In November 2000, I started writing the first novel of what would become the Herbert West Series. This November, I have set myself a goal to finish writing a collection of stories I intend to publish in 2020. Call it my own version of NaNoWriMo. So, I’ve scheduled posts for the next four weeks featuring each of the four books of the series. Oh, and November 7th was Herbert West’s 133rd birthday!
First up, The Friendship of Mortals.
Herbert West can revivify the dead – after a fashion. Miskatonic University librarian Charles Milburn agrees to help him, compromising his principles and his romance with Alma Halsey, daughter of the Dean of Medicine. West’s experiments become increasingly risky, but when he prepares to cross the ultimate border, only Charles can save his life – if his conscience lets him.
The novel was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Don’t ask me why. Something about the premise (scientific reanimation of the dead), the setting (HPL’s fictional Miskatonic University), and the nameless narrator kept niggling at me. I wanted to create something using those elements, with a few of my own added. I gave the narrator a name (Charles Milburn) and a profession (cataloguer at the Miskatonic University Library). In November 2000, those sparks turned into a blaze.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 3
Alma lived in a curious little apartment at the top of a house on French Hill Street. Although only a short distance from Arkham’s best neighbourhoods, the area was showing signs of decline. Many of the houses had been turned into apartment buildings. Paint had faded and peeled, and efforts to conceal small blights such as ash cans and laundry lines were flagging. It was as though the waterfront slum to the north had thrown out a tentacle and induced a subtle decay.
Alma’s place was furnished in a style which could be described only as eclectic, but the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. No less so was Alma herself, wearing a kind of smock over her skirt and blouse, her hair tied back with a ribbon.
She motioned me to a cushion-laden sofa and went to make tea while I admired the way she had accommodated the comforts of life in the small space at her disposal. Her home resembled a ship’s cabin, afloat on the sea of leaves visible through the windows.
Once she had furnished me with a cup of tea fragrant with honey, Alma lost no time in pressing me for more details about my dinner with Herbert West.
“What did he want from you, anyway?”
“What makes you so sure he wanted something? Besides someone to share a meal with, I mean. He’d just finished exams, he said, and wanted to celebrate.”
“Hmm. From what I know of Mr. West he is not usually given to such spontaneous conviviality.”
“He didn’t seem to want anything much, really, just to talk about… well, his studies and that sort of thing.”
Alma looked unconvinced. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s softening you up for something.”
“What do you have against Herbert West, anyway?” I asked. “It was quite plain to me from the moment we met him at the concert that you don’t care for him.”
“You’re quite right there. I don’t like him. I think he’s unscrupulous and devious. And a real manipulator. Look at the effect he’s had on you, for example.”
“Well, I think you’re quite impressed. I do admit he is very attractive. But make no mistake, he’s entirely self-centred. And cold as ice.”
I was beginning to think that Alma’s aversion to West was rooted in nothing more than some sort of romantic connection gone wrong. She quickly dispelled this notion, however.
“Oh, don’t think I dislike him because he rejected my charms, or something silly like that. He’s not my type, for one thing. I’ve had very little to do with him, but I’ve heard quite a lot, from Papa and others at the Med. School.”
“So what is it you’ve heard?” I asked.
She looked serious. “That’s why I asked you here, actually, Charles. To tell you what I know about Herbert West so you have something to counterbalance your romantic notions. Because I still think he sought you out with some purpose in mind.”
“Sought me out? But he just happened to be at that concert – ”
“Never mind all that. Just listen.”
Herbert West had gained admission to the Miskatonic University Medical School some three years previously, Alma said, having first obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. In short order he began to make a nuisance of himself by proposing wild theories about the reversibility of death, and worse, carrying out bizarre and unauthorized experiments on animals in the Medical School’s laboratories. It was this latter habit that had caused the college authorities to step in and threaten to restrict his laboratory privileges.
“Why?” I interjected. “Was he breaking the law – stealing people’s pet dogs and cats, for example?”
“Well, no,” Alma answered, “but there was something undisciplined and unstructured about his carryings on. They weren’t part of a program of rational study, which is what first and second year medical students are supposed to be engaged in. They aren’t expected to do original research at that stage, for God’s sake.”
I reflected that for whosever sake West did his experiments, it wasn’t God’s. Aloud I said,
“It sounds to me as though they were out of their depth with him. Did it ever occur to anyone that he might be the medical equivalent of a prodigy? Like that young fellow we heard playing the violin the other night.”
“Oh Charles,” Alma said, shaking her head, “it’s quite obvious that West did a good job of impressing you. I’m probably wasting my breath. But he didn’t stop at cats and dogs, however legitimately acquired.
