Dr. Herbert West’s longevity is something of a marvel. Lovecraft nerds love to turn up their noses at the Herbert West – Reanimator” stories, declaring them the weakest point in the author’s body of work. Lovecraft himself didn’t even think much of them – by which I mean he loathed them utterly, and mostly used them to bring in a paycheck from Weird Tales and take pot shots at that upstart lady writer’s new hit Frankenstein. At the same time, those six serial shorts went on to birth the single most successful Lovecraft adaptation and the most memorable, longlasting character not sleeping in R’lyeh or bound in human flesh. Dr. West’s quest to defeat death has made quite the hallmark on western culture (and beyond). And, well, I haven’t seen anyone else try to catalogue that impressive body of work yet. So let’s take a look at the Re-Animator through popular culture.
A note: while I’ve been mulling over this sort of post for some time as an outlet for my obsessive researching tendencies, it still seems only right that I tip my hat to Lindsay Ellis’ excellent Loose Canon series, which takes a similar investigative tack.
Herbert West – Reanimator
The original story, published as six parts in Weird Tales magazine. As with most Lovecraft stories, it features an unnamed Narrator relating an unspeakable horror (so unspeakable that it saved the author from having to come up with effectively evocative descriptors!). That horror is, in this instance, Herbert West, a brilliant scientist seeking to destroy death by inventing a serum that can reanimate corpses. And reanimate them he does, seeking ever fresher subjects from hospital morgues and war zones until his old creations come calling (because science does not include keeping track of your subjects after the fact).
HWR is a very different creature from most of Lovecraft’s work, thanks largely in part to its nature as a serial: every story needed to end on a cliffhanger, and so HP’s usual M.O. of long, ponderous lead ups to a single revelation was necessarily replaced by a single, concise event and twist ending (usually involving a misplaced, reanimated corpse) to end each tale. And it’s true that the stories are missing the sense of foreboding atmosphere and flowery prose that lends such memorable strength to Lovecraft’s Elder God stories (though they’re not such a departure from his work as to miss out on the usual undercurrent of horrible racism).
But it’s also marked as different from the average Lovecraft story by way of its coherent plot structure and characters with personalities, relationships, and something dangerously close to arcs. By and large, Lovecraft protagonists are blank-faced suckers meant to facilitate a twist ending (your “Rats in the Walls”) or to act as a guide into the cosmic horror that truly owned the man’s authorly heart. The latter stories particularly are prompts more than they’re concise narratives, a fact that doubtlessly contributed to the thriving lifeblood of new authors being drawn to that vague, open sandbox. Herbert West is, at its base level, a zombie story before the Romero model became popular and a mad scientist tale blatantly uninterested in the philosophy Shelley had imbued the subgenre with. And so it sat, unloved by its creator and at odds with the genres of the time, for more than sixty years.
An aside before we move on, more pertinent than you might expect: “Herbert West – Reanimator,” is fairly cleanly classified as a public domain work, falling just before the 1923 institution of modern copyright law. This makes it a good sight luckier than many of Lovecraft’s most famous works (including “The Call of Cthulhu), which were published after copyright law was instituted but while it was still rather sketchily defined, creating an indescribable horror of red tape for any would-be adaptive parties. This will not stop the good Dr. West from being at the heart of some…interesting legal troubles.
Released in 1985, Directed by Stuart Gordon
The year is 1985. Med Student Dan Cain is top of his class and engaged to Megan Halsey, daughter of the Dean. His life is quickly and violently derailed when he accepts transfer student Herbert West as his roommate and finds himself seduced into Herbert’s experiments in defeating death.
By far the most iconic version of the story and of West himself, so much so that it became the base point for most future works looking to pay homage to the good doctor. Updating the story to the 80s winds up being a perfect move not just because the film’s low budget, not a second wasted gorefest winds up reading as the modern equivalent of the pulp magazine where the story originated; but because that decade in horror wound up being so defined by elements like spectacular practical effects from the Cronenbergs of the world and great gouts of blood from the up and coming slasher genre. It’s a lurid little movie thoroughly of its age, and moving it even one iota would destroy the thing (let us all be thankful that the whispers of a reboot around 2009 proved dead in the water).
