It was an unprecedented display of nature’s ferocity. The stupendous volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia killed many thousands in its immediate swath. Untold tons of ash and other volcanic debris propelled into the stratosphere had a global impact on Earth’s climate, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. The following year, 1816, would be known as the year without a summer. Persistent cold, inclement weather resulted in crop failures and food riots in some places. In Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, five individuals — three men and two women — ensconced in the palatial Villa Diodati would spend much time indoors that rainy season and entertain themselves nightly with poetry and stories of ghosts and the outré. Quantities of wine and laudanum were at hand.
Lord George Byron, the eloquent and scandalous poet who was “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” had rented the villa. Joined by his guests, fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife-to-be Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her half-sister Claire Clairmont, along with Byron’s personal physician John Polidori, they made a remarkable and combustible company. It was on one tempestuous night during a gathering of these iconoclastic rebels that Byron proposed each one endeavor to compose a story of exquisite horror. It was not the two masters of sublime verse who succeeded in producing anything of literary import.
Polidori, who so wished to become a recognized artist, would complete a worthy short story entitled “The Vampyre: A Tale.” This brief work would later inspire Dubliner Bram Stoker to pen a far more expansive novel of an aristocratic fiend known now as “Dracula.” However, it was Mary, only 18 years old at the time, who took the prize. Attributing her inspiration to a dream of supreme terror, of a hideous entity making its way out of the tenebrous depths, she would create the most enduring Gothic work of horror fiction ever conceived, “Frankenstein.”
The scope and breadth of serious scholarship spawned by Mary Shelley’s mangled and deformed creature is massive. The latest contribution to this formidable corpus is a readable account of the Frankenstein mythos entitled “Monstrous Progeny” by a couple of professors, film chronicler Lester Friedman and historian Allison Kavey. Clearly these two had a good time roaming through the academic vaults and funhouse fields of Frankenstein lore and artifacts. They “try to capture the continuing evolution of the Frankenstein narrative” in a most inviting survey of the origins of Shelley’s imaginative tale and how soon after its publication the novel’s fascinating dimensions began to take on a cultural life of their own.
“Frankenstein” has never gone out of print since its initial publication in 1818. For nearly two centuries, the perennial appeal of “Frankenstein” has terrified, titillated and entertained readers, theater enthusiasts and filmgoers. Indeed, the ongoing stream of manifold interpretations and iterations of Shelley’s novel shows no sign of abating.
The author returned from Italy to England after the death of her husband Percy who drowned along with a friend when their small sailing craft was capsized during a storm. Back in her native land she was surprised to find that she had become famous. The first publication of her Gothic work did not include the author’s name but the second edition let all know that she had written the story.
In Shelley’s tale, the scientist Victor Frankenstein was not called “doctor,” nor was the hideously deformed creature given a name. However, it was not long before theatrical adaptations of the narrative would lend a whole new aura to the myth. The first play based on the novel was performed in 1823. The public would eventually confer upon Victor the title of doctor. Playwright Peggy Webling’s 1927 theatrical adaptation was the first “to refer to the Creature as Frankenstein, and both creator and creation wore identical costumes.”
While the stage kept the mad, hubristic scientist and his tortured creation in the public mind, it was the advent of film that truly and so thoroughly infused the notion of Frankenstein’s monster into the modern and post-modern collective consciousness. The co-authors reference a contemporary doyen of horror, Stephen King, who has stated that it has been the movies that have sustained the broad popularity of Shelley’s tale. Yes, who can deny that so many of us love to be frightened by eldritch celluloid projections in the darkness of a movie theater.
“Monstrous Progeny” is a delightful guided tour of the scary, thought-provoking and sometimes humorous trails that permeate the well-trod land of Frankenstein. One factoid is worth relating: A boy named Jean Rosenbaum and his mother attended a screening of director James Whale’s 1931 epic film “Frankenstein,” with Boris Karloff as the Monster, 113 years after Shelley’s book first appeared. He was awed. He went on to become a physician and invented the pacemaker. Rosenbaum has admitted that the inspiration for his invention “comes from the Frankenstein movie.”
“Frankenstein” is a cautionary tale of unintended consequences of scientific exploration and technological innovation. It is a tragic love story in which the creature who did not ask to be brought into this world craves acceptance from his father, Victor Frankenstein, and is rejected by his parent and all others who shrink in revulsion and fear before his horrific countenance. It can also be an allegory of how we shun the stranger and how we so often deny the dignity of those who differ from us. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel of a man and his monster remains relevant and vibrant after almost two centuries.
As Doctor Frankenstein has exclaimed rapturously: “It’s alive!”