mad scientists

digital brain

Seeking Immortality in Fact and Fiction

I just heard a really interesting piece on the science of brain preservation. Scientists are still working on it, with the intention that the information in frozen brains may be downloaded into… something, someday. You can read a synopsis or listen to the whole 20 minute article here.

Three thoughts I had while listening:

  • These guys are just like Herbert West!
  • Freshness is, indeed, important.
  • In the end, it’s a crapshoot.

To elaborate…


Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Bringing people (or their brains) back from the dead is a stock element of science fiction. H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West is a quintessential mad scientist engaged with this effort. Like one of the present day real scientists on this quest for immortality, Herbert realizes you need a really fresh corpse to succeed. It seems it’s best to start the process before death occurs, meaning it might be necessary to kill the patient to save him.

The article examines this and other ethical and practical issues, concluding with the thought that even if the preservation and information retrieval techniques work (a really big if), by the time it’s possible to do all this, society will be totally different. The reactivated minds will find themselves in environments that may be alien and terrifying. And the uses to which the minds are put may be other than benign. Life after death for the awakened brains may be heaven, hell, or anything in between. Or it may never happen at all. Which is, when you think about it, pretty much where we are right now.

For fictional treatments of this topic, you might want to read H.P. Lovecraft’s stories Herbert West, Reanimator or, for a different take, The Whisperer in Darkness.” Then there’s my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, which presents my expansion on Herbert West and his motives.

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.


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

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.

An Interview with Herbert West

The following interview with Dr. Herbert West might have taken place in the spring of 1923.

Q: Dr. West, what brought you into the medical profession?

A: Death. My mother and twin brother died when I was a child. Since then death has been my adversary.

Q: How do you oppose death?

A: With science. It’s the only way. What else would you suggest, Miss___?

Q: Some would say that prayer —

A: [Laughter] Prayer! Surely you don’t envision me as a man of the cloth? [More laughter].

Q: No, not at all, Dr. West. Tell me, please, where were you educated?

A: Here in Arkham, at Miskatonic University. I received both my undergraduate and medical degrees here.

Q: So you are acquainted with the Dean of Medicine, Dr. Allan Halsey?

A; I am, unfortunately.

Q: Unfortunately? I understand that Dr. Halsey is well thought of in medical circles.

A: He can be charming. All deans should be charming, but it takes more than charm to be a competent physician.

Q: What qualities do you think are essential in a physician?

A: Fearlessness. Willingness to risk all for science. Perhaps a certain ruthlessness.

Q: Ruthlessness — did you learn that in medical school?

A: [Smiles] Perhaps I did not need to learn it. But I will remind you that I was a surgeon in the recent war.

Q: Yes, will you tell me a little about your war experiences?

A: I could tell you a great deal. More than you would ever wish to know. I will say only that for me, the War was a great laboratory.

Q: So it’s true that you have done experiments on humans?

A: Many times.

Q: Can you tell me — ?

A: I can, but I won’t. Patient confidentiality, you understand. [Smiles]

Q: Some people have called your achievements miraculous. What do you think of that?

A: Nothing is “miraculous.” It only seems so to the ignorant.

Q: And there are others who call your approach unethical.

A: I put “unethical” in the same category as “miraculous.”

Q: Dr. West, do you think that it is possible to achieve immortality? Of the body, I mean.

A: Bodily immortality is the only sort I acknowledge. Achievable? Yes, by all means.

Q: You sound so certain, almost as though you have already done it.

A: Miss ___, I think this interview is now finished. But I will say one more thing — Miskatonic University is not a milieu that favours the unorthodox. Have I answered your question?

Q: Not altogether.

A: Quite.

Q: Thank you for your time, Dr. West.

Read more about Herbert West in my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, available at:

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.