Dr. Herbert West & Astounding Tales of Medical Malpractice
By Bruce Brown and Thomas Boatwright
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was once a rare beast. Following a personal literary philosophy he called cosmicism, he occupied a subset of two genres (science fiction and horror) largely favored by geeks and social outcasts like himself. Verbose, uptight, and sometimes as racist in his work as he was in real life, Lovecraft nonetheless wrote unique, twisted chillers that continue to inspire modern writers, artists, cartoonists, directors, and others. One of the latest entries is Dr. Herbert West & Astounding Tales of Medical Malpractice, a graphic novel written by Chicago-born Bruce Brown and illustrated by artist Thomas Boatwright. Reading it led me to reflect on Lovecraft’s influence and the literary variations—from the repulsive to the adorable—he’s inspired.
Lovecraft was an oddball, even in the weird fantasy subgenre. Avoiding ghosts, vampires, and other common pulp fiends in favor of time-traveling prehistoric races, alien brain-stealers, ghouls working part-time as artist models, Massachusetts fish-people, and still more bizarre stuff. He was probably best known for creating a pantheon of immense, unspeakable, and sometimes multi-tentacled creatures from outside our universe—Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath, and Yog-Sothoth, to name a few—that weren’t evil per se so much as disturbingly alien.
While difficult to film, Lovecraft’s stories have turned up onscreen, albeit in altered form (see the trippy The Dunwich Horror (1970), or Die, Monster, Die! (1965) from Boris Karloff’s late period). But the Providence, RI pulp writer stayed below most readers’ and movie buffs’ radar. I suggest it wasn’t until the release and cult success of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna’s body-horror/slapstick comedy flick Re-Animator (1985) that Lovecraft’s work gained greater visibility. These last few decades, Lovecraftian elements such as extra-dimensional critters, cursed grimoires, human-monster hybrids, and secret killer cults have turned up in bigger budget movies and TV shows. To be sure, not every one is based on a Lovecraft story like last year’s purple and hazy Nic Cage tour de force Color Out of Space. However, many (the Evil Dead trilogy and series, Hellboy, and the last two iterations of The Thing) were clearly influenced by his ideas. In recent months, HPL has gained recognition—not the kind he’d have liked—for the novel and HBO versions of Lovecraft Country, which address the all-American racism that sometimes permeates his oeuvre. Whatever angle you come at Lovecraft, however, like the alien-possessed well in his original story “The Colour Out of Space”, his freakish and grotesque inspiration will never run dry.
How would Lovecraft—who died in 1937 of small intestine cancer and in extreme poverty at the youngish age of 46—have reacted to all this? I imagine he’d shift between bemusement and shock. A profound rationalist, he’d wonder why so many of the artists and directors he galvanized have ambulatory phalluses and vaginal eggs, evil spirals, sinister mist creatures, and robot-fighting monsters dancing through their heads. To a lesser degree he might behold his pantheon of multi-dimensional entities—the merest glimpse of which drove his hapless protagonists insane—in plush form and wonder if he’d gone slightly nutty himself.
Comics writer Alan Moore explored the absorption and co-opting of Lovecraft’s visions into above-ground media and the collective consciousness in two series, Neonomicon and Providence, published by Avatar Press. Both series’ protagonists travel deeply into the original Lovecraft Country, that region of New England where the author’s stories took place. Neonomicon is Moore’s attempt to update and explicate Lovecraft’s ideas. Lovecraft, in his expurgating, WASPy way, frequently veiled his scenes with vague references to “hideous rites” and “abominable practices”, and had a habit of writing denouements where the characters refuse to describe the ghastly, mind-blowing things they’ve beheld—which is half leaving the horror to the reader’s imagination, and half a total cop out. Moore, conversely, cuts loose with an atrocity festival of murder and ritual sacrifice, rape and rampant perversity, and grislier spectacles—all illustrated in artist Jacen Burrows’ conservative style, which is prone to splatter, rot, ooze, or go full-frontal as the story demands. Saying…practically screaming the quiet parts of Lovecraft’s work out loud accounts for much of Neonomicon’s tediously bloody and prurient storyline (that and Moore’s predilection for groan-worthy puns and shout-outs citing various Lovecraft story titles, lines, and character names).
