Monday, March 21, 2016
200 YEARS OF THE MONSTER
The world’s most famous monster, the creature created by Victor Frankenstein, came into being two centuries ago.
In June of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft and her partner Percy Shelley stayed in a Swiss castle with Lord Byron. Wollstonecraft’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, carrying Byron’s child, was also in attendance, as was Byron’s friend Dr. John Polidori. The weather being unseasonably inclement, they rode out the rain indoors with long conversations on the principle of life and with writing prompts, including one for writing a ghost story.
Gothicism’s twisted roots stretch back to those nomadic tribes of Germanic peoples called the Visigoths, whose sacking of Rome made their name synonymous with terror. Proto-Romantic paintings of Salvator Rosa in the 17th-Century followed a hundred years later by the atmospheric “prisons” etched by Giovanni Piranesi contribute to the Gothic soil on which the 18 year-old Wollstonecraft and her vacationing companions trod.
Then as now two schools of Gothic thought held sway: That of Anne Radcliffe and that of Matthew Lewis. In the Radcliffe mold, the fears turn out to be ungrounded. This is the Scooby-Doo school, where what seems to be supernatural is actually perfectly explainable. Conversely, in the Lewis mold, the supernatural really is real, and the Devil literally shows up.
Mary Wollstonecraft and England’s two most famous poets appreciated the atmospheric qualities in Radcliffe’s work, but they liked that Matthew Lewis played for keeps. So much so, they had him over for dinner.
On the night of June 15, Mary had a powerful dream of a man animated by an engine and his horrified creator watching. The next day, she started writing. And she kept at it, eventually calling her finished work Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. She and Shelley married not long thereafter.
A fragment of a story by Byron influenced Polidori sufficiently to produce a story of his own, The Vampyre. Riding on Byron’s coattails, Polidori’s story was wrongly said to be written by Byron himself. By 1818, Mary Shelley saw her literary progeny published. Later that year, Polidori’s story followed suit.
Decades later Varney the Vampire appeared in the cheapest print, and decades after that, Sheridan Le Fanu wrote the excellent vampire story “Carmilla.” But it wasn’t until Bram Stoker wrote Dracula that we finally saw the fulfillment of the Swiss castle ghost story efforts.
As films in 1931, Dracula preceded Frankenstein by a few months. Thomas Edison gave us film’s first version of the creature in 1910, and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu presented Dracula with names changed, yet, for better or worse, the 1931 Universal Studios productions with Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster hold the most iconic images.
The Frankenstein story continues to proliferate. Jurassic Park is a Frankenstein story. So is nuclear technology. Stephen Hawking presents a Frankenstein story when he warns us of the dangers of artificial life.
Those interested in the Summer of 1816 might like Gothic (1986), wherein Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron conducts a sort of séance which unleashes cheesy special effects upon Mary, Percy, and pals. Also, Frankenstein Unbound (1990), based on the novel by Brian Aldiss, shows how malleable a monster Mary Shelley unleashed.
TO EARN MORE ABOUT THE GOTHIC,
LOOK FOR RICHARD DAVENPORT-HINES'
FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OF EXCESS, HORROR, EVIL AND RUIN
Stewart Kirby writes for