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Literature / Herbert West–Reanimator

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"Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror."

Herbert West—Reanimator is a horror novella by H. P. Lovecraft. It was originally serialized in six parts in 1922.

Herbert West, a medical student at Miskatonic University and later a qualified doctor, experiments with a process he hopes will allow him to restore life to dead bodies. His experiments lead him down dark paths and result in a horrible end for himself, carried off in pieces by his own creations.

Inspired the Re-Animator film series starring Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West. The first two films, Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator, adapt incidents from the novella, while the third film, Beyond Re-Animator, invents a new story.

This story contains examples of:

  • Artificial Zombie: Herbert West makes several attempts to reanimate the dead. His first few tries all result in Flesh Eating Zombies (he blames brain damage) but eventually he makes one that is smart enough to make more walking corpses which it orders to tear Dr. West limb from limb (and they took his head when they ran off). The most terrifying fact was that all of them were fast zombies — they retained the full physical strength they had in life, the quickness of a fit living human, lacked any sort of fear and never gave up unless killed (again) for good.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: This story is a good deal more visceral and violent than Lovecraft's usual style.
  • Came Back Wrong: Herbert West becomes convinced that life is strictly chemical, and repeatedly attempts to bring the dead back to life. His first revived human attempts to claw its way back into its filled-in grave, and the others exhibit similar signs of madness when revived. Finally, the abominations that West hauled back from the great beyond find him, and silently tear him to pieces in front of the narrator, before leaving without a trace with West's remains. The last one of West's experiments does appear to be quite sentient: a pilot decapitated in an accident, whose head and body live separate from each other but act as one entity. He is not only able to understand what West did to him (having helped with a few experiments himself) and desire revenge, but also bend the other research subjects to his will, as well.
  • Damaged Soul: Herbert West's attempts to bring people back from the dead at first result in either the subject coming back to life for a few seconds, letting out a terrifying scream and dying again, or in the Damaged Soul, becoming insane cannibalistic zombies. Dr. West believes this to be because the brain gets damaged even during brief periods of death (or, as he explains after one of his test subjects breaks loose, "Damn it! It was not quite fresh enough!"). In the end he succeeds in perfecting his methods, resulting in a Soulless Shell as well as some actually intelligent zombies that eventually lead a horde of mindless ones to kill him.
  • Death of a Child: Chapter three mentions a missing child who is strongly suggested to have been eaten by West's latest zombie creation.
  • Dies Wide Open: Herbert West, after being ripped apart by re-animated corpses.
    West's head was carried off by the wax-headed leader, who wore a Canadian officer's uniform. As it disappeared I saw that the blue eyes behind the spectacles were hideously blazing with their first touch of frantic, visible emotion.
  • Flesh-Eating Zombie: An early example. While the story predates the usage of the term "zombie" in horror fiction, several of the corpses that are reanimated (Doctor Halsey in the chapter "The Plague-Daemon" and the boxer in "Six Shots by Moonlight") do kill and eat other people, though it's implied it's not because they're driven to do so out of hunger but out of sheer psychotic mania.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: West wears glasses since his introduction which is at least his early 20's, and is often described as nearly emotionless, unless you count frustration over his continued failures, and completely lack any sort of morality or scruples. It's not until he's literally torn to shreds by his own creations that he shows visible emotion.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Herbert West and his Watson-esque assistant.
  • Immortality Immorality: Herbert West differs somewhat in that he was seeking to reverse death after the fact rather than merely stave it off, and that originally his goals were indeed great and noble, the society that couldn't spare some dead bodies for his experiments seeming quite oppressive. But later on, his grand quest turns into necrophilic obsession with death itself, and is even seen abandoning a potentially successful path to immortality in favour of attempts to reanimate detached body parts, for apparently no good reason aside from morbid amusement. That and the fact he kills someone just to ensure he has a perfectly fresh body, and refuses to stop his experiments despite the fact most of the bodies he revived immediately went on epic, savage kill-sprees.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: The main character faints during the climax, and when he wakes up, all traces of West, or his horrific experiments have mysteriously vanished. Even the walled-up cemetary gate the horde broke through into the cellar have been somehow walled up again with no hint of damage. The story ends with the main character being the main suspect in West's disappearance, though the police have no direct evidence against him.
