One of the best things about studying history is the serendipitous discoveries one can make. This post is about one of those: while tracking down various stories about invisibility, I learned of the story “The Plague of the Living Dead,” by A. Hyatt Verrill, which appeared in the April 1927 issue of Amazing Stories.
I stumbled across this story while researching Verrill’s invisibility story “The Man Who Could Vanish,” and it’s easy to see why it captured my attention: the modern “zombie” craze in fiction is usually traced to George Romero’s classic 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead, but here we have a story that is decades earlier talking about the living dead!
Verrill’s “Plague of the Living Dead” is a fascinating and surprisingly gruesome story. Though it probably did not influence the modern zombie genre, it definitely anticipated much of it. Let’s take a spoiler-filled look at it. You can read the original story here beforehand if you want. Note: some significant body and animal horrors described in the story.
The astounding occurrences which took place upon the island of Abilone several years ago, and which culminated in the most dramatic and most remarkable event in the history of the world, have never been made public. Even the vague rumors of what happened in the island republic were regarded as fiction or as the work of imagination, for the truth has been most zealously and carefully concealed. The whole thing was far too horrible and too terrifying to permit of its being made known, until all fear of the threatened results were at an end.
The tale is introduced as the “true” story of events that happened on the island of Abilone, finally being told “now that it is forever a thing of the past.” This setup is surprisingly effective, as we know catastrophically bad stuff is going to happen, and we can really see how it’s going to happen as the story evolves.
We are then introduced to the misadventures of Dr. Gordon Farnham, who announces that he has discovered the secret to prolonging life indefinitely, possibly forever, through a simple hypodermic injection. Farnham’s declaration is met with complete disbelief and mockery by the entire world, and after enduring ridicule in press and in person, he retreats from public life, setting up a laboratory on the island of Abilone to continue his experiments. With him he takes his three volunteers: elderly men who agreed to have the immortality treatment tested on them.
Farnham’s continued research is focused on fixing a flaw in the treatment: though it evidently makes a person ageless and cures them of all current ailments, it fixes them at their current age, be it 3 or 90. Here already we get a hint of the horrors that Farnham is toying with: he finds that animals treated with immortality can propagate, and pass on immortality to their offspring, but their offspring will be forever stuck as they are at birth. Newborn rabbits stay newborn until their mothers get bored of them and literally eat them. Farnham looks to modify the formula to allow the young to reach a moderate age, and the old to regain some youth.
In the course of this new research, Farnham, who is admirably anti-vivisection (anti-operating-on-living-animals), euthanizes a rabbit and then injects it with his serum, in the hopes of studying the progress of the chemical through the creature’s organs. What happens next astounds him:
To his utmost astonishment the supposedly dead animal at once began to move, and, before the astounded doctor’s eye, was soon running about as lively as ever. Doctor Farnham was speechless. The little creature had been supposedly dead for hours—its body had even been stiff, and yet here it was obviously very much alive.
Farnham has found that his injection will actually bring the dead back to life! Being a scientist, he quickly performs more tests, with as many varieties of death as he can imagine:
The experiments with the frozen, gassed and poisoned subjects were equally successful, and Doctor Farnham was thoroughly convinced that, barring injuries or deterioration of vital organs or excessive loss of blood, any dead animal could be brought back to life by his process. Naturally, he was most anxious to test the marvelous compound on human beings, and he at once hurried to the coroner’s office with a request that he might try a new form of resuscitation on the next person drowned or poisoned on the island.
Farnham is unable to get access to human cadavers at first, which should have been a sign for him not to press his luck.
At this point, Lovecraft fans will note that this story has started to sound like Lovecraft’s famous story “Herbert West– Reanimator,” which was first published in 1922. The basic elements are all the same: a scientist, who discovers the secret to raising the dead through a chemical injection, begins performing an increasingly extreme series of experiments to refine the process. The story was made into a famous — and infamous — 1985 movie starring Jeffrey Combs doing a brilliant portrayal of Herbert West:
Lovecraft’s story appeared in a small print amateur publication called Home Brew, and it is unclear if Verrill had seen it before writing his own. I suspect that it is an example of authors independently “discovering” a story idea. Both were clearly inspired by Shelley’s Frankenstein — in fact, Lovecraft wrote his story as a dark parody of Shelley’s novel.
Just like Herbert West, Gordon Farnham continues to experiment, and makes another astounding and unexpected discovery. Utterly baffled by the re-animating properties of his compound, he decides he must perform an autopsy on one of his immortal creatures, to better understand how the compound works. Regretfully, he goes to pierce the brain of one of his rabbit subjects, to give it a painless death:
The next instant his instrument fell from his hand, he felt faint and weak, and he sat staring with gaping jaw and unbelieving eyes. Instead of becoming instantly limp in death at the thrust, the rabbit was quite unconcernedly nibbling a bit of carrot, and appeared as much alive and as healthy as before!
