10 March 2009

Book review: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
By Mary Shelley (1819; rev. 1831)

As with my recent look at Pride and Prejudice, this isn’t so much a review of a book everybody knows as much as it is me watching myself read the book for the first time in a monster’s age.

A few events prompted me to re-read Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus after so many years. (I’m proud the say that the copy I have is the same one I first read in fifth grade, and it’s in excellent condition.) One event was the aforementioned reading of Pride and Prejudice. After finishing Austen’s novel, I wanted to experience the other side of Regency writing, the dark side far away from the Austen Realism, the one hidden in the shadows of the Gothic novel and Romanticism and fiery Miltonian passions. Never a fan of Realism (I get too much of that at work), I needed the Romantic to get back the proper balance. And Frankenstein is one of the most Romantic of all novels, a height in the original liteary and artistic movement. It is also the fullest flowering of the classic period of the Gothic novel. Most early Gothic novels are pretty dreadful reads today, such as The Castle Otranto by Horace Walpole, and only students and dedicated enthusiasts bother to seek them out. But everyone knows about Frankenstein, and people still read it with as much thrill and wonder as anyone who snatched up one of the first five hundred copies from the small print run of 1819.

Another event was speaking to my uncle after he had finished watching Shadow of the Vampire for the first time. Our conversation drifted to that famous “dark and stormy night” in 1816 Switzerland that led to Mary Shelley authoring Frankenstein. He wanted to know if any of the other three participants in that experiment in writing horror had completed their works. I pointed him the direction of the other product, Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” also published in 1819. My uncle then mentioned how much he loves Frankenstein, and his enthusiasm made me want to go back to it.

Finally, I’ve enjoyed reading Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog so much that I wanted to get into some of the Frankenstein feeling. I’ve done a lot of reading and research on vampires, werewolves (my favorite of the “classic” monsters), and mummies, but not enough time on the Frankenstein Monster and his creator. So I decided to go back to pitted well, the original novel.

The version I have is the 1831 revision with Shelley’s famous introduction about the novel’s creation. In particular, this passage always strikes me as one of the best descriptions about the writing of horror:
I busied myself to think of a story,—a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.
I would lie if I told you that Shelley 100% accomplished this task, at least from the perspective of 2009. No, Frankenstein doesn’t curdle my blood or awaken thrilling horror, although I imagine it probably did in the early 19th century. But Shelley still gets the majority of tasks right: the novel speaks to the “mysterious fears of our nature” and quickens “the beatings of the heart”—mostly because it’s still so damn good.

What Shelley finally latched onto when she found her story wasn’t a ghost story at all. Using ideas of Erasmus Darwin’s, she succeeded in creating the first genuine science-fiction story. The artificial creation of life through scientific processes… and its consequences. The original Preface (which, according to Mary Shelley, is the work of her husband, poet Percy Shelley) makes the science basis clear, as opposed to a supernatural one.

This is another difference in how I approached Frankenstein this time that I read it: I paid more attention to its science-fiction premise alongside its overt Romanticism and its interaction with the wildness of human nature and the actual wilds. Damn, but I love Romanticism.

Although Victor Frankenstein, a young medical student and not a doctor as often portrayed in other media, is the nominal hero and the narrator who tells his story to the captain of a ship trapped in arctic ice, I feel little sympathy for him. Even as his friends and family die at the monster’s hands, I felt a squeamish dislike for Frankenstein because he shows such moral cowardice. It isn’t only that he backs away from his creation, refusing to take responsibility for life he created, and thus alienating it. He also refuses to step forward when the maid Justine gets unjustly accused of murdering Frankenstein’s youngest brother. Victor knows the monster did the deed, but justifies his refusal to say anything about it behind the weak excuse that “the law will take care of it.” Victor only takes action when it’s too late, and his destruction of the monster’s potential mate—based on a fear of them propagating a bunch of ugly children—really puts me on the monster’s side. I actually feel better about Peter Cushing’s cold, cruel murderer version of Victor Frankenstein in the Hammer Films; at least he stood up for what he believed in.

It’s impossible not to feel for the Frankenstein Monster; he speaks as us, people who wonder what our existence, only his tragedy is more specific, and he can find a focus for his rage:
Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.
Another piece of Paradise Lost got in there. Shelley mentions Milton’s poem more than once in the novel.

It interested me how much the monster resembles the modern “stalker villain” seen in movies and literary thrillers: a character of relentless cunning who hunts and torments the protagonist, able to appear anywhere he chooses and inflict pain. Although Frankenstein doesn’t horrify the way it must have when it was first published, it does contain intense suspense as the monster tracks down Victor’s loved ones (“I will be with you on your wedding night!”) and then eludes him in a passionate chase to the ends of the Earth.

A teenage girl wrote all this brilliance. She changed the world of genre—horror and science fiction—with this one work.

Director Gullermo del Toro—he of Pan’s Labyrinth and the two “Hellboy” movies—has indicated a great interest in directing a new Frankenstein movie. However, he has said that he doesn’t want to do a new version of the novel, but a sort of adventure story starring the monster filled with Miltonian tragedy. While reading the novel, I noticed a few places where del Toro could graft on a dark action story into the events. The long chase into the ice has many places where the monster could turn aside and get involved in some fascinating escapades. And… what if the monster doesn’t commit suicide as he says he will at the end? Where might he have gone, and what would he have to do to find a way into human society? I really hope Guillermo del Toro gets his chance to address these ideas, and hopefully with Doug Jones in the part of the Monster. My suggestion for Victor Frankenstein, if he appears in the movie, is James McAvoy.

We might have to wait a spell for the movie, however. Del Toro is working on that Hobbit thing.

Here’s a great piece of Frankenstein Monster artwork by Dave Hitchcock recently put up at Frankensteinia; this looks close to the creature I see in my mind when I read the book.