Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

His daughter, the wife of Shelley, was much more successful; and her inimitable Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is one of the horror-classics of all time. Composed in competition with her husband, Lord Byron, and Dr. John William Polidori in an effort to prove supremacy in horror-making, Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein was the only one of the rival narratives to be brought to an elaborate completion; and criticism has failed to prove that the best parts are due to Shelley rather than to her. The novel, somewhat tinged but scarcely marred by moral didacticism, tells of the artificial human being moulded from charnel fragments by Victor Frankenstein, a young Swiss medical student. Created by its designer “in the mad pride of intellectuality”, the monster possesses full intelligence but owns a hideously loathsome form. It is rejected by mankind, becomes embittered, and at length begins the successive murder of all whom young Frankenstein loves best, friends and family. It demands that Frankenstein create a wife for it; and when the student finally refuses in horror lest the world be populated with such monsters, it departs with a hideous threat ‘to be with him on his wedding night’. Upon that night the bride is strangled, and from that time on Frankenstein hunts down the monster, even into the wastes of the Arctic. In the end, whilst seeking shelter on the ship of the man who tells the story, Frankenstein himself is killed by the shocking object of his search and creation of his presumptuous pride. Some of the scenes in Frankenstein are unforgettable, as when the newly animated monster enters its creator’s room, parts the curtains of his bed, and gazes at him in the yellow moonlight with watery eyes—“if eyes they may be called”. Mrs. Shelley wrote other novels, including the fairly notable Last Man; but never duplicated the success of her first effort. It has the true touch of cosmic fear, no matter how much the movement may lag in places. Dr. Polidori developed his competing idea as a long short story, “The Vampyre”; in which we behold a suave villain of the true Gothic or Byronic type, and encounter some excellent passages of stark fright, including a terrible nocturnal experience in a shunned Grecian wood.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927)

We don’t know when H. P. Lovecraft first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it was sometime before 1920, and quite possibly was read as a child, from a copy found among the books in the family library. During his life, Lovecraft would perceive the growing influence of this critical work of science fiction and horror in pop-culture: the first film adaptation, starring Boris Karloff as the Monster, was released in 1931 and Lovecraft would see it in the theatre; and Weird Tales would serialize Shelley’s novel between May and December 1932 as part of its “Weird Reprints” series, and Lovecraft would read it then too. Various writers in the pulps, including Lovecraft himself, would show the influence of Shelley’s creation, and Lovecraft was sure to include her in his survey of weird fiction “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Lovecraft would not quite live to see Frankenstein’s Monster become the icon—and stereotype—that he turned into in the 1940s and 50s; for him, Shelley’s novel would always have precedence over other depictions.

The Book (1818)

By the way—my F. is a 9 ¼ x 5 ½ volume–2 columns & very thin. The date is missing, but from the typography I’d tend to place it in the 1830s. That would seem a bit late for the first Am. ed. of a  volume issued in 1818. My copy has been re-bound. On the title-page the author is very explanatorily listed as “Mrs. Mary W. Shelley, wife of Percy Busshe Shelley the Poet.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 238

There are two main editions of the text of Frankenstein: the original edition issued in 1818, which was revised in 1823; and then heavily revised again for the 1831 one-volume edition. The 1831 text has been the most popular version of the text, and the version that ran in Weird Tales. While Lovecraft dated his personal copy to the 1830s, the details he gives—an American edition in two columns and with that byline—point to the 1845 edition by H. G. Daggers of New York.

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Title page of the 1845 H. G. Daggers edition.

Of the novel itself, Lovecraft does not write much in his letters, so we are largely left to his notes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as to his thoughts on the work. Nor is there any real evidence that he read The Last Man (1826) or Shelley’s other novels. There is one interesting highlight however:

As for weird reprints—I agree that short items are best. “Frankenstein” undoubtedly drags in places, yet has its tense & terrible moments—especially when the monster first comes to watch its creator at night.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 31 Mar 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 28

It is notable that Lovecraft cites this very same scene in his entry for “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and, perhaps tellingly, this very scene is quoted in Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917), which Lovecraft consulted before writing that essay. Which suggests either that either both Lovecraft and Scarborough were struck on the same passage…or that, perhaps, Lovecraft relied on Scarborough rather than re-reading the entire novel while composing his essay.

