Friday 19 July 2019

It's (still) alive! Mary Shelly's Frankenstein

Non-fiction: Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, Christopher Frayling, Reel Art Press, hardback, 209 pages, €34

A poster for James Whale's 1935 horror film 'Bride Of Frankenstein', starring Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
A poster for James Whale's 1935 horror film 'Bride Of Frankenstein', starring Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Mary Shelley
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Frankenstein was the result of a late-night ghost-story session between a group of literary friends. Almost 200 years later, Mary Shelley's novel has grown into a horror icon, and replaced Adam and Eve as the ultimate 'creation myth'

The creation story of Frankenstein, while not quite as famous as the novel itself, is one of the best-known tales in literary history. The book was published 200 years ago next January 1, and art-historian Christopher Frayling begins this sumptuous anniversary tome by remarking that he'd dearly love to have been present on the night of June 17, 1816, when the monster was born.

Gathered at a mansion by Lake Geneva were: Lord Byron, already a celebrated poet; Percy Shelley, not yet famous but destined to become great; Dr John Polidori, a physician and writer who would soon publish what's regarded as the first vampire novel; and Mary Godwin, 18-year-old daughter of two renowned authors - proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher-novelist William Godwin.

Mary and Percy had eloped with their infant son, leaving behind his wife and children, and her furious father (Mary Snr had died of fever a few weeks after Mary was born). They later married; by the time she became identified as the author of Frankenstein, she'd become the Mary Shelley of literary legend.


Bedevilled by ennui, fed up of inclement weather and inspired by a collection of horror stories they'd read, the group decided to invent some of their own. Byron began, then abandoned, a story called 'The Undead' - later co-opted by Polidori into his seminal The Vampyre.

Shelley, doing nothing to dispel the cliché of Romantic poets as melodramatic hysterics, had a sort of nervous breakdown at one point and ran shrieking from the room. And Mary told part of what would become, after Dracula, the most enduring and iconic character in horror history, though the novel itself wasn't finished for another year.

Frankenstein is fundamentally about creation; as Frayling puts it, Shelley's novel has usurped Adam and Eve as "the real creation myth". The original subtitle even read "a modern Prometheus" - the Greek god who gave fire, science, art and creativity to mankind.

Indeed, what Mary recounted was the actual creation scene from her story: when young scientist Victor (he, of course, is the titular Frankenstein; the creature was never named) gives life to an assemblage of body parts. Horrified by its hideous, watery eyes, he loathes and rejects the creature, consequently condemning both to perdition. In the text itself, we have the creation of artificial, uncanny life by science. Metaphorically, writing that text is itself an act of creation. And in the two centuries since publication, the Frankenstein phenomenon has created its own series of spin-off phenomena.

The book took decades to become a bestseller - tragically, Mary made less than £100 from it, and struggled to support her family as a journalist - but nowadays is widely sold and read, and forms an established part of literary academia.

There were adaptations within a few years of first publication: stage plays, comedy burlesques, operas. Once Hollywood got its hands on the property in the 1920s and 1930s, Frankenstein went supernova: besides Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, it's the most-filmed fictional character. And that's not including the hundreds of Frankenstein-in-all-but-name movies that continue to be made, nor the myriad adaptations in other media: ballet, TV, musicals, comic-books, visual art, propaganda posters, advertising and much more.

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley

The name itself has also become a kind of shorthand, in public discourse, for anything new and potentially troubling: frankenfoods, frankenvirus, frankengenes, frankenscience. As Frayling writes, all this can be regarded as "a parallel text to the novel, within the public realm, which made a different kind of sense and which responded to the anxieties of the moment".

Frankenstein, he goes on, has been interpreted as "a feminist allegory of birthing… ecological reading of mother earth… response to the French Revolution… attack on 'masculinist science'… analysis of slavery… exorcism of a bad father… It contains legions". He adds: "It has justly been said that if a six-year-old can eat it, drink it, read it, play it or cuddle it, Frankenstein's Monster has been on it."

A survey of American children showed that the name "Frankenstein" was more recognisable than their own president's. (This was before Donald Trump's election, incidentally; rather shockingly, nobody seems to have referred to him as a Franken-president yet.)

Yet, for all that, this book most reminded me of, well, that book: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I read it last summer, for the first time in years, and it was as superb as I remembered.

A clever, strangely modern framing device (three personal accounts wrapped inside one another like matryoshka dolls). A thrilling, genuinely creepy story. A thoughtful and unflinching exploration of those big (literally) life-and-death questions.

It has great set-piece scenes, memorable characters and - strangely modern again - a deep ambiguity. There's no real hero or villain. Victor is too morally cowardly to be a classic "white knight"; the creature is only driven to homicidal rage by unbearable loneliness. Yet he is murderous, and Victor is honourable in his way. It's almost surreal to think Mary was just 18 when she produced work of this complexity and maturity.

Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years divides into roughly equal parts. The first half is an illuminating, witty account of the novel's gestation and subsequent impact. The latter half comprises dozens of beautiful prints of movie posters, theatre playbills, cartoons and comics, adverts and candid photos on movie sets, from Christopher Lee to The Munsters, Boris Karloff to Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein: Frayling's "parallel text", another sort of monster born of the original.

His book would make a lovely Christmas gift for anyone with a grá for horror, especially the Gothic end of the spectrum. And you could do worse than slip in a little paperback copy of Frankenstein with it.

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