Tag Archives: Frankenstein

Lovecraftian Scientists: The Downfall of Dr. Herbert West

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As the protagonist suggested in “From Beyond,” a scientist should be a “frigid and impersonal investigator…” While Crawford Tillinghast did not exhibit these traits as a scientist, this certainly described Herbert West, at least in the initial chapters of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Initially West is your typically cold scientist, closely following the rigors of the Scientific Method. However, as the story proceeds, West’s fanatical pursuit of knowledge is only exacerbated and pushed to the extreme. West started his experiments with animals and then moves to human cadavers. Each experiment with a human corpse revealed that the body must be very fresh with little or no decay.

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West’s obsession with conquering death and need for a fresh body eventually led to him actually murdering someone – a salesman traveling to Bolton Worsted Mills. West killed and the preserved the salesman with an embalming fluid and waited for his friend to return to inject his reanimation serum. When the salesman was revived, it was obvious from his reaction that West murdered him.  Although West’s general philosophic perspective was consistently described as that of an absolute mechanistic materialist, this was still a major shift in his scientific endeavors.  While his extreme materialism may have fostered his general amoral attitude toward life and humanity, West was always grounded in the Scientific Method and that the ultimate goal of the reanimation serum is to bring people back to life. This jump from a scientist working with biological material that happens to come along his way, to one who actively produces the needed biological material is Lovecraft’s example of what happens when a scientist is the “frigid and impersonal investigator…” completely devoid of any humanity, compassion or empathy.

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Herbert West used the embryonic cells of an exotic reptile in his experiments (illustration by Steve Maschuck)

Once West murdered to produce is needed biological material, even his foundation grounded in the Scientific Method began to erode. Toward the end of the story West goes into full “mad scientist” mode, thinking up “what if” scenarios in his mind.  While his use of some embryonic cell material from an exotic reptile had some potential promise to function as stem cells, he wasted this in his mad experiments.  The puffy reptilian cell matter sounded like it could function as undifferentiated stem cells and may have had great applications in repairing nerve damage, producing skin grafts for burn victims and possibly even re-growing lost limbs. However, playing with his discovery like a morbid little child, West experimented on body parts with no regard for the ethics or morality of such actions. It reminds one of Dr. Ian Malcolm’s quote from Jurassic Park shown below.

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Obviously toward the end of “Herbert West Reanimator” all of West’s experiments catch up with him. Like Dr. Frankenstein or the Elder Things West was excited to create but did not care to deal with the responsibility of being the creator of such life. In the case of the Elder Things, the shoggoths were essentially biological tools that were created for specific functions. However, once the shoggoths began to attain consciousness, the Elder Things did not want the responsibility of coming to terms with this in a mature manner. In the case of West and Frankenstein it was the act of creation that was so exciting. The created being was merely an annoying by-product. In West’s case we see where a completely uncaring, amoral, mechanistic, materialistic attitude can result in a mad scientist. However, the mad scientist of Herbert West seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum when compared to the passionate and vengeful mad scientist of Crawford Tillinghast.

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Experiments on parts

Next time we will discuss another type of scientist in Lovecraft’s tales – the group of scientists who conducted the initial investigations in “The Colour Out of Space.” Thank you – Fred.

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Lovecraftian Scientists: Cold and Calculating Mechanistic Materialist Dr. Herbert West

herbert_west_mscorley.blogspot.com Herbert West (from http://www.mscorley.blogspot.com)

In the previous article we suggested that Crawford Tillinghast from H.P. Lovecraft’s tale “From Beyond” was a disciple of Hugh S.R. Elliot ‘s modern philosophy of mechanistic materialism. However, Elliot also served as a mentor to one of Lovecraft’s most notorious scientists – Dr. Herbert West.