I saw—with shut eyes but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put togheter. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. . . . The artist sleeps but he is awakened; and behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, looking on him with watery, yellow yet speculative eyes!
—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
quoted in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction 14

If Lovecraft cribbed a little, it was not because he hadn’t read or didn’t appreciate Shelley’s masterwork—quite the opposite. For example, when his friend Elizabeth Toldridge used the name “Frankenstein” in a poem she was writing, Lovecraft wrote back with a correction that would be echoed by generations of horror nerds:

In the next line remember that Frankenstein (in the novel, a Swiss medical student, Victor Frankenstein) means the creator of a destroying monsternot the monster itself. If you have that intention, it’s all right. If you mean the monster itself, better change to hydra-shapes or some equivalent.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 17 Oct 1933, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 257

The poem, which survives in manuscript, is titled (at Lovecraft’s suggestion) simply “Poetry”, and the line reads:

Come match your strength with steel, meassure your will with iron, your speed try out with the stars! For thine were Frankenstein hydra-shapes man-wrought foes to bear—

And powers of evil, loose in the world, shall reel and titter, in a giant juggler’s roust—

The Film (1931)

The success of Universal’s Dracula in early 1931 spurred the studio on to produce more horror films. Frankenstein was produced and hit theaters by December of the same year, with Boris Karloff in the iconic role—and the distinct heavy-lidded flat-top make-up—of the Monster. The film takes considerable liberties with Mary Shelley’s novel; Victor Frankenstein becomes Henry Frankenstein, and much of the original plot, atmosphere, and motivation is lost. Lovecraft saw the film within the first week of its opening on the East Cost, and wrote:

I haven’t been able to get around to any cinemas except “Frankenstein”—which vastly disappointed me. The book has been altered beyond recognition, & everything is toned down to an insufferable cheapness & relative tameness. I fear the cinema is no place to get horror-thrills!
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 9 Dec 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 85

Also saw “Frankenstein” last month & was vastly disappointed. The film absolutely ruins the book–which indeed it scarcely resembles!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 23 Dec 1931, O Fortunate Floridian! 18

“Frankenstein” was the only cinema I attended during the autumn of 1931, & I was woefully disappointed. No attempt to follow the novel was made, & everything was cheap, artificial, & mechanical. I might have expected it, though—for “Dracula” (which I saw in Miami, Fla. last June) was just as bad.
H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Jan 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 344

Lovecraft was, like many science fiction and horror fans, a bit of a purist who regretted the changes made to the material in its translation from the page to the silver screen. Time did not really mollify this opinion:

I saw the cinema of “Frankenstein”, & was tremendously disappointed because no attempt was made to follow the story. However, there have been many worse films–& many parts of this one are really quite dramatic when they are viewed independently & without comparison to the episodes of the original novel.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Jul 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 33

As a thorough soporific I recommend the average popularly “horrible” play or cinema or radio dialogue. They are all the same–flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings and superficial, mechanical situations. The Bat” made me drowse back in the early 1920s–and last year an alleged “Frankenstein” on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 16 Feb 1933, Lovecraft Annual 8.28

Most radio and cinema versions of classics constitute a combination of high treason and murder in the first degree—I’ll never get over the cinematic mess that bore the name (about the only bond of kinship to the book!) of “Frankenstein”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 8 Apr 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.761

Keep in mind that Lovecraft lived before the home television and VCR revolution; his only experience of Frankenstein and other Universal horror films was if he could catch them in the theater—it was re-runs and rentals which cemented these as classic films, endlessly influential and copied. Lovecraft only caught the very beginnings of that…and, of course, he was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well.

The Dream (1920)

I had a vivid dream a few nights ago–involving the possession of another distinct personality. The period was 1864, & the crux of the dream was a horror in a doctor’s secret laboratory. Think the dream-doctor was going to shew me an artificial man like M. Frankenstein’s uncomely creation, but premature waking robbed the dream of its climax. In this dream I was Dr. Eben Spencer; an army surgeon home on a furlough. The sinister experimenter was a colleague of mine, Dr. Chester. Some dream!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 23 Jan 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 154

In 1920, Lovecraft was finally coming out of his seclusion through the auspices of amateur journalism, and had built up a fairly robust correspondence with some friends. Weird Tales was still three years away from its debut issue, but he was well into his first major period of fiction which included dream-inspired stories such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant May 1920). In addition to this brief recap of the dream to Kleiner, Lovecraft included a much fuller version of the dream to his correspondence circle The Gallomo (Alfred Galpin, H. P. Lovecraft, and James F. Morton):

Speaking of the “Carter” story, I hae lately had another odd dream—especially singular because in it I possessed another personality—a personality just as definite and vivid as the Lovecraft personality which characterises my waking hours.

