Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the dark-mythic summer of 1816
I’m presently teaching a sophomore college course about horror and science fiction in literature and film. (You can view the syllabus online.) Yesterday’s class meeting was devoted to introducing Mary Shelley and Frankenstein by giving background on Mary’s life and describing the epic, shadowy, amazing, uncanny, utterly mythic summer of 1816, when Mary stayed with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Doctor John Polidori at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, and both the literary vampire (leading directly to Dracula seven decades later) and the Frankenstein myth were born out of the group’s heady conversations about ghost stories and cutting-edge science that unfolded around the fire.
More specifically, these horror icons were born from the horror-writing contest that Byron suggested they undertake in order to pass their time during that eerie “year without a summer,” which was marked by Armageddon-ish weather, crop failure, famine, and epidemics in Europe, Britain, and America (with effects in Asian countries as well) as “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world” unfolded when Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted and blanketed the atmosphere with an obscuring cloud of ash.
I’ve often thought this spontaneous nexus of events — a myth-level natural catastrophe coinciding with the philosophical and literary birth of two iconic/mythic figures in the gothic and horror field — sounds like a fictional tale of its own, something that someone might make up as a dark and fascinating horror story. Maybe that’s why the events surrounding Frankenstein’s birth have long been nearly as famous as the novel itself (a fact helped, of course, by Mary’s account of that summer and the book’s genesis in her introduction to the standard 1831 edition). It has been made into two separate movies — or maybe I’m forgetting that there are more than that — and referenced in partial form many more times, from the introductory segment to 1973’s not-bad television movie Frankenstein: The True Story to the segments involving Mary, Percy, and Co. in the not-bad 1990 film adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound to the charming prologue of director James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. The summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati and environs is like a living novel, a manifestation of fiction in history, replete with obvious, even glaring, symbolism, and planted firmly in the gothic horror genre.
And that’s really all I have to say in this hastily written post. I think I’m still riding on momentum from yesterday’s class session, where I did a brain dump about all of these things, leaving it to the PowerPoint presentation that I had put together ahead of time to keep me on something resembling a coherent path as I talked excitedly about a mega-subject that has kept me entranced with fascination for the past 25 years or so.
Add to that, of course, the fact that some people have interpreted Mary Shelley’s description of the “waking dream” in which she received the inspiration for Frankenstein as an episode of sleep paralysis — a supposition made all the more probable, or at least suggestive and evocative, by the fact that she and her family knew Henry Fuseli, the famous painter of The Nightmare, that master image of both the gothic horror genre and sleep paralysis studies, and by the additional fact that she actually gave a deliberate “quote” of that painting in the mise-en-scène of the moment when Victor Frankenstein bursts into the bridal bedroom to find Elizabeth flung backward, dead, across the bed while the monster leers from the window above. James Whale likewise quoted the same staging in his 1931 cinematic vision/version. The fascination factor, as we might call it, is unbelievably high here.
It was a total accident, by the way, and something I didn’t realize until three days ago, that I began teaching this literature course, with Frankenstein as the first assigned text, right as August 30 marked Mary Shelley’s 216th birthday and was being hailed as “Frankenstein Day” all over the Interwebs.
Here: watch these. They’re good medicine, all (especially the last two).