Mary Shelley & the Curse
By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
Little, Brown. 375 pp. $24.95
It's the most famous "dark and stormy night" in literary history. Every English major knows the story of the June 17, 1816, house party at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, where five young English people playfully vied with one another to tell a ghost story. The soap-operatic cast of characters is irresistible. The charismatic leader of the group (and also the initiator of the contest) was Lord Byron, the foremost celebrity of the age, a bestselling poet, talented, handsome, rich, witty, titled, pan-sexually promiscuous and hounded out of England two months earlier for scandals mainly centered on his relationship with his half-sister. Byron was 28, considerably the senior in this crowd, and the luxurious Diodati was his rental; he had brought with him as paid companion a young doctor (Byron's erratic crash dieting sometimes endangered his health), John William Polidori, 21, who was also an aspiring litterateur. The third man of the group, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 23, was a decidedly radical (though always emotional) thinker who had recently begun to publish his own poetry; Byron had been unusually impressed by it, and, upon their meeting at a nearby hotel three weeks earlier, by Shelley too.
And then there were the teenagers. Mary Godwin (later Shelley) was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died soon after her birth, and the freethinking William Godwin (here presented as an inveterate sponger). Mary had eloped two years earlier, at 16, with the married Shelley, and oddly had taken along her 16-year-old stepsister Claire Claremont (daughter of Godwin's second wife) on the "honeymoon." During their travels in tandem, Claire had quite probably slept with Shelley too, but she had developed an obsessive crush on the rock-star-famous Byron (who was also married) and pursued him recklessly. Women often enough threw themselves at Byron, but Claire's connection with Shelley intrigued him enough to set up a rendezvous -- and then, as he said later, "If a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours, there is but one way." By June, at the Diodati, she was secretly pregnant with his child.
Only two members of this entangled party completed the assignment, but they came through so spectacularly that their "monsters" have become essential to modern popular culture: Mary Shelley's nameless creature, created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and John Polidori's vampire. Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler's otherwise well-researched, fair-minded roundup of the group, The Monsters , is based on the rather contrived conceit that the members of Byron's house party psychologically paralleled the imagined monstrousness of their creations. Mary Shelley, in particular, gets a labored analysis as both creator and created, the doctor and the monster, fashioned in bits and pieces by her father, by the memory of her famous mother and by Shelley.
With the vampire, the Hooblers are on firmer ground. Gothic scholars and serious horror fans know that the modern concept of the arrogant, elegant, moody, aristocratic, malicious, sexual predator who has come to seem the one true vampire was in fact invented by Polidori in The Vampyre , published in 1819, with its antihero modeled so obviously on Lord Byron as to invite a lawsuit. Folktales about vampires -- crude animalistic blood-suckers, not so different from werewolves -- had been around for centuries, but Polidori, whose talent Byron had cruelly derided, changed this image completely, delivering a sharp, lurid social caricature of his tormentor. Lest anyone miss the point, his vampire was called Lord Ruthven -- the name that Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's scorned lover, had given to her own caricature of him in her bestseller about their steamy affair, Glenarvon . To further complicate matters, Polidori's vampire tale was based on a fragment that Byron had scribbled out as his contest entry, and many people thought he had written Polidori's novel. In any case, all the famous vampires that followed, from Bram Stoker's Dracula (who didn't appear until 1897) to Anne Rice's Lestat and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain, draw their lineage from Polidori's portrait of Byron.
So much for vampires; as for Frankenstein, his curse is invoked as members of the party and their loved ones died. Claire's child by Byron and all but one of Mary's children by Shelley died early. Mary's sister and Shelley's first wife were suicides in their twenties, as may have been Polidori, who was dead at 25. Shelley drowned at 29, leaving Mary a 24-year-old widow. Byron died of a fever in Missolonghi, Greece, at 36. The women lived on, but their lives seemed sadly diminished.
Endless numbers of books have been written about these people, even the comparatively unknown Claire. But the Hooblers, long-time co-authors who once won an Edgar Award, provide a good brisk overview for readers attracted to real-life Regency romance at its most colorful. Some may remember the movies about that evening -- Ken Russell's "Gothic" (1986) or Ivan Passer's "Haunted Summer" (1988) -- and want to know more. This book will fill them in nicely. ·
Alice K. Turner is a former fiction editor of Playboy.