Herbert West

A Find!

With my interest in Herbert West, you would think I would have known about this before now — a comic book version of the first episode in H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator,” illustrated by Tealin.

hw1page1_smw-jpgoriginal

The illustrations are beautifully done, with total fidelity to the original. Herbert is portrayed as per HPL’s description — slight, blond, blue-eyed and bespectacled — complete with the gleeful insanity expected of a mad scientist. You can tell the illustrator has, in her own words, “a soft spot for the monomaniacal little fiend.”

The story is visible in its entirety on her website.

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Authors And Their Characters

The other day, on Mike Davis’s Lovecraft e-zine blog, I read a post about a recently-discovered letter by H.P. Lovecraft, written in 1924 to J.C. Henneberger, the publisher of Weird Tales, the pulp magazine in which many of HPL’s stories were first published. A scan of the complete letter is available here. Each page may be displayed and enlarged for easier reading, and it’s definitely worth reading in its entirety. An interesting detail quite apart from the content is that the letter appears to have been typed on hotel stationery, with the hotel’s logo appearing upside-down on alternate pages.

The letter is revealing in many different ways. Lovecraft’s command of the language (and of typing!) is impressive, as is his committment to weird fiction. He recommends several authors of his acquaintance as sources for new work for the magazine, showing an admirable consideration for writer colleagues. He describes two novel-length works he was hoping to complete and publish, although it seems neither of them ever saw the light. (A comment to the original post about this letter suggests that one of these works may have morphed into the novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath).

HPL also speaks of stories he wrote at the bequest of the editor of a publication called Home Brew. One of these was a set of six serialized tales under the collective title “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Those familiar with this blog will recall my special interest in these stories and their principal character, Herbert West. HPL clearly describes his antipathy for the stories — not so much their content as their format. The serial aspect required each story after the first to recap the preceding one, a process HPL found tedious, and which, I suspect, coloured  his attitude toward the entire project. “I was sick of the job before I was half done,” he wrote. “The necessity for the completeness of each instalment spoiled the artistry of the whole thing — involving as it did the wearisome recapitulation of former matter in each instalment, and the eternal repetition of the description of Dr. Herbert West and his unamiable pursuits.”

As a writer, I can understand these sentiments, but as a reader, I did not find this to be a problem. In fact, those repeated descriptions of Herbert West — variations on “slight, blond, blue-eyed and bespectacled” — made him, in my mind, a more vividly realized character than the protagonists of many other Lovecraft stories, in which setting and atmosphere are primary. As the series progressed, HPL added additional elements to his descriptions of West, such as “a soul calloused and seared,” and “behind his pallid intellectuality, a fastidious Baudelaire of physical experiment — a languid Elagabalus of the tombs.” So vivid, in fact, were my impressions of Dr. West, that he took up residence in my imagination for several years, during which I wrote his entire life history, one never imagined by his originator.

All of this shows that written works have a life beyond that intended by their creators. Every time they are read — casually or critically, for purposes of entertainment, scholarship or research — written words may set up a resonance in the reader’s mind, may link up with other writings to generate something entirely new, that goes on to have its own influence.

 

Literary Horror — Too Much of A Bad Thing?

Recently I read Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, and now I’m engaged in a struggle to finish Nick Cutter’s The Deep. Both books are in the horror genre, and both, in my opinion, are problematic.

The thing is, these are not straightforward genre books. They are literary horror. And that’s the problem.

Before I go on, I’ll just say that I have no problem with the writing itself. Kiernan and Cutter are skilled writers whose prose is artful and compelling. It’s the entire reading experience I want to dissect.

First, what is horror? It’s fiction whose purpose is to provide the reader with a vicarious experience of something terrible that is outside of reality. (This distinguishes it from thrillers, in which the threat is reality-based). It may be gory and graphic, it may be subtle and inexplicable, but whatever the fictional characters experience must be vividly shared by the reader. The best horror fiction lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished, providing jolts of terror at unexpected moments.

Literary fiction is character-based. The characters and their inner lives drive the plot. Whatever happens to them is of less importance than how they change in the course of the narrative.

Strong, fully fleshed-out characters are thought to be a mark of superior fiction. Readers (this one included) who post reviews of books often complain about “cardboard cutout” or stereotypical characters. But I’m wondering if that criticism applies less to horror fiction.

