Frankly Frankenstein

As a novel, like its monster, Frankenstein trespasses all kinds of boundaries. Is it science fiction or horror? Is it Gothic or presciently modern? Is it feminist or conventional? One thing about it is certain: it has been immensely influential. Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey have created for the world a truly wondrous treatment of this meme. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives is perhaps the most engaging monster book I’ve ever read (and there have been many). One of the main reasons for this is that Friedman and Kavey are keenly aware that binaries don’t necessarily exclude their opposites. Frankenstein is about both science and religion, and it treats both profoundly. Considering that Mary Shelley was only 21 when the novel was published bespeaks a rare genius in blurring boundaries and making those on each side think.

Monstrous Progeny considers multiple issues associated with Frankenstein. Should science be approached alone, or should peer review be involved at every stage? Is religion eschewed by this woman so strongly influenced by atheism, or is it the very crux of the matter? And what about the incredible and continuing afterlife of Shelley’s story? Friedman and Kavey survey not only the novel but several movies associated with, or based on ideas from, the book. Modern science, if we’re to be honest, also owes much to the fictional musings of a 19-year-old girl on a dark and stormy night. The tale of the tale is nearly as fantastic as its progeny. Challenged to write a ghost story, Shelley produced an undying Zeitgeist feature instead. Monstrous Progeny delves deeply into this unexpectedly profound idea, showing how it grips the heart of many contemporary nightmares.

Genres can be deceiving. Shelley wrote her tale as a “ghost story.” It received literary acclaim, becoming one of the best selling books in England in the nineteenth century. Only when Universal found success with Dracula in 1931 and followed it up with Frankenstein the same year did film critics want something to call movies like this. The term “horror film” was invented. There is certainly horror in Frankenstein, but there’s much more to it than that. The relationship between religion and science, and the very real ethical issue of making something because we can, are never far from the reader’s mind. Giving life to the creature only underscores the conflicts and contradictions of life in a world where to be gods risks destroying any possibility of heaven. Monstrous Progeny is a thought-provoking book that will, in its own way, brings our present fears to life.

Scary Pictures

monstershowThroughout its history, until quite recently, one of the most serious natural enemies to the horror movie was the religious establishment. At times this antagonism seems well placed as horror films often take theological concepts and stand them on their heads. Within the last few years, however, thinkers of religious thoughts have come to an uneasy accord with some horror movies as vehicles for the kind of thinking promoted by traditional religions. The first half of this dynamic appears clearly in David J. Skal’s The Monster Show. Written before any kind of detente had been reached, his book chronicles skirmishes between the Production Code, religious groups, and even women’s collectives, against what was considered indecent and degrading. We have come to realize, however, that we are the monsters. We are the degraded. And seeing these films can lead to a strange sort of solidarity.

Most classic monsters, after all, have their origins in religions. Even the most recent of the lasting undead—Frankenstein’s monster and zombies—have origins in religious thought. Mary Shelley’s novel was subtitled The New Prometheus, a reference that anyone in the early nineteenth century would have understood. Zombies, on the other hand, are a product of vodou. Religion can’t get along very well without its monsters, and despite their less-than-stellar looks, their screen appeal is undeniable. Maybe it’s just