The earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
West was a materialist, believing in no soul and attributing all the working of consciousness to bodily phenomena; consequently he looked for no revelation of hideous secrets from gulfs and caverns beyond death’s barrier.
The last thing you might expect to consider during Eastertide is…the zombie. Now, think outside the box for a minute in honor of the season, for what better time for outside-the-box activity than Easter, given that the Resurrection was the most outside-the-box event of all time?
This year marks the publication centennial of a very particular collection of zombie literature: the “Reanimator” series by Howard Phillips Lovecraft. This hilariously dark series of short tales is an absolute repulsive delight—but at the same time, it crawls and claws with a macabre poignancy at our death-denying age that is alive with people who don’t want to die; who struggle violently, often through horror ironically, to grasp at some Faustian fantasy that offers an escape from death; who fly from Lazarus into the arms of Jason Voorhees.
H.P. Lovecraft of Rhode Island was a weird, unhinged lover of the supernatural, whose love was a little too tinged with fear and trembling. He knew something about the most basic of human horrors, though, and exploited death to make a living. His “Reanimator” series about Herbert West of the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham is not remembered by his scholars as among his greatest works—though hailed as a forerunner of the scientifically reanimated zombie of savage, animalistic urges—but it certainly taps into the deepest human dread which the Risen Christ assuages.
Herbert West, “a small, slender, spectacled youth with delicate features, yellow hair, pale blue eyes, and a soft voice,” was a serious scientist and a civilized psychopath, whose ghoulish passions and projects render the ambitions and accomplishments of Dr. Victor Frankenstein mere child’s play. West’s mania is chillingly documented by his only friend and lone assistant:
West had already made himself notorious through his wild theories on the nature of death and the possibility of overcoming it artificially. His 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.
The accounts of Herbert West’s uncanny experiments in reanimating fresh corpses procured and vivified in the most picturesquely grotesque fashion are classic, brute shockers, and the loathing loyalty of his timorous Boswell is most amusing, together with his “vague instinctive remnants of the primitive faith of [his] forefathers.” Over the morbid course of recovering and reanimating dead bodies with various degrees of success and failure, a wild cadaverous conspiracy builds around Herbert West, causing him to resemble Coleridge’s cursed Mariner after his voyage with the dead.
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
Ultimately, West’s demons catch up with him. He is made a grisly victim of his own grisly degradations, involving, most wonderfully and unspeakably, a creature with a glass-eyed wax head mounted to its shoulders, who carries his severed seat of thought in a case designed for that purpose. With ghastly midnight exhumations, sudden cries from corpse throats, a vat of hideously growing puffy reptilian cell-matter, hospital surgeries that conclude in revolver shots, gibbering padded-cell inmates of Arkham asylum, dripping sepulchers and roaring incinerators, there is nothing more revolting or riveting or ridiculous than these charnel-house tales of terror that build upon themselves like one of Herbert West’s own hack-and-slash, mad-scientist, Moreau-esque experiments.
The “Reanimator” serials are over the top in their pulp fare even while they groan with a palpable and popular fear that no Christian soul need fall prey to any longer. During the Byzantine Vespers of the Descent from the Cross service for Good Friday, there is a marvelous text that reads:
Hades, made ridiculous at seeing Thee, O Deliverer of All, placed in a new tomb for the sake of all, trembled with fear. Its locks were shattered; its doors broken; the tombs were opened; and the dead awoke. Then Adam cried to Thee with joy and gratitude, “Glory be to Thy condescension, O lover of mankind.”
And Hades was made ridiculous, indeed, when he was stripped of his sting by the King of Kings when He rose from the dead on the third day, tearing down the doors of death. And ever since that time, death has been ridiculous, poor fool, though he still puffs himself up to overwhelm the imagination of man. But to us now is given the power expressed in John Donne’s immortal condemnation:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
The victory of the Resurrection and the glory of the saints comes forth from the conquering of death and the destruction of the power of sin. The Resurrection celebrates Christ’s triumph, but night-of-the-living-dead stories like the “Reanimator” are parodies of that triumph, even as they, in spite of themselves, subject the symbols of the grave to what amounts to a satirical derision. Zombies, devils, ghouls, and other such ridiculous Lovecraftian spooks are caricatures of an impotent evil, though they assume a self-importance that has lost touch with the all-important Resurrection. For many, the ridiculous is all they have and may not appear ridiculous.
Followers of Christ, on the other hand, are conquerors and no longer slaves of death; but there is something about these horror stories that remain subjugated to death and haunted by a zombie presence, like the languishing House of Usher. Believers, whose faith resists those influences that declare death ultimately fearful, must not fear death. This faith does not animate—or reanimate—the dark corners of Lovecraft country.
Lovecraft’s eerie themes have their place in storytelling, to be sure, but they assume a dangerous aspect when wed to the mythos of the undead in the context of secularism, materialism, and relativism. The moral muddiness that defines the age is one that recasts villains like vampires in a new, alarming light that asks in fear whether foes might be heroes or, heaven forbid, whether myth can be man-centered. When hideous corpses are brought back to hideous life in denial of the soul, there is a terror introduced that there is no soul. Herbert West was certainly not a believer in the soul and was left struggling to provide violent explanation for life by giving potent injections to the dead.
Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth, my friend believed that artificial reanimation of the dead can depend only on the condition of the tissues; and that unless actual decomposition has set in, a corpse fully equipped with organs may with suitable measures be set going again in the peculiar fashion known as life.
Without a distinct divine element, however, there can be no true mythology. Though Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth (or Cthulhu) cosmogony has a spiritual shade to it, it is more demoniac than divine. Modern myth like Lovecraft and all his ghoulish creations has, like its age, lost the sense of a whole and as such it is fragmented and fumbling. Ours are a people who no longer believe in two worlds. Ours is a mythology of undead, zombie materialism, a mythology of forceful scientism, conjured for men who, like vampires themselves, are described by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “The Vampire”: “some of him lived but the most of him died.”
A wise woman once told me that the basis of all philosophy and theology was man’s universal desire to live forever—a desire that is, of course, fulfilled by Christ’s glorious Resurrection from the dead. It is also, by a strange paradox, a desire that ferments and festers in those bizarre tales of terror that make death the definitive terror even as it is unnaturally dodged by the likes of undead creatures, making a horror out of the very heart of human hope. Leave it to the fallen nature to befoul nature further.
Nevertheless, there is something both essential and vital in the lurid literature of the walking dead, and H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West—Reanimator” is a potter’s field vade mecum, a real crypt-creeper that makes for a deliciously naughty outside-the-box Easter read all about rising from the grave. Not exactly Resurrectional, to be sure, but it is fascinating in its disturbingly ridiculous alternatives, which substitute the glory with the gory—the preoccupations of a people who have lost hope for Resurrection and can only grope for reanimation.