Think about it — in horror, it’s the situation that’s the star of the show. It’s the house with something dwelling in the cellar, the forest full of malign presences, the stealthy noises in the walls. The reader should be right there, cheek by jowl with the character experiencing these things, trying to figure out what’s happening, becoming terrified, confronting the fear, discovering the terrible truth. If the point-of-view character is also a complex personality sorting through messy personal baggage and possibly struggling with mental health issues, the story sometimes becomes muddy and tedious.

Unreliable narrators are practically a given now, even in genre fiction, and they can add texture to a story. But the degree of unreliability should be limited, and the reader must be given a fundamentally sympathetic character to travel with and root for.

In both of the books I mentioned at the start of this post, the main characters are troubled to start with, as a result of unhappy childhoods or traumatic events in the recent past. Add the bizarre or dangerous situations that underpin the plots (a tree with a weird history, a research station 8 miles underwater that’s gone incommunicado) — and who is surprised when they start to crack? But the reader who just wants to experience a series of terrifying situations while sitting comfortably on the couch may get impatient when their companion character breaks down and needs psychoanalysis. It’s like when you’re on a hike in challenging conditions and your only companion starts to lose it. Yes, this ramps up the tension (always a good thing in fiction), but once a character’s psychological issues become more important than the shapes in the shadows, you have a different type of book.

And indeed, many readers enjoy the combination of literary + horror, as shown by the ratings of both these books on Goodreads. I may be in a minority, preferring a greater degree of separation between the two. For what it’s worth, I think the literary/horror balance is a bit better in The Deep. The main character, although overburdened with personal issues, including a most peculiar upbringing, is basically sympathetic. In both this book and The Red Tree, however, the psychological is too tightly entangled the with the horror for my taste.

Critics have commented that H.P. Lovecraft’s main characters are not well developed. They are usually types — New Englanders of an academic bent faced with evidence of weird goings-on, often in the form of documents or artifacts that lead to the situations and settings that were HPL’s darlings. The characters are merely vehicles to take the reader to those situations. Aside from the basics (name, residence, scholarly interests, family background) little detail is provided. And really, it doesn’t much matter. The reader is sucked right in, reading accounts of R’lyeh rising from the ocean, traveling haunted rural roads to Henry Akeley’s place, exploring the city of the Old Ones in Antarctica. Who cares about Francis Wayland Thurston’s mental quirks, Albert N. Wilmarth’s love life or William Dyer’s childhood?

When I read Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” I thought Herbert and the unnamed narrator had potential when it came to character development. What led Herbert to reanimate corpses? Why did the narrator remain loyal to West even when he began to fear him? These questions don’t really have much to do with the corpses lurching around, but they led me to write my novel The Friendship of Mortals. “Herbert West, Reanimator” is definitely horror; some have called it the first zombie tale. Re-Animator, the movie based on the story, is horror of the splatter and gore variety. But my book? Answering the character-based questions that compelled me to write transformed it from horror to psychological/supernatural.

 

 

 

A Peculiar Pastiche: Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators

Several weeks ago I read an interview with author Pete Rawlik on the Lovecraft eZine blog, in which Rawlik referred to his novel Reanimators. I had not heard of this work before so of course rushed to read it. Given my connection with HPL’s character Herbert West, I couldn’t wait to see what another writer had done with him.

Hence this review.