Providence, on the flip side, begins promisingly as an scrapbook pastiche of HPL’s tales. Protagonist Robert Black, a journalist living on the down-low in the 1920s—travels through New England, researching American occultism, and encountering characters (under altered names) from Lovecraft’s better-known stories like “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Dreams in the Witch House”, “The Haunter of the Dark”, and others. Providence is an interesting take in that, through interactions with Black, HPL’s antagonists gain a voice and more specific motivations, while providing a metatextual analysis of Lovecraft’s work. Unfortunately, the series is revealed to be a simultaneous prequel and sequel to Neonomicon. After serving as the “herald” who meets and inspires Lovecraft to write his stories, Black is unceremoniously dumped as the main character by issue 10. Moore makes interesting points about Lovecraft’s pervading influence in the last two issues, describing the author’s tales in viral terms. In Providence and real life, Lovecraft’s circle of friends and correspondents—among them Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and others—contributed their own Cthulhu Mythos stories. These inspired other writers to script new stories and gods, some going a step further and publishing the Necronomicon, a magic and malignant book that only existed in Lovecraft’s imagination. In Moore’s Providence, Cthulhu is seeded in a detective’s womb via fish-man rape, and with his birth the Old Ones manifest and infest our world, bringing unimaginable horrors—which Moore and Burrows imagine for us—to Neonimicon’s remaining, oddly blasé characters. With this, Moore sledgehammers the point that there are no heroes or happy endings in Lovecraft’s stories, and ultimately the universe doesn’t give a shit. All that’s missing is a final panel showing Lovecraft fronting a doom metal band on the event horizon of a black hole set in Cthulhu’s tuchus.
So, who’s ready for a children’s book review, eh?
Dr. Herbert West & Astounding Tales of Medical Malpractice is cute. I don’t say that with any snideness or too-cool venom. The comic’s cuteness is by design, made for all-ages but intended for children brought up in perky goth or weirdo households like mine. Young (very young) Herbert West is a prodigy, a genius in science and medical matters who grows bored with being his town’s resident Doogie Howser. The story is told from Herbert’s little sister Elizabeth’s point of view. She recounts how her brother’s boredom leads to experiments in reanimation (i.e., bringing back the dead). Child’s play achieves a new meaning as the titular child plays God, succeeding in restoring several deceased citizens to life or something unlike it. Since corpse-revival stories rarely end well—save perhaps in the Bible—Herbert and his sister find themselves pursued by mindless hordes of groaning zombies (they literally say “GROAN”, though sometimes “GURGLE” or “MMMM” as the mood hits them).
Since this is a children’s book, Herbert and Elizabeth don’t end up as strands of steak tartare between the zombie’s teeth. After running through town and evading revenants, Herbert deduces that due to a chemistry mix-up, the zombies are drawn to hunt and gobble a sugary local treat called “Johnny Cakes”. Hilarity ensues as the zombies spread out and set upon the village’s Johnny Cake supply, freaking out but never harming the populace. A modicum of danger is introduced when Herbert deduces that if the cakes run out, the zombies will chow down on people. But again, it’s a kids’ book, and it all works out. Naturally, Herbert, irrepressible junior mad scientist that he is, doesn’t cease experimentation in the end (sad trombone sound). Really, it’s cute. Perfect for kids looking for thrills without chills.
Thomas Boatwright’s art is energetic, dark, Gothic, and suggestive of grisliness (but not overmuch) where the zombies are concerned. Macabre lite. I surmise Tim Burton, Jhonen Vasquez, and Lenore turn up in his comic and movie libraries. Brown has a lock on all the comic situations that appeal to kids: sibling rivalry and its attendant sarcasm; thinking one is safe before realizing one is surrounded by peril (cue hilarious yelps, followed by running away sound effect); and the like. Again, cute. Hip parents raised on or by the Addams Family and the Munsters can rest assured they’re not leaving their kids with anything too scary.
But as a final word, and as a long-time H.P. Lovecraft fan, it remains amusing to see the old gent’s appropriation by the car seat and minivan set. In particular, the tale and character of Herbert West. An ur-rampaging zombie story, “Herbert West–Reanimator” (written 1921–1922), is generally acknowledged by Lovecraft scholars as one of his worst. Even the author disavowed it, admitting he only did it for the money. Released in serial format, it forced Lovecraft to start each installment with a recap and end on a cliffhanger—a technique he despised. While it has its humorous moments—perhaps more humor than Lovecraft put into anything else—it is a clunky, scattershot potboiler. Of note, Herbert West is objectively one of Lovecraft’s more evil human characters. I specify human because there is nothing supernatural about the man. His experiments are based in science, albeit of a fictional nature. Huh, there should be a word for that sort of genre.
As hack as “H.W.R.” is, it did inspire the aforementioned gore comedy Re-Animator, which approached the original horror with a lighter touch and plenty of blood and viscera. The film features a memorable neo-Frankensteinian turn by actor Jeffrey Combs as West, an intense young scientist given to snark and driven to jumpstart fresh bodies. Now we have Brown and Boatwright’s Herbert West, an heir to Calvin (of and Hobbes fame), intent on re-animating corpses rather than snow goons. One hundred years from now, one wonders what the bedtime stories will be when the Saw, Halloween, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises’ copyrights lapse.
Dr. Herbert West & Astounding Tales of Medical Malpractice is available at comic book stores, bookstores, and through the publisher’s website.
A previous Third Coast Review article on Lovecraft can be found here.