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The Thing from the Trenches
An Untold Tale of Herbert West
By Robert M. Price
It is from the depths of self-loathing that I write, and for no eyes but my own, all in a vain attempt to assuage my ever-present guilt. They say that confession is good for the soul, that is, if one still has a soul, and I fear I have long since bartered mine away in the slow process of acceding to the dominant will of my partner, my master, Dr. Herbert West. West and I had been fellow students in the medical college of the Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. From the beginning we were drawn together by our openness to theories beyond the normal range of convention. We never truly became friends but knit a perhaps even more solid bond by becoming colleagues each indispensable to the other. There were precious few in the field of medicine, theoretical or practical, who showed any positive interest in the paths down which we could not wait to race. For we looked into the future of medicine, and the beckoning future of mankind, a path which only daring medical risks might help us to blaze--for the eventual good of humanity. Who knew what advancements might be possible, both in the repair of fleshly injury and in the accelerated evolutionary perfection of the species? As medical theorists, West and I circled the enemy territory of the Unknown, looking for some beachhead to begin our conquest. West's chosen point of entry was that of restoring the life of the dead. West was by no means a religious man, being by disposition and conviction a mechanical materialist. For him, it was no matter of necromancy, but rather of extremely complex machine repair. He felt sure he could eventually determine a fit method for jolting the stalled mechanism back into humming motion.
So promising did West's early successes seem to me that I shortly dropped my own amateurish half-ventures into the frontiers of medicine to become his assistant, or rather, his accomplice. For the lines and methods of research we were obliged to pursue made the needful extremities of the old-time "body-snatchers" look innocent indeed. We required an abundant supply of corpses, and the more recently slain the better. For a time the medical school provided for most of our needs, but those circumstances also mired us in administrative red-tape, to say nothing of prying suspicious eyes. We made our greatest advances in times of community crisis, when the freshly dead were ready to hand and the attentions of the authorities were elsewhere. Upon graduation we had set up practice in a small town near the graveyard and within easy reach of local gin mills and prize-rings, all manner of haunts of the lower classes, whose injuries and even disappearances were more or less expected and never too much marked by the law.
Our greatest stroke of luck came, however, when West and I joined the medical corps in the Great War. Stationed in bloody Belgium, we found ourselves virtually hip-deep in experimental subjects. I rejoiced when our ministrations were able to alleviate the wracking agony of the butchered soldiers we treated, though our efforts seemed wholly futile given the scope and extent of the wartime carnage. West, it must be admitted, never gave any poor sufferer less than the full measure of attention and effort his case required. And yet I often found myself regarding him as a ghoul masquerading in a lab coat, eager to escape mundane medical tasks and to get on to what really interested him. But I reminded myself in such moments that even here, as distasteful as West's goals and methods had alike become, his ultimate motivation was to push back the bounds of medical ignorance to the eventual blessing of a suffering mankind. At least I could hope West still worshipped such gods. It became apparent soon enough, though, that he held other idols in reserve and served them on errands unfathomable to the run of mankind. It is of such an adventure I now undertake to tell.
Herbert West had in truth made certain strides in surgical method which, due to his own subsequent vicissitudes as well as the ethical squeamishness of a quailing majority, he had not yet shared with the wider public. There were two in particular. First was West's theory, soon to be amply vindicated, that consciousness was merely most greatly concentrated in the brain, being in fact distributed, albeit in a state of general dormancy, throughout the nervous tissue. Thus the body itself provided its own redundancy systems if one only knew how to flip the toggle to awaken them. And, God help us, West thought he did. Second, there was a kind of living, organic tissue paste West had derived from reptile flesh. It could be used with singular effect to patch wounds where adjacent tissue had been blown away or gone necrotic. This stuff he steeped in kettles and pots with a foul reek. Surprisingly, the maintenance of the substance required no very peculiar conditions or close oversight. Many, perhaps even most, of the wretches sent to us in our field hospital near the front lines were hopeless and left our custody merely patched, not healed. But West's twin discoveries, as well as perhaps others to which I had not been made privy, did work veritable miracles on more than a few grateful Allied soldiers. Just what he did with their German and Austro-Hungarian counterparts was less clear, and no one in authority cared to pursue the matter. Remember, these were the awful days of mustard gas and trench warfare, and lists of casualties, wounded, missing, and killed in action were largely conjectural everywhere.
At the end of a particularly trying day when the weather made it unlikely that further combat or bombardment should preoccupy us, West and I had the opportunity to make a brief visit to a tavern in the nearby town. Most of the buildings were deserted or ruined, and it seemed that the pub was maintained largely for reasons of community morale, like the one remaining church in the town. We sat there in the dim light customary to stalls in such dens, and West surprised me by extracting a crumpled handkerchief to wipe down the beer-circles on the table-top before laying flat of pair of similar-looking leather books, diaries so nearly alike that they might have come from the same set.