The plot? I was going to say “The plot in brief,” but it’s hard to summarize this novel. It’s a composite of many stories, each based on or involving characters from other stories by Lovecraft. In a way this maintains the spirit of “Herbert West, Reanimator,” which was published as a six-part serial. The main character and narrator (for the most part) is Stuart Hartwell, a fellow student of Herbert West and Daniel Cain (a name from the 1985 movie Re-Animator; the narrator of HPL’s story is unnamed). West and Cain’s early experiments result in the violent deaths of Hartwell’s parents, inducing a desire for revenge that waxes and wanes over many years. During these years, Hartwell practices medicine in Arkham but also pursues research into reanimation, achieving better results than West and Cain, who turn out to be bunglers. Hartwell manages to conceal his research from the authorities while becoming involved with a host of characters including Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee (from HPL’s “The Shadow Out of Time”), Dr. Munoz (from “Cool Air”) and — wait for it — Charlie Chan! Every now and then Hartwell sneaks into Herbert West’s secret laboratory, reads his notes and sabotages his experiments. Eventually, he begins his own grand experiment, with the population of Arkham as unwitting subjects. He also takes a trip into the country around Arkham, meets Lavinia Whately and her father, and witnesses a momentous event near Dunwich. Some time after this, on a visit to Sefton Asylum, Hartwell meets a Russian doctor who had spent some time in Dunwich and examined an amazing boy named Wilbur Whately. In 1914 Dr. Hartwell, like Dr. West, goes to war, where his reanimating reagent proves singularly useful, in a terrifying way. After the war, Hartwell swears off pursuing his reanimation research, but to no avail. Despite his good intentions, his reagent has a bizarre role in the worldwide devastation brought about by the so-called Spanish influenza. This episode is followed by a rather sparse reprise of the concluding chapter of HPL’s “Herbert West, Reanimator,” except it’s Stuart Hartwell who drives the truck that delivers a gang of reanimated dudes and a big square box to West’s house. After this, Hartwell takes a time-out, and the narrative is continued by Daniel Cain, by way of a document discovered among Hartwell’s papers at a later date. Cain relates how he and Herbert West spent part of WWI — in the crumbling Chateau d’Erlette, which is inhabited by a lady and her exceedingly strange son, a talented violist whose name is Erik, nicknamed “Zann” by his mother. ‘Nuff said. West and Cain make a reappearance in Arkham, moving in mere doors away from Hartwell, who is exceedingly annoyed by this proximity, but makes use of it by spying on his (former?) enemies. Combat with syringes and pistol ensues. Hartwell gets involved with rural medicine in the Miskatonic Valley and, along with Lake and Dyer (“At the Mountains of Madness” and Wilmarth (“The Whisperer in Darkness”) witnesses bizarre activities in a village called Quirk. He returns unscathed to his practice, and in 1927 participates in the investigation of strange goings-on in Innsmouth. About this time, Wilbur Whately arrives in the Library of Miskatonic University. Thanks to Dr. Hartwell’s efforts, Henry Armitage (the librarian), is in fine form and plays a heroic role, but soon after this Mrs. Armitage dies. Her deathbed is attended by one Frank Elwood (“The Dreams in the Witch-House”). Elwood gives Hartwell a document he has written, outlining the true story of Keziah Mason and the death of Walter Gilman. Said history is pretty colourful — Keziah Mason was a prodigy and had two twin sisters, and they were all midwives and… Enough, already. Another set of triplets, this time boys from Kingsport, precipitate the final horror, in which a convergence of ancestral follies and scientific travesties plays out, sealing the fate of Stuart Hartwell.

Whew.

My review: I have to give Rawlik full marks for weaving together characters and plot bits from a dozen or so Lovecraft stories, combining them with actual events from history. The prose is vivid in spots, even a little feverish. Rawlik maintains most of the necessary characteristics of a Lovecraftian story — a main character who is a single, unattached male, narration with little dialogue, and no sex. Scientific details are added with authority and reasonable plausibility. Some of the plot elements created to provide background — for example Dr. Munoz’s and Keziah Mason’s backstories — show ingenuity and imagination. Aficionados of HPL would certainly find this novel a gold mine of allusions and expansions on the work of the master. As an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, Reanimators is admirable.

Now the elements that aren’t so good, first among them the fact that a reader unacquainted with the work of Lovecraft would probably find this book incomprehensible. In order to incorporate characters and plot elements from a number of stories, Rawlik sacrifices overall plot integrity. His adoption of Lovecraft’s style — old-fashioned, sometimes pedantic and wordy — becomes tedious at times, and is not helped by the paucity of dialogue. (In the few places where dialogue is used, it has a distinctly livening effect). Most of Lovecraft’s works are short — stories and a couple of novellas. Adopting his style for a novel of more than 300 pages risks straining the patience of readers used to contemporary fast-paced fiction. Like most of Lovecraft’s main characters, Rawlik’s Hartwell doesn’t have much personality. Apart from token chest-beating about his role in some of the disasters that occur, he doesn’t do much self-examination or undergo any development. His function is to tell what happens, but he does not engage the reader. What kept me reading wasn’t sympathy for Hartwell, but merely a desire to find out what happened next.

Finally, I was quite disappointed to find that despite the title of the book, which references “Herbert West, Reanimator,” Herbert West is almost invisible in Reanimators. Creating Hartwell to play the role of a rival and enemy of West was a good idea, but Rawlik sends Hartwell off on side trips in order to bring in all those other HPL plots and people, breaking the original plot thread in the process. There is almost no interaction between Hartwell and West. I wish the author had stayed focused on reanimation and examined different motives for and methods of accomplishing it, ending with a showdown between West and Hartwell. Anyone looking for that won’t find it in Reanimators.

