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Book Review:

Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

reviewed by William I. Lengeman III

Read more historical information about Frankenstein

My first confession - I've managed to bumble along this far in life (forty-two years) without reading Frankenstein. Not a big deal for most people, but for someone who has a lifelong interest in the macabre and who aspires to create a scary tale now and then, it is. After all, horror as we know it today would probably still exist even if Mary Shelley hadn't penned Frankenstein, but it would undoubtedly have evolved into something considerably different.

I decided it would be a right smashing idea to finally fill this gaping hole in my horror reading list, but - confession two - sitting down to read Frankenstein felt kind of like a school assignment. I forged ahead and read the book anyway and, after I had finished, well - and I know that it probably borders on heresy to say this - it felt like I had just completed a school assignment.

In other words, while Frankenstein certainly has its moments, I didn't find the book to be all that horrifying, my attention frequently wandered and I found myself becoming impatient with its overblown, florid style, and its tendency to veer off into long passages that read more like a travelogue than a work of fiction.

Then there's Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of Mrs. Shelley's yarn. In my ever so humble opinion, Frankenstein (not Dr. Frankenstein, but more about that in a moment) is not a particularly sympathetic character. Granted, in the course of the novel he is beset by a series of tribulations of a magnitude that would have had Job feeling a lot more optimistic about his lot in life, but I still couldn't help feeling that he was kind of weak-kneed and whiny.

But before we go on let's have a show of hands. How many of you have actually read Frankenstein (comic books and graphic novels don't count)? Be honest now. Ah-ha! I thought so.

Most of those who haven't actually read Frankenstein are probably laboring under the delusion that they're familiar with the plot of the book. After all, the Frankenstein "monster" has become something of a pop culture icon and many more of us have probably seen James Whale's 1931 adaptation of the novel than have read the book and its probably safe to assume that the plot of movie adheres reasonably closely to that of the book... right? Well, not so fast, reanimated corpse breath.

There must certainly be a host of novelists who can attest to the fact that Hollywood often plays it quite loose when it comes to adapting fictional works. But there can be few cases where the departure was more dramatic than in the case of Frankenstein. Mrs. Shelley was gone for nearly a century before the most famous cinematic adaptation of her story debuted, but it's not out of the realm of possibility to imagine her rolling over in her grave, circa 1931.

What I'm trying to say here, for those of you who are a little slow on the uptake, is that if your teacher gives you Frankenstein as a reading assignment don't expect to pass the test by waiting until the night before and watching Whale's movie. About the only thing this adaptation - one of quite a few, by the way - retains from the book is the name and the central premise of bring people back from the dead. Everything else pretty much went into the dumpster, which was not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Frankenstein is a pretty nifty little movie, as long as you are not scoring it on its fallibility to the book. There are filmed adaptations of the book that are said to be more faithful to the source material - Kenneth Branagh's relatively recent version is one - but I have not had a chance to screen them, as of this writing.

One of the most interesting footnotes about Frankenstein - the book - has to do with its genesis. The circumstances surrounding its creation are almost as fascinating as the story itself and have served as fodder for many fictional tales, cinematic and otherwise. Mary Shelley, who was not even twenty years old when she wrote Frankenstein, her husband Percy Shelley, fellow poet Lord Byron, Byron's physician John Polidori and Mary's stepsister, Jane Claremont spent many stormy nights in a villa in Switzerland, in 1816, reading from a collection of German ghost stories called The Fantasmagoriana and other creepy works.

Byron challenged the group members to write their own tale of the supernatural. Byron and Percy Shelley's tales have long since receded into obscurity. Polidori's The Vampyre, took up where Byron's unfinished tale left off and is considered to be one of the earliest efforts in that sub genre of horror. Mary Shelley was unable to come up with a contribution at the time, but a few days later she had a waking dream about a "pale student of unhallowed arts" reanimating a horrible creature. She immediately began work on Frankenstein, finished the book in May 1817 and saw it published early the next year.

Frankenstein perfectly illustrates that hoary old cliché about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, although when you come right down to it Victor Frankenstein's intentions are not really all that good.

The plot, in a nutshell, goes like this. Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with certain "dark" arts and with the notion of creating life. He acts out his desires by raiding graveyards and cobbling together a more or less human creature, which he proceeds to successfully reanimate. This is done with considerably less drama than in Whale's movie. Mrs. Shelley only devotes about a paragraph to the creation of the monster.

The rest of the book concerns itself with the plight of the monster and details its increasing familiarity with - and frustration over - the ways of the world. The monster, who is generally a more sympathetic character than its creator, eventually turns upon Victor, killing a number of his friends and family, before demanding that Victor whip up a wife for him. Victor begins this project - reluctantly - and then scraps it, thus incurring the renewed wrath of the monster. Matters come to a head when the creature kills Elizabeth, Victor's new wife. Victor vows to destroy the monster, even if it means pursuing him to the ends of the earth, which is where the story ends - and begins - with Frankenstein having tracked the monster to the Artic.

Frankenstein was a horror novel long before there was such a thing and, as already mentioned, it is not all that horrifying (your opinions may vary), especially when stacked up against a few centuries worth of increasingly shocking antecedents.

But, just as Whale's movie had the power to affect audiences of his day, so did Mrs. Shelley's original work raise a few hackles, which is rather surprising given that her critics lived in a time when life as much more brutish, people were on more intimate terms with death and such grotesque practices as executing criminals in public and leaving the corpses on display were still common practice.

Shelley's critics would doubtless have been even more up in arms had they known that the book, which was published anonymously, was written by a woman. Many of those who were willing to hazard a guess assumed that the book was written by Percy Shelley - one of the most renowned poets of his day - whose own oeuvre included an epic poem titled "Prometheus Unbound."

In March 1818, Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine said, of Frankenstein; "This is a very bold fiction; and, did not the author, in a short Preface, make a kind of apology, we should almost pronounce it to be impious." That same month The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany stated that "there never was a wilder story imagined" and advised that "this author and his great model, Mr. Godwin; but they would make a great improvement in their writings, if they would rather study the established order of nature as it appears, both in the world of matter and of mind, than continue to revolt our feelings by hazardous innovations in either of these departments."

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine called Frankenstein "a novel, or more properly a romantic fiction, of a nature so peculiar, that we ought to describe the species before attempting any account of the individual production." The British Critic was less charitable, stating that "these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime, and when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright; and yet we suspect, that the diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds, to frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something better."

The Quarterly Review's take on Frankenstein was probably the most acerbic of all of the contemporary commentators on the work, castigating it for the "tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity" it presented, and going on to say that "our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is."

Which just goes to show that one generation's "horrible and disgusting absurdity" can, over the course of a few hundred years, evolve into another generation's beloved literary classic, and which also goes to show that you shouldn't put so much stock in what those damned critics have to say. So, go on, get out of here. Quit wasting your time with literary criticism already and go read a book.

William I. Lengeman III has published non-fiction in numerous publications, including Saveur, Historic Traveler, Terra Nova, and the anthology, "An Ear to the Ground." His fiction and poetry have appeared or been accepted for publication in such print venues as Andromeda Spaceways, City Slab and Dark Animus, as well as in numerous independent and small press online publications. For more info and links to stories and his blog, visit 499-Word Tales For The Modern Age.

© 2004 William I. Lengeman III

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