"Look at them, Dan. In fact, take them and read them ... at your leisure." We both chuckled at this bitter jest, but I did take up first one, then the other, and glanced through a few of the hand-scrawled entries. One was written in neat, precise German. So fastidious was the scribe that he had even gone back and erased false starts rather than crossing them out, at least toward the front of the volume. The look of it became more haphazard the further into the diary one paged. It was evident that the later entries took the writer into the war, closer to danger, and he could afford less attention to his creation. The entries were dated farther apart, too, till they ended altogether, the night before the most recent battle. I knew what that had to mean. As well, I knew where West had obtained the item, no doubt the both of them. The second journal was written in French, whether by a Frenchman or a Belgian, I could not tell without closer scrutiny. He had not taken such care for appearances early on, so there was less difference between earlier and later entries, but this diary, too, stopped with a terribly suggestive abruptness. The two volumes would make for interesting and poignant reading, and I thanked West for their loan.
"But, West, what is your interest in these diaries? I know you for a close student of human nature, indeed the most penetrating of all, but this is hardly your typical avenue of investigation...?"
"It is a most singular circumstance, my old friend, that in the same day fate should have supplied me with two so closely similar documents, stemming, as you shall see, from two so similar personalities. And this singularity has given me the idea for an experiment. Tomorrow, time permitting, I shall show you what is left of the two young men who have donated their last testaments to us in this fashion, and I will ask you to venture a guess as to what I have in mind." We went on with our drinking, welcoming the respite it provided, toasting the day when this wholesale human slaughter should cease, and the researches of science might be free again to pursue their courses unhindered.
Despite the liquor I consumed, I found it difficult to sleep that night and, hoping my full waking faculties should not be too early required upon the morrow, I turned up my lamp and began to squint at the pages of the German diary. Perhaps this would help me find my way down the onyx steps to slumber. Here, translated, is a passage I select at random, more or less equivalent in style and feeling to the original.
The next day, for some reason, afforded more leisure than any for weeks past. There were still plenty of recovering patients to be seen to, but we did not have to treat their ills in spare moments snatched from attending to carcasses fresh from the battlefields. Had there been a brief truce? I knew not, but was grateful to Chance, the only deity I could any longer accept. So in the afternoon, following a nap, I took up, this time, the French diary book. The ink was superior, but the paper cheaper, so that the writing often threatened to penetrate the verso of the leaf. Because of this, the diarist had soon taken to writing only on every other page, which certainly made for easier reading. As it happened, the poor man needed even fewer pages than he had available. I began to read, and it was not long before I found myself wondering if I had after all delved into this text the previous evening but forgotten, having become so drowsy at the end. But no. I realized the apparent redundancy resulted from the astonishing similarity in sentiment and expression between the two diarists, who might almost have been translating into their respective languages from a common original! Rare as it was to find such a sensitive spirit in such circumstances, it was truly extraordinary to discover two, and trebly tragic to remember them both rudely cut down in the muddy mayhem.
At first my eyes, red and staring into the distance of idle and accustomed despair, did not notice the presence of West, though he had not approached with any particular stealth. "Quite remarkable, are they not? Despite, I mean, a certain romantic naiveté from which both suffered. Twin Werthers, one might call them." Such jibes, intended as such, I knew, were nothing new to me.
"What you say is true, West, though I confess I have not yet mastered your admirable degree of scientific detachment. But what is your interest in these two unfortunates? You are not like that plump chap we knew at school--Derby? Will you perhaps seek side-by-side publication in some literary journal? No, I thought not. What, then?"
West wordlessly motioned me to the rear of the large tent we used as an operating room and supply closet. Behind it he had caused to be erected a secondary tent, poorly lighted, which showed the silhouetted forms of various apparatus I had never seen him use on any of the soldiers. Indeed, my first thought was for how he had gotten it all transported and set up, given the strict assignment of personnel for necessary tasks. I recognized vats of the loathsome, bubbling reptile tissue, mainly by its unmistakable smell, and then I saw West's shadowy form, long accustomed to this veil of darkness, motioning me to what might elsewhere have suggested a meat locker in a butcher shop. Within its heavy doors lurked divers body parts ice-packed in various stages of integrity and preservation. Labels, unreadable to me in the darkness, classified and identified the parts and, I supposed, their donors.