(But something of the sort may be found in a book entitled The Friendship of Mortals, by one A. Driscoll).

Alchemy — the All-Purpose Metaphor

I’m reading a book with the rather lumpy title The Chemistry of Alchemy : from dragon’s blood to donkey dung, how chemistry was forged. The authors (Cathy Cobb, Monty L. Fetterolf and Harold Goldwhite) are chemistry professors, which accounts for the tone of amused skepticism toward their subject. They have given the history of alchemy its due attention, though, and explain the links between alchemical and chemical processes. The included “experiments” that readers may carry out at home mostly look worthwhile too (although I haven’t tried any of them myself — too lazy).

The thing that strikes me is the contrast between this approach and that of C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, both of whom wrote about the symbolic aspects of alchemy. Their writings were my introduction to the subject, so the mysticism and symbolism are what I find most fascinating, And the colours! Colour changes in the materials subjected to various processes would naturally signal transformation, which was the whole point of the exercise. The progression from black to white to yellow to red was fundamental. The successful conclusion to the long and torturous process was called by some the “red dawn,” represented by the phoenix. The magical substance which turned base metals to gold was often described as a red powder. Other colours are associated with intermediate phases — the green lion (vitriol) and the peacock’s tail, which is a flush of purples and blues that comes over certain metals when heated. The lion and peacock are only two of the alchemical animals; a full description may be found here.

With its colourful phases as a progression of transformations toward an ultimate perfection, it’s not surprising that alchemy serves as a perfect metaphor for almost anything. Gardening, for example, or writing, or spiritual self-improvement — anything that involves metaphorically breaking something down, burning it, washing and cleansing, joining and renewal, by prolonged effort bringing excellence from imperfect beginnings. When I started to write my first novel, the main character, Herbert West, was a dubious type in great need of improvement. I suppose it was inevitable that I should turn this into an alchemical process; alchemy thus became an explicit part of the book. It reappeared very explicitly in the final book of the series, Hunting the Phoenix.

B4 HtP

Here is a quotation from Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy (poached from Wikipedia):

“When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver (mercury), but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter. The dragon is probably the oldest pictoral symbol in alchemy of which we have documentary evidence. It appears as the Ouroboros, the tail-eater, in the Codex Marcianus, which dates from the tenth or eleventh century, together with the legend ‘the One, the All’. Time and again the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one, that it is a sort of circle like a dragon biting its own tail. For this reason the opus was often called circulare (circular) or else rota (the wheel). Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again in the lapis. He is the play of colours in the cauda pavonis and the division into the four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the classical brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum, the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught – a symbol uniting all the opposites.” (Part 3, Chapter 3.1).

The whole thing bristles with vivid symbols and images and is surrounded with an aura of mystery and ancient secrets. No wonder artists and writers pounce on it with glee.

Here is an excerpt from Apology for Bad Dreams, a poem by Robinson Jeffers (whose work I discovered at the impressionable age of 18):

He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor

From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents victims, is only the ape of that God,

He washes it out with tears and many waters, calcines it with fire in the red crucible,

Deforms it, makes it horrible to itself: the spirit flies out and stands naked, he sees the spirit,

He takes it in the naked ecstasy; it breaks in his hand, the atom is broken, the power that massed it

Cries to the power that moves the stars, “I have come home to myself, behold me.

I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me

In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,

Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,

And here am I moving the stars that are me.”

 

No NaNoWriMo

I know it works for others, and is probably great for dispelling the loneliness of the long-form writer, but NaNoWriMo isn’t for me. I’ve already realized that getting connected via the internet (and I am only slightly connected) has been the kiss of death to writing another novel. It’s so much easier to read blogs, comment on posts and write posts, read and write reviews of other people’s books, and generally goof off while doing “research” online.

Here are the elements I need to start the writing fire:  first, an obsession-generating idea. Not necessarily a killer plot “hook,” but some basic configuration of characters, situation and setting that I can’t stop thinking about. It acts like a magnet, pulling other elements to itself until a kind of fusion reaction begins.

Second, time and space. This means a room with a desk and a door, and at least two unbroken hours every day in which to write.

