
I’m also exceedingly fond of this alternate cover for The Friendship of Mortals. Most of the HW–R covers on Amazon focus too much on the zombie horror aspect, and not much on what Driscoll correctly identified as the central question of the story, namely: why does the narrator continue hanging around with West for so long?