The entire movie is held together by Jeffrey Combs, playing West as a laser-focused obsessive with just enough of an eye for manipulating humans when he wants them around (see: Dan) and an acidic bluntness for everyone else. The slight touch of ham underneath makes for a beguiling performance, easily on the level of great B-actor Vincent Price. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, though they’re all comparatively given less to work with. And Combs’ true costar, the gore effects, hold up remarkably well. Those fifty-plus gallons of blood were not wasted.
Of course, there’s the problem of the film’s rampant misogyny. I don’t even mean Herbert, whose seething dislike of any woman who comes remotely close to his assistant ends up reading as something between icy bafflement at human intimacy and jealousy at the loss of Dan’s attention. That’s a character trait, not necessarily indicative on its own. Sadly, the rest of the film provides more than enough ammo. Meg Halsey might be the purest example of the “Sexy Lampshade” problem (wherein a female character could be replaced by a lamp with a note taped to it without the plot being affected) I’ve ever seen – her every line of dialogue is dismissed by the otherwise wholly male cast, and by the third act she’s effectively a MacGuffin. And the film’s most infamous moment – the “head giving head” rape scene – marks not only the film’s one major shift from black comedy into pure cruelty but is also the only time a sentient character is tortured (with the rest either being cleanly killed or brought back as insensate zombies). Barbara Crampton does everything she can with a slip of a role, but it still casts a bit of a pall on the experience (for a Crampton/Combs/Gordon Lovecraft movie where Crampton actually gets to be an active plot participant, you’ll have to seek out From Beyond – which is no doubt helped by the fact that Crampton and Combs have to share victimhood duties).
Now, the fact that this film became the iconic face of Lovecraft’s story also means that it ended up with a considerable amount of legal sway. “Re-Animator Pictures Inc.” still exists today, and is headed by the director of the two film sequels, Brian Yuzna. It has a copyright not on the original story, but on the bits that the film introduced: namely, the glowing green serum and the likenesses of the cast. They’re a pretty amenable lot, and the hub through which folks hoping to license the characters for toys, screenings, and etc. would go through.
The same year that the film came out there was also a novelization of the film released, written primarily by Jeff Rovin with additional credit from the film writers. I mention it here rather than in its own section because the thing is damnably impossible to find: copies online start with a $50 price tag, and the only two libraries in the United States that own a copy won’t allow it to leave the building. In fact, the most involved discussion I’ve been able to find on the novel is found within this excellent essay on the homoerotic subtext in the Re-Animator film series – so the most I can tell you is that the novel took that subtext one farther and put forth a decidedly queer interpretation of Herbert. You can perhaps imagine my delight – even if it falls back on old “code the villain” elements, there’s something irresistible about seeing a bit of yourself in such a brilliant, entertaining character. And given the solid month that went into research on this piece…well. But I digress.
Bride of Re-Animator
Released in 1989, Directed by Brian Yuzna
Now a licensed doctor, recently returned from a war zone alongside Herbert, and still mourning Meg’s death, Dan threatens to abandon Herbert and their seemingly stalled experiments. Attempting to appease Dan into staying, Herbert begins work on a project to create a living human from assorted parts, with Meg’s heart as the centerpiece.
Imagine the original Re-Animator film. Now, in proper pulpy sci-fi/horror fashion, imagine a fearsome electrical storm that, when it passes, leaves two films in its wake, with the parts making up the original divided between them. That more or less describes the two Yuzna-directed sequels. The first, Bride, wound up with all of the original’s character work and emotional elements….at the expense of tight pacing and a wholly coherent plot, which can’t have been helped by the fact that (according to Combs) the production team was forced to ditch the initial script right before filming began.