My name was Dr. Eben Spencer, and I was dressing before a mirror in my own room, in the hosue where I was born in a small village (name missing) of northern New York State. It was the first time I had donned civilian clothes in three years, for I was an army surgeon with the rank of 1st Lieut. I seemed to be home on a furlough—slightly wounded. On the wall was a calendar reading “FRIDAY, JULY 8, 1864”. I was very glad to be in regular attire again, though my suit was not a new one, but one left over from 1861. After carefully tying my stock, I donned my coat and hat, took a cane from a rack downstairs, and sallied forth upon the village street.

Soon a very young man of my acquaintence came up to me with an air of anxiety and began to speak in guarded accents. He wished me to go with him to his brother—my professional colleague Dr. Chester—whose actions were greatly alarming him. I, having been his best friend, might have some influence in getting him to speak freely—for surely he had much to tell. The doctor had for the past two years been conducting secret experiments in a laboratory in the attic of his home, and beyond that locked door he would admit no one but himself. Sickening odours were often detected near the door…and odd sounds were at times not absent.

The doctor was aging rapidly; lines of care—and of something else—were creeping into his dark, thin face, and his hair was rapidly going grey. He would remain in that locked room for dangerously long intervals without food, and seemed uncannily saturnine. All questioning from the younger brother was met with scorn or rage—with perhaps a little uneasiness; so that the brother was much worried, and stopped me on the street for advice and aid. I went with him to the Chester house—a white structure of two stories and attic in a pretty yeard with a picket fence. It was in a quiet side street, where peace seemed to abide despite the trying nature of the times. In the darkened parlour, where I waited for some time, was a marble-topped table, much haircloth furniture, and several pleasing whatnots covered with pebbles, curios, and bric-a-brac. Soon Dr. Chester came down—and he had aged.

He greeted me with a saturnine smile, and I began to question him, as tactfully as I could, about his strange actions. At first he was rather defiant and insulting—he said with a sort of leer, “Better not ask, Spencer! Better not ask!” Then when I grew persistent (for by this time I was interested on my own account) he changed abruptly and snapped out, “Well, if you must know, come up!” Up two flights of stairs we plodded, and stood before the locked door. Dr. Chester opened it, and there was an odour.

I entered after him, young Chester bringing up the rear. The room was low but spacious in area, and had been divided into two parts by an oddly incongruous red plush portiere. In the half next the door was a dissecting table, many bookcases, and several imposing cabinets of chemical and surgical instruments. Young Chester and I remained here, whilst the doctor went behind the curtain. Soon he emerged, bearing on a large glass slab what appeared to be a human arm, neatly severed just below the elbow. It was damp, gelatinous, and bluish-white, and the fingers were without nails.

“Well, Spencer”, said Dr. Chester sneeringly, “I suppose you’ve had a good deal of amputation practice in the army. What do you think, professionally, of this job?” I had seen clearly that this was not a human arm, and said sarcastically, “You are a better sculptor than doctor, Chester. This is not the arm of any living thin.” And Chester replied in a tone that made my blood congeal, “Not yet, Spencer, not yet!”

Then he disappeared again behind the portiere and emerged once more, bringing another and slightly larger arm. Both were left arms. I felt sure that I was on the brink of a great revelation, and awaited with impatience the tanalisingly deliberate motions of my sinister colleague. “This is only the beginning, Spencer,” he said as he went behind the curtain for the third time. “Watch the curtain!”

And now ends the fictionally available part of my dream, for the residue is grotesque anticlimax. I have said that I was in civilian clothes for the first time since ’61—and naturally I was rather self-conscious. As I waited for the final revelation I caught sight of my reflection in the glass door of an instrument case, and discovered that my very carefully tied stock was awry. Moving to a long mirror, I sought to adjust it, but the black bow proved hard to fashion artistically, and then the whole scene began to fade—and damn the luck! I awaked in the distressful year of 1920, with the personality of H. P. Lovecraft restored!

