It’s Alive! (Sort of)

Back in May, I heard a rather intriguing and disturbing story on radio. The nub of it is that researchers at Yale University were able to induce brain activity in detached heads of pigs obtained from a slaughterhouse four hours after death. They accomplished this with a technology called “BrainEx.” A system of pumps, heaters and filters perfused the dead brains with an artificial blood solution. After six hours of treatment, the brains showed cellular activity. At least one scientist commented that if the treatment had been continued, some level of consciousness may very well have been achieved .

Here is a link:

My first thought: Fans of Frankenstein and Herbert West will love this! My second thought: I wonder what’s in that artificial blood. What colour is it — lurid green? Or maybe purple?

Seriously, though, this experiment raises a lot of disturbing questions, about time of death, when it’s okay to “harvest” organs for transplant, about animal experiments, and when is the spark of consciousness finally extinguished. The scientists took measures to make sure the brains did not attain full consciousness and stood by with anesthesia, just in case. (That was nice of them.)

The intent is to use the results of this study to learn more about post-mortem brain cell death and how damaged cells may be repaired. But there’s always the possibility that the unscrupulous will cite the experiment to prey upon the desperate, promising a form of immortality (for a large fee, no doubt) by hooking up brains to a pump full of magic solution. (This actually reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Whisperer in Darkness.”)

Fiction is a give and take between speculation and reality, the point where they intersect. These brain experiments may furnish material for ethicists, doctors, scientists, and for writers of speculative and horror fiction as well.

Pig Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Reading Frankenstein 2

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time. Having written three novels about someone who began as a “mad scientist,” I felt obligated to read what may be the original mad scientist novel.

As I wrote earlier, I did not find many similarities between Frankenstein and the contemporary horror genre. On the other hand, my novel The Friendship of Mortals, although rooted in H. P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,”does not belong in that genre either.

However, I did see something in Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein that I recognized immediately. This element seemed inevitable to me as I was writing my novel, and probably steered me away from casting it into the horror genre:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter.

That is exactly how I envisioned my character Herbert West reacting to a successful reanimation of a corpse. Of course, the Creator of the world did not play a role in West’s reaction, because he did not acknowledge such a being. West prided himself on being a pure scientific rationalist. But “imperfect animation” was a key element in HPL’s story. His Herbert West persisted in reanimating in the hopes that he would eventually achieve perfection. He never did, and eventually all his botched experiments got together and destroyed him.

My Herbert West undergoes a more subtle transformation. The mainspring of The Friendship of Mortals is the question of what sort of person would be drawn to reanimating the dead, and what sort of person would be drawn to the reanimator. How would such a friendship play out and what would be the ultimate fate of the scientific rationalist?

The Friendship of Mortals is available at:

Reading Frankenstein

Since I have written three novels featuring a character who originated in H.P. Lovecraft’s mad scientist, Herbert West, I thought I should finally read the quintessential mad scientist novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Less than halfway into the book, it became clear to me that it is not in any sense a ‘horror story.’  Mary Shelley’s intention was not to produce thrills and shudders in her readers (unlike M. G. Lewis, whose novel The Monk, published a couple of decades earlier, was dedicated primarily to the production of such emotions).  Shelley was intent on showing the consequences of scientific hubris and exploring what it means to be human. The Monster’s tale of his early days, his attempts to learn speech, his attraction to the family near whose home he lived are touching, especially given the tragic consequences of his rejection by humanity.

H.P.L.’s story, “Herbert West, Reanimator”, touches on the theme of hubris as well, although this aspect is a sideline to its main purpose, which is the production of thrills and shudders. Unlike Shelley, Lovecraft revels in the description of corpses and West’s secret laboratory procedures. But West’s creations bring about his undoing in the end, just like Frankenstein’s. As a horror story, “Herbert West” beats Frankenstein, in my opinion, even though I am the first to admit that it is not Literature, and Frankenstein is.

So where does my own take on the mad scientist, my novel The Friendship of Mortals, fall in the thrills vs. social commentary issue? I believe it strikes a balance between the two, but leans more toward thrills and enjoyment while subtly inserting other themes. Readers will no doubt have their own opinions.