“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).

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer

I always preferred to think that strong women and loving couples and flirting and passion and a hundred other delightful emotions existed, somewhere, in Lovecraft’s world, and we just didn’t get told that story. Which begs the question: what if these realistic, flesh and blood and sex and sweat characters did meet up with Lovecraft’s?
—Carrie Cuinn, Cthulhurotica (2010) 5

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” begins with an unusual twist on the Greek myth of Pygmalion. The story of Pygmalion and his statue-bride has been adapted to a Mythos vein at least a few times, notably by August Derleth in “Innsmouth Clay” (1971) and Clint Collins in “The Summoned” (2011), but here Tanzer subverts the expectations in a manner that is quirky and surreal: rather than focus on Pygmalion and Galatea, the narrator of the story is Pygmalion’s offering to Aphrodite—inanimate, but possessed of anima. A passive actor in the proceedings of the story, this unique nameless narrator acts as witness of and commentator on the events that follow.

H. P. Lovecraft was a transgressive writer, whose fiction violated the cultural taboos of his era—he wrote stories featuring cannibalism, necrophilia, atheism, nihilism, incest, cosmic miscegenation, and inescapable biological determinism. Molly Tanzer is a subversive writer, whose stories undermine the reader’s expectations; she sets tropes on their head, teases well-worn plots and situations then inverts them, challenges staid conventions with fresh perspective. The Cthulhu Mythos provides plenty of raw material.

As a mature genre, Mythos horror has its own tropes and familiar elements. A reader who has suspended disbelief for the insidious cults of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth in “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and “The Dunwich Horror” need not be reintroduced to them fresh; cultists and tentacled entities became a stock element in much of the fiction after Lovecraft and his contemporaries. What was transgressive in the 1930s became accepted, and eventually kitsch: the default late-night gatherings of robed strangers have taken on the verisimilitude of Hollywood Satanism, only with naughty tentacles instead of inverted crosses. Overripe for satire and subversion.

London during the Victorian period; the British Museum, with the relics of a recent archaeological dig on display; a curator with untoward designs on a puritanical innocent maid; a small gathering of cultists; a summoning ritual which requires sacrifice—this is almost a by-the-numbers plot, until the climax. All of which is by design: Tanzer knows the tropes she is invoking, builds the scenario up so that savvy reader’s expectations are pointed in one direction before she pulls the rug out and switches gears. The language, fitting for a story dealing with Shub-Niggurath, titillates and teases of things to come:

“Do you know what a dildo is?” asked the docent roguishly, his mustache twitching as he tried not to smile.

This is not erotic Lovecraftian fiction, although Tanzer deliberately flirts with the possibility. The nameless narrator is not coy, but neither are they crude; sex-positive without being sex-obsessed. Tanzer’s story is a pastiche not of anything Lovecraft wrote specifically, but of an accepted standard of Mythos fiction, where virgins are to be sacrificed by robed cultists, preferably in as leering and erotic a manner as possible, such as put to film by Roger Corman in The Dunwich Horror (1970). The Hollywood version of the Mythos, where all the real horror and atmosphere has been boiled off, leaving a handful of reoccurring images and predictable plot devices. Then Tanzer flips the script.

ConquerorWomb_cover02-187x300“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” is a piece it would be hard to write before the 21st century. It requires the build-up of Mythos fiction tropes from the 70, 80s, and 90s, and it requires a publisher and audience willing to deal with such a surreal, adults-oriented approach as far as the unique narrator and the overall plot of the story. It’s not erotica, but it’s also not for kids: that weird middle ground of adult fiction that is sexually explicit but isn’t porn. There weren’t a lot of publishers for that material, and still aren’t. As kitsch as the robed-cultists-sacrificing-the-virgin is, the Mythos is still transgressive to many people, to the point that a sex-positive protagonist in a Mythos story is subversive.

That’s really the interesting thing about this story, not so much the events of the plot or characters but what the plot and characters say about the average understanding and approach to Mythos fiction. In M. L. Carter’s “Prey of the Goat”, Shub-Niggurath is a figure of negative sexuality, characterized by unhealthy lust, violation, non-consensual sex, and threats of sexual violence; in Tina L. Jens’ “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” the protagonist is the center of a plot that involves her being coerced into sex; in Joanna Russ “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” a Lovecraftian entity entraps the male character with promise of a romantic relationship—these are all essentially negative depictions of sexuality, sex as a medium for horror.

Sex itself is not demonized in Tanzer’s story. The depiction of Shub-Niggurath is effectively the same as in “Prey of the Goat,” but the sexual act is portrayed by the narrator and the helping characters as a positive thing with many warm recollections, when everyone involved is willing and has a good time. Tanzer does not dismiss the possibility of rape—that is a real and vital source of conflict throughout the story—but sexual assault and horror are not the sole depictions of sexuality in the narrative. This is a marked contrast from a great deal of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, and although Tanzer doesn’t dwell on the implications in the story itself, it feels almost like a response to the question Carrie Cuinn posed in her introduction to Cthulhurotica.

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” was first published in The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction #7 (2012), and then reprinted in the ebook-only anthology Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014). Molly Tanzer has written a number other Mythos tales such as “Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee” (2011), “Herbert West in Love” (2013), “The Curse of the Old Ones” (2015, with Jesse Bullington), and “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad” (2015); and has carved out her own corner of Lovecraft Country with the Ivybridge Twins stories, set in the Victorian period and collected in A Pretty Mouth (2012).


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