What remains are a number of amazing scenes between Jeff Combs and Bruce Abbott (Dan), whose amazing chemistry does a great deal to keep the actual Bride-making plot interesting, and then a whole bunch of nebulous Stuff surrounding that. Remember Dr. Hill, the decapitated mass of awful human from the first movie? He’s back now, even though that’s thoroughly impossible based on the ending of the last film (yes, more so than Herbert’s own vague demise). There’s a thing about a cop whose wife was reanimated and put in a mental institute…Herbert’s “morbid doodling” with reanimating collections of discarded parts…Dan vaguely attempting to get a new girlfriend. It all just kind of happens while the movie waits to come back around to the Bride plot, without much sense of tension to hold it together. As a horror film, it’s painfully incapable of standing on its own.
But if you’ve bothered to seek it out, you’re probably not expecting it to stand on its own. And the deeply unhealthy, codependent relationship between Dan and Herbert that carries over from the first film is well performed enough to merit watching. There’s genuine tragedy on all sides: Dan’s kind of a selfish asshole whose morals are about as solvent as his immediate wants, but he’s also compassionate to a fault in caring for the people around him (great bedside manner! Horrible doctor/patient boundaries); Herbert is wholly unconcerned with anything that might impede his studies, but he’s also found himself relying on another human being and winds up a heady mix of pathetic, terrified, and helpless at the idea of losing such a nebulously Important Person; and the Bride (played, I believe, by Kathleen Kinmount – done up in truly spectacular makeup and giving a very classic MGM Horror performance) is both completely innocent of the nightmare she’s brought into and ultimately as dangerous as any of the reanimated creations. Those scenes work so well that it makes one want to pluck them out and stick them into a movie not doomed by its own production (in addition to the script woes, Yuzna is quite evidently still getting the hang of his directorial debut).
Released in 2003, Directed by Brian Yuzna
Imprisoned for over a decade, Herbert West gets a chance to test out his new research on transmitting the “self” after death when the brother of one of his victims starts work as a doctor at the prison – and has decidedly not forgotten the Re-Animator.
Here we have the other half of our bifurcated original film. Beyond Re-Animator does not have heart; indeed, if it came across some it wouldn’t know what to do beyond spewing the fresh, glistening viscera across its low budget prison sets. What it does have is a fiendish desire to top its own ridiculousness and a willingness to jettison absolutely everything besides Jeffrey Combs in the name of not so much doubling down on as setting fire to the original black comedy gore bar set by the original film.
And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t blow that goal out of the water. While it’s a bit disappointing that they didn’t even give the underappreciated Bruce Abbott so much as a cameo (Dan is mentioned, quite obliquely, in exactly one line), the fact that the film can reconstruct itself into such a tight, function story so long after the original film is canny and admirable in itself.
There’s not exactly nothing for the actors to do: Jeff Combs remains the stand out delight as per usual, here playing Herbert with a sort of implacable deadpan that is at once fixated on the usual results and also 110% done with everything around him (there’s some interesting subtext about the loss of his humanity and the effect that has on the new doctor seeming to serve as Dan 2.0 only to be discarded, but the film is only passingly interested in it); veteran giallo actor Simón Andreu throws on as much sleaze as he can possibly muster, and while Elsa Pataky’s character gets a real short shrift the actress is given the opportunity to play a solid spectrum of dynamics by virtue of the film’s “transferring consciousness” conceit.
It’s the kind of film where after a certain point one finds themselves reduced to simply describing the ridiculous actions on screen, at a loss for deeper meaning but no less transfixed. In that spirit: during the climactic prison battle, a violent reanimated rat rolls the villain’s severed penis across the floor of an execution chamber, while the assistant du jour fights his possessed former lover who seems to have come back from the dead with a leather corset; and Herbert West fights off both the severed torso of a vengeful inmate and a man who may or may not be, mentally, a rat.
For a brief time the creative team wanted to do a sequel called House of Re-Animator, in which Herbert would be called in to bring back the recently deceased president in order to prevent a national panic. Shenanigans, one presumes, would ensue. Sadly, this one seems permanently scrapped – Yuzna seemed to intend it specifically as satire of the Bush administration, so once that timetable passed the potential relevancy of the project went with it.
