Making Frankenstein

Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.  This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.  I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.  The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.  Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.  It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.  Harkup, however, is a scientist.  Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.

Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.  Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.  There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.  There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.  There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.  There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.  It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.

Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.  What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.  It takes me several days to read books.  What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.  Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.  The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.  Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.  Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.  It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human.  And the monsters left behind endure.

Frankenstein’s Family

The story of Frankenstein has many unexpected twists and turns.  I’m currently reading a book about the writing of the novel—something I’ve done a number of times before.  There was an aspect of this story that hadn’t really caught my attention too much, but then, circumstances changed.  Suddenly old information became new.  It all started with a missed opportunity from childhood. 

It was a real puzzle.  Although my grandmother lived with us her last years, I never knew the name of her mother.  There had been hints.  My grandfather’s book with birthdays in it listed the first name, so I had a Christian moniker and birthdate only.  She’d died young, I knew, somewhere in the Washington, DC area.  This had been the state of my knowledge for many years.  My grandmother died before I was a teen, and before I took any interest in the family story.  I knew her heritage was Germanic, her father having been a first-generation American.

So young Mary Shelley (technically Godwin) was on a tour of Europe with her lover Percy.  Although they both came from distinguished backgrounds, they were cash poor.  Running out of money they made their way back to England as cheaply as they could.  They passed near Castle Frankenstein along the way, although there is no record that they actually visited it.  The name seems to have stuck, as does the story that they potentially learned about a mad scientist who’d lived in that castle.  This scientist was a theologian who dabbled in alchemy and experiments with dead bodies.  I know what you’re thinking—it’s like a puzzle piece we desperately want to go in this place but its fit’s ambiguous.  We’re not sure how much of this Mary Shelley knew.  The alchemist’s name was Johann Konrad Dippel.  I’d read about him before.

I’d spent nearly an entire summer some years back working on my grandmother’s family, finding little.  Just two years ago I did a casual search on “Find a Grave,” and to my surprise, I found my great-grandfather.  I knew it was him because his second wife’s name matched information from all the family records.  The cemetery record, in Maryland rather than DC, had his first wife’s name.  It was that easy.  After decades of searching, a few keystrokes revealed the mystery.  When it also listed her parents, the significance of her mother’s maiden name—Dippel—escaped me.  Now I have no way of knowing if this is the same Dippel family of Castle Frankenstein, but it put flesh on the bones of my long-standing interest in monsters.  Seeking them out may be the same as learning family secrets.  Perhaps it always is.

Frankenstein, Frankly

The classics.  No matter how much I read more contemporary fiction, the classics keep me coming back.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic in more than a single sense.  It was a novel that had tremendous influence in the nineteenth century and has continued its impact to the present.  Chris Baldick’s In Frankenstein’s Shadow can be considered a classic in its own right.  Although it only dates from the 1980s, it contains exhilarating analysis of Frankenstein in a number of authors and genres of the nineteenth century.  And I’m a fan of literary scholars who write accessibly.  I’ve read modern literary studies that I simply don’t understand and they leave me feeling alienated and cold, as if they were written for a private audience.  One that didn’t include me.  Baldick’s treatment is wide-ranging and full of moments of blinding insight and is open to all.

Often I put the book down thinking that I’d had my world changed.  Baldick’s no hero-worshipper.  He notes the weaknesses in Shelley’s writing (and they are admittedly there), but he does so respectfully.  The astonishing part of this study is the sheer breadth of the influence Baldick finds for Frankenstein.  A word or phrase, a theme here or there, and yet he makes an excellent case that these can be traced back to their monstrous forebear.  His section on Melville made me want to stand up and cheer.  (I have to admit to being more of a hero-worshipper than the author.)  This is literary criticism done right.  It makes you want to read the books you haven’t.

Since the book deals with literature, it doesn’t really address how the creature morphed into something completely different in the twentieth century.  I know I grew up thinking Frankenstein’s monster was part robot.  I suppose it was the bolts in his neck, according to the Universal script, that convinced me.  That, and his stiff-jointed lumbering about.  Shelley’s story is, however, very much a human one.  In many respects the monster is more humane than his creator.  Various aspects of this tale, including that one, are taken up in other classics and turned over, examined, and reapplied.  Suddenly quite a bit of what I’d read elsewhere made immediate sense.  Interestingly, although I grew up not so much a fan of this particular monster, books on him have become among my favorites as an adult, if I am such.  I think Baldick may have had his fingers on that revivified wrist when he wrote this book.  It certainly did for me what literary criticism always should.  At least for the classics.

