Lovecraftian novels

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.


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).

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

First, a disclaimer: Not being a book blogger, I decided to confine my book “reviews,” such as they are, to Goodreads, and to focus on books by indie authors. Maplecroft is published by one of the Big 5 and is by a well-known author. But it does fall into the category of science fiction called “Lovecraftian.” Miskatonic University (a venue frequented by one Herbert West, who is near and dear to me) is mentioned. Lizzie Borden meets the Deep Ones! I couldn’t resist.

The plot in brief: after being acquitted of the charge of murdering her father and stepmother, Lizzie Borden is living in seclusion with her sister Emma in a mansion known as Maplecroft near the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Emma is a learned marine biologist dying of consumption (tuberculosis) and Lizzie has a laboratory in the cellar. The house is occasionally visited by creatures reminiscent of Lovecraft’s “Deep Ones” (from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) that Lizzie valiantly dispatches with her axe. This already sinister situation becomes potentially catastrophic when Emma sends a sample of a marine creature found on the seashore near Maplecroft to Professor Phillip Zollicoffer at Miskatonic University. The sample has unique qualities which transform the professor into something weird and dangerous. Meanwhile, residents of Fall River begin to show symptoms of a strange affliction which flummoxes the local doctor, Owen Seabury. The doctor and the Borden sisters end up joining forces (sort of) to figure out the nature of what they call the Problem — the mysterious disease and the threat posed by Zollicoffer. Much mayhem ensues.

My review: Priest’s vigorous prose carries the plot along, despite bogging down at intervals in patches of intense description of actions, emotions and thoughts. Dr. Owen Seabury and Emma Borden are the only well-rounded characters with any hope of being sympathetic. Lizzie (sometimes called Lizbeth) is curiously limited. I did not find myself caring much about her, possibly because when presented with any challenge at all, her first choice is to grab her axe and go after it at a full run. After two or three of these episodes, I got bored. Lengthy and detailed descriptions of physical actions, even those resulting in splattery destruction of eldritch entities, rapidly become a chore to read. But Lizzie is certainly different from the usual Lovecraft protagonist, who at the climactic scene tends to lose consciousness or flee.

The various theories to explain the weird phenomena, however — those are quite interesting, and I wish the author had spent more effort developing them. As does yet another character who appears at intervals — one Inspector Simon Wolf from Boston. The agency he represents is quite mysterious, and I suspect readers will see more of him as the series continues. The Lovecraftian elements, namely the bizarre creatures of marine origin and the professor from Miskatonic, are handled well by Priest. The unfortunate Doctor Phillip Zollicoffer (love that name!) has a deadly charm quite in keeping with his origins. The ultimate threat, apparently resident in the deep ocean, is appropriately huge, formless and terrifying (and probably acquainted with Cthulhu).

The narration is uniformly in the first person, but the characters take turns doing the narrating. The Borden sisters and Dr. Seabury are the primary voices, with telling contributions by Prof. Zollicoffer and cameo appearances several others. I have no trouble with this kind of thing and followed the storyline throughout, but some readers may find it annoying or confusing.

I have to mention a few things I found annoying or that simply didn’t work for me: first, the character Nance O’Neil (an actress who is based, like the Borden sisters, on an actual person). She is Lizzie’s lover, for whose sake Lizzie is prepared to do almost anything. The trouble is, the degree of that devotion comes as a surprise about halfway through the book; at the beginning there is no sense that Lizzie is pining for her company, and when Nance arrives uninvited for an extended visit, Lizzie’s main concern is to keep her out of the cellar which houses the laboratory and some other interesting things. Their relationship never feels real. Second — the laboratory. Emma is the scientist, but has never set foot in the place. Lizzie’s focus of interest is folklore and spells found in old books, so why does she need a laboratory? Third: lye plays an important role in a crucial scene near the end. Despite the lip-service paid to science throughout the book, the lye solution is at one point said to produce a “deadly acid spray.” Huh? Lye is a strong base, quite the opposite of acid. An important detail that should have been caught.

Altogether, this was a compelling read. It’s quite clear there will be more books in a series called the Borden dispatches, which may account for the absence of a real solution to the Problem in this one. I can definitely recommend it to readers with a taste for the weird and violent.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.