The chemical not only ends aging, and resurrects the dead, but it also renders its subjects virtually unkillable! After literally fainting, the doctor begins to muse in a very mad scientist fashion, which is never a good sign:
“Is it not possible or even probable that, under certain conditions, life may continue uninterrupted despite causes which ordinarily would result in death? Is it unreasonable to suppose that certain chemical reactions may be produced which will so act upon the vital organs and tissues that they resist all attempts to destroy their functions?
“My contention is that such things are possible. That, scientifically speaking, there is no more reason for an animal surviving the removal of its kidney, stomach, spleen or ductless glands, or injuries to these organs, than for surviving similar injuries to or the removal of the heart, brains or lungs.”
If Doctor Farnham had been doing his experiments after the year 1985, his observations might have caused him to stop work entirely, because the idea of unkillable creatures brought back from the dead is very much the nightmare scenario of the classic movie The Return of the Living Dead:
This movie introduced to cinema the concept of zombies that cannot be killed by a headshot, or even by dismemberment, along with the idea of zombies eating brains and zombies that can move at a pace faster than a shamble. (Though it is technically a horror-comedy, I find The Return of the Living Dead to be one of the most disturbing zombie movies of all time. Gaah freaking Tarman.)
But, of course, Farnham is not going to stop raising the dead, or we wouldn’t have a story! He next demonstrates that he can remove the head of an immortal rabbit and that the body and the head will carry on, completely unperturbed. This again is very much a Herbert West sort of thing to do, but Dr. Farnham isn’t quite as cold-blooded, and he reattaches the rabbit’s head to let it live normally.
Next, fate pushes Farnham in the direction of utter catastrophe — and possibly the end of humankind. It is never specified where Abilone Island is located, but it has a significant Black population (and the story has some casual racism to go along with it) and, more significantly, a volcano. This suggests that Verrill may have been thinking of Mount Pelée on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. In 1902, Mount Pelée erupted, and a pyroclastic flow exterminated some 30,000 people in its path in the town of Saint-Pierre, leaving literally only two survivors in the entire city. Verrill was 31 years old at the time, and as an author of many books on natural history was almost certainly aware of this infamous eruption and its aftermath.
On Abilone Island, Farnham’s experiments are interrupted by the eruption of Sugar Loaf, and the accompanying earthquakes reduce his entire home and laboratory to rubble.
But the worst was yet to come. Following upon the quakes, came a deafening, awful roar—the sound of a terrific explosion that seemed to rend the universe. The sky grew black; bright daylight gave way to twilight; the palm trees bent with a howling gale, and, unable to stand, the four men threw themselves flat upon their faces. “An eruption!’’ shouted the doctor, striving to make himself heard above the howling wind, the explosive concussions that sounded like the detonations of shell-fire, and the thrashing of palm-fronds.
“The volcano is in eruption,” he repeated. “The crater of Sugar Loaf has burst into activity. We are probably out of danger, but thousands of people may have been destroyed. God pity the villagers upon the mountain’s slopes!”
The Doctor’s immortal animals, incidentally, survive the destruction of the lab, and he watches helplessly as they happily escape into the wilderness. (I really want to write a sequel story where a 100 year old immortal rabbit has gained sentience.)
And at last we come to the plague of the living dead! When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade; when a massive volcanic eruption destroys your lab, you might as well take the remaining samples of your revivifying elixir and test it on the victims of the eruption in the nearby town. Farnham takes his three assistants and they head to San Marcos, finding it completely lifeless — not a soul has survived. The four men spread out to inject the elixir into as many patients as they can.
You can probably guess what happens next, and it is reproduced as the cover image of the story:
The sounds were increasing and coming nearer. Of course, he thought, the dead in the market were coming to life. But why, he wondered, had his two men failed to report?
The answer came most unexpectedly. Racing as fast as their old legs could carry them, the two fellows came dashing around a corner; terror on their faces, panting and breathless, while at their heels came a mob of men and women, screaming, shouting incomprehensible words, waving their arms threateningly, and obviously hostile.
Gaspingly, hurriedly, the two men tried to explain. “They’re mad,” exclaimed he who had been stationed at the plaza, “murderin’ mad ! Lord knows why, but they set on me like tigers. Mauled me something dreadful. How I lived through it I dunno. Cracked me over the head with stones and beat me up.”
The Doctor and his assistants flee, but turn back briefly to see an absolutely horrific scene, as the mob of immortal beings turn on each other in what might become an endless orgy of violence:
But even as they fled, shouts, curses and screams came from the other direction; men and women appeared from streets and dwellings, and scores of resuscitated people rushed forward and fell madly, fiendishly upon the mob from the plaza. Instantly pandemonium reigned, and the four fugitives .stood, transfixed with the horror of the scene. Fighting, clawing, biting, stabbing, the people fell upon one another, and the watching four shuddered as they saw men and women, minus arms or hands, faces shapeless masses of pulp, bodies gashed, pierced and torn, still leaping, springing about; still struggling and wholly oblivious to their terrible wounds, for being immortal nothing could destroy them.