Third, a big stack of paper and a bunch of pens. Yes, I write my first drafts in longhand. The first thing I see when I get back to my opus is the spot where I left off, not the first few paragraphs grinning at me in the stark black-on-white of the computer screen. Reading my scribble discourages the impulse to edit the beginning rather than driving the first draft to its end. And yes, writing longhand makes it almost impossible to track the word-count, which is just fine with me.

That’s it. At the first draft stage, I don’t need anyone rooting for me or keeping track of my words. Talking too much about the work-in-progress might jinx it. For me, the act of writing is as private as — well, use your imagination.

Strangely enough, I did start writing seriously in November. November 7th, 2000, which is why the main character of my trilogy, Herbert West/Francis Dexter, was born on that day (in the year 1886). Fall and winter are great for writing, especially for a gardener. Summer evenings are too valuable as gardening time to be spent writing, but when darkness comes early, often with rain or snow, what else is there to do?

Plenty, for those who insist on being constantly plugged in to the hive of the internet. Which is why, when I find myself preoccupied with a novel-nub that simply must be developed, I will have to unplug. Descending to my subterranean writing room, the equivalent of an alchemist’s cave, I’ll stack up the paper, uncap the pen and begin the Work. The blog may be neglected, but that’s the tradeoff.

In the meantime, happy birthday to Herbert, and good luck to all you industrious NaNos.

Creators and Creations: Writers and Their Characters

Few things in writing are more thrilling than seeing the characters in your novel come alive. Instead of forging scenes with great labour out of dead material, suddenly you have real people interacting on the secret stage in your head. All you have to do is transcribe their conversations and you’ve got great dialogue. And yet — you made these beings. They are (almost) entirely in your power.

Almost, indeed. Every writer has probably created a character who has not turned out as originally envisioned. When I began writing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of my Herbert West Trilogy, I was certain that Herbert West would be a villain rather than a hero, as he is in the original story by H.P. Lovecraft on which the book is based. He was an amoral type who used other people, both dead and alive, as experimental material. Lacking a freshly dead corpse to revivify, he made one by killing a man. How could such a person be other than a villain?

Complicating all this was my narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. To Charles, Herbert West was not uniformly black, but a multi-hued creature at once repellent and fascinating. By associating with Herbert, Charles became his friend as well as accomplice, and so presented him to the reader in an ambiguous way.

Members of my critique group have suggested that I became enamored of my version of Herbert West, sometimes making things too easy for him as a result. After some defensive huffing and puffing, I had to admit that this was so. My Herbert, like H.P. Lovecraft’s original, is slight, blond and bespectacled, but he is also well-dressed and charming — an enigmatic, possibly dangerous dude in an attractive package. I preferred to have someone like that living in my head, rather than a garden-variety grotesque geek. Coming up with a background for him that would explain his corpse-revivifying interests, and devising a more interesting end to his career than being ripped to shreds by his own monstrous creations necessitated three books.

How did this happen? How did a fictitious character who began as amoral, perhaps evil, turn out to be almost (but not quite) the opposite? I blame Charles Milburn and Loreena McKennit. Charles allowed himself to be charmed by Herbert into helping him with his dubious experiments. And while I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, I listened repeatedly to Loreena McKennit’s CD The Mask and the Mirror. I was especially taken with “The Dark Night of the Soul,” her arrangement of a poem by the mystic St. John of the Cross. Something of this song seeped into my writing and turned the course of the narrative and the natures of my principal characters.

This example illustrates the complexity of the relationship between an author and his or her fictitious characters. Reaching into yourself to create fictional people is a potentially powerful process. Those characters are in some way slices of yourself, shaped — perhaps distorted — by conscious and subconscious impulses not entirely under your control. That’s one of the things that makes writing so exciting, and perhaps a little dangerous.

And be careful with music when you’re writing! It has a potent effect on the brain, so it’s no wonder that it can get in there and mess with your imaginary creations.

The Mad Scientist — Villain or Hero?

This week’s post was inspired by a series of drawings I found when trolling through results of a search on “Herbert West,” H.P. Lovecraft’s corpse re-animating physician. Anyone who has seen the Re-Animator movies starring Jeffrey Combs knows Herbert West as a syringe-wielding wacko, but a different, rather light-hearted view is presented by animator and illustrator Tealin.

HPL tells us that West is a total rationalist, unmoved by emotion or superstition.  Here he may be delivering a lecture.

The Rational Dr. West

In H.P. Lovecraft’s story, the nameless narrator tells us that West is convinced that life can be restored to dead bodies, and, despite the prohibition on such experiments by Miskatonic University, where both he and West are medical students, West is determined to try it.

