It was 200 years ago that 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, soon to be Mary Shelley, wrote her most famous book, “Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus.” Mary was on holiday with two already famous poets — Percy Shelley (who later became Mary’s husband) and their host, Lord Byron. The setting was Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva.
The volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora in the East Dutch Indies produced major weather anomalies, causing that year to be very stormy and gloomy. In fact, that year was dubbed the Year Without a Summer. It was also known as the Poverty Year, the Summer that Never Was and my personal favorite, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death. In order to fill the long, dark and stormy days, Byron suggested that they tell ghost stories, which caused Mary to have nightmares. The dark storms over the mountains and flashes of lightning over the lake provided the perfect backdrop for both the story and its conception. From a dream, Frankenstein was born and still haunts us.
A lot of literary talent was in that villa, but it is Mary’s book that’s still remembered. And whether we think of the portrayals by Boris Karloff or Peter Boyle as the creature, everyone knows him. I will always think of Dr. Frankenstein as the character played by Gene Wilder, which is bittersweet this year with Wilder’s passing. But he is not the only one to remake the story of Frankenstein. It’s a story that never grows old and continues to be reinvented. You can even find graphic novel and steampunk versions!
My daughter and I read Shelley’s version just last year for our mother/daughter book club. Hollywood certainly changed the story! It’s a much more psychological book than I realized. I began to think that Shelley meant for it to be purely psychological with the creature being the doctor’s alter ego. That was NOT the case, but it would make another great twist to the Frankenstein tale. And, though we often think of the creature as “Frankenstein – the monster,” in Shelley’s version it is the mad doctor — Dr Frankenstein — who is truly the monster.
“Frankenstein” has been called the first true science fiction story with its roots in the early days of science — or alchemy. There is an actual Castle Frankenstein in Germany where an odd man by the name of Johann Konrad Dipple was born and became an alchemist. Frankensteina was even added to his name in his later years. He may have been the inspiration for the story or at least the origin of the title of Mary’s book. But there may have been another source because Frankenstein simply means “free stone.” There are a lot of other legends and myths surrounding the castle beyond Mary’s monster.
Whether you want to finally read the classic telling, delve into a retelling or read about the Gothic beginnings of Shelley’s career, enjoy a hauntingly wonderful Halloween!
photo credit: Tom Simpson Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) via photopin (license)