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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).


Teeming Links – August 13, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

I invite you to peruse today’s installment of recommended and necessary reading in light of this recent reflection from Walter Kirn, who says his former personal and current authorial involvement with a certain high-profile murderer and impostor has combined synergistically with the rash of apocalyptic awfulness currently infesting global news headlines to generate the impression that we’re all living in a real-life story that’s one part Lovecraftian horror and one part dystopian science fiction:

All summer I’ve been manacled to my desk writing a book about a former friend of mine, the impostor and convicted killer known to the world and the media as Clark Rockefeller.

. . . I couldn’t have chosen a worse few months for such a paranoia-inducing task. Since the end of my old friend’s murder trial in April — a proceeding which taught me a lifetime’s worth of lessons about manipulation and deception — the news from the world of government and politics has been unremitting in its spookiness, a serial ghost story from the Age of Terror. The Summer of Lovecraft, I’ve decided to call it. Snowden. PRISM. Secret courts. The death of Michael Hastings. That program, just outed, that allows the DEA to substitute spurious investigative trails for the ones it actually uses to track suspects. The only winners here? Literature professors. Orwell, Kafka, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick we hardly knew ye, it turns out. But now we’re getting to know ye much, much better.

. . . Tomorrow morning, per my daily ritual, I’ll spend a few minutes reading the headlines before I buckle down to work. I already know what’s in store for me, unfortunately: I’ll learn yet again that what I’m writing about on a small and personal scale is happening in some form on a grand scale.

That much I can trust.

— Walter Kirn, “This Is the Summer of Lovecraft,” The New Republic, August 9, 2013

* * *

4 in 5 in US face near-poverty, no work (Associated Press exclusive)
“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream. Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.”

The Real War on Reality (The New York Times)
On surveillance, secrecy, deception, and the accompanying philosophical danger of “epistemic attack.” “If there is one thing we can take away from the news of recent weeks it is this: the modern American surveillance state is not really the stuff of paranoid fantasies; it has arrived.” [NOTE: Read this one in light of the next item below.]

You’re Being Lied To: The Culture of Conspiracy (Micah Hanks for Mysterious Universe)
“Whether it be the alleged plot to kill JFK, or the conspiracy behind granny’s secret rhubarb pie recipe, many people these days appear to be capable of finding a conspiracy tucked away with nearly every corner and cranny of our culture. In essence, we are living in a literal culture of conspiracy.” [NOTE: Read this one in light of the previous item above.]

Nuke the Cat! Star Script Doctor Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting (Vulture and New York Magazine)
“That escalation can be felt across the entire film industry this summer, a season of unparalleled massiveness: more blockbusters released, more digital demolition per square foot, and more at stake than ever. But Hollywood’s gigantism, Lindelof points out, is practically algorithmic — and the effect tendrils all the way down to the storytelling level.”

The Art of Attention (Sven Birkerts for Aeon magazine)
The peculiar vividness of the world becomes clear when we slow down and attend, learning to see all things anew. “To pay attention, to attend. To be present, not merely in body — it is an action of the spirit. The things of the world are already layered with significance, and looking is merely the action that discloses.”

Grotesque Horror Through a Kid-Sized Window (NPR)
Novelist Erin Morgenstern on the enduring personal impact of Stephen King’s It, which she read at age 12. “It was filled with things I didn’t understand juxtaposed with things I did — like a fascinating, if morbid, glimpse into the future. It showed me that the things hiding under your bed and lurking in the sewers don’t disappear just because you grow up.”

Wonders_and_the_Order_of_Nature_by_Lorraine_DastonMonsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science (Nautilus)
Interview with Lorraine Daston, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and author of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. She traces the central role played by the emotional-spiritual “Bermuda Triangle” of terror, horror, and wonder — the latter tinged with awe — in the birth of modern science, as early figures such as Francis Bacon tried to shake people out of the complacency of their established assumptions about the world by highlighting anomalies and monstrosities in nature.

Byron and Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (The Byron Centre for the Study of Literature and Social Change, PDF)
Absorbing 2000 lecture delivered to inaugurate the University of Nottingham’s Byron Centre. “Victor’s dream of what he could accomplish became a monstrous reality that outlived him; and Mary Shelley’s waking dream, which became the novel Frankenstein, has outlived her — what she called her own ‘hideous progeny’ has given her a kind of immortality. Both Byron [in his poem “The Dream”] and Mary Shelley seem to be saying that sleep, which mimics death, yields dreams that yield art that can transcend death and mutability.”