I have never seen Dr. Chester, or his younger brother, or that village, since. I do not know what village it was. I never heard the name of Eben Spencer before or since. Some dream! If that happened to Co [Edward H. Cole], he would be surely seeking a supernatural explanation; but I prefer actual analysis. The cause of the whole is clear—I had a few days before laid out Mrs. Shelley’s “Frankenstein” for re-reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 71-73
[The original lacks paragraph breaks; these were inserted for ease of reading.]

Lovecraft never fleshed out and finished this story. However, the next year, in the fall of 1921, Lovecraft would write another story that would involve two friends, doctors, with grisly experiments in reanimation which seemed strongly inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the serial “Herbert West—Reanimator.”


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

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“Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” (2015) by Dixie Pinoit

I cannot bring myself to speak of it, so of course I must. It is with terror and that utmost thrill of lust-filled despair that I write of my wedding night, that night that wouldst,—for any average couple, be filled with so much innocent discovery, so much joy in the uncovering of what a lifetime of connubial bliss is meant to be.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 144

The soundtrack to this review is “Move Your Dead Bones” (2003) by Dr. Reanimator (Jordi Cubino).

Parody is one of the great underappreciated modes of Lovecraftian erotica. All of the factors that make it so easy to pastiche Lovecraft’s fiction—the emphasis on surface features of purple prose and melodrama, the tendency to riff off of existing elements of the mythology, and the emphasis on taboo topics—are easy to twist into parody, usually by exaggerating the already over-exaggerated until the emotional language becomes just absurd. Once you cross the line from serious pastiche into parody, adding sex is pretty natural, given how many parallels there are. “Forbidden literature,” for example, can apply equally well to pornography as it can to eldritch tomes like the Necronomicon:

Doris didn’t like the Necronomicon, although she considered herself an emancipated and free-thinking young woman. There was something sinister, or to be downright honest about it, perverted about that book—and not in a nice, exciting way, but in a sick and frightening way. All those strange illustrations, always with five-sided borders just like the Pentagon in Washington, but with those people inside doing all those freaky sex acts with those other creatures that weren’t people at all.
—Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson, The Eye in the Pyramid (1975), 93

“Herbert West—Reanimator!” has for whatever reason been an unusually prolific target for parody and pastiche, both erotic and otherwise, as shown by such diverse works as “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon, “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly TanzerRe-Animator (1985) with its infamous head-giving-head scene and its various sequels, and the hardcore adult film Re-Penetrator (2004, Burning Angel). So Dixie Pinoit in “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” is in good company.

As it happens, Pinoit blends a few details between Lovecraft’s original opus and the 1985 film: where Jeffrey Combs (the actor for Herbert West) is brunet, Lovecraft had West as blond in the original novella, and Pinoit has West as a blond; where Lovecraft had West’s partner as a nameless protagonist, the 1985 film gives him the name Dan Cain, so Pinoit uses Dan Cain as the name for West’s assistant. It is the kind of detail that rewards the detail-oriented Mythos enthusiast, though easy to miss when the narrative lens turns to some of the other action:

Noticing that one of Elena’s awe-inspiring breasts had somehow freed itself from its restraints, I stroked it plaintively before restoring it to what could indeed become its burial shroud unless the doctor was simply premature in his determination of death.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 145

Chekov’s corpse. There is something wonderfully straightforward about Reanimator media, in that all you really need is a body at or rapidly cooling toward room temperature for the fun to start, and there’s a great deal of fun to be had in various scenarios about how the corpse came to be and what happens when it is eventually reanimated. A great deal of Reanimator adaptations can riff on this concept pretty much nonstop, but what makes it really work is not the practice of revivifying the dead—any Frankenstein-derived or zombie story can give you the thrill of the dead coming back to life—it’s Herbert West himself, with all of his quirks and monomania, which drives the plot. A good Reanimator story is about the Reanimator as much as the reanimated.