Universals

It was on television that I met them.  The Universal monsters.  The entire run of films from Dracula to The Creature Walks among Us had been shot, printed, and screened before I was born.  In other words, I’m a late monster boomer.  By the time I was old enough to handle monster movies, they were on television and my early memories of them are tinged with the nostalgia that accompanies what seemed like better times, although each era is about equally difficult.  When I saw James L. Neibaur’s The Monster Movies of Universal Studios I knew I had to read it.  Neibaur goes through all the films in the series, chronologically, encapsulating the Draculas, Frankenstein’s monsters, mummies, invisible men and women, wolf-men, and the gill-man.  As I child I never watched them systematically, being subject to television schedules, among other things.

Not understanding studios or business, and certainly not copyright, I never understood why other favorites such as Jekyll and Hyde, the phantom of the opera, and various assorted ghosts and ghouls weren’t part of the collection.  Nevertheless, this study in discrete, brief chapters, treats the official canon reasonably well.  The line between religion and monsters is sometimes crossed in these movies, which gets at an underlying theme of my own interest—how horror and religion interact—but that’s not Neibaur’s purpose.  That dynamic is, however, the driving force behind my two most recent books.  A tie-in to the paranormal may also be found there.

As I dropped off some promotional material for Holy Horror at an area bookstore recently, the events manager revealed her interest in the paranormal.  In my mental schematic, it’s wedged in there between monsters—which are fictional—and religion, the antithesis of fiction for most people.  What do we do with ghosts and others that don’t fit into the neat lines of a theology that draw a stark line between the supernatural and human?  Universal’s monsters sometimes ran into problems with the Production Code for stepping over that line.  Of course, the Universal monsters are pretty tame in comparison with today’s fare.  Still, they were the monsters who showed, in many ways, what it was to be human.  Neibaur isn’t going for an in-depth analysis here, and his treatment is readily readable by anyone interested in revisiting the monsters of yesteryear.  Some of the descriptions reminded me of movies from my childhood that I’d forgotten.  It is pleasant to relive them for a few moments while the real monsters in the real world lurk not far from my door.

Frankly

Even in the 1960s, if I recall, Dracula and Frankenstein really weren’t that scary.  I mean this in the sense of the 1931 Universal movies that began the entire trend of “horror” films.  They were, nevertheless, monarchs among those of us who claim the sobriquet “monster boomers.”  (I’ve never considered myself as part of any generation, but there’s so many people that you’ve got to sort us somehow.)  Recently I talked my wife into watching/re-watching these two films with me.   The pacing makes it seem like everything in the 1930s was stuck in slow motion.  The frights are difficult to feel, given what we’ve seen in movies since then.  And they are both, it occurs upon reflection, movies in which religion is the norm against which we measure monsters.  God is assumed.

Dracula, of course, fears the crucifix.  His chosen home in England is a ruined abbey.  Although the source of his monstrosity is never discussed, he is intended to be an embodiment of evil, draining the life of innocents.  Renfield craves flies and spiders in order to ingest their life.  Christianity can’t tolerate such evil and Dracula must be staked (off screen).  Frankenstein’s monster is much more obviously theological.  Opening with a warning to the audience that the film may shock due not only to its frights, but also because of Henry’s desire to create life, the film has philosophical discussions between Henry and his associates, and ends with the moral dilemma of what to do with an evil created by human hands, yet clearly alive like other people.

Metaphorically speaking, these first two horror films set the stage for later developments in the genre.  It isn’t so much fear and startles that define the genre as it is a deep dread of offending the powers that be.  Childhood was so long ago that I can no longer recall just which movies I saw on Saturday afternoons, but these two were among them.  Even as I was beginning the spiritual journey that would assure my job was never far from the Bible, I recalled with fondness the frissons of watching Dracula and Frankenstein—and then the host of other Universal monsters such as The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (the last being scary in the classical sense).  The world in which they operated was deeply religious, for even the gill-man was an implicit condemnation of evolution.  These monsters were informing a religious outlook that would last a lifetime.  Going back to Dracula and Frankenstein is like turning back to the first page of Genesis and beginning again.

