The audience is introduced to the narrator, Daniel Cain, a doctor who went to medical school with the titular character. Informing the audience that West has recently disappeared, Cain goes on to say that now West is gone from his life, he can truly appreciate West's insanity and can at last express the feelings of terror which West inspired in him.
Cain goes on to explain how he met West when they were both young men in medical school, and the narrator became fascinated by West's theories about human life, which postulated that the human body is simply a complex, organic machine, and that with the proper combination of chemicals injected into the body upon death, the machine could be “restarted.” West initially tries to prove this hypothesis on various types of vermin, but none of the results are successful. West realizes he must experiment on human subjects, as each serum differs from species to species. The two men steal numerous supplies from the medical school and set up in an abandoned farmhouse. At first, they get a group of men to rob graves for them, bringing them back corpses for experimentation, but none of the experiments are successful due to “poor quality” of the specimens. West and Cain then take up grave robbing for themselves, reading local obituarys. One night, West and Cain sneak into the grave yards and steal the corpse of a workman who died early that day. They take it back to the farmhouse and inject it with West's solution, but nothing happens. As West and Cain prepare another solution for a second attempt there comes an inhuman scream from the room with the corpse. As the two students instinctively flee into the night, a lantern is tipped over and the farmhouse catches fire. West and Cain escape, assuming that the corpse burned to death in the fire. The next day, however, along with news of the fire, the newspaper reads that a grave in the yard last night was ravaged, as with the claws of a beast and not the careful spade-work with which West and his assistant had dug originally.
Some time has elapsed since West and Cain resurrected the corpse in the farmhouse. Since the farmhouse burned down West has been unable to perform many experiments, and as college Dean Halsey refuses to allow him access to human cadavers and his permission to the dissection lab was revoked. West has a stroke of luck, though, when a typhus epidemic breaks out and West & Cain are called to help tend to the dying victims. West–now finding himself consistently surrounded by the dead and dying– begins injecting his patients with a new serum, which has little affect. Eventually, Dean Halsey succumbs to typhoid, and as a final act of twisted respect for his former rival, West steals his corpse to reanimate. West and Cain take Halsey's body back to West's room at a boarding house, where they inject it with West's new serum. Halsey does in fact reanimate, but is less intelligent and more violent than their previous experiment. Halsey beats West and Cain into unconsciousness and then embarks on a killing spree, murdering over a dozen people before finally being apprehended by the police. The cannibal murderer is committed to a mental institution.
Now licensed doctors, West and Cain have gone into practice together as the physicians in the small New England town of Bolton, purchasing a house near the town's cemetery so as to have consistent access to corpses. Still intent upon successfully reanimating a human being, West and Cain claim the body of a boxing champion who died of a head wound in a back-alley street fight. The men gambling on the fight arrange for West to dispose of the body, as it clears them of any crime; West happily agrees and he and Cain hurriedly take the body back to West's lab and inject it with another new serum. When nothing happens, West and Cain take the corpse out to a meadow and bury it. Several days later, there are reports around town of a missing child. The mother dies during a fit of hysteria, and the father tries to kill West in a fit of rage that West could not save her. That night, West and Cain are startled by an aggressive pounding on their back door. Opening the door, West and Cain come face to face with the corpse of the boxer, covered in mildew and dirt, hunched over at the back entrance. Hanging from his mouth is the arm of the child. Almost instantly West empties an entire revolver into the creature.
Some time after West killed the reanimated boxer, Cain returns home from a vacation to discover the perfectly preserved corpse of a man in his and West's home. West explains that during the his absence, he perfected a type of embalming fluid that perfectly preserves a corpse as it is the moment the chemical is injected into the bloodstream; injected at the precise moment of death, the chemical prevents decomposition from even beginning. West reveals to him that the dead man in their home is a traveling salesman who had a heart attack during a physical examination; as the man died in front of West, he was able to preserve it with the embalming fluid and has been waiting for Cain to return so that the two of them can reanimate the body together. When West injects the man with his latest serum, signs of life gradually begin to appear. When Cain questions the man, he mouths words with seeming rationality and intent. Just before the man returns to a final death he begins screaming and thrashing violently, revealing in a horrible scream that West was in fact his killer.
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