While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
How do you go about queering Herbert West?
In 1922, before Weird Tales had ever hit the stands, H. P. Lovecraft’s first commercial work went into print: six brief tales of gruesome mad science, for which he was to be paid five dollars an episode. Commercial hack work, and Lovecraft knew it; it would not be published again until Lovecraft was safely dead and beyond objecting. From there it entered the domain of reprints, and it became the basis for the 1985 film Reanimator. The film, with the iconic performance by Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West and the glowing green reanimation agent, was a smash success. It inspired a franchise of movies, a novelization, comic books, merchandise, and stories chronicling the further adventure of the reanimator, his foes and rivals.
Herbert West has become one of Lovecraft’s breakout characters.
It is harder to pin down when the queer interpretations began. The basic building blocks were always there, from the beginning: West and his unnamed partner’s close homosocial bond, like Holmes and his Watson; Lovecraft’s typical asexuality and lack of romance in the story; the allegorical implications of men trying to create life without women, especially via the Freudian technique of injecting some of their special serum into the body. One might also add the loneliness of the outsiders, forced to hide their actions from the world, forced out onto the fringes just to be themselves without discrimination.
For queer folk, reading into the text or the adaptations something of their own experience, maybe Herbert West was always queer too. He just wasn’t out about it yet.
Brian McNaughton may have been the first to really play with the idea in “Herbert West—Reincarnated: Part II, The Horror from the Holy Land” (2000), published in Crypt of Cthulhu #106 and his collection Nasty Stories. Molly Tanzer certainly brought in the open with “Herbert West in Love” (2012). The erotic appeal was made manifest in “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon. Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows expressly coded West and his companion as queer in Providence (2017), which played off against their own queer protagonist…and there are more. The constellation of Reanimator-derived works continues to grow; some are more explicitly queer than others. Each of these interpretations is different, both in their understanding and in their depiction of what being queer means, and in what they drew from Lovecraft or what they borrowed from other media; the glowing green reagent being a common element in most stories written after 1985.
The fluid was fluorescent and green as I gently tipped the vial. A single bead of he concoction caught on the lip of the tube and then fell, splashing into the beed’s mouth.Clinton W. Waters, “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft”
“(UN)Bury Your Gays” is a spiritual sequel to “Herbert West—Reanimator”; one that retreads a little familiar ground (it is a reanimator story, it would be more shocking if there wasn’t a reanimation), but is overall smaller, more focused: the protagonists are not simply repeating the Herbert West/unnamed assistant dynamic, but are exploring a much more complicated, nuanced, realistic friendship as the only two queer kids in high school. There is a sensibility in the story reminiscent of “Pale, Trembling Youth” (1986) by W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson; a weird sort of universality to the outsider experience which makes the characters much more sympathetic than West and his nameless assistant ever were.
Waters sets the action in the current day, and a certain pop-culture sensibility flows through the scenario: like the genre-savvy characters in the Scream films, they can picture themselves in a horror story and sometimes try to interpret what’s happening through that lens, riffing on vampirism and flesh-eating zombies in a way that Herbert West & his assistant in 1922 couldn’t. Less directly and less obviously, the two teens also approach their sexuality and relationship through the same lens. This is far and away from a Lovecraftian interpretation of Brokeback Mountain, but there are shades of the same relationship dynamics at play. What the leads have isn’t sexual, but they are tied together by their sexuality. A shared intimacy, but not exclusivity.
In a lot of ways, Waters flips Lovecraft’s script. Instead of a nameless protagonist talking about his relationship with Herbert West, we have the great-grand nephew Humphrey West telling the tale of his best friend. Where Herbert West is focused on reanimation practically to the exclusion of all else and seems to take his relationship with the unnamed narrator for granted, in “(UN)Bury Your Gays” the focus is all about the relationship between Humphrey and his friend, with reanimation a catalyst for a shift in their dynamic, and that is what the story is ultimately about.
Of Daniel “Danny” Moreland, I can only speak fondly. He was my closest companion. My champion. My single greatest achievement.Clinton W. Waters, “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft”
A key point in Waters’ approach is that it is a queering, not the queering of “Herbert West—Reanimator.” This is one interpretation, one take, one possible iteration of the infinite possibilities of exploring Lovecraft’s original narrative, characters, or concepts through a queer lens. Rather than repeating what Molly Tanzer or Alan Moore wrote, Waters is presenting a different permutation on the same idea—one that is more inspired by Lovecraft’s original than a strict revisitation of the same familiar story and characters.
Because there is more than one way to be queer, and more than one way to reanimate the Lovecraftian corpus.
“(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft” (2022) by Clinton W. Waters is available on Amazon Kindle.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).