MARY SHELLEY’S ‘FRANKENSTEIN.’ (1816) BOOK REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
2018, a full two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote her first and most celebrated novel, was what I now refer to as my Frankenstein year. In April, I got to see James Whale’s fabulous horror movie FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and its sequel, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), on the big screen as part of a one-day James Whale festival, which was fantastic as I’d loved those two films for such a long time.
Then, in October, as part of the Irish Film Institute’s annual Halloween Horrorthon, I saw Hammer Horror’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974) on the big screen also. This was preceded by a brilliant ninety-minute lecture on FRANKENSTEIN, THE FIRST 200 YEARS by film historian and well-known FRANKENSTEIN expert Sir Christopher Frayling, whose book of the same name I purchased on the break and got him to sign for me.
He wrote the words ‘It’s alive…!’ under his signature! I felt so special. I later found out that he’d signed everyone’s books with the same phrase but whatever, it was all good, lol. I read the book and enjoyed every page, then I went and found the 1910 Thomas Edison film version of FRANKENSTEIN on Youtube and watched this too. It’s less than a quarter of an hour long but it’s freakishly memorable, with a pretty terrifying-looking Monster.
Anyway, after this wonderful experience I had no choice but to read the book behind all the films for the first time ever. I started reading it on November the nineteenth and I finished it on December the first.
I’d been told that it was difficult to read and even boring at times, but I didn’t find it so, except when the Creature went on for nearly fifty pages about how marvellous and saintly and sweet his precious cottagers were. Personally, I could take ’em or leave ’em, these irritating paragons of woodland virtue and candidates for the bloody sainthood…!
I shall attempt now to synopsise the plot for y’all in as simple and easy-to-remember a fashion as possible, as much for my own benefit as for anyone else’s. Having gone to the trouble finally of reading the book, I don’t want to ever forget it. It’s literally too good to be forgotten. This is to be my written record of this most exceptional year and this most exceptional Gothic novel.
The framing story involves an Englishman called Robert Walton writing to his married sister back in England of his expeditions to the polar ice-caps of the world. Whilst up there in the cold and snow, he and his crew rescue an exhausted solitary male who’s about to expire out on the ice.
The traumatised and lonely poor man is one Victor Frankenstein from Geneva in Switzerland, who is pursuing to the ends of the Earth a Creature of whom Robert Walton and his crew realise that they may already have caught a glimpse, out on the ice all alone just like his pursuer, Victor Frankenstein. This is Victor Frankenstein’s story.
After a positively charmed and privileged early life (‘No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself.’), Victor goes off to college after the death of his beloved Mother and resolves to make the best of these important years. He’s a whizz at Science and Chemistry and whatnot and very quickly impresses his tutors with his hard work and willingness to apply himself. He quickly works out where his real interests lie.
‘It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.’
Long story short, he discovers that he has a burning urge to create life himself from the no-longer-living bits and pieces of cadavers. He gets the idea from all the ‘natural philiosophers’ he’s been reading up on and now sees as his idols.
For two whole years he works day and night on his personal project (‘I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.’), pretty much to the exclusion of all else. Finally, he is successful. ‘On a dreary night of November… I saw the dull yellow eye of the Creature open.’
The awful thing about all this exhaustive labour is that, when Victor beholds the hideousness of the thing he has created, he’s so horrified that he runs away in terror and leaves the poor just-birthed Creature to fend for itself in the wilds for several long months. In this respect, Victor, I feel, has only got himself to blame for the nightmare which ensues.
Victor eventually travels home to Geneva, where he learns that his younger brother William has been brutally murdered by a stranger. A servant and friend of the house, a sweet and kind-hearted young lady called Justine, is to be executed for his murder.
Victor’s widowed father and Victor’s Cousin Elizabeth, in reality an adopted daughter of the family and Victor’s betrothed and, indeed, beloved, are utterly distraught. Justine could not be capable of such a monstrous, cold-blooded act of hatred and disdain, they feel sure of this.
Victor learns the truth of the matter from his recently-turned-up-again Creature but, alas, it’s too late to save Justine from the gallows. From this point on, if he didn’t already feel this way, Victor is living in a nightmare from which he can’t wake up. There is no waking up. He feels like he murdered William and Justine, ‘the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts,’ with his own hands.