Classic Education

A few months ago now, just after moving, our garage flooded.  Our books, unpacked, were stored there at the time, resulting in many casualties.  As I sorted through what was destroyed—a process still ongoing—I decided that if I replaced books I would re-read them as I did so.  Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was the first replaced, and therefore re-read, volume.  For those who never had the opportunity to attend seminary, I would note that it is the ideal time for reading.  One of my professors, Harrell Beck, although he taught Old Testament, encouraged wide reading.  The Bible, he suggested, didn’t stop at the last verse of Revelation.  It was in seminary that I discovered the Brontë sisters and their remarkable literary achievements.

Wuthering Heights is fine autumnal literature and Heathcliff one of the greatest protagonist villains of literature.  An interloper among the privileged classes, Heathcliff finds delight in making others share in his suffering.  One of the more memorable characters is Joseph, the Bible-toting, Bible-quoting caretaker who sees nothing good in the younger generation.  Even Emily Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman herself, spies the hypocrisy so clear in the lives of literalists.  Joseph enjoys scolding as much as reading Scripture, and even the other servants find him tiresome.  Born in the year Frankenstein was published, Emily had Gothic sensibilities.  With the protracted death scenes and atmosphere  of loss and mourning, this classic can be a restorative in an era such as ours.  In more than one way.

Since Wuthering Heights is a classic, there’s no need to recount the story of lost love and damaged human beings.  What is important is to realize that we continue to support a social structure that repeats the sins of nineteenth-century England.  And like that setting, we do it firmly believing we are a “Christian” nation.  Joseph would surely nod in agreement.  Stripping the safety nets from the vulnerable so that the privileged classes might enjoy more of their ill-gotten gain, we live the hypocrisy of the self-righteous.  It the era of the Brontë sisters, women were not encouraged to write.  They, like the servants of the wealthy, were believed to exist for the comfort and pleasure of the master.  Not paying attention to the classics, we’ve come back to that era, claiming that wealthy white men are the true victims in all of this.  The denizens of the swamp will find their place in history next to Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Benito Mussolini.  Wuthering Heights, like 1984, will, however, remain a classic that sees through hypocrisy.

Horrible Delays

It’s not that the delay is actually horrible.  Horror movies, after all, come into their own with the darkening days of fall.  Nevertheless it occurred to me that now August is about to exit stage left, some may be wondering where Holy Horror is.  After all, the website originally said “August.”  The truth is nobody really understands the mysteries of the publishing industry.  Like so many human enterprises, it is larger than any single person can control or even comprehend.  I work in publishing, but if I were to subdivide that I’d have to say I work in academic publishing.  Further subdivided, non-textbook academic publishing.  Even further, humanities non-textbook academic publishing.  Even even further, religion—you get the picture.  I only know the presses I know.

It suits me fine if Holy Horror gets an autumn release.  I don’t know, however, when that might be.  I haven’t seen the proofs yet, so it’s hard to guess.  Appropriate in its own way for horror.  The genre deals with the unexpected.  Things happen that the protagonists didn’t see coming.  In that respect, it’s quite a bit like life.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is well underway.  When you don’t have an academic post your research style necessarily changes, but I’m pleased to find that books can still be written even with the prison walls of nine-to-five surrounding one.  It may be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (happy birthday, by the way!), but it will get there eventually.

Of my published books so far, Holy Horror was the most fun to write.  It wasn’t intended as an academic book, but without an internet platform you won’t get an agent, so academic it is.  It’s quite readable, believe me.  I sometimes felt like Victor Frankenstein in the process.  Pulling bits and pieces from here and there, sewing them together with personal experience and many hours watching movies in the dark, it was horrorshow, if you’ll pardon my Nadsat.  We’re all droogs, here, right?  I do hope Holy Horror gets published this year.  Frankenstein hit the shelves two centuries ago in 1818.  Horror has been maturing ever since.  So, there’s been a delay.  Frankenstein wasn’t stitched up in a day, as they say.  And like that creature, once the creator is done with it, she or he loses control.  It takes on a life of its own.  We’ll have to wait to see what’s lurking in the darkening days ahead.