The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll

The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey DriscollCounterbalancing the hidden experiments and disdain for inconvenient laws of the mad scientist with a sympathetic search for solutions to human misery, Driscoll forces the reader to face the reasons for their horror: is visceral attachment to the flesh of the dead truly more important than improving lives? If there isn’t an afterlife, is resurrection ever too expensive?

This novel is the first in a series reimagining HP Lovecraft’s Herbert West — Reanimator, so – while every attempt is made to avoid spoilers – some comparisons might reveal or reduce surprises.

A temporary appointment as custodian of the Necronomicon brings Charles Milburn, a cataloguer at Miskatonic University, into contact with Herbert West, a medical student with progressive ideas about both the medical benefits of human dissection, and death itself. A brief association that grows into collaboration as West’s dark charisma draws Milburn deeper into the boundary between chemistry and mysticism.

While the story starts with the same premise, a naïve young man becoming assistant to a medical student bent on raising the dead using science, this is very clearly a revision rather than a retelling. Many of the same characters appear, but their fate is not always the same as the original; and as the book progresses West’s failures and successes, and their consequences, diverge more strongly from Lovecraft’s text.

Despite producing perhaps the most famous film adaption of Lovecraft, many mythos aficionados (and indeed Lovecraft himself) regard Herbert West — Reanimator as one of his least works. It is therefore easy to imagine Lovecraft approving of this reinvention, replacing as it does the pulp shocks of the original with a more psychological narrative filled with the sense of brooding otherness that he sought in his best works. So, as an improvement on the original, this novel is a clear success.

Whether it is an unmitigated success absent the comparison is a more complex question (Having read the original several times, I can make no claim to approach this book as a clean slate). In addition to her avowed aim of giving the characters of Herbert West — Reanimator depth of character and a proper back story, Driscoll has adopted the spirit of Lovecraft’s universe: a slow trickle of evidence that something might be wrong, provided to a narrator the reader knows isn’t reliable. This choice to avoid the objective answer could either resonate with readers who love the trope of one man glimpsing part of the truth, or drag on readers who prefer a narrative that moves towards a clearer picture of the truth.

As with many authors adding to the Mythos, Driscoll includes references to other stories. However, these are occasional and none rely on knowledge of the other story to gain their sense, so are more likely to give a brief frisson of recognition to Lovecraft aficionados than suggest an author displaying their own cleverness.

Milburn is a stronger character than Lovecraft’s unnamed narrator. Now a librarian with a background in the classics rather than a medical student, he possesses a solid background to both inform and contrast his actions. The constant presence of the happy normal life he could live by leaving West alone gives his choice to help real meaning.

Driscoll’s West is similarly stronger. Set within a real world with real problems, his tedious, almost one-dimensional, focus on reanimation becomes an extreme – yet in some way, understandable – desire to push back the boundaries of medicine. In addition to this more sympathetic portrayal of his studies, West both uses his knowledge to provide real benefits to the living and gives assistance freely to those who cannot afford it. In the place of the gurning madman of the original, Driscoll has created a character who wants to do good but is at odds with his society.

As fits her aim, the supporting cast are also rounded, complex individuals. Freed from the tight focus of the original, they are free to live lives beyond West. This freedom creates a set of intersecting groups, some with an opinion on both Milburn and West and some barely recognising one exists.

Overall, I loved this novel; it captures my favourite themes and ideas from the original while adding the depth the original lacked. I recommend it to both fans of the Mythos and those seeking a more cerebral horror.

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