My beloved’s corpse now stripped of the ivory lace and silk wedding dress that had once adorned her curvaceous form, stripped bare under the yellow lights to make it easier for Dr. West to inject things into her delicious upper arms while her ample breasts and small tuft of pubic hair glistened and juggled from the force of his ministrations.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 148

Readers that think they know where this is going are still in for a surprise or two; the protagonist surely was. Pinoit by this point plays a little fast and loose with the “rules” of reanimation—murderous bloodlust is out, and certain other types of lust are very much in—but the subversion of expectations, especially when transgressive and exaggerated for comedic effect, are common techniques in all parody.

Yet for all the surprises, one of the most notable is that Pinoit is obviously a fan as much as a pornographer. The nameless Lovecraftian protagonist is actually a Lovecraftian protagonist, inspired by the events of Lovecraft’s life and so the characterization—a parody of Lovecraft’s style—is really an affectionate tribute to the Old Gent himself.

Sales plummeted until the hat shop could no longer support us.

Eventually she moved away to start over. A larger town, where her curious predilections were less likely to be remarked upon amongst a larger populous, and would perhaps even be welcomed by an adventurous few.

I did not go with her.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 154

Lovecraft as the star of an erotic story might seem odd, or even off-putting at first glance, but Pinoit is far from the only one to do it; Edward Lee has used Lovecraft (or a character based on him) in several of his “Hardcore Lovecraft” novels and novellas, especially Pages Torn from a Travel Journal (2013) and Trolley No. 1852 (2010). These depictions are often exaggerated for humor as much or more than erotic value, but there is a real amount of effort put into some of these stories to embed aspect of Lovecraft’s life, style, fiction, and just plain character into the fictionalization. These are homages—and speak as much to how Lovecraft himself has become a part of his own artificial mythology.

Considering how much interest has been devoted to Lovecraft’s sex life after his death by fans and scholars alike, this aspect of his character—his sexuality and sexual experiences, real or imagined—present what might be one of the more ultimate taboos to transgress. If you as a reader are at all squicked out at the thought of H. P. Lovecraft having sex, then the author has succeeded at their goal. If you’re excited at the idea of your literary idol getting laid, then the author has also succeeded! The whole point of using a character that is such an obvious version of Lovecraft is to evoke some visceral or emotional reaction from the reader. This effect can only be achieved because of the degree of posthumous fame that Lovecraft has achieved.

While there are few people that might write the Lovecraftian equivalent to Rachel Bloom’s “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” (2010), the same basic idea has found expression in the Mythos. H. P. Lovecraft may be dead, but as a fictional character he can do things he never did in life; he has been in many ways reanimated himself—and the interest is not necessarily in what the literary corpse of Lovecraft does, but in why the reanimator has brought them back, and how. In many cases, like this one, it is little more than an in-joke—a nod and a wink to the dedicated Lovecraftian that found themselves coming to the end of this erotic tale—but it is also a tribute to the lasting appeal of H. P. Lovecraft as a character, that he can be inserted into a story such and expect to be recognized, without his name ever being given.

“Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” appeared in the erotic Cthulhu Mythos anthology Lovecraft after Dark (2015).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer

“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).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

Galileo and Derleth and Chen sought forbidden knowledge, too. That got us this far.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror 238

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” differs from its sister-stories “Boojum” and “Mongoose” in several important ways. All three stories take place in the same space opera setting, and they are interconnected by the elements of Bear & Monette’s mythos—boojums, cheshires, toves, bandersnatch, Arkhamers—but their narratives are largely independent of one another. The setting is the same, but not the cast of characters, or the plot, or the approach.

“Boojum” is essentially a sea story, of the kind that went out of style as wooden, wind-powered clipper ships disappeared at the end of the 19th century to steam and coal, a pirate tale in an exotic setting. “Mongoose” is inspired by Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the literary DNA recombinated into something a little stranger, but it is still very much a set-piece story of a distant outpost under threat. “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is a story of a plague ship—and a kind of inversion of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West—Reanimator,”

Dr. Cynthia Feuerwerker is the complement to Dr. Herbert West: a medical doctor who dabbled in forbidden research and paid the price for it. Where West is callous in his pursuit of knowledge, Feuerwerker is first and foremost an attentive physician. Her intellectual intelligence is balanced by emotional intelligence, her keen scientific curiosity reined in by a moral imperative. Personal concerns outweighed by certainty of ethical responsibilities, echoed by the repeated phrase “that’s how you get war crimes.”

Sometimes, the right thing to do is disobey orders.

