This is a book I bought just over a year ago. The timing seemed perfect. It was just before Halloween and I was taking a fascinating class called Film, Horror and the Body which among other things rekindled my love for what a lot of people like to call “wussy” horror, and what I call gothic horror. It touched on many thoughts, caused me to develop fascinating ones of my own and led to me getting a first in my degree because I did a presentation on the awesomeness of Sigourney Weaver in Alien Ressurection and wrote a 5000 word paper on vagina-dentata. Fast forward a year, I’m reading as much as ever I was and too poor to add much to my ‘to-read’ pile. I get to this book around the same time as Halloween approaches yet again and Mark Gatiss (yes, Lucifer Box’s daddy) is doing a stupendous series of documentaries for the BBC about horror movies. Enter Frankenstein. Enter Shelley. Enter sleepless nights and escorted walks through darkened alley ways.
|Nosferatu Via. Wikipedia. Yay public domain horror ^__^|
The writing, my mindset and the micro-zeitgeist of late October in the UK made this the perfect read for so many reasons. The blurb:
“Life and death appeared to me the ideal bounds which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.”
Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s immensely powerful contribution to the ghost stories which she, Percy Shelley and Byron devised on wet summer in Switzerland. Its protagonist is a young student of natural philosophy, who learns the secret of imparting life to a creature constructed from relics of the dead, with horrific consequences.
Frankenstein confronts some of the most feared innovations of evolutionism: topics such as degeneracy, hereditary disease, and mankind’s status as a species of animal. The text used here is from the 1818 edition, which is a mocking expose of leaders and achievers who leave desolation in their wake, showing humanity its choice- to live co-operatively, or to die of selfishness. It is also a black comedy, and harder and wittier than the 1831 version with which we are more familiar.
I haven’t actually read the 1831 version (I intend to) but this seems a good start in outlining the differences. Apparently the fact that Frankenstein’s lover is his cousin is deleted in the 1831 version so that they are not blood-relations. There are, I’m sure, many differences both blatant and subtle, and I will discover them on my own when I experience the more widely read version. For now though, I deal with this version.
The narrative starts, as anybody who has seen one of the many film adaptations will know, with Robert Walton’s account of his snow-bound ship. This part is important because you get to see Frankenstein from an outsider’s perspective which makes him a more sympathetic character. His creation sees him as evil and he himself is tortured by the arrogance of his genius. From those perspectives, he is pathetic at best. The Captain’s admiration of how educated and articulate and pleasant he is, despite his obvious troubles, reminds the reader that he is ultimately a brilliant man who made a terrible mistake. Dr Jekyll tapped me on the shoulder several times as I read.
The definite, overwhelming, message of the book is that Frankenstein’s genius runs away with him and causes all of his problems. He arrives at University having studied ancient masters of natural philosophy, only to be mocked. He is given a list of new, modern texts and “that application, which at first had been a matter of duty and resolution, now became so ardent and eager, that the stars often disappeared in the light of morning whilst I was yet engaged in my laboratory.” (Why yes, I was compelled by the beauty of the language to bookmark pages. Tyvm for asking.) It’s rather luddite in its outlook, and Shelley herself was said to be sympathetic with the luddites and their plight. As the blurb says, it’s a biting critique of those who let their power and inventiveness run away with them. (Like here)
This point is made, and beautifully, by Shelley’s portrayal of the monster as a product of his circumstances. A huge section of the book is devoted to the monster’s point of view- his reaction to the beauty he sees in the world and in his own existence, as wretched as it is destined to become. His kindness and his sympathy for other human creatures is touching and childlike and very human. He does not begin his awful life as a monster. He is driven to it by the rejection of his creator and of every other human he encounters. He attaches himself to a family, hiding from them and doing vital chores for them in the night. He grows to love and trust them, and it is from them that he learns to speak and understand the world. When he eventually approaches them, they cast him out as readily as anybody else. His anger, his resentment and his thirst for companionship drive him to violence and monstrous acts. The parallel with the luddites is obvious. Their desperation is what drives them to acts of vandalism, not anything inherently violent in their make-up. Interestingly this was changed in some film adaptations where it was implied that Igor (who does not exist in the book), when sent to get a brain, accidentally picks up the one marked “insane” or “abnormal”, and what Frankenstein creates actually is a monster, and not just a very ugly human driven to evil acts by the world. It's an important difference.
|A creation of Frankenstein's from 1910 Via. Wikipedia|
The horror element, and the one that, really seriously in real life, made me ask a person headed the same way to walk with me down a dark shortcut, was the way that Frankenstein’s mistakes haunt him in the physical manifestation of his creation. The lack of description of the parts used or his actual physical features mean your brain gets to fill in its own horrifying blanks, and when Frankenstein considers disobeying the monster’s request, he will appear at a window, or in the shadows. His conscience is a reanimated corpse, following him around the world. This, more than the actual creation of the monster, is what made me act like a giant wuss. It’s chilling.
This is another one of those books that had me highlighting gorgeous passages, and I loathe Shelley for having written this at 19 years of age.
By degrees, I made the discovery of a still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. -The Creature.
Guh. The creature is all of us, reacting to the world with disgust, fury and awe.
There are no cover reviews, for ‘tis a classic. This is quite long enough as it is. Frankenstein has become one of my favourite novels. It moved me, it terrified me and is at the same time a powerful political statement. It is the first science fiction novel, although it's not quite as fanciful or unlikely as it was then. It was written by a 19 year old. FML.
Five Mell Heads, sewn on extra tight.