“He got a dead human body from somewhere. Probably one of his father’s mortuaries. This would have been the fall before last – October or thereabouts. He’d been told to stop his animal experiments by a certain date, or else. So I guess he got desperate and decided to try a human being.” She shook her head again. “Such a waste of his talents. Papa says he’s really very competent at his normal studies.”
I refrained from pointing out that this could be another indication that the good professor-doctors of the Medical School simply didn’t know what to do with the cuckoo in their nest.
“Anyway,” Alma continued, “he got this corpse into the lab somehow, late at night, of course. He’d bribed the night watchman not to report him. First and second year students aren’t allowed into the labs at night, you see.”
West had also smuggled into the lab some sort of apparatus which he had connected to the corpse. He was engaged in pumping a fluid into it when he was discovered.
“It was bizarre and horrible to see, apparently,” said Alma. “It looked as though he’d had an accident with the equipment. A tube had burst, or something. When Papa and Dr. Hobson got there the place looked like a slaughterhouse – blood everywhere – the ‘patient’s’ blood, of course, and all over West too. There he was, blood all over that pretty face of his, but cool as can be, and laughing! That’s what really bothered them.”
I nearly laughed myself, realizing that this description of the scene neither surprised nor shocked me. In fact, it was exactly what I would have expected of the Herbert West I had begun to know. I wondered what had prompted his laughter. The experiment had failed, of course, so it must have been ironic amusement at the outrage of those whom he believed to be willfully ignorant.
“How did your father happen to know that West was in the laboratory that night?” I asked.
She looked uneasy. “I think someone tipped him off. Another student, maybe.” She didn’t go so far as to suggest that West had been watched, but I remembered what he had said about betrayal.
“Anyway, the next day Papa called West on the carpet and told him he had one chance to redeem himself. And he was forbidden to use any laboratory at the Medical School except under close supervision, for his course work only, for the remainder of the year.” She paused. “That seems pretty lenient to me, considering that he was already under threat of suspension. I wouldn’t be surprised if West senior weighed in with the senior college administration to smooth things over for his boy.”
“Yes, what about Hiram West?” I asked. “His son seemed rather ambivalent about him.”
“Really? A point in his favour, there. Hiram’s a typical businessman, in most ways. Into every kind of enterprise, and filthy rich. But none too scrupulous, if what I’ve heard is true. The thing is, he’s the sort of person that could be persuaded to be a major benefactor of Miskatonic. So it’s not really in the interests of the college to discipline his son too harshly. And in your case it’s another reason to be careful.”
“I hardly think I’ll ever pose any threat to Hiram West,” I said. “Really, Alma, you’re taking all this much too seriously. I admit I find West a rather interesting type, but our paths aren’t likely to cross very often, after all.”
“I hope not, for your sake. I have a bad feeling about that young man.”
“And this young man?” I asked, feeling suddenly playful. “What sort of feeling do you have about him?”
She regarded me with her head tilted to one side, a little smile on her lips. “Oh, I think he’s a very nice young man. I quite enjoy his company. Seriously, Charles, I do. I’m glad you came to Miskatonic.”
We went on then to talk about other things, including Alma’s ideas about the ‘new woman.’ She felt very strongly that young women should be encouraged to leave their parents’ homes and support themselves for a while before they married.
“Otherwise the poor things are perfectly helpless, aside from housekeeping and looking after children. And so dull, too.”
“You are surely an example of the other kind of woman, then, Alma. There’s nothing dull about you.”
“I hope not,” she said, looking pleased.
We parted in this mood of friendly bantering. But walking homeward, I knew that my mind was operating on two levels. On one, I was developing a closeness with Alma that I found pleasing and gratifying. On the other, I was ready to throw myself heart and soul into whatever adventures I could find in the proximity of Herbert West. It was as though I stood in a house looking out through two different windows. From one I saw a warm and sunlit meadow, humming with bees, from the other a black sky blazing with unknown stars.
What readers have said:
- “Herbert West alarmed, enchanted, and terrified me all at once.”
- “An extremely clever and skillfully written reimagining of Lovecraft’s episodic Herbert West stories.”
- “Driscoll weaves a believable and intriguing tale, with sympathetic characters despite their skewed moral compass.”
- “Wordy but good. I thought I’d never get through it, but it was worth it…even though it sets you up with a cliffhanger at the end!”
- “It starts off slow and builds and builds and builds until it’s a wild affirmation of life and love.”
The Friendship of Mortals is available from:
Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.