As fall cold fronts blow through and costumes and candy fill the aisles of stores, thoughts turn to Halloween and the spooky season.
As Jordan says to Daisy in The Great Gatsby, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
I must have had this fall feeling as a freshman in Amy Patterson’s Navarro College English class when I wrote my term paper about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I believe I could have chosen any book and my younger, slacker self was probably trying to get off easy with a monster novel, but little did I know Frankenstein was actually a landmark work of Gothic and science fiction by a pioneering woman author.
A lifelong reader, I breezed through the Great Illustrated Classics and Sherlock Holmes stories as a kid, but this is the book I credit with a deeper understanding of literary criticism. I still have my much highlighted and dog-eared paperback copy with faded pencil notes scribbled in the margins.
Subtitled The Modern Prometheus (the figure from Greek mythology credited with the creation of man from clay) the original story of Frankenstein is nothing like the lumbering reanimated man played by Boris Karloff in the old black and white Hollywood films.
First of all, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster, but everyone already knows that right?
In the novel, the monster never has a name, but when speaking to his creator he says, "I ought to be thy Adam" (in reference to the first man created in the Bible).
Oh yeah, the monster speaks and is actually very intelligent and well-mannered.
The monster in the novel was still ugly, however, and Shelley described him as eight-foot-tall with “skin that scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.”
He horrified everyone he met and asked the doctor to make him a mate so he could go ahead and head for the hills but the doctor refused. He was horrified, albeit a little too late, at the thought of creating a race of monsters. The monster would not get his bride until the 1935 film.
After the monster kills the doctor’s wife on his wedding night, Doc vows to destroy him and the ensuing voyage takes the pair all the way to the Arctic Circle.
Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I also highly recommend this time of year, Frankenstein is written in epistolary form which means it’s mostly correspondence through written letters which, in my opinion, adds to its realism and almost puts it in a historical context.
Since its publication in 1823, the novel has been much analyzed and psychologists believe the monster to represent the quintessential motherless child. Critics said the plot symbolized the fear of science, or even the Industrial Revolution.
I think the story of the novel’s conception is as good as the book itself. Legend has it, a young Mary and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were hanging out reading scary stories with fellow poet Lord Byron on a dark and stormy night. Byron recommended they each write a ghost story and Mary became consumed with the idea until it came to her:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” she wrote in her introduction to the novel. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
So Mary Shelley not only created the entire genre of science fiction with just one book, she showed us the power of the scary story on the human psyche.
In fact, master of cosmic horror H.P. Lovecraft said in his essay 1925 Supernatural Horror in Literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
While, there have been many adaptations, some better than others, no film can possibly live up to the power of the human imagination. And what would a truly modern monster look like anyway? Maybe he wouldn’t be bad looking at all, but psychologically ugly on the inside.
Is Joaquin Phoenix available?