The first order of  business is to obtain a suitable experimental subject…

(Check out those spats on Herbert!  I’ve always thought of him as a sharp dresser).

So now we’re in the lab, preparing to start the experiment.

They get results, but…

Alive, But Not Happy

In fact, most of Herbert’s experiments with corpses yield somewhat unsatisfactory results that lead to further “procedures”…

…and have a less than salubrious effect on the two experimenters.

Fear and Loathing in the Lab

But the scientist in Herbert wins out, and…

In Corpse-Revivifying as in Cookery, Freshness Is All

Here we go again!

Of course, my interest in Herbert West is prompted by the fact that I have written three four novels in which he is the protagonist, exploring just this question:  why would someone want to revivify corpses? Starting with Lovecraft’s character, I constructed a past for him, a family background and experiences that may provide answers. I named the nameless narrator “Charles Milburn,” making him a cataloguer at Miskatonic University’s Library. The result was my first novel, The Friendship of Mortals.
I recently published Volume One of its sequel, Islands of the Gulf.
And subsequently, two more, to form the Herbert West Series. More info here.

It’s been fun to put together this post. My thanks again to Tealin, who agreed to let me use the drawings, and who expressed this opinion about HPL’s Herbert West: “…he’s definitely the most engaging, interesting person I know of in Lovecraft’s canon, probably not least because he actually drives his own fate rather than being a hapless pawn for cosmic horrors to happen upon.”

I quite agree. In my rendering of Herbert West, good and evil are definitely intertwined, which makes him endlessly fascinating.

Herbert West — Villain or Brooding Hero?

More of Tealin’s Herbert West drawings, and many others as well, can be found here.

 

First Person Narrator

I love fiction narrated in the first person.  Love writing it, certainly. When I began to write The Friendship of Mortals, the first novel in my Herbert West Series, there was no question but that it would be in first person. Charles Milburn, the narrator, has a story to tell. He has carried the burden of memories of his involvements with Herbert West for a decade and a half, and finally, on a night when he can’t sleep he’s ready to relive those experiences, incidentally sharing them with the reader. Nothing is better for this “confessional” mode of storytelling than first person. Think of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne.

First person narration was right for the sequels to The Friendship of Mortals as well.  The second novel in the series, Islands of the Gulf, has three narrators (or four, possibly). Their accounts overlap somewhat, so the reader sees certain events from two different points of view. I found this to be an irresistible aspect of this mode of storytelling; it’s like walking around a sculpture and viewing it from different dimensions. I told Herbert’s story using the voices of Charles, his librarian friend, Andre Boudreau, his Acadian servant, the widow Margaret Bellgarde, and Alma Halsey, a disillusioned journalist who was once Charles Milburn’s lover. Only once does Herbert himself assume the narrator’s role, in the second half of Islands of the Gulf.

When you start to think about it, the whole business of narrative voice and point of view is an intricate one, full of subtleties.  On the face of it, it seems simple. First person is when the character telling the story calls him- or herself “I,” as in: I opened the door to a man pointing a gun at me. Second person is uncommon but not unheard of, most often encountered in short stories of the literary type: You open the door and there’s a man pointing a gun at you. Third person is the most common voice in fiction: Jack opened the door and saw a man pointing a gun at him. Even with these tiny examples, it’s possible to detect differences in tone and to imagine how the narratives may diverge into a variety of scenarios.

Third person is the most versatile. The trickiest issue in a story told this way is that of point of view. Is the narrator omniscient, that is, equally aware of the motivations and secrets of each character, or is he/she more informed about the protagonist? Is the narrative voice “close,” almost like first person, or somewhat removed? Does the point of view shift from one character to another between scenes, or even (gasp) within a scene? The latter, sometimes called “head-hopping” is frowned upon by some and must be done well if it is to be done at all.

The greatest limitation of the first person narrator, of course, is that you, the writer, are stuck inside that character. If you want to impart information that person cannot possibly have, or convey the emotions of another character in a direct way, you have to resort to devices such as letters or diaries, or to engineer scenes in which your voice-character overhears things, dreams them or mind-merges with someone else — all the time reminding yourself not to snap the thread upon which depends the reader’s crucial suspension of disbelief.

Islands of the Gulf, Part One will be available to readers by the end of 2011.

Happy Birthday, Herbert West!

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.