“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. This terror is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
“Knew you faggots were faggots,” he said smugly. “Going on a date? To a party? I’m not surprised you suck dick by choice, West, but you, Langbroek? You might actually get a girl to look at you! That is, if you weren’t so busy sucking dick. By choice,” he added, and then laughed loudly, hurr hurr hurr.
—Molly Tanzer, “Herbert West in Love”
Readings of homosexual subtext in Lovecraft’s fiction rarely give way to text—critics are more comfortable noting the possible allegories and ambiguity of language than they are exploring those themes in a work of fiction. There are some who do have the courage and insight to go into such uncharted territories, including the graphic novel Providence (2015-2017) by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows, “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon, and “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer. While Lisbon focuses on eroticism, Tanzer addresses the more complex social and emotional issues surrounding the realities of homosexuality in the early part of the 20th century…when gay men could often face violence and legal penalties as well as social ostracism.
Tanzer’s story works because of how well she develops the characters of the story. As a prequel to Lovecraft’s tale, it beautifully sets up a number of scenes, with a great deal of attention to little details of Lovecraftian lore in the name of streets and Miskatonic University faculty—but all of this is dressing for the main question: who or what is Herbert West in love with?
Tristan almost slipped on a patch of ice when West grabbed him by the hand and pulled him down into a kiss, right there in the snowy brightness under the lamppost, but West’s grip was like iron, and it kept Tristan steady on his feet.
—Molly Tanzer, “Herbert West in Love”
It feels like a question that shouldn’t need to be asked, that doesn’t matter, certainly not in Lovecraft’s narrative and most of the stories that follow it. Lovecraft, uninterested in romance, never gave West any romantic partners; it was a rare author that followed that did. The intensity of West’s focus on reanimation often makes him an essentially asexual character, all of his passion devoted to his work. Yet that is the crux of Tanzer’s narrative.
It isn’t a question of whether or not West is homosexual or bisexual; Tanzer and Lovecraft never get inside West’s head on the matter of his sexuality. West is only seen through the eyes of his associates, with their own emotions and prejudices coloring their perceptions. The degree of manipulation that the young reanimator shows make all of his actions suspect. We never know if West is truly attracted to his fellow student, or if sex is one more weapon that West will use to achieve his goal.
Pete Rawlik, who has carved something of a niche in this particular corner of the Mythos, described “Herbert West in Love” as “subversive” in his introduction to Legacy of the Reanimator (2015)—which it is, in a certain sense. The reader is not presented with any definitive statements on West’s sexuality, but his actions in the story frame two possibilities: either West is open to sexual encounters with men, and thus subverting the asexual character created by the largely homophobic Lovecraft; or West is far more treacherous and alien than even Lovecraft portrayed him, willing to feign homosexuality, even with all its attendant potential consequences in the early 20th century, if that will successfully manipulate his assistant.
Either reading changes our perspective on West, and how we read the reanimator from that point on.
“Herbert West in Love” was first published in the Lovecraft ezine, it has been republished in Tanzer’s collection Rumbullion ‘and Other Liminal Libations’ (2013) and the anthology Legacy of the Reanimator (2015).