"Do you see these two sets of... pieces?" West said, his voice assuming the best clinical monotone. "They represent the earthly remains of our two autobiographers. There is not enough of either of them left to merit an attempt at bringing either back. It would be cruel even if there were any chance of success. You shudder--I can see why! They must have fought like tigers, despite the refined sentiments displayed in their journals. If you have read to any depth in their pages, you will know that they were no pacifists at heart. No, their disdain of modern warfare was fueled partly by a longing for the imagined chivalry of an earlier, more gallant age. And each seemed to blame the other's country for the ruination the conflict had wrought on their beloved Europe. Thus, when their time came, they waged war quite valiantly--if one believes in that sort of thing. As a result, there is not much left of them. And, you'll find this interesting, I'm sure. It looks as if the two young heroes may actually have killed each other!"
My head swam at the way West apparently savored the irony of two men of refinement nonetheless possessed by the most ancient demons of savage conflict. Oh the futility of man! Did West really see human life as worth preserving and extending? Or was it all a macabre joke, mere gallows humor, to him? I know I was long past laughing.
"Well, old friend, what is your plan for them? What good can these piles of human refuse do you now? I might as well know."
"For, yes, you are to be a part of it. Whatever should I do without you? For now, just study the remains. Catalogue them in your memory. Inventory the possibilities, for what I intend is to try to make from the two mighty warriors, neither without lively intelligence, one new man, greater than the sum of his parts! I have already administered a preliminary dose of the reagent directly into the brains, significant and complementary portions of which seem to have survived nicely. I am hoping thus to stave off the decay of the rational faculties as much as I can. In this manner I may have the wherewithal to cobble together a fighting man able to execute commands with efficiency and to question them not at all. That is a fine set of traits, don't you think?" He didn't need to say it was precisely this combination of useful weaknesses he found so useful in my own case.
I left the inner adytum of West's lair, squinting at the light outside it, which, though fairly feeble, was stronger by far than the gloom enfolding the area just vacated. And as my eyes adjusted, focusing on whatever they first chanced to strike, I noticed an odd bit of trivia. There was a rumpled pile of French and German uniforms in various stages of filth and bloody degradation, together with scissors and a sewing kit. Had West, besides his medical duties, taken on the role of camp seamstress, too?
Sleep kept me waiting that night, once again, as it pursued divers errands elsewhere, no doubt closing many pairs of eyelids permanently before arriving for the gentler work of nudging me to slumber. And as I sat waiting, I took out the Frenchman's diary.
At length, Morpheus came and relieved me. As he took up watch, I sought relief in dream but found only nightmare. How odd that the next morning when West awakened me, the nightmare only seemed to grow worse.
It was a difficult day, growing worse the later it got. The shelling had been particularly bad, and it seemed the stream of casualties passing through our hands would never mitigate its fury. In the midst of all the carnage, Herbert West performed, as always, with machine-like efficiency. Once or twice he disappeared into his inner sanctum to retrieve some of the reptilian mass needed for particularly bad cases of shrapnel damage. It was true: his methods could work miracles. One could only pray that after the European hostilities had ceased, he might have the opportunity to persuade the medical world of their value. We would see. But he was capable of other medical marvels which he dared never unveil.
Finally the surging stream of blood and battered flesh reduced itself to a trickle and then petered out. The both of us cast away our reeking surgical garb and sponged away what we could of the wasted lifesblood in which we had swum all day. But then, West quipped, it was time for the real work to begin! With a crushing sense of dread, I knew what he meant. Nothing more delayed our delving into whatever charnel blasphemies he had planned for the remains of the French and the German diarists, to whom we now turned.
In what followed, I struggled to keep the fatigue back from filming my eyes and from causing my hands to tremble. Equally, I tried to keep my gorge down. And manfully, I did so by managing to focus my attention on each intricate task West assigned me. It was blessedly easy to lose sight almost completely of the larger whole whilst necessarily preoccupied with the minute details of knitting and clamping alien flesh. In such procedures as West specialized in, one never quite transcended the initial queasiness besetting the novice surgeon.
Of course an experiment as extensive and as detailed as this could not be the work of a single night, and West and I gladly stopped when each corner was turned. There were, however, many, many such corners, and we whiled away countless sleepless nights in the ghastly business. Sometimes the burden of the next day's labor was merciful, sometimes not. I can only hope in retrospect that our daily patients did not pay the price for it that I did in frayed nerves and bodily exhaustion. After one long session, ending as the sun rose, I was startled by the realization that I did not even know how far along we were, so great seemed the ocean of minute procedures we must needs perform. I did my work as assigned and never had a comprehensive vision. In fact, most of the fleshly mass over which we labored was covered on each occasion with surgical sheeting, with only the active area exposed. I had no complaints about it, I can tell you. Indeed, I came to hope I should not have to behold the final product once we were done!
But I was not to be so fortunate. West woke me in the middle of the night. Through the pounding of my sleep-deprived head, I sought to fasten onto his words. "... done tonight! Let us ready our protege for some practice shooting! It should be rare sport!"
