Arts & Living

H.P. Lovecraft and the science of resuscitation

H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West is a man of science, not superstition. Following Ernst Haeckel, he believes that “all life is a chemical and psychical process,” that the soul is “a myth,” 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.” Not satisfied with conventional medicine, West devotes his life to creating a solution that will restore artificial life after death. Like many biomedical researchers would find out after him, the same solution can have different effects on different species. But what West is really after is reanimation of humans. And reanimation of humans requires experimentation on humans.

West does not only anticipate the future science of resuscitation, but also the phenomenon of selective vulnerability of certain brain cells because we know that West fully realized “that the psychic or intellectual life might be impaired by the slight deterioration of sensitive brain-cells which even a short period of death would be apt to cause.” As a consequence, his corpses cannot be “fresh” enough. Artificial resuscitation turns out to be a step towards bigger things when we learn that West has ventured into the area of “warm” whole body preservation (suspended animation) by creating a “highly unusual embalming compound” that keeps the body fresh for future resuscitation efforts. Still not satisfied, the “materialist” West moves on to prove that there is nothing special about the brain when he attempts to create mental life by pharmacologic modulation of nervous tissue in a decapitated body. One can only guess what direction West’s research would have taken after these bizarre experiments. Science is hard, but for this medical student of Miskatonic University, resuscitation, suspended animation, and stem cell research are all in a days work.

The greatest mystery in Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” is that West succeeds in reanimating anything at all. Injection of West’s solution is not followed by artificial circulation, which makes one wonder how such a solution can confer such profound benefits.