Necronomicon_31st_Anniversary_EditionThe Necronomicon: 32 Years Later (New Dawn)
A 2009 essay by Simon, author of the most famous (notorious) putative Necronomicon, who offers an interpretation of current world conflicts, and especially the Iraq war and associated disruptions, as illustrations of occult principles at work. “It may be that the Middle East conflict is a metaphor for a deeper spiritual struggle — a jihad — taking place within our own hearts and minds as our modern sensitivities wrestle with our ancient instincts. However we characterise it, a Gate has been opened.”

Gods in Mind: The Science of Religion Cognition (The Templeton Foundation)
An utterly fascinating project. “At present, scientific descriptions of how people think about God and gods are fragmented across subdisciplines of the psychological, cognitive, and social sciences. . . [T]here is little sense of an integrated and global conception of how God or gods are represented in mind. This funding competition is designed to promote integration of existing lines of research and to generate and test new hypotheses emerging from such integration. ”



Mary Shelley: Mother to the monster


And speaking — as I did just yesterday — of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, here’s author and history professor Michael Saler discussing two new books about Ms. Shelley and her novel (The Annotated Frankenstein and The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece)for The Times Literary Supplement:

The child may be father to the man, but how did a girl become mother to the monster? We continue to ask that of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) before she turned twenty. It is a startling work from someone so young, combining profound philosophic disquisitions with melodramatic blood and thunder. Some see it as the first science fiction novel, but as Roseanne Montillo shows in The Lady and Her Monsters, Shelley’s narrative of a scientist’s quest to discover and harness the “principle of life” was less an extrapolation into the future than a faithful representation of contemporary practices. Indeed, Frankenstein is one of the earliest horror novels about modernity, directly confronting the instabilities provoked by the scientific, Industrial and French Revolutions.

. . . The first edition of this rich and ambiguous work didn’t fly off the shelves. But it was resurrected in 1823 — this time published under its author’s name — as a result of a popular stage adaptation that promoted the monster rather than the philosophy. Shelley herself pursued this lucrative strategy in her “Introduction” to a revised edition of the novel in 1831, which immediately became a bestseller. Here she situated the work’s genesis in the ghost-story tradition, recalling the summer of 1816 when she joined a party visiting Lord Byron in Switzerland. After several dark and stormy nights spent reading ghost stories, Byron suggested they write their own. Shelley retrospectively claimed she intended to write one that would “awaken thrilling horror”.

The 1831 edition was no longer dedicated to her father the Enlightenment philosopher. Instead, it featured the first book illustration of the nameless “monster”. Shelley bid her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper”, which it did, especially after the release of James Whale’s film version in 1931. Boris Karloff delivered a poignant performance as the monster, now saddled with a “criminal brain” and rendered inarticulate. Shelley’s confrontation with modernity was briefly effaced: but it would never remain buried for long.

More at The Times Literary Supplement: “Enlightened monsters


Image: Portrait of Mary Shelley, 1840, by Richard Rothwell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recommended Reading 24

This week we bring you an exceptionally rich list of excellent reading and, in two cases, excellent listening. Topics include: the inherent — and ongoing — problem with financial institutions that are “too big to fail”; the siege of higher education in its traditional form by tech startups and the exploding online college movement; the overt, frightening, and thoroughly Orwellian/dystopian militarization of America’s cities as domestic law enforcement is remade in the mold of a counterinsurgency operation; the sci-fi sounding but very real possibility of having your brain hacked and your sensitive data stolen via consumer-grade EEG headsets used in gaming and other activities; a brilliant interview with esoteric author Guido Mina di Sospiro by Teeming Brain columnist David Metcalfe at Reality Sandwich; research into the phenomenon of hearing voices and the ways that “normal” people can learn to speak to God; excellent new pieces on F. Scott Fitgerald’s epic depression, H.P. Lovecraft’s life and work (from the Smithsonian [!]), and the discovery of a copy of Frankenstein inscribed by Mary Shelley to Lord Byron; and two recent pieces from NPR on musical matters, the first examining America’s interesting shift toward a craving for “sadness and ambiguity” in pop music over the past 50 years, and the second profiling John Cage on the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

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