The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll
Published by Audrey Driscoll on December 5th 2014
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The Friendship of Mortals is a wonderfully and lovingly crafted book. The writing is smooth; the sentences and paragraphs have a perfect balance; the characters are interesting, authentic and believable; dialogue flows naturally.
The plot is based on a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, an American horror fiction author from the early 20th century. It deals with a clever, enigmatic and devious medical student and physician, Herbert West, who concocts a potion and develops a method to re-animate the recently deceased – with varying degrees of success. Enigmatic he may be, but he exerts a strong influence over the narrator of the story, university librarian Charles Milburn, to such an extent that Milburn seems to prefer West’s bedside manner than that of his girlfriend, Alma Halsey. Milburn becomes West’s assistant in grave-robbing and laboratory experimentation.
Driscoll plays off the interplay between West and Milburn perfectly. “Don’t be an idiot, Charles, just do it,” says West – and Milburn does it, always, despite seeing ethical problems in West’s work. Later he describes himself as “a guilt-ridden being who had wrestled with the dilemma of friendship with a murderer.”
And then there are the re-animated corpses. How will they behave when brought back to life? How long will they survive for? Will they die (again) or have to be killed? The fact that Herbert West himself has no clear idea about the outcome of his experiments only adds to the suspense.
The book loses a bit of momentum around the two-thirds mark, when both West and Alma are out of the country and communicate with Milburn via mail. But when West returns, Milburn again falls under his spell, the experiments continue, the dead rise, and the final chapters lead to a gripping finale.
Interview with the author, Audrey Driscoll
Audrey, what gave you the idea of writing an adaptation of an existing story – and specifically this one by H. P. Lovecraft?
I wasn’t intending to write an adaptation, although the idea of writing a novel had been in the back of my mind for years, along with the excuse that I had no time, due to work, life and so on. At that time (1990s) I had the idea that only full-time “real” writers wrote novels. But I’d been curious about H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” because it was one of the few I hadn’t read, and was reputed to be really bad, so bad that HPL himself had sort of disowned it. In 1998 I happened across the story in the library where I worked. While I recognized its faults, I also found Herbert West an interesting character, which is rare for a Lovecraft protagonist. HPL’s interests were creating atmosphere and cosmic horror, not characters’ psychologies. Being familiar with Lovecraftian tropes (Miskatonic University, Arkham, the Necronomicon, etc.), I found myself weaving them into a plot that gave Herbert and the narrator some background and context. And I couldn’t help trying to find reasons for Herbert’s desire to reanimate corpses, and for the narrator’s loyalty to Herbert, despite his misdeeds.
In your view, when adapting an existing story, where does the balance lie between remaining faithful to the original and introducing new elements?
Well, right from the start I decided this was my novel, although inspired by and solidly based on Lovecraft’s story. I felt the only aspects I absolutely had to maintain (aside from corpse reanimation) were Herbert’s scientific, mechanistic views at the beginning, and his downfall as the result of his experiments at (or toward) the end. The form that downfall takes in my novel is, of course, quite different from the original.
What were the biggest changes that you introduced and why did you make them?
The first was giving the narrator a name (Charles Milburn) and making him a cataloguing librarian instead of a medical student and physician. I didn’t think I could accurately represent a member of the medical profession circa 1910. Being a cataloguer myself, I couldn’t resist sharing my profession with my fictional narrator. Another major change, of course, was Alma Halsey as Charles’s romantic interest. H.P. Lovecraft had very few such characters in his stories. Asenath Waite in “The Thing on the Doorstep” comes closest, but that story has no more romance in it than anything else by Lovecraft. The third thing, of course, is that instead of being physically destroyed by a gang of badly reanimated monsters, my version of Herbert West was transformed by undergoing something analogous to an alchemical process. Finally, I deliberately changed a few minor details – West’s eyes are grey rather than blue, and he “revivifies” rather than “reanimates.”
Why did you leave out the death, reanimation and killing spree of the Dean of the Medical School, Allen Halsey, as well as the cast of zombies and their disembowelment and decapitation antics?
Hmm. Sounds as though you’re referring to the movie Re-Animator which is based on the Lovecraft story (The Book Owl: sorry, my mistake!). I don’t remember Dean Halsey doing these specific grisly things before getting locked up in Sefton Asylum, although phrases such as “shapeless remnants” and “red death” would certainly encompass such things. I can’t recall my precise reasoning, but the fact is I’m not all that interested in describing gory mayhem. I did furnish a sinister character in the person of the revivified John Hocks, but he had to do the job for all of the zombie types. Dean Halsey was more useful for my purposes as a villain, because by the time I got to that section Herbert was morphing into something more than “evil mad scientist.” As for decapitation, well, something like it occurs in Book 3 of the series, Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure.
You have continued writing about Herbert West – was that your idea right from the outset or was that a development after your experience with The Friendship of Mortals?
No, when I started writing the first book, I had no intention of writing a sequel, never mind a series. But the end of The Friendship of Mortals seemed to demand a sequel and I was eager to explore the character further. After writing about places I had never visited (Massachusetts, the battlefields of WWI), I was keen to write something set in my part of the world. So even though transplanting the character who began as Herbert West to the west coast of Canada seemed unlikely, I did it. Unfortunately for readers hoping for further Lovecraftian horror elements, the story as it turned out is rather deficient (aside from parts of Book 3 as noted earlier). And the final book, Hunting the Phoenix, came about in large part because I felt I’d given Alma Halsey short shrift by pushing her away from the action in the first book. So I promised her, “Alma, you will narrate the final book.” And I think she does a pretty good job of it.
Thank you Audrey for sharing your thoughts.
You’re most welcome.
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