I’ll bet most people don’t know that today, November 7, is Herbert West’s birthday, except for folks who have read my novel The Friendship of Mortals. A fictional character created by one author may acquire additional traits at the hands of other creators, or even a whole life-story.
Herbert West, the mad scientist obsessed with bringing the dead back to life, was an invention of H.P. Lovecraft, in his series of stories written for the pulp magazine Home Brew in 1922. The only thing H.P.L. tells us about this character’s appearance is that he is “a small, slender, spectacled youth with delicate features, yellow hair, pale blue eyes, and a soft voice.” We learn little more about West in the course of the six stories beyond his views on life, death and the non-existence of the soul.
I suspect that most people would be more likely to recognize Herbert West in the form he acquired in the 1985 movie Re-Animator and its sequels, where he was creepily portrayed by the actor Jeffrey Combs. In this manifestation, West is “spectacled,” all right, but his hair is black. As with H.P.L.’s original, we know nothing about his background or origins, only that he is an amoral quasi-scientist who will let nothing get in his way when it comes to injecting syringe-fulls of his glowing yellow-green reagent into really fresh corpses.
Wikipedia lists a whole gang of Herbert West spinoffs, in movies, comic books, video games and at least one musical. Then there’s my Herbert West. He was born in Boston on November 7, 1886 (or, if you prefer, in my basement writing room on November 7, 2000), the son of an undertaker-turned-gangster called Hiram West. Herbert is the youngest of Hiram’s three sons. Unlike his brothers, he takes after their mother, Anna Derby West, and is indeed short, slight and blond. He wears gold-rimmed spectacles, but his eyes are grey, not blue. In addition to his research, he’s fond of cooking (specializing in Italian dishes). He’s a snappy dresser, likes fast cars and can throw a knife as well as wield a scalpel. And yes, when we first meet him, he is convinced that life is a mechanical process and the soul does not exist. But that changes.
I present Herbert West through the eyes of my narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. He’s a couple of years younger than West, an orphan whose old Bostonian family had come down in the world. Where West is devoid of a conscience, Charles is overburdened with one. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming West’s assistant and following him down the road to various trials and tribulations.
If you want to take that road with Herbert and Charles, you should read my novel. It’s available as an e-book at http://smashwords.com/b/15225
Speaking of Re-Animator, I watched it for the first time last night. Somehow it seemed appropriate to do so on the eve of the tenth anniversary of my starting to write the first of my three Herbert West novels. What did I think of it? Well, first I must admit that the comedy-horror splatterfest isn’t the sort of movie I enjoy. I prefer more plot and dialogue and less gore and guts. In fact, when it comes to horror, I prefer books to movies. Books are really mind-movies, and they can be a lot more horrifying than anything served up on the screen.
This aside, I have to admit that Re-Animator is a credible adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator” stories. It pretty much ignores three of the six segments, concentrating on the fate of the unfortunate Dean Halsey. The disembodied head, a feature of the World War I section of the original, is also given a starring role. The mayhem in the Miskatonic morgue toward the end of the movie is also a pretty good take on H.P.L.’s ‘Tomb Legions.” But the final scene, to me, was more reminiscent of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (another good treatment of the bring-them-back-to-life theme), than anything by H.P.L.