I muttered, as I pulled my shirt on, "Shooting! Are you mad, West? They'll...!"
"Of course I jest, old man. But I do have a rifle here, not loaded, and I want to see how our man can handle it, how much of the motion of the soldier the reanimated creature can remember." By this time we were halfway through our operation room and on the way into West's clandestine lab area. As he opened the draped screen door, I could make out the silhouette of a sitting figure, motionless like a statue. As West gradually turned up the kerosene, whether to spare my eyes or those of this creature I knew not, I first noticed that the seated soldier wore the most peculiar patchwork of a uniform. It seemed that West had sown together scraps from cast-off uniforms of both armies! Surely, I thought, pondering the least significant detail of the matter, a full uniform could not have been so difficult to scrounge. But then I saw what he had actually done: the man's uniform was German on the right side, French on the left! What use this jest, I wondered--till I stole a glimpse of the thing's face. I had not shared in the surgery on it, nor yet even seen it, but now it emerged fully from the shadows.
The creature as a whole was built, or rebuilt, on analogy with the uniform! He had most of the German soldier on the right, most of the Frenchman on the left! The split down the face was nearly exactly symmetrical. I knew the path of juncture must zigzag wildly the further one went down the body, and that one leg and most of the other were the donation of the German. I had known the creature was to combine both fragmentary sets of remains. Of course, that was the whole point of the experiment, determining the possibilities of wholesale patchwork reconstruction and reanimation. But I was unprepared for this ghastly spectacle!
"Stirring, is it not, my old friend? Have we not discovered here the very path to peace between long-warring foes? Let us commission our recruit henceforth to turn his, their, united resources against the common adversary--Death!" I saw that he had secured a crystal goblet and was raising it for a toast.
I stood in silence, trying to assimilate what I saw. I accepted a glass of wine from West, hoping it would help calm my nerves. West then took a third glass and looked at the steadily breathing specimen sitting between us. "Why not?" he said, as he poured a taste of the black liquid and handed the drink to the slowly extending hand. I noted with keen interest that its motion was regular and even. There was nothing jerky or hesitant about it. Motor control seemed excellent if this were any true measure. He took the glass to his mismatched lips and drained it.
"Let's have more light!" quoth West, and he turned up the lamp. The figure in its harlequin uniform arose slowly, evenly, and looked about the still dim room, taking in the array of clutter. Was he a sleeper awakening? Or an automaton awaiting his first command? How much of the brain tissue of the original men would function independently? That would tell the tale. What technique would West use to find out? Unless he already knew more of these matters than he had let on. That was usually the case.
West could have addressed the soldier in passable French or German had he wished, but he chose neutral English in case the creature might have residual knowledge of it. "For whom do you fight, my man? Who pays you so well? The Kaiser? Or the French? I cannot tell from your uniform, you see."
Withal, the man looked down at his clothing. Not color blind, at least, he started with reaction, raised his stitchwork face, opened his jagged mouth and spewed forth an indescribable gibberish such as I had never heard, whether in psychiatric training with schizophrenics or from the lips of our terrible experimental failures from the graveyards. It seemed somehow intelligent and yet utterly without sense, almost as if I tried to separate two clashing radio signals. If a shouting match could emerge from a single mouth, I heard it! And, as you may guess, there were from time to time heard plain French and German syllables amid the melange.
I feared now that this strange hybrid being, whose tragic irony had been but exaggerated by Herbert West, must turn his rage upon us, whether he recognized us as his tormentors, or merely lusted for nearby prey. I looked about for a viable weapon, some knife or other. West stood his ground, as if expecting what was to happen next. I do not think he had it planned, but I must feel that he had by now an almost prescient instinct where these awful matters were concerned. He stood passively while the reeling monster before us commenced to come to death grips with itself!
With insane and elemental fury, hands shot out to rip flesh, to gouge eyes, to deliver blows to the selfsame physical form, only each punishing stroke was delivered from one side of the body to the other! From the German to the French, from the French to the German! In an instant the composite uniform was again a collection of bloody rags, and after only a little more time, so was the still quivering body. In a terrible final gesture, both hands, a finger missing here, knuckles bare of skin there, somehow grasped onto the opposite sides of the face, hooking into cavities of mouth and eye, and pulled the head itself apart like a bloody pinada, showering brains and their foul reptilian mending paste like the pulpy slush of a crushed melon.
Herbert West poured himself another drink, downed it, and stooped to start the nauseating chore of gathering the now-lifeless body parts. As I bent to join him, he quipped, "Well, I suppose there are just some enmities too deep and too old to be mended, eh?"
Robert M Price
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