“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
And with that, the most important monster in all of literature was born. Not the stiff-legged, grunting version you see in the old black-and-white films, but a cunning creature eight feet tall with amazing speed and strength. The monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a thing to be feared.
The story around the creation of this classic novel is almost as good as the tale itself. One evening, an 18-year old Mary Shelley, along with Lord Byron, and her husband the poet Percy Shelley, decided to have a competition to see who could write the best horror story. She emerged the victor, not only beating two literary luminaries, but also creating a masterpiece that is still haunting us today.
Mary Shelley’s beautifully written novel begins in the bleak North Pole, on a boat trapped in ice with a crew almost certain to die. It is there that Captain Robert Walton finds Victor Frankenstein. He is near death and chasing after the monster he’s created. While recovering onboard, Victor shares his tragic story.
The monster in Frankenstein is never given a name. Victor calls him everything from demon to ogre to wretch. As well, Victor Frankenstein is different than what you might expect from the movies. He is young, impetuous and fearful. He’s had a privileged upbringing with brothers, friends, and even a beautiful fiancee. When he finally gives life to his monster, he doesn’t scream in triumph but runs and hides. From there, the story turns into a murder spree, with terrible results for all.
What I have always loved about Shelley’s gothic and romantic novel is that she not only gives us Victor’s perspective, but also the perspective of the monster itself. In the middle of the book, the monster takes over as narrator, detailing his first steps into the world and the terror he stirs in people. It is a daring writing device, putting us right into the mind of this complicated fiend. It feels like he is arguing with the reader, not with his creator, and trying to justify each of his thoughts and diabolical actions.
"Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus" was first published in 1818, maybe making this the longest victory of any bet in history. That means for almost 200 years, the world has shivered and quaked under the nightmare of an imaginative 18-year old, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it does so for another 200. Mary Shelley’s monster just may be immortal.
There are two new ways you can check out Scott's own writing. His novel "My Problem With Doors" was just released for the Kindle, and his book "A Jane Austen Daydream" is now an audiobook on Audible and iTunes. You can find out more information via his writing blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.