Starting with a three issue adaptation of the film in 1985 (perfectly passable, with thick lined artwork in the 50s Tales of Horror style), comics have seen the highest concentration of takes on the Re-Animator story. Or so it was, before…
Army of Darkness vs. Re-Animator
Published in 2006, Written by James Kuhoric and Nick Bradshaw
In which Ash is committed to Arkham Asylum and meets the famed Dr. Herbert West, the Necronomicon is involved, and battle lines are drawn.
If that synopsis seems half-hearted, rest assured in your assumption that this miniseries isn’t really worth the effort. It features Herbert West about as frequently and honestly as the original Friday the 13th featured Jason Voorhees, and even Dynamite Comics seems eager to nudge the thing under the rug, going so far as to release the similarly titled continuity reboot Army of Darkness/ReAnimator in 2013. No, what’s interesting about this comic is what it started.
You’ll recall I mentioned that in the wake of the 1985 film Brian Yuzna became the president of Re-Animator Productions, Inc., yes? And that the original character concept and story of Herbert West is public domain material? Well, right around 2005 (when, not so coincidentally, the AoD vs RA issues would’ve been published as individual issues), a third entity known as “ReAnimator LLC” popped into existence. Simultaneously, ReAnimator LLC submitted paperwork to try and institute a trademark on the word “ReAnimator” (no hyphen), which would apply to all print media. The case, if I am reading the available legal documents correctly, circled back and forth for over year until the 2007, when the trademark was cancelled. Hold that thought.
Hack/Slash: ReAnimation Games
Published in 2008, written by Tim Seeley
Veteran “slasher” killer Cassie Hack’s search for her missing father leads her not only to the man in question but also his employer: Dr. Herbert West, whose interest in the regenerating tissue of slashers has led him to acquire Cassie’s mother as a test subject.
This is a solid bit of comics writing, able to communicate a great deal of history within three issues and wring an emotional conclusion even from a reader who hasn’t read every issue (i.e. yours truly). Herbert is more or less a plot device here, operating in full sociopath mode and serving largely to move the players in the Hack family drama in place. Which is perfectly fine for what the series is – it has a history of bringing in famous horror icons for Cassie to face off against, and the baseline of how Herbert is written rings true enough that one can simply enjoy his cameo without being called on to wonder if he’s developing in a way that feels true to the character. The art is clean and bright (a trait that was sadly lost in the move to Image Comics), and story moves along at a steady pace.
Alright, unpause what I told you about those rights holders. The year is now 2008, and the creative team for Hack/Slash gets a cease and desist letter for their arc featuring Herbert West. This letter comes not from Yuzna, who openly gave the comic his blessing, but from the fledgling ReAnimator LLC. The company owned by Nick Barucci, the head of Dynamite Comics. You may recall that ReAnimator LLC’s bid to trademark the phrase “ReAnimator” was rejected in 2007 – and by the same documentation, apparently the case wasn’t renewed until 2009. Meaning that this letter had exactly zero legal right over the character of Herbert West, and was likely banking on the fact that a small indie company would be too afraid to risk taking things to court (I contacted Dynamite to try and get comment on these shenanigans, but they haven’t gotten back to me – hopefully they will, and I’ll be able to update this).
Legal or no, the scare tactic worked. Hack/Slash’s then-distributor, Diamond Comic Distributors, dropped those issues of the series, meaning readers could only get them by going directly to the publisher (even still, you can’t get those issues on, say, Comixology – though you can get the collection they’re included in quite cheaply on Google Play).
Once Hack/Slash featured its (now effectively vanished) run with Herbert West, only one other comic made use of the character: The Chronicles of Dr. Herbert West, which also began publishing in 2008. It’s a pretty terrible series, with cringeworthy artwork and nothing much to add to the retelling beyond “but what if the Narrator was Herbert’s heterosexual lady love interest though.” In fact, it was so small that I wasn’t able to find a reason given as to why it also stopped running in late 2008/early 2009, having published only three of a stated six planned issues.