So instead of a story about a nameless protagonist that aids and abets a reanimator, Bear & Monette wrote a story about a doctor calling out the reanimator and tell them why they were wrong.

Haven’t you ever heard of what happened to the Lavinia Whateley?
—”The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” 255

In deliberately borrowing from one of Lovecraft’s stories to essentially have a zombie-story set on a dead ship in space during a nominal salvage run, Bear & Monette also take the opportunity to peel back the onionskin on their setting a little more. Readers learn about the Arkhamers, with their arcane academic society and naming conventions, a further peek at one of the more discriminated groups in the boojumverse. They also run into names not taken from Cthulhu Mythos fiction, but from the real-life people that wrote and published those stories: Wandrei, Derleth, and Caitlín R. Kiernan.

This brand of meta-awareness, of mixing fictional creation and real-world persons in the same name-dropping fashion, is old hat in the Mythos. Lovecraft included references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith in his stories; August Derleth included references to Lovecraft and his stories alongside the Necronomicon and other Mythos tomes. The boundary between fact and fiction was blurred a little, and that’s part of the point of doing these self-referential name drops—to push the hoax a little in the direction that maybe Lovecraft & co. were really onto something, that maybe what they wrote about does exist—a premise for works as different as Robert Bloch’s novel Strange Eons (1978) and Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows graphic novel Providence (2015-2017).

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is doing something a little different, though. The question asked in “Boojum” is: what does Lavinia Whateley mean in the context of this setting, that they would name a ship after her? In “Mongoose,” why are so many of the stations of similar names drawn from the Cthulhu Mythos? By ranking Derleth next to Galileo, the suggestion is that this is the future of a setting where some aspect of the Mythos was real, and was revealed by Lovecraft’s posthumous publishers. It is an evolution of Richard Lupoff’s approach in “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone”, with a greater eye to the process of discovery and acclimatization.

The boojumverse is not Cthulhupunk, it is the step beyond that. A setting where the alien horrors of the Mythos are, if not exactly normalized, something humanity has adapted itself to. The success of Bear & Monette is not just in writing three great stories, but in looking a little further than other writers into what the exposure of the Mythos might mean if it did not immediately destroy humanity. In Moore’s script for Providence, he suggests that the Lovecraftian scholars might become Lovecraftian scientists—and the boojumverse is a setting where that might well have happened.

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Maybe that’s the worst part of human nature. Nothing ever stops us. Not for long.
—”The Case of the Charles Dexter Ward” 272

Cynthia Feuerwerker has voyaged farther than Lovecraft ever foresaw, when he wrote of Herbert West’s nominally laudable scientific inquiry and desire to achieve the medical goal of defeating death perverted and degenerated by “a soul calloused and seared.” West was willing to kill for his researches; Feuerwerker was not. Bear & Monette’s moral, if there is one, is less than comforting: someone will try again. This was not the first reanimator, nor will it be the last. Human curiosity often outstrips its ability to foresee the implications and ramifications of what it does and what it creates.

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” was first published as an audiobook on the Drabblecast (2012). It was reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection and The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 26 (both 2013), New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird (2015), Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016), and Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations (2018).

It is the third of Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s collaborations, preceded by “Boojum” and “Mongoose”.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

 

“Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon

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. 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”

Of Herburt East, who was my lover in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme arousal tinged with terror. This fear-tainted arousal 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 Peniskatonic University Medical School in Jerkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly; no less also did our two lean masculine bodies entwined in illicit passion, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the lust is less blinding, and the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
—Lula Lisbon (“D. P. Lustcraft”), “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (emphasis mine)

Of Kanye West, who was my friend in college and after he dropped out, I can speak only with extreme sadness. This dysphoria is not due altogether to the sickening manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than twenty years ago, when we were in the first year of our course at the Chicago State University in Illinois. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his musical experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. (Some would say too close. There was much speculation regarding the nature of our partnership, but Kanye was a very private person and I didn’t dare betray his confidence.) Now that we are no longer friends and the spell is broken, my side of the story can finally be told. The actual pain is far greater now than it was then. Memories and possibilities are ever more melancholic than the realities.
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

While many writers have attempted to pastiche or parody the work of H. P. Lovecraft, few writers have gone so far as to take advantage of the fact that many of Lovecraft’s works are in the public domain, so as to directly rewrite, add on to, and edit his text in such a way as to create a new and original work of fiction. Joshua Chaplinsky’s Kanye West—Reanimator (2015) and Lula Lisbon’s “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) both take as their source text Lovecraft’s early serial “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), but are set in widely different genres, and the artistic choices that the two writers reflect interestingly both on what they are writing, and how they choose to interpret Lovecraft’s original work.

