This pandemic is giving me a chance to read some classics that I’ve never read before- silver lining! Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley in 1816, when she was all of 18 years old (Lainey Gossip would call her a First Book Bitch although this was actually her second book…). Frankenstein was Shelley’s entry into a horror story challenge between herself, her lover and soon to be husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend, Lord Byron.
Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, Frankenstein is actually the name of the hero of the novel, Victor Frankenstein- the monster he creates gets no Christian name of its own. Like many other novels from its time, Shelley uses a framing device to set the stage rather than immediately dropping us into Victor’s story. This initial section feels like it was written for the screen: a ship’s captain locked in the ice off the remote northern coast of Russia sees a dogsled in the distance, driven by a creature resembling a man but much larger. Not long after this apparition disappears, a second dogsled appears, this one carrying the ailing gentleman Victor Frankenstein. The captain takes Frankenstein aboard to revive him, and over the course of several days Frankenstein relates his unusual life story to the captain. From there we dive into Victor’s story, which is similar but not identical to the Hollywood version (fun fact: Shelley does not write a scene where lightning brings the creature to life- that is a movie plot creation).
I liked that this novel still had surprises for me plot-wise- I thought I knew it all, but really I only knew the cinema version. I also liked the passages on the ‘sublime’ natural beauty that surrounds Victor. This took me right back to my college lit courses, where we talked about how these romantic poets found the ‘sublime’ equal parts beautiful and terrifying- and that the terrifying part couldn’t be separated out. Perfect for a horror story! I am also still thinking about the bigger themes and philosophical ideas that underpin the novel. If Jekyll and Hyde is about the more evil side of ourselves, Frankenstein is about the evil that we can create outside of ourselves, despite our best intentions. It is also a reflection on the unknown consequences of our actions, ideas about the greater good, scientific ethics and- as Freud would put it- daddy issues.
Finally, the question that all horror stories must be measured by: was it scary? Yes, yes it was. It wasn’t the scariest thing I’ve ever written (I didn’t need to put it in the freezer) but I also was not reading it before bed.