Published in 2015, written by Keith Davidson
Recently ripped from the early 20th century to present day thanks to the magic of the Necronomicon (see that Ash Williams crossover from 2013), Herbert West finds a new assistant in the form of Susan Greene, a capable and ethically malleable pharmacologist.
Low and behold, the first ReAnimator comic published after the cease and desist debacle of 2008 is put out by none other than Dynamite Comics. ReAnimator LLC took their trademark crusade up again in 2009, and seem to have tentatively succeeded within the last few years – the legal records I was able to find peter out as of 2013 without notice of another cancellation, and when I contacted Brian Yuzna he mentioned that his company and the LLC reached a settlement in order to avoid a protracted legal battle. The compromise was that comics would be banned from using the iconic glowing green serum or the likenesses of the characters.
The last item might be a surprise to anyone who’s read the miniseries, because this version of Herbert looks an awful lot like Jeff Combs. Certainly he’s no petite blond. You would not be alone in thinking so. Yuzna ended his brief email to me by saying: “In the opinion of RPI (Re-Animator Pictures, Inc.), Dynamite has been promoting its products as being derived from the famous motion picture. This is, of course, just the opposite of the truth.” Given the squint-and-its-arguable design on Herbert and the sickly yellow glow of the serum, it’s extremely easy to imagine that the instructions given to the artists were “as close as you can without getting us sued.” Another charming swoop in what seems to be a history of technically legal dickery.
And it is a damn shame, because this is actually a pretty enjoyable miniseries. Susan is an engaging protagonist who has a solid rapport with Herbert, who for his part is somewhere between the “total work-focused sociopath” characterization and actual human communication. His dependent relationship with an assistant provided quite a bit of fodder for the films, after all, so framing that here as “actually performing a psychological experiment in the middle of reanimating work” proves a fairly effective angle. This also marks another attempt semi-common in latter day works of trying to fuse the pure (if implausible) science focus of the original story into the more supernatural elements of Lovecraft’s larger Mythos. So long as it remains on the fringe, as it mostly does here, it works well enough. When it doesn’t…
Mystery of the Necronomicon
Released in 2001, directed by Hideki Takayama
Detective Satoshi Suzuhara and his adopted daughter Asuka are on vacation at an isolated resort when a series of gruesome ritual murders begin taking place. Cut off from help, it becomes a race to find the culprit.
If you are of sufficient age and involvement in a certain segment of nerd culture, that director probably sent your eyebrows straight through the roof. A good section more will join in if I include the tag emblazoned on the DVD cover: from the director of Legend of the Overfiend. Yes, the infamous OVA series that not only appeared in every Blockbuster in the late 90s and early 2000s but also had an honest-to-God theatrical release, thus ensuring that Americans inextricably linked anime with violent tentacle porn. He made a Lovecraft OVA.
Now, given the history lesson I just gave you, and the perhaps illuminating knowledge that Overfiend was so enamored of the intertwining of sex and violence that at least one of its tentacle rapes ended with the victim’s head exploding post orgasm, I do hope you will forgive me for skipping directly to the all-plot no-porn final episode of this series. Having done so, I can report to you that this is not Herbert West at all.
Oh, they call him Herbert West. He raises the dead. He’s even blond, although he looks eerily like Hannibal Lecter. But in fact, what we have here is Dr. Carl Hill, who has stolen the West name for max audience credit. The story behind this “West” is that he was originally working with a colleague on the secrets of defeating death, only for that colleague to wind up dead and West nowhere to be found. Except in his free time “West” took an interest in serial murdering, including (with the help of the Necronomicon) ritual-murdering and absorbing the souls of a couple and coming back in the present day to creep on (and eventually murder and soulsorb) their newly legal daughter. Yup, it even features a skeevy daddy issues scene wherein Hill-West “comforts” this girl whose parents he offed and then assaults her as she’s shackled to an icy slab. This is the universe where Hill successfully murdered Herbert, took his research, and went on to an illustrious career of being a horrific rapist bastard. I watched this for you, readers.