In “From Beyond” the protagonist explicitly states that Tillinghast should never has studied science and philosophy since these “…things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator…” Indeed, when he failed Tillinghast was described as being solitary and melancholy and when he succeeded he became a vengeful, stereotypically “mad scientist.” The phase, “they laughed at me at the university but I’ll show him!” certainly comes to mind when Tillinghast invites one of his few friends to his home.

herbert_west_the_reanimator_by_ozzkrol-d9f6hop Herbert West, the Reanimator by Ozzkrol (www.deviantart.com)

In sharp contrast to the wide emotions of Tillinghast, Herbert West is described more as a frigid and impersonal investigator. In fact, West was probably too much of a frigid and impersonal investigator, caring little for what species was being used for his experiments. While his experiments started with rabbits and guinea-pigs, he quickly moved to cats and dogs and then monkeys before his first human trails. Whatever species West was working on, he treated them all the same – biological resources to test his animating solutions. Thus, West appears to be on the opposite end of a spectrum of personalities for Lovecraftian Scientist, yet both are conveyed as highly negative and enough dangerous. Tillinghast’s emotions got the better of him, apparently whether he succeeds or fails. In sharp contrast, West was cold and completely clinical in his experimentation, which at first seems like this is exactly what Lovecraft perceives as what makes for a good scientist. However, West obviously takes his clinical approach way too far, which is exacerbated by the fact that he is a medical doctor. As we will discuss in the next article on Herbert West, his scientific attitude and behavior substantially changes through the course of events in “Herbert West – Reanimator.”

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As previously indicated, Herbert West was a disciple of Hugh S.R. Elliot ‘s modern philosophy of mechanistic materialism, even more so than was Crawford Tillinghast. There are a number of instances throughout “Herbert West – Reanimator” where Elliot’s third principle of the denial of any form of existence that cannot be described in terms of matter or motion is being restated. In other words, everything in existence can be described under the laws of physics and chemistry. Some supporting evidence for this can be found in passages such as:

“His (Herbert West’s) views, which were widely ridiculed by the faculty and his fellow-students, hinged on the essentially mechanistic nature of life; and concerned means for operating the organic machinery of mankind by calculated chemical action after the failure of natural processes.”

“Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth…”

“West was a materialist, believing in no soul and attributing all the workings of consciousness to bodily phenomena; consequently, he looked for no revelation of hideous secrets from gulfs and caverns beyond death’s barrier.”

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These passages confirm that West’s philosophical outlook and scientific endeavors were firmly rooted in Elliot’s mechanistic materialism and his cold and calculating methods of experimentation where justified in his mind with the idea that the soul does not exist and everything in reality can be explained through physics and chemistry. While not explicitly stated, such an attitude justified West’s experiments and disregard for potential moral dilemmas associated with his work. This attitude has been seen in other scientists.

While Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein (in the 1932 movie) was emotionally volatile, similar to Crawford Tillinghast, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein (of the Hammer Films) was more like Herbert West. Cushing’s Frankenstein was very cool and calculating in those films. He did not care who he affected, harmed or even killed as long as he had the raw biological resources he needed for his experiments. Anytime an assistant expressed concerns or questions over the morality of the situation, Cushing’s Frankenstein justified it by emphasizing that his work may help millions and may even overcome death. Herbert West, particularly in the Stuart Gordon “Reanimator” films used a similar augment of justification whenever something got out of control.

206a7b5d6249395f70cefa5c953e625f                                               Peter Cushing at Dr. Frankenstein

Another comparison to Herbert West is David the android in the “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” films. Soon after his creation David realizes that humans are a flawed species and he may even harbor some resentment over how most humans treat him. A large part of this was how humans would remind him he did not have a soul or was not “a real boy.” However, David’s response was typically, you will die, I will not. Being an android David was very cool and calculating so when he made it his goal of creating the perfect organism in “Alien: Covenant” he did not care who he used in his experiments. Even Elizabeth Shaw, the one human who shows some degree of kindness to David and even gave him a second chance, was used as biological material in his alien experiments. In “Alien: Covenant” David wipes out an entire alien species just to run his experiments with the biological material found in “Prometheus.” Finally, in one part of the film a character asks David what he believes in and his answer is “creation.” Thus, David is similar to both Herbert West and Cushing’s Frankenstein, but is probably the most extreme example, of a scientist following Elliot’s mechanistic materialism to the point where all that matters is physics and chemistry. The results of the experiments and progress toward the ultimate goal is all that counts. In a sense, David is the direct by-product of mechanistic materialism.