Chaplinsky’s take on the concept is of a literary mashup, echoing efforts like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The success of the story lies in the careful attention to detail, weaving factual elements of Kanye’s life and attitude into Lovecraft’s prose while keeping the exuberance and hyperbole of both. Kanye West really did drop out of Chicago State University to pursue his music career, so reflecting that aspect of his life in place of Herbert West’s attendance at medical school is both accurate and requires changes to the narrative—but just as much of Kanye’s life is twisted to more closely resemble Herbert’s, the key change being when Kanye decides to use his music to reanimate the dead. The fun of the story is not just in the pastiche of Lovecraft’s prose or the parody of Kanye’s antics, but those occasional perfect moments when the two blend together:

To the vanished Herbert West and to me the disgust and horror were supreme. I shudder tonight as I think of it; shudder even more than I did that morning when West muttered through his bandages, “Damn it, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

To the vanished Kanye West and I the disgust and horror were supreme. I shudder tonight as I think of it; shudder even more than I did that morning when Kanye muttered through his bandages, “Damn it, the track wasn’t quite fresh enough!”
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

Where Kanye requires grafting on considerable material to the original, Lula Lisbon’s homoerotic re-visioning of Lovecraft’s story requires a shift in genre as well as tone. Where Chaplinsky seeks to draw fiction and reality closer together, so the two Wests’ paths coincide at key narrative moments, Lisbon seeks to inject the erotic into the horror narrative—and the key device by which she accomplishes this takes a decidedly more mystical bent:

He revealed to me one night that through his sizable member coursed a most rare and precious gift: his semen was a re-animating solution, blessed through an incident in which a love-smitten demi-goddess had granted an ancestor the power of bestowing immortal life by way of his seed.
—Lula Lisbon, “Herburt East: Refuckinator”

Like many erotic parodies, the focus of this text is often the insertion of an erotic scene not included in the original. This is a practice of some long standing, with examples in the horror literature genre including The Adult Version of Dracula (1970) and The Adult Version of Frankenstein (1970), both by Hal Kantor. Part of the skill of the author is in how these scenes are woven into the narrative; whereas Kanye replaces Herbert West, and the narrative is basically his own retold in the frame of Lovecraft’s prose, Herburt East follows substantially the same plot, only with many homoerotic additions.

Both texts take the opportunity to play on the outrageousness of the original, which is itself a kind of parody of the lurid supernatural thrillers of the period, and written by Lovecraft strictly as a potboiler:

In this enforced, laboured, & artificial sort of composition there is nothing of art or natural gracefulness; for of necessity there must be a superfluity of strainings & repetitions in order to make each history compleat. My sole inducement is the monetary reward […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 7 Oct 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 219

The serial nature of “Herbert West” possibly makes it more attractive for parody, as the story is broken into distinct episodes which permit changes of scene and characters and keeps up the narrative pace. Certainly both authors were at pains to keep the character of both of the chapter openings and closing—and perhaps surprisingly, both kept in versions of what is probably the most problematic scene in Lovecraft’s story.

The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

Few of Lovecraft’s stories have black characters, and this is arguably his most racist depiction of an African-American character, emphasizing the prejudice of the day that black people were quite literally lower on the scale of evolution, closer to apes and gorillas. That such depiction were not uncommon in pulp fiction, such as in Seabury Quinn’s “The Drums of Damballah” (1930) does not excuse it here. The description does serve two important narrative points. The first is to emphasize the physical power of the character, the second is to emphasize the racial prejudice of the unnamed narrator. One of the key moments of this episode in “Herbert West” is that the narrator and West try their reanimation fluid on it an “it was wholly unresponsive to every solution we injected in its black arm; solutions prepared from experience with white specimens only”—in other words, they assume a biological difference in race to be at fault. However, they later discover that the reanimation serum did work (ironically, given Lovecraft’s sentiments in his letters, proving that there is no biochemical difference between white and black people)…but that the subject had also devolved into cannibalism (violence being characteristic of the reanimated, regardless of race).

