It’s an 1818 epistolary novel involving ice floes, Islamophobia, and angst (lots of angst) that became a gothic touchstone of the modern horror story. What? You don’t recognize “Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus,” written by the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley?
That’s because when I say “Frankenstein,” you picture a bigheaded, neck-bolted doofus staggering around with his arms out in front of him. Like that image, nearly all of the pop-culture ideas of Shelley’s creation are from the 1931 film version, directed by James Whale that launched Boris Karloff to stardom. Whale’s film, a milestone in horror cinema all its own, launched a series of movies that have, by now, greatly overshadowed the original book.
To mark the anniversary of Shelley’s masterpiece, and perhaps to set readers straight, the Keats-Shelley Association of America and the National Endowment for the Humanities is orchestrating more live “Frankenreads” of the entire novel on Halloween around the globe, with the belle of the undead ball at the Library of Congress starting at 9 a.m.
To save you the time, here’s Shelley’s original in a nutshell.
The narrative is a series of letters written by Robert Walton, a British scientist exploring the Arctic in the 1700s, back home to his sister. His icebound ship comes across the emaciated scientist Victor Frankenstein, who is pulled on board and tells his story to Walton — how he had stitched together corpses to make an 8-foot-tall creature and brought him to life. Shockingly, this did not turn out well. Tragic complications ensue, and Herr Frankenstein and Herr Monster wind up in a dog-sled death-match in the Arctic. His tale told, Frankenstein dies. The monster then sneaks on board, gives an eloquent soliloquy about his sorrow and leaps off the ship onto an ice floe — gone to find himself some wood and burn himself alive. Walton watches him until he was “borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.” Also, Walton’s expedition is a total failure. The end.
Well then! On that happy note, here are some other oddities from the original.
There is neither a hunchbacked assistant nor a bolt of lightning.
Whale needed a deformed lab tech named Fritz and a really awesome thunderstorm to jump-start the creature, but Shelley didn’t. Victor creates his reanimated corpse all by himself while away at college in Germany. Victor, though, is not what we would call a “stand-up guy.” He runs away screeching when his creation comes to life, gets the vapors, and is delighted when he comes back to find his place empty. (Whistles, carries on, hopes the Thing just sort of wandered off and maybe won’t be noticed.) We’ve all done things in college we don’t want following us around. Ask Brett Kavanaugh.
The monster is smarter than you.
In the movie, Dude gets an abnormal brain thanks to Fritz screwing up a pretty simple lab-sample heist. All he does is grunt. In the book, Monster Dude is a straight-up Rhodes Scholar. The first book he encounters is “Ruins of Empires,” by the French philosopher C.F. Volney. He picks up the entire language, history, culture, philosophy, laws and religions of mankind by eavesdropping on some French nobles . He talks prettier than you, too. When he first speaks to Frankenstein: “The sun is yet high in the heavens; before it descends to hide itself behind yon snowy precipices, and illuminate another world, you will have heard my story and can decide. On you it rests, whether I quit forever the neighbourhood of man and lead a harmless life, or become the scourge of your fellow creatures and the author of your own speedy ruin.” While you were reading that, your girlfriend texted him her number.
Mary Shelley was, too.
Born in 1797 Britain to a famous philosopher father and a feminist mom, Shelley had little formal education but knew her dad’s friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth as a child. She published her first poem at 10, ran away to Europe with the world-famous (and married!) poet Percy Shelley when she was 17, and came up with the idea of her breakout novel while the two were on an adulterous holiday with Lord Byron. “Frankenstein” was published when she was 21; at that age, you were still sobering up from Homecoming and writing a beer-stained essay for “Contemporary Themes in Modern Fiction” in English Lit. Pity.
Islamophobia is a plot point.
Talk about relevant! While hiding out from villagers who have a problem with gigantic talking corpses, the creature takes refuge in a hovel. The impoverished inhabitants of the adjacent house are actually sophisticated Parisians. They were sent into exile because the son helped a persecuted Muslim businessman from Turkey break out of jail after French xenophobes imprisoned him on trumped-up charges. From this, the monster learns of the dangerous prejudices of mankind. Of the Turk’s sentence, the monster explains: “The injustice of his sentence was very flagrant; all Paris was indignant; and it was judged that his religion and wealth rather than the crime alleged against him had been the cause of his condemnation.”
Neither Shelley nor Whale lived happily ever after.
Her half sister, and Percy Shelley’s abandoned wife, committed suicide. The adulterers then married. Three of Shelley’s four children died in infancy. Percy turned out to be a lowdown dirty cheating slug and managed to drown in a boating accident. Mary was still just 24. Her subsequent novels got lousy reviews and sold poorly. Though she kept her independent spirit, life was mostly difficult. She died of brain cancer at 53. She was buried with her husband’s cremated heart. (Just putting that out there.) Whale, one of the first openly gay men in Hollywood, did well for several years after “Frankenstein,” with “The Invisible Man,” “Showboat,” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.” Still, his career declined sharply after a 1937 flop, and he pretty much quit the business in 1941. He drowned himself in his Hollywood swimming pool in the spring of 1957. He was 67. His last words, in a famous suicide note: “I have had a wonderful life but it is over and my nerves get worse and I am afraid they will have to take me away.”
Neely Tucker’s latest novel is “Only the Hunted Run.”