Victor Frankenstein — Reanimator
Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous progeny have hugely impacted horror and science fiction. However, much of contemporary cultural knowledge of the Frankenstein story has more in common with its subsequent adaptations than the source material itself. H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 parody “Herbert West — Reanimator” takes many liberties with the source material. In forgoing Shelley’s gothic romanticism in favor of modernism, Lovecraft’s parody has more in common with the current pop-cultural understanding of Shelley’s tale — West is more “Dr. Frankenstein” than Frankenstein himself.
Much like Shelley’s use of the epistolary format, “Herbert West” told as a retrospective of the scientist’s friend and partner. The unnamed narrator colorfully details his horror. But the real area of interest is the divergences — both large and small — Lovecraft takes with the Frankenstein story. The portrayal of the titular scientist shows the greatest evolution. Victor Frankenstein, whose initial education is in antiquated alchemy, is a tortured narcissist. The grand experiment of returning life to dead tissue is only truly accomplished once, with a second, aborted attempt being coerced. His early aspirations of grandeur are quickly dashed when he sees the fruits of his labor. More a romantic scholar or a Byronic anti-hero, the youthful Frankenstein does not really fit the modern archetype of the mad scientist, or even a cinematic “Dr. Frankenstein”. Herbert West, in extreme contrast, is thoroughly modern. Not only does West finish schooling and run a medical practice, but he relentlessly pursues his experiments. He is coldly dispassionate (“an ice-cold intellectual machine”), and utterly ruthless in his passion for repeatable results. His experiments routinely end in failure — his resurrection serum creates howling, mindless cannibals instead of rational beings — but that only drives him further. After resorting to murder, West learns that “freshest” corpses have the best chance for mental survival. This blooms into a fully insane expression of science. He continues to kill and even joins the Great War so he can obtain “an abundant supply of freshly killed men in every stage of dismemberment”(Lovecraft).
Unlike his morose and melancholic counterpart, West is passionately pursues his work until the point it kills him. His undoing is roughly equivalent to that of Frankenstein. His ultimate achievement of a rational corpse is successful — he reanimates a fellow doctor who can think and converse. But his success also provides him with an enemy who can collect the other failed experiments and enact revenge. West’s fall is very different from Frankenstein’s gothic predicament. Rather than suffer the effects of his ego, he is corrupted by his perverse modernism. Empirical science — “this need for very fresh corpses” — pushes West to darker and more psychopathic measures in his pursuit of knowledge. By “believing in no soul”, he ironically “emerge[s] with a soul calloused and seared” (Lovecraft). West might not be the cackling extreme that Frankenstein portrayals eventually took, but his relentless and ambitious pursuit of obscene science resonate strongly with that archetype