Lisbon preserves most of Lovecraft’s original text for this episode, with the main interjection being an extended erotic scene between West and the narrator: she chooses to focus on the “fire all six shots of a revolver” from the opening of the episode and counterbalance it with sex ejaculations. Chaplinsky’s take is more baroque; although he retains a surprising amount of the original text, the black boxer is replaced with Biggie Smalls. Both of them retain, substantially unchanged, the final visual of the episode.

For that visitor was neither Italian nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a glassy-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves, and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
(text identical in Lula Lisbon’s “Herburt East: Refuckinator”)

For that visitor was neither forgetful employee nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a bug-eyed, ash-grey apparition, covered with sewage and fecal matter and caked with blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

The repetition of the text is an acknowledgement of the importance of this specific scene, that Lovecraft had captured a powerful visual in the horrible evidence of cannibalism (it being remembered that this was long before zombies craved the flesh of the living in popular fiction). The differences too are telling: in Lovecraft’s original story, there is implicit bias against the ethnic Italians whose child is kidnapped and eaten; Chaplinsky replaces them with studio assistants, which is in its own way a comment (whether intentional or not) on the attitudes toward the lowest-paid members of the production process. Lisbon’s leaving these elements unaddressed feels like a missed opportunity to address some of the subtext or context in Lovecraft’s work—but that may simply be because she was focusing on other aspects.

One aspect that both Chaplinsky and Lisbon both address is the idea of a homosexual reading or subtext to Lovecraft’s original work. “Herbert West” involves the eponymous mad scientist partnered for considerable periods with an unnamed but presumably male associate who narrates the text; this is in a way a direct parallel in many ways to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler Dr. Watson, and their strong homosocial bond is reflected in several of Lovecraft’s other works, such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “The Hound.” Yet to contemporary audiences, such close friendships between men are often misconstrued as having homosexual connotations, as was discussed in “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg. Chaplinsky chooses to address this aspect up front, writing in the first paragraph:

Some would say too close. There was much speculation regarding the nature of our partnership, but Kanye was a very private person and I didn’t dare betray his confidence.

This is neither a confirmation nor a denial, but an aspect of Kanye and the narrator’s relationship which he plays with throughout the story, letting the readers choose how to interpret certain scenes while never explicitly confirming or denying Kanye’s sexual preferences or whether their relationship is intimate. Lisbon chooses to emphasize and make explicit the homoerotic relationship between East and the narrator, and strives to capitalize on aspects of Lovecraft’s text which highlight the intimacy of their relationship. Other writers have made similar, if less overtly erotic, interpretations of Lovecraft’s relationships—The Chronicles of Dr. Herbert West comic book written by Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco has the narrator as a woman, in a romantic relationship with West; “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan similarly makes a female of one of the two male characters from “The Hound.”

Neither Lisbon or Chaplinsky were looking to supplant or provide another episode to an existing work, but to re-imagine that work for their own ends, and as far as those aims go, they both succeeded. Lisbon’s expansion of Lovecraft’s narrative is played for laughs as much as titillation, and veers toward the campier end of homoerotic Lovecraftian horror narratives, something in the vein of David J. West. Chaplinsky’s narrative is much more ambitious, but also ultimately much more period-driven: one day, Kanye will die (though probably not by being decapitated by a reanimated Jay-Z), and his star will fade so that the clever pop-culture references will fade.

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I

One of the critical attractions of Lovecraft’s work is being in the public domain, where anyone can play with the material. For most pasticheurs and parodists, this does not mean literally rewriting Lovecraft’s plots or recycling large sections of his text—but those are valid creative approaches to the material, and should be understood and appreciated as such. These variations-on-the-text are as much a part of keeping Lovecraft’s work alive and relevant in the present day as any other.

Erotica author Lula Lisbon originally published the episodes of Herburt East under the name “D. P. Lustcraft”, the complete ebook of “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) is still available for sale, although Lisbon appears not to have published anything since 2015.

Joshua Chaplinsky originally published Kanye West—Reanimator through Yolo House in 2015. He has since slightly revised and expanded the book, adding a foreword and the story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep in Redhook, Brooklyn” in Kanye West—Reanimator: the Re-Reanimated Edition (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)