It would be far too easy to dismiss the American writer H. P. Lovecraft as an occasional writer of pulp fiction. He is one of the masters of the horror genre but he also has a rightful place in American literary canon. Any horror novel worth reading is about more than gore or an endless series of evil acts. The best showcase the writer’s ability to distinguish right from wrong. (For that matter, the same is true about horror films). The perennial ideas about power, greed, passion, and often misplaced love should be the elements of a worthy horror story.
One of his most famous stories is “Herbert West—Reanimator” was published serially in 1922, and it tells a tale of a scientist who is rejected by the establishment of his medical school, the fictional Miskatonic University Medical School. West is not just a man with a penchant for an occasional rebellion. There is a reason why his methods are perceived as unethical and, well, weird. West was obsessed with bringing people back to life from death by injecting them with a substance wholly created by him.
“His views,” writes the narrator of the story, “which were widely ridiculed by the faculty and his fellow students, hinged on the essentially mechanistic nature of life; and concerned means for operating the organic machinery of mankind by calculated chemical action after the failure of natural processes.” He believed that “the so-called ‘soul’ is a myth,” and “like most youths, he indulged in elaborate day-dreams of revenge, triumph, and final magnanimous forgivenesses.”
The narrator, who somehow found himself to be West’s assistant in tracking the fresh corpses, is uncertain as to why he hasn’t rejected West’s strange friendship. He is essentially an accomplice in West’s depraved and unethical acts, and in many ways, it is the narrator who becomes a far more intriguing character in this story. We witness West through the narrator’s eyes, and his ethical questions also challenge us.
Throughout the story, West never becomes a caricature of a mad scientist but rather a man possessed with a desire to extend life for, presumably, good purposes. Although acting in a similar manner as Dr. Frankenstein, West also differs in his approach because he’s not interested in deconstruction of a body. Despite the fact that he doesn’t believe that soul exists, West desires to keep the body intact. But these desires come at a terrible price. Visions of darkness and the depths of evil into which a man can sink are nearer than we wish to admit. Lovecraft describes this inhuman territory and a region of West’s being so chillingly: “Not more unutterable could have been the chaos of hellish sound if the pit itself had opened to release the agony of the damned, for in one inconcievable cacophony was centered all the supernal terror and unnatural despair of animate nature.”
What West fails repeatedly to acknowledge is that human beings are not brains in vats. Their full embodiment is not only of a physical type but of the spirit itself. In denying this, West has denied his own existence as well because of his power-seeking obsession. As the narrator observes, “Herbert West’s existence was a quest amid black and forbidden realms of the unknown, in which he hoped to uncover the secret of life and restore to perpetual animation the graveyard’s cold clay.”
The emptiness and meaninglessness of his life then leads us to the question whether West even has a soul or has he annihilated it at some point in his life? The core of his mad project is an extension of life, and by implication the denial of death. To deny death is to deny humanity, and no matter how much West rejects spirit, his delusions (however logical, rationalistic, or scientific he may pretend them to be) have turned him into precisely the kind of reanimated corpse he is attempting to create outside of himself. He may consider himself the reanimator but the very center of his being is devoid of any anima.
“Weird tales,” as Lovecraft liked to call the stories, are true art in some way, and he took his writing task very seriously. They give us a glimpse into the recesses of our minds that we dare not examine long because there is always an ethical choice to be made. Despite the fact that Lovecraft was an odd man himself (with a strange marriage, and an even stranger relationship with his mother to whom he developed a rather unhealthy attachment), he produced stories of great imagination and detail. He defended the horror story as a valid genre, as well as the place of a writer in that genre, given the fact that horror writers are often dismissed, and not considered “real” writers. (Stephen King writes about this in his superb memoir and one of the best books about the writerly vocation, On Writing).
On one occasion, Lovecraft wrote,
The imaginative writer devotes himself to art in its most essential sense . . . He is a painter of moods and mind-pictures—a capturer and amplifier of elusive dreams and fancies—a voyager into those unheard-of lands which are glimpsed through the veil of actuality . . . Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.
Lovecraft was a deeply philosophical writer, and his stories prove that probing into human consciousness can lead into the dark abyss that may or may not look back into us. The stories are mirrors into our souls, and as much as we get a good scare when we read them, more importantly they invite us to see the dangers of how far man can go in his quest to become a god.