Very much like in the movie Re-Animator, resurrected humans are basically violent and insane beasts. Why this is the case Farnham can only speculate on the “soul” having already left the body.
To his credit, Farnham reports immediately to the authorities in neighboring towns to tell them exactly what he has done and the danger they are in. The authorities are unconvinced at first, unfortunately for them:
No doubt, they said, the survivors of the catastrophe had been driven crazy by the eruption and had reverted to savagery, but it would be a simple matter to round them up, confine them in an asylum and gradually cure them. But the force of police sent to the vicinity of the village found that neither Doctor Farnham nor the relief party had exaggerated matters in the least. In fact, only two policemen managed to escape, and with terror-filled eyes they told a story of horrors beyond any imagination. They had seen their fellows destroyed before their eyes. They had poured bullets into the bodies of the savage villagers at close range, but with no effect. They had fought hand to hand and had seen their short swords bury themselves in their antagonists’ flesh without result, and they shuddered as they told of seeing armless, yes, even headless, men fighting like demons.
This scene also reminded me very much of The Return of the Living Dead:
This part of the story is the most spectacularly and wonderfully gruesome, and Verrill goes even further than modern zombie stories, in describing how basically any immortal flesh can be grafted on any other, leading to horrors inconceivable:
They could not be killed by any known means. That had been conclusively proved. They could exist without apparent ill effects even when horribly mutilated and even headless. They could literally be cut to pieces and each fragment would continue to live and, if two of these pieces came into contact, they would reunite and grow into monstrous, nightmarish, terrible things. Watching the area within the barrier through powerful glasses, the observers saw many of these inexpressibly horrible things. Once, a head which had joined to two arms and a leg went racing across an open space like a monstrous spider. On another occasion a body appeared minus legs, and with two additional heads growing from the shoulders from which the original arms had been severed. And many of the fairly whole beings had hands, fingers, feet or other portions of anatomy growing from wounds upon various parts of their bodies. For the Living Dead, having no reasoning powers, yet instinctively sought to replace any portions of their bodies which they had lost, and picked up the first human fragment they found and grafted it into any wound or raw surface of their flesh. Strangely enough, too, although it was perfectly logical once the matter was given thought, those individuals who were minus heads appeared fully as well off as those whose heads remained upon their shoulders, for without any glimmerings of intelligence, without reason and merely flesh and blood machines uncontrolled by brains, the Living Dead had no real need of heads. Nevertheless, they seemed to have some strange subconscious idea that heads were desirable, and fierce battles took place over the possession of a head which two of the things discovered simultaneously.
It was this description that truly made me fall in love with “The Plague of the Living Dead.” Many readers at this point may be thinking that it wouldn’t be too difficult to destroy such a plague of living dead, given that they can be easily blown apart. Admittedly, some effort must be done to suspend disbelief at this point and just enjoy the ride.
Oh, and the notion of body parts coming together to make a spider reminded me of another classic, later movie:
The local government quarantines the whole island, using an ordinary plague as a cover story, and they trap the Living Dead behind solid barriers. But as time passes, the dead fight less among each other (presumably because they all have parts of each other grafted on, and can sense that they’re the same person), and it is suspected that eventually they will attempt to break free of the barrier. And because new creatures can be formed by the fused bits of others, and that the creatures can actually reproduce, it is possible that the horde of Living Dead can grow to an unstoppable army!
(There seems to be a bit of a logical flaw here, perhaps: Farnham noted that while immortals can reproduce and pass on their immortality, the offspring will remain immortal babies. But perhaps he is implying that these immortal babies will themselves gather flesh from other immortals and grow into baby-hybrid-monsters? An even more ghastly notion.)
The solution to the problem of the Living Dead is a silly one: inspired by the original volcanic eruption that precipitated everything, Farnham and the islanders propose to produce, through explosives, an eruption right underneath the Living Dead so strong that it will catapult them into space! The plan is carried out, and the zombies-not-called-zombies are blasted from the face of the Earth.
Farnham, to his credit, is remorseful of the whole incident, and puts his remaining wealth to good use:
As for Doctor Farnham, with the several thousands of dollars left from his fortune, he built a church and a hospital, and he still resides quietly in Abilone, devoting his talents and his knowledge to healing the sick and relieving the suffering.
“The Plague of the Living Dead” was a pleasant surprise to me! It is a wild and gruesome story that contains the DNA of so many future zombie tales. I have no idea if it was an actual influence in the famous stories we know and love, but it is neat to see that the idea of a horde of mindless cannibalistic dead goes back further than most people know.