  • Karmic Death: Herbert West is in the end killed when a horde of the more or less insane (mostly the former) victims of his experiments swoops into his laboratory and brutally rip him apart.
  • Mad Doctor: Dr. Herbert West. Mad doctor tries to reanimate dead tissue in order to defeat death, a noble ideal, although his fervor and methods (including bodysnatching and using people who have just died, often directly or indirectly due to him) in order to get the 'freshest specimens' tip him safely over the edge into crazy. He actually began his work during medical school, so he technically started out as a Mad Med Student.
  • Mad Scientist: Herbert West is a straight-to-the-point-of-parody example.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: Herbert West has a hidden laboratory, first in a dilapidated farm house and later in his cellar, for his experiments of dead body revival and other more gruesome things.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: Once his Motive Decay has set in, West begins to reanimate experiments that are patchworks of different bodies, and in some cases, not even human at all, though these abominations are not described in detail.
  • Monster Lord: The reanimated Canadian pilot has the power to bend other zombies to his will and retains much of his intelligence. He has also lost his head, but the two are somehow still connected, and he usually wears a wax head on his shoulders with two glass eyes and carries his actual head in a suitcase to do the talking. No one is ever fooled, but it's better than most of the other reanimated. (Also, the head somehow talking without lungs is the least of the story's problems.)
  • Motive Decay: As part of his general moral deterioration, West eventually loses interest in his original mission to bring people back from the dead with their mental capacities undiminished, and instead just starts performing increasingly morbid experiments in reanimation.
  • No Holds Barred Beat Down: When West steals the body of Dr. Halsey and reanimates him in "The Plague-Monster", the revenant beats the absolute hell out of both him and his assistant before running off into the night. The end of the chapter implies that West was injured badly enough that he needed extensive bandaging.
  • No Name Given: The narrator never mentions his name. The Dark Adventure adaptation gives it as "Gordon Stuart".
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Major Clapham-Lee dies by decapitation, gets resurrected by West's foul chemistry, and then the whole building collapses on top of him due to a stray artillery shell. Next time we see him, he's crossed the Atlantic in search for revenge, now a cunning Minion Master leading a host of West's other zombies. Whatever must've happened in meantime would make one hell of a story, wouldn't it?
  • Previously on…: Since the story was originally published as a serial, every chapter begins with a recap of the events of the story thus far. From the perspective of anyone reading it all at once - that is, pretty much everyone who reads it in the present day - it has the effect of retelling events that you’ve literally just witnessed.
  • Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain: Averted, the reanimated zombies can be killed just by shooting them like you would a normal human as they are not actually undead. They're still difficult to destroy due to the increased endurance their reanimated state gives them. The revived boxer in "Six Shots By Moonlight" required six bullets to put down.
  • Scary Black Man: Buck Robinson "The Harlem Smoke", a boxer freshly killed in an unsanctioned brawl. The narrator cannot help but call his long arms "forelegs", and his face "conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom beatings under an eerie moon".
  • Serial Escalation: Each installment in the series has something more horrific happening than the previous one, with the possible exception of "The Scream of the Dead." Though as the narrator notes, in that one the real horror might be considered finding out that West has Jumped Off The Slippery Slope.
  • Stealth Parody: Reanimator was a work of commissioned Frankenstein ripoff that Lovecraft was doing for the cash. By the last few chapters, it's increasingly apparent that Lovecraft was just going "Fuck it" and purposefully making it as absurd as possible.
  • Technically Living Zombie: The zombies in this story are not strictly speaking undead, since their physical processes have been restarted by West's serum.
  • Tom the Dark Lord: "Herbert" certainly won't be turning up under the fashionable names registry of Mad Science Monthly any time soon.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: The reanimated corpses (if the men that created them could be called "masters") in the final chapter.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: They're close to Romero zombies, right down to the spine being the weak point, akin to regular zombies having the head as the weak point. Notable because it was published decades before Romero became famous (or was even born), as a Frankenstein parody. The biggest difference is that they're not the result of a virus, so their bites are not infectious. However, West's most successful creation knew the secret of reanimation, and was able to create more zombies.

To Herb a human bein' was a mere machine made of meat
It only goes to show you ol' death is a foe you can't cheat