Released in 2006, Directed by Shoichi Masuo (based on a PC game from 2003)
P.I. and professional mooch Kurou Daijuji is recruited by a wealthy, shadowy organization to acquire a grimoire. Desperate for money, he takes the job, but it’s not long before he’s set on by the sinister forces of the Black Lodge and correspondingly rescued by a young woman called Al-Azif.
The Necronomicon is a tsundere with twintails. That’s kind of all you need to know about Demonbane, but since I sat through the entire thing I may as well belabor the point a little. This anime is fanfiction. It is, specifically, the kind of fanfiction that really likes the aesthetic of a series and wants to play with it but doesn’t have much interest in the mood, tone, or dynamics of what made the original tick, and thus conspires to make very enthusiastic meat puppets for the purpose of its new production. Thus, the Necronomicon (and various other Unspeakable Texts) are all cute loli girls rendered in what I can only describe as the platonic ideal of low budget 2000s anime art style, Arkham is a bustling and nondescript burg with churches that don’t involve Elder Gods, and the “Shadow Over Innsmouth” tribute coincides with the requisite fanservicey Beach Episode. It is occasionally competent and often skull crushingly mediocre, a C of an anime if ever there was one.
And also there is Dr. West. Not Herbert West. DOKTAH WEHST, who has bright green hair, a loli (robot) assistant of his own, a love of electric guitar, and an obsession with building…robots. In an almost hilarious aside to the continuity it can’t be bothered with, his lab is filled with enormous tanks of vivid green liquid that are never used or commented on, because there are robot mechs to be built. Though given that West is pound for pound the only reliably entertaining part of the series, acting as a sort of Team Rocket meets Dist the Reaper, it is hard to be too angry with him. There is a trace of actual-factual-Herbert in the character’s ego and distate for hierarchy, but mostly it’s as token a nod as anything else the series does. He does defect from the villains to become something of a charming sidekick, so at least the series threw me a bone with my favorite trope.
A Shoggoth on the Roof
Written in 1979
A parody of Fiddler on the Roof populated by various characters from Lovecraft: Professor Armitage has three daughters, each looking to marry, while threats of Elder Gods plague the little town from all sides.
Remember how I said that most Serious Business Lovecraft Fans think of the Re-Animator stories as the bottom of the barrel? Wow, does that show through clearly here. Herbert is the height of plot devices here, having apparently perfected his reanimation experiments and instead set his eye on…marrying Armitage’s oldest daughter. If there’s one thing I certainly associate with Herbert West, it’s placing a value on traditional societal relationships. Part of this is down to the nature of the parody aspect, which gives West a version of the Motel the Tailor role…so naturally, having bent his character to fit that role, it then makes sense to make his major number “To Life” rather than “Miracle of Miracles.” I suppose the pun was too good to pass up. But it doesn’t matter much, since his true purpose is to pop up and revive the townspeople after Cthulhu’s had his rampage.
I am doubtlessly being overly harsh here – it’s rare to see a work incorporating the HWR story prior to the film, and the level of parody here is quite surface. It’s the kind of concept that would, in present day, flower from an increasingly manic passing of potential AUs. And there are a few good songs to be had in the show (which also suffers from its own legal battles, incidentally – due to the convoluted nature of Lovecraftian copyright, it’s only been successfully performed twice), most of them given in service of the Elder God pantheon (Cthulhu’s “Do You Fear Me” is a laugh riot). It’s the kind of work that would have rang fresher at the beginning of this research journey rather than the end, where one can’t help but read an element of “ehhhhh, that story, it’ll hold this other neat stuff we’ve thought up together.”
Re-Animator the Musical
Originally Staged in 2011, Directed by Stuart Gordon
A borderline-operetta imagining of the first Re-Animator movie, high on camp and offering two full rows of splash zone.
