Welcome to the third edition of Dreadful Tales’ Nasty Little Things. We will scour the ends of the earth looking for the most twisted, boundary-pushing, brutal-of-epic-proportions horror fiction to share with you each month. For the gorehounds out there, we offer another title to add to your list of goriest reads. These are the books that, for reasons we will explain here, have tested our gag reflexes and sanity. What are yours? Please share below in the comments section!
For this installment of Nasty Little Things I go back in time again to 1922 to take a look at H.P. Lovecraft’s gruesome mad scientist tale “Herbert West – Reanimator.” While there’s no doubt much sicker fiction in the way of graphic violence, “Herbert West – Reanimator” was a twisted little story that unabashedly offered details of Dr. West’s experiments in the reanimation of corpses. You can be sure that back then, and certainly now, Lovecraft managed to elicit more than a few gasps in surprise and shock at the grisly nature of his subject and explicit narrative. Before splatterpunk and goretastic bizarre fiction, Lovecraft was freaking people out with his tale of exhumed corpses, reanimated appendages, and blood-thirsty undead. So for this reason, I add “Herbert West – Reanimator” to the Dreadful Tales’ vault of Nasty Little Things.
The story starts with our narrator explaining his connection with Dr. Herbert West and without the slightest hesitation, Lovecraft jumps right into the meat of it; the doctor seeks the freshest corpses for his experiments to bring the dead back to life. Initially he tests his animating solutions on various small animals, but very quickly progresses to humans. What he can’t get from the medical school where he studies, West and his accomplice, our narrator, appropriate themselves from a nearby grave. Not only are West and the narrator digging up corpses, they keep their ears open for word about the recently deceased in a continued effort to get only the freshest corpses.
The first human specimen to be reanimated emits a terrible sound which our narrator describes at length.
Not more unutterable could have been the chaos of hellish sound if the pit itself had opened to release the agony of the damned, for in one inconceivable cacophony was centered all the supernal terror and unnatural despair of animated nature.
This unfortunate undead escapes their makeshift laboratory only to go back to the grave in an attempt to claw its way back in! I always found that revelation very disturbing and, since Lovecraft never ties up that loose end, imagined the corpse wandering aimlessly forever and ever.
One of the most gruesome scenes, and a personal favorite, involves the reanimated corpse of their dean, Dr. Allan Halsey. Newly deceased and thus a perfect specimen for their experiments, West and the narrator exhume his body. But upon reanimation, the subject reacts violently knocking out both men and escaping into the night. Eventually, he is captured and locked away in an insane asylum – “where it beat its head against the wall of a padded cell for sixteen years” – but not before killing fourteen innocent victims. A watchman is clawed to death “in a manner not only too hideous for description, but raising a doubt as to the human agency of the deed.”
There are a couple instances, like that mentioned above, which our narrator suggests is too gruesome to describe or too horrible for him to write down, but Lovecraft includes most of the bloody detail throughout the story. But, for a couple passages it is the suggestiveness of the narrative and imagination of the sick and twisted reader that make the story more horrific.
One example of a graphic entry, which seem to become more frequent as the story progresses, is that of a dead boxer who West successfully brings back to life unbeknownst to him. Thinking the session unsuccessful, they bury the dead man who digs himself out of the grave coming back to the morbid doctors with a treat like a dog would a dead bird on your doorstep.
… 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.
Eventually West is not just satisfied to reanimate fresh corpses, but becomes obsessed with reanimating individual limbs. He takes on a more fiendish nature and frightening enthusiasm when assigned as a physician in the Great War. Here he has all the flesh he needs to conduct his experiments and this is also the setting for the goriest scene, one also made most famous by the film adaptation Re-Animator (1985).
West begins using reptile embryo tissue and “kept a large covered vat full of this reptilian cell-matter; which multiplied and grew puffily and hideously.” After obtaining an almost decapitated corpse, West severs the head from body keeping it in the vat of reptile cell tissue. Of course, as is customary by this point in the story, something goes wrong, West and the narrator flee the scene leaving the reanimated corpse behind.
The end of the story culminates in West’s unavoidable demise in the most appropriate way considering his ghastly endeavors in life.
Here’s to Lovecraft for sick experiments that result in terrible, stomach-churning monsters and a story that is truly nasty. I highly recommend reading this story aloud with a friend as my grandma and I did on a road trip once. Re-reading it together elicited many laughs and disgusted eeewwww’s! I didn’t really remember it being so graphic until I heard my grandma reciting the story which was interrupted intermittently by “oh my!”