The Creature tells Victor what he’s been up to this past couple of years, but it’s not an amiable catch-up between friends in a Starbucks over a skinny latte and a poppyseed muffin. The Creature Victor deliberately imbued with life has lived a miserable existence thus far. He’s been hiding out, lonely, cold, hungry and isolated from everything that is good in life.
After telling Victor how he was forcibly rejected by the sickly-sweet-and-saccharine cottagers to whose life he’s been an outside observer for some time, he informs his maker in no uncertain terms (and he’s right!) that it’s his, Victor’s, fault that he’s so wretched, alone and miserable.
‘Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.’ The poor wee Creature!
I don’t know about you guys, but I blame Victor entirely for the miserable life in which the Creature finds himself trapped. How dare Victor give him life and then abandon him to a horrible fate just because he’s ugly?
Surely it’s Victor’s responsibility to put things right? That’s certainly what the Creature thinks, anyway. Finally Victor comes round to this way of thinking. ‘For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness.’ Darn tootin.’ Quite honestly, it’s about bloody time he honoured his responsibilities to the Creature he himself created.
So what is it exactly that the Creature wants? Well, he jolly well wants a girlfriend, a girlfriend like himself, made in the same mould as himself. ‘I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create.’ Sounds perfectly fair to me.
Victor reluctantly agrees to make the Creature a hot girlfriend, lol. The Creature warns him that he’ll be keeping an eye on the proceedings from a discreet distance so Victor isn’t even to dream of welching on the deal. ‘I shall be with you on your wedding night,’ he famously- and ominously- threatens his maker.
So off Victor goes to an isolated spot in England to start work on a lady friend for his Monster. ‘To England, therefore, I was bound, and it was understood that my union with Elizabeth should take place immediately on my return.’ Then:
‘I now also began to collect the materials necessary for my new creation, and this was to me like the torture of single drops of water continually falling on the head.’
Halfway through the sickening, grisly operation, however, he decides he can’t possibly risk bringing another dangerous, malevolent and mankind-hating Creature into the world (‘To create another like the fiend I had first made would be an act of the basest and most atrocious selfishness.’) and he downs tools, in plain sight of the Monster whose murderous rage will now know no bounds.
The horror just keeps on being ratcheted up. The murders of Victor’s best mate Henry Clerval and of the beautiful bride Elizabeth Lavenza on her wedding night to Victor, just like the Creature foretold, and then the death of Victor’s father, probably from stress and worry, now take place. (‘He could not live under the horrors that were accumulated around him: the springs of existence suddenly gave way.’) These dreadful killings extinguish for all time the last rays of light and goodness and happiness from Victor’s life.
‘The cup of life was poisoned forever; and although the sun shone upon me as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me.’
He resolves now to chase his foul Creature to the ends of the Earth, if needs be, and there kill him and avenge his beloved dead. Only then can Victor, exhausted and heartbroken, find peace in death himself.
After a long and arduous chase, fraught with terrible perils that leave Victor clinging onto life by only the most tenuous of threads, he meets Robert Walton’s ship in the very midst of the polar ice-caps.
There he tells the spellbound sea-captain the story of his life, his life’s work and his life’s miseries before he expires, his revenge mission unsatisfied. So much for: ‘But revenge kept me alive; I dared not die and leave my adversary in being.’
A conversation between Robert Walton and the Creature over Victor’s death-bed (‘Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome and appalling hideousness.’) apprises us of the Monster’s lonely and heart-rending final intentions.
He regrets what he has done to Victor (‘But now crime has degraded me beneath the merest animal.’) and now he’s going off alone to die in the ice-caps. ‘I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames.’ Then finally: ‘He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.’ It’s a truly heart-breaking ending.
I’m thrilled that I’ve finally read the horror story written by Mary Shelley (Godwin as was) during that fateful wet summer of 1816, when she stayed in the Villa Diodati with her husband-to-be Percy Shelley, their friend Lord Byron and Mary’s half-sister Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont, one of Byron’s groupies who was already pregnant with his child when she arrived at the Villa. Byron’s personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, whose story ‘THE VAMPYRE’ can still be read today, was also present at the Villa Diodati.
What a summer. What a back-story. What a personal triumph for the eighteen-year-old Mary, to write something so powerful that had such amazing longevity! I really hope that, wherever she is today, she knows how successful and popular her little horror novel turned out to be. It probably wouldn’t make up for all the personal tragedies she suffered in her short enough lifetime, but it might help to ease the pain a little.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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