This is something of a holy grail of Re-Animator fandom. Sharing the same director as the film, who realized he could attain the same low-fi charm of the original using the intimacy of the stage, it obtained a cult following of hardcore film fans and theatergoers alike during its initial run in LA. The show has resurfaced here and there (most recently in Vegas in early 2015, in a production that featured Norm himself playing Dean Halsey), always featuring the charming duo of Graham Skipper and Jesse Merlin as Herbert West and Dr. Hill respectively – the two actors’ camaraderie and position as the spearhead of publicity while the show was running contributed to a far more charming take on Hill and West’s rivalry (and, as happens when villains are allowed to sing, with Hill’s character in general).
As to how the show proceeds, I’m afraid I can’t tell you beyond broad strokes. There is no official cast album (though the Facebook group teased the future existence of one back in September 2015), you see, or even a full list of songs. Full recordings are nonexistent, and even partial ones are rare and occasionally out of date in regard to lyrical revisions. But those who were able to see it are ironclad in their devotion, and even from gathered scraps it’s not hard to see why: Skipper plays Herbert with a great deal more ham than his film counterpart, as befits the stage; and the music that is available is fleet, clever, and unique in its construction. And it seems, for all the buckets of gore and goofy tangos, to be sincere in the treatment of its character. Evil Dead the Musical adopted a great number of deprecating winks when it came to the stage (not always to its benefit), but certain emotional beats in RATM are played dead straight. Next time a production is announced I hope to be able to hop a plane and tell you all about it, but for now, here are the tidbits I’ve amassed: you can listen to an interview with the crew which also features a few otherwise unavailable musical clips (it includes the original technical artists from the film, who have some fascinating stories to tell about the effects work on both film and stage); a few of the songs are available on composer Mark Nutter’s website (as well as here), and there are two publicity recordings featuring Skipper and Gillespie’s duets (Skipper does a mean patter song, I’ll tell you that).
The Friendship of Mortals
Released in 2010, continued in 2014 as The Herbert West Series, Written by Audrey Driscoll
A reimagining of the original canon and character study of Herbert West: who, exactly, would he become if he survived proving his own experiments?
I find myself simultaneously beguiled and frustrated by this series, readers, in no small measure on either side. On the one hand it is the only series on this list that is fully dedicated to working as a character study, manages to incorporate the brooding, slow burn atmosphere of Lovecraft to general effect; has easily the best developed and most interesting female characters in the franchise, and discards with the subtext in favor of overtly characterizing Herbert as queer (and then carrying on to explore that in an actual human framework). On the other, its roots in the world of self-publishing are at times painfully clear (though one cannot say the author isn’t canny – in addition to being the traditionally described blond, Herbert also uses a bright purple serum on his “revivification” experiments), and the series as a whole has difficulty balancing its dual romantic and Romantic plot threads.
The thing about Herbert West is that he is, in the best adaptations, a creature of extremes. The films took him down a track of obsessive destruction, forsaking collateral lives, his reputation, his one meaningful human relationship, and eventually the remains of his humanity in pursuit of an increasingly vaguely defined scientific goal (the pursuit, by then being far more enticing than the goal). Driscoll, aware that that thematic ground was well plumbed, opts to take the story in an opposite direction: if he were stripped of his ability to reanimate the dead and forced to continue after the events of the original canon (including the lingering consequences thereof), what sort of man would he become? It’s a bold experiment, and truly new ground to tread in almost a century since the story’s original publication. More than anything, it becomes an effort to make Herbert into a fully formed human being outside of his need to SCIENCE, forced by the more protracted timeline of a novel to have social contacts and interactions outside of tireless experimentation.
The Narrator (here named Charles Milburn, a cataloguer initially in charge of keeping the Necronomicon when he meets West) benefits from the expansion as well. His internal struggle between horror at West’s experiments and beguilement with the man himself proves to be a humanizing element above and beyond the original Narrator’s “well, I was frankly scared he’d murder me if I left.” But it’s Alma, this story’s Meg Halsey stand-in, who fares best by comparison. She’s an actual character with personality, motivation, and impact on the plot, far better drawn than any of her predecessors (arguably even more so than the recent Susan Greene).
