Friday, March 21, 2014

Forgotten Books: Herbert West: Reanimator - H.P. Lovecraft

My general dislike of H.P. Lovecraft's work, while still acknowledging its influence and historical significance in the field of Weird Fiction, has gotten me in trouble on more than one occasion in the past. But for some reason, every so often I get the urge to read something by him, maybe in the hope of finding a story that I like. And whaddaya know, I finally did.

I'm fudging a little with this week's entry. "Herbert West: Reanimator" is a novella, not a novel, but it's been published by itself enough times that I think I can count it as a book. Nor is it really forgotten, since it's readily available in any number of print and digital editions. However, if Jeff Shanks hadn't included it in his recent anthology ZOMBIES FROM THE PULPS!, I probably never would have read it, so it was pretty close to being forgotten where I was concerned.

All the things I find annoying about Lovecraft's work are present here: the long-winded prose (although this one does seem to move along at a little faster clip that the other stories I've read by him), the scarcity of dialogue, the overall wussiness of the protagonists. But the genuine creepiness of this tale of a doctor who tries to discover the secret of reanimating dead bodies won me over. It's episodic, reflecting its origins as a serial in a literary magazine in 1922, but that works for me since it serves to pick up the pace. (The novella was reprinted in WEIRD TALES in 1942, after Lovecraft's death.) There are even several instances of violent action that work pretty well.

So, being curious how other people feel about this story since I liked it, I went on-line and discovered that Lovecraft himself reportedly hated it. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi says that it's universally reviled as Lovecraft's worst story. Somehow this does not surprise me. It figures that the one I like, many of his fans hate. But as usual, I don't care. It's the most pulpish Lovecraft story I've read so far, which is a good thing as far as I'm concerned. And it's got me interested enough to read something else by Lovecraft in the relatively near future. If anybody wants to recommend anything in the comments, based on my comments on this one, have at it. I'd appreciate the input.

I'll have more to say about ZOMBIES FROM THE PULPS! in due course. It'll probably take me a while to read it, since I tend to work in stories from anthologies between novels, but for me it's off to a good start with "Herbert West: Reanimator". (Side note: I've never seen the movies based on this story, which supposedly don't share much with it other than the title. I'd watch a faithful movie adaptation of it, though.)

16 comments:

Cap'n Bob said...

I think I read two Lovecraft stories and a couple others by people aping his style, and I was bored senseless by them. You put your finger on exactly what I don't like about them, too.

Walker Martin said...

I like Lovecraft alot and I've read just about everything he ever wrote. A fascinating character who had a big influence on horror fiction. He was part of the big three that made WEIRD TALES famous.

But I totally understand why many don't like his work. He had a distinctive style that many critics can't stand. I recommend that readers try two of his longest works: THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD and AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. Both these short novels have an impressive build up of creepy atmosphere and horror.

Reading Lovecraft is quite an experience and unlike any other horror writer. I think he is the greatest writer of fantastic literature since Poe.

Jerry House said...

Lovecraft is best in small doses, IMHO. I agree with Walker about AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. I would also recommend the various volumes of his letters.

Charles Gramlich said...

My God Man, you don't simply adore Lovecraft? What is wrong with you? :) I like a lot of Lovecraft but generally take him in smaller doses. I do love his use of interesting language but admittedly he milks it a bit much at times. This particular story was made into quite a good little movie of the same name. My favorite Lovecraft story of all time is "The Statement of Randolph Carter." Generally short and punchy

Charles R. Rutledge said...

I'd recommend DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE and THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK. Both are written in third person, which seems to negate some of Lovecraft's bad habits from his first person prose, and both move fairly quickly and have actual plots. I'm a huge Lovecraft fan, but I can see why folks might not like him. My very favorite is THE DUNWICH HORROR, which Joshi also hates, so there ya go.

Keith West said...

I'm not a huge Lovecraft fan, but as I've gotten older, I've grown to enjoy his work more. I'll echo what Charles said about DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE. I read THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS last year and enjoyed it.

Like you, I read HW,R in Jeff's ZOMBIES anthology. I'd not read this piece before and rather enjoyed it. I think it was the episodic structure that did it for me.

I've read the next few stories in ZOMBIES, and so far they're holding up well.

Todd Mason said...

Basically, Lovecraft helped stress the existential nature inherent in horror (which is what fascinates the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, who might also have benefited from reading him first in translation, to cut away at all the fustion and attempts at Elevated and penny/word inflated prose), and certainly inspired his two most important acolytes, Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber, to pick up his ball and run with it...and did they ever. (And the next gen of heavy HPL influence included Ramsey Campbell and Fred Chappell, the next gen after that Thomas Ligotti and T.E.D. Klein.) But he's usually a writer of terrible prose. Joshi is at least as much an polemicist as I am, and I think almost everyone will note there are worse HPL stories...this one, being reprinted (from HOME BREW? I should look it up) in the same issue as Bloch's excellent "Hell on Earth" and with illustrations by Damon Knight portraying other Futurians as characters is its own sort of joy. And, of course, the films were over the top.

Todd Mason said...

And, of course, the Bloch story got this wonderful Bok cover (Bok being Knight's primary inspiration as an illustrator)...I hope the anthology also includes Bloch's fine THE DEAD DON'T DIE (from FANTASTIC ADVENTURES)...

Todd Mason said...

"The Haunter of the Dark" is the one where HPL has Robert Bloch (here "Blake") killed off...

George said...

Lovecraft had a unique perception of the world. Very naturalistic at the core and pretty scary everywhere else. HERBERT WEST: REANIMATOR delves into some disturbing regions.

D.A. Trappert said...

THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH is my all-time favorite Lovecraft story. It has a tremendously creepy atmosphere and the suspense builds page by page. It isn't so over-the-top like much of his other work.

The Re-animator movie was great, by the way, so long as you look at the shorter, more violent version.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure Bill Crider will back me up that the movie of Herbert West: Reanimator was a true classic, as D. A. Tappert said.

Jeff M.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks for all the comments and recommendations. I have plenty to choose from, when I get around to reading another Lovecraft story. For an author I supposedly don't like, I sure have a lot of his books around here!

Anonymous said...

I can certainly understand your points for not liking Lovecraft. For myself, I have to be in the right mood to read him -- a mood where I'm less concerned about plots moving and more concerned with language itself and how to explain the inexplicable.

I'd have to say that my favorite Lovecraft would be The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. It also moves forward more than the typical Lovefract vehicle.

Tracey Berry said...

I like all the weird pulpy guys, and I really like Herbert West, Reanimator. But when I'm really in the mood for that full-contact, flowery, deep-purple, keep-a-thesaurus-on-the-arm-of-your-chair kind of weird fiction, nothing hits the spot like Clark Ashton Smith.

audreydriscoll said...

I second the recommendation of "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," and would add "The Strange High House in the Mist," one of my favourites. Actually I agree with almost all the recommendations in earlier comments.
As for Herbert, I was so taken with him as a character that I wrote an extended version of the story (very extended) called The Friendship of Mortals, with my own interpretation of his motives and those of the nameless narrator. But it's not horror per se, and some may find it lacking sufficient action.