H. P. Lovecraft and the Immortality Quest
The conquer death may very well be the oldest human dream in existence, and while philosophically we’ve made our peace with the fact that we’re all going to leave this life at some point, practically-speaking we still persist towards the craved state of immortality. Whether or not putting the grim reaper out of business would be a good thing is very much up for debate, but that’s very much a topic for another discussion; humanity will only consider such grave eventualities when it finally gets there and it’s too late to turn back… until then, we’ll just keep ploughing forward.
Resurrection, either through scientific or divine means, has been strongly present in popular culture for a long time, and as we will soon see through the time-tested stories of H. P. Lovecraft, it’s a concept that can take on many interesting forms… but always remains as perilous as it is illogical and hopeless. Come forth and take a step into the worlds of those who have found a way to accomplish the impossible, and witness the price of the coveted dream.
“Celephais” (1922) – The Ease of Building a Paradise
This story is a few pages long and it presents us with a narrator who, in his dreams, calls himself Kuranes. We are never given his real name and only know him as a man in his forties who feels lost, invisible and disconnected with his life in modern London. He dreams time and time again of a city called Celephais, a place that isn’t marked by the passage of time and always welcomes him back, leaving everything intact and just as a remembered it. Slowly, he slips away further and further into this immortal dreamland where he is, for all intents and purposes, the king and ruler. However, is it truly just the dream of a desperate man about to leave this world and seeking another where he might live forever, or is it the actual unseen gateway to paradise?
While most of Lovecraft’s stories focus on placing macabre twists throughout and especially at the ending, this work has a somewhat different atmosphere to it. There is, of course, something to tantalize the senses at the end, but this is the kind of tale that urges you to ask questions and figure out not only what is real for the characters, but to what degree it all extends to real life. If one finds happiness in their imagination and believes it convincingly enough for it to appear as reality to them, would it still be fair to say that from their perspective they are merely living in a dream? Does it really matter whether or not the goodness in our lives is objectively real, as long as it works? None but the reader may answer those questions
“Cool Air” (1926) – The Good Doctor’s Secret
A bit longer and more straightforward, this story takes us into the life of our nameless narrator who, in the spring of 1923, settles into a converted brownstone in New York City. He soon discovers that his neighbour from upstairs is a reclusive and eccentric physician, a fact which one day saves the narrator’s life as he suffers a heart attack and uses his strength to climb up the stairs to meet the doctor. Proving himself to be an unnaturally-skilled practitioner, the good doctor Munoz fixes him up in no time, and from that day on the two have regular meetings where the narrator spends most of his time learning from the old man’s stories. However, one strange fact stood out to the narrator: the room was always kept at a cool 13 degrees Celsius (56 degrees Fahrenheit), and as time goes by, the doctor needs it to be colder and colder while becoming increasingly frantic and eccentric.
While I do admit that for modern readers the ultimate plot twist may feel a bit obvious (especially considering the good doctor’s fascination with overcoming death), you must remember that this was written almost a hundred years ago now, and if anything this pioneered much of the works that make it seems predictable now. However, regardless of whether or not you can see it all coming, the story in and of itself has a certain quality of calm interest to it, playing up the mystery rather than making you feel as if the characters are in danger.
Once again, the main theme explored by Lovecraft here is the conquest of death, or perhaps more precisely, the tragic extent of our futile dreams and failings in regards to it. From a technical standpoint the writing is absolutely exquisite to say the least, with the author’s mastery of the English vocabulary being second to none; one paragraph flows seamlessly after the next and the descriptions powerfully evoke all of the human senses. All in all, it’s a great few pages of text that will leave you stunned at best or mildly entertained at the very worst.
“Herbert West – Reanimator” (1922) – The Unforeseen Legion
Horror movie aficionados amongst you will certainly recognize this title from the 1985 horror movie Re-animator, a true cult classic if there ever was one. This is the story it was all based on, and originally it was published in six short parts. I won’t go through all of them but will simply explain the basic premise.
Once again, we have the pleasure of going along for a ride with a nameless narrator, though in the movie they did name him Dan Cain. He one day becomes acquainted with the theories of Herbert West who postulates that the human body is nothing more than a complex organic machine that can be restarted with the proper tools. They strike up a friendship and set up a laboratory in an abandoned farmhouse and resort to grave robbing to find bodies for their experiments. While their initial results aren’t encouraging they persevere onwards, and eventually manage to reanimate a man… who unfortunately turns into a violent murderer and cannibal. Over the years their work continues, and even as WWI comes around the corner, for them it’s just a way to get more bodies for their experiments. As their work becomes increasingly obsessive and the results erratic, the two men must eventually confront the unspeakable horrors they’ve brought into this world in the name of conquering death.
Out of the three stories presented today this is certainly the longest, most popular and recognizable one, admittedly for very good reasons. To begin with, the plot itself is extremely solid in the sense that every single part, or chapter if you will, has some new hooks to keep you glued to the pages. This isn’t necessarily about huge twists or anything of the sort… it’s more about seeing the narrator and West go through their sickly and macabre journey, from one despicable yet fascinating step to the next, wondering what it is they’ll finally achieve and what the price for it might be.
At the same time, Lovecraft ponders the idea as to how beneficial scientific resurrection might actually be, especially considering all the early failings we would have to get through to reach the finish line. The benefits of eternal life are already quite obvious, thus Lovecraft dedicates most of his reflections to showing the dangerous and revolting side of the equation, a demonstration as to the necessity of death in human life.