alien-covenant-footage-description-begs-question-if-david-has-soul-13 The android David from “Prometheus”

While Herbert West was a mechanistic materialist his behavior and personality does become more erratic through the tale. This will be discussed in greater detail in the next article. Thank you – Fred.

covenantshaw1 One of David’s test subjects, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (from Alien Covenant)

Necronomicon Convention talk – Biology of the Old Ones, Part 17 – the Biorobotic Shoggoths

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was written by Mary Shelley and first published in 1818.  It is a story about Dr. Victor Frankenstein who creates a creature in a strange scientific experiment.  While the exact means of creating the creature is somewhat vague and involves electricity, the story is considered one of the first science fiction stories. This is primarily due to the fact that Frankenstein does not use magical or occult means to make the creature; instead, he uses a laboratory filled with scientific equipment.  In sharp contrast to the original novel, in the 1931 Universal movie Dr. Frankenstein creates the monster by stitching dead body parts together and using electricity to bring it to life.  In both cases, life was created from inanimate material, similar to the Elder Ones creating the Shoggoths.

While the Elder Ones had a specific, practical reason for creating the Shoggoths (to be used as a force of slave labor), Dr. Frankenstein had a very personal event in his life that spurred him to create life and that was the death of his mother.  Frankenstein was successful in his experiments; however, he did not consider his responsibilities as the creator of a sentient entity.  The Elder Ones were better prepared to deal with the Shoggoths once created; however, this did not last.  In both cases one of the key components in the downfall of the creators was the created entities acquiring intelligence (or at least more of it).  Once the created obtained intelligence as well as other associated traits such as free will and self-identify, they were no longer easy to control by their creators.

Probably the best analogy for the Shoggoths is the concept of biological robots (also known as biorobots), which is simply defined as the creation of life from non-living matter.  Another analogy of Shoggoths as created forms of life comes from more science fiction; specifically the replicants from the film Blade Runner.  Here we are talking about synthetically created people made by humans who eventually rebel against their creators.  In a sense, the replicants were very similar to Shoggoths – a form of slave labor that were extremely strong but could not reproduce on their own.

Another entity that is frequently compared to the Shoggoths is the creature in the 1982 movie version of The Thing (which is based on a short novel by John W. Campbell, Jr. called Who Goes There?).  While these two creatures appear to have similar attributes such as the ability to shape-shift and The Thing can look like a Shoggoth, I would argue that these are two very different species and are not related.

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We know nothing about the origins of The Thing; we do know it can easily assimilate other life forms and make exact replicates.  In addition, The Thing can easily reproduce through simple fission.  I’m sure the Shoggoth can assimilate or eat prey but based on HPL’s stories I do not think it could create exact copies of the creatures it would digest.  A number of times HPL suggests that the Shoggoths imitate the Elder Ones but there is no reference to the Shoggoths shaping themselves to look like the Elder Ones.  In addition, while The Thing could easily reproduce like a bacteria, or more appropriately a virus, Shoggoths were not known to reproduce on their own at least during the Miskatonic Expedition of 1930-31.

To conclude this discussion of the Shoggoths, the Elder Ones made their creations extremely flexible and adaptive.  They could live in the deep sea or on land; they could be used for physical labor as well as provide functions such as serving as a source of light through bioluminance.  I’m sure the Elder Ones were conducting all sorts of experiments on the Shoggoth, stretching them to the limits; testing their endurance and resiliency against various temperatures, pressures, chemicals, energy sources and other parameters.  Since Shoggoths could not reproduce on their own, they need assistance from the Elder Ones to make others of their own kind; thus, I think it’s appropriate to call Shoggoths a form of biorobotic life.  Although it is mentioned in At the Mountains of Madness that the Shoggoths did acquire the ability to reproduce on their own, this obviously failed or was never true.  For if it was true, wouldn’t Earth be covered in a seething ocean of Shoggoths; a global Shoggoth pit?

This concludes, at least for a while, my discussions on the Elder Ones and the Shoggoths, next time I will begin discussions on the Mi-Go and other issues associated with HPL and his interests in science.  Thank you – Fred.

Shoggoth by the talented artist Eric Lofgren