An Introduction to “The Plague-Daemon” by H. P. Lovecraft
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
—H. P. Lovecraft (Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1945)
The roots of horror run deep and they nourish some twisted trees that have brought a wide range of horror stories into the world for us to share and shudder over. Fears can be as individual as fingerprints, but nearly every human who has ever lived knows what it means to be afraid of pain, loss of control, and especially of that ultimate loss of control: death.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), spent most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island. He was an aristocratic but near-penniless New Englander. Generally solitary and reclusive, he carried on lively written exchanges through the years with hundreds of correspondents. He longed for a return to a classical age, and was intolerant of anything he considered banal and vulgarized (vulgar in the sense of appealing to the tastes and expectations of the common masses). He produced over 50 works of fiction, as well as poetry, essays and voluminous written correspondence. His writings continue to exert their distinctively disturbing influence on imaginative souls. A number of his works have been transformed, with varying degrees of success, into films.
The piece reprinted here, “The Plague-Daemon,” is one section of Herbert West—Reanimator, HPL’s first commercially published work. The six-part story was serialized in 1921 in a weird fiction magazine called Horror Brew—the author was paid $36 per installment. Although HPL by no means considered it an example of his best work (in fact, he himself considered it hack work), Herbert West—Reanimator has been an influential piece. It’s clear that Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna based a central theme of their 1985 film, Re-Animator, on this very section. Re-Animator brought the story forward into a contemporary setting and embellished it with aspects of sexy horror that weren’t in the original story (which probably had the curiously puritanical author spinning in his grave!). Nonetheless, the film kept and effectively conveyed the timeless horrific obsessions of a maniacally brilliant medical student determined to overcome death—at all costs to his patients, subjects and anyone else unfortunate enough to be around at the wrong time.
The story does not depend on “supernatural” threats by eldritch beings that have emerged out of mythologies; no characters command esoteric mystical powers. Herbert West is a scientist through and through—he deals in a razor-sharp manner with real people and real occurrences in his real world, yet he reveals how thin that veneer of reality, civilization and sanity actually is. Although Herbert West—Reanimator lacks the cosmic dread associated with his better-known tales (e.g., The Whisperer in Darkness), it is a perfect example of why one critic chose to call HPL “a pornographer of horror.”
Read and enjoy!