Once the first book covers the events of the original canon and gives West his metaphorical rebirth things get a little shakier, ranging from frustratingly redundant (there is at least one new narrator whose section could be cut entirely) to genuinely gripping, and when Herbert himself (and not others’ assumptions about him) becomes the focus things are almost always on solid ground. There’s some trouble juggling the metaphysical elements – there’s the Necronomicon, as I mentioned; alchemy becomes a player late in the game, and there’s a whole bunch of nebulously Mythos-related Stuff in between – and I’m not convinced it sticks the landing, but those are discussions for another day (and rest assured, there will be another day).
When it works it’s a fantastic read, and those moments outnumber the failures by a wide enough margin to make the first book (which is totally free, being the most overtly fanfiction-y of the lot) an easy recommendation for anyone with a vested interest in the franchise. Oh, and a warning regarding fairly disturbing discussions of assault and child abuse for anyone who makes it further on.
As a final aside that’s still somewhere between a subtle joke and a full-on homage, Steven Universe mentions a “Dr. West” during the events of “Nightmare Hospital” – and for that matter, the Gem shard experiments bear a strong similarity to movie Herbert’s “morbid doodles.” I only hope this comes all the way around, so that I can fully enjoy the potential (West Gem? Please?)
Did you know you can support this blog on Patreon?
Categories: Analysis, List, Uncategorized
I have the collected works of Lovecraft, but I have never read this. I really need to check this out. Great article by the way! 🙂
I’ve been watching Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated (which is a lot of fun!), and they just had a H.P. Lovecraft-based episode I think you’d like called “The Shrieking Madness.” It has the real Harlan Ellison dissing Lovecraft, err excuse me, “Professor Hatecraft” in the episode. Plus, Jeffrey Combs plays H.P. Hatecraft in the episode! Anyway, it’s on Netflix for your viewing pleasure. 🙂
Jeff Combs is pretty reliably a delight. I can’t believe they got Ellison out of his Cranky Old Bastard Cave
The thing is, he delightfully plays an old cranky bastard in the episode!
I’m coming to this late, and am flattered that you have seen fit to include my version of Herbert’s story in your history of the character. It is true that I kissed the horror aspect goodbye early in the saga, and probably mashed up too many elements to make the whole opus a success with any one readership, but… I got fairly obsessed with Herbert for several years and couldn’t stop writing about him. I also decided to bring him to my part of the world, which involved creating the fictional Gulf Island, and the Bellgarde family. (I gather you found Margaret somewhat redundant; as I’ve reread that book while editing it for the print version I’ve sometimes had the same sentiment). I did an immense amount of reading in order to create a believable gay character, and I think I’ve succeeded, although it would have been hugely presumptuous to make this into “gay lit.” I also did not regard Herbert as a villain or freak, but perhaps I romanticized him too much. I could go on and on, but will just note that the fourth book (Hunting the Phoenix, where Alma emerges as a fully realized character) will be available in print later this year. All four have been available as ebooks for some years, and The Friendship of Mortals ebook is, as you’ve noted, free. Again, thanks for this post!
So kind of you to post! I’m quite touched. I read the whole series in rather a flurry, actually – certainly it was fascinating. I actually quite liked Margaret. She was quite endearing (if anything, that book I was eager to get to Margaret’s perspective and a bit bogged down in Andre’s).
At the end of the day I was quite glad to have read them and that they exist. I can’t remember the last time I stayed up until three am to finish a book…and perhaps I was disappointed only that the first book put such an enormous focus on Charles and Herbert’s relationship…and then that element was all but offstage once things came full circle in the last book, alongside an ENORMOUS gap in who Herbert had become that we were always at the edge of (not that Alma wasn’t an interesting POV character in her own right, but there was always some element of emotional payoff there I was still yearning for).
Well, yes, there are potentially many more stories there, but I don’t know if I’m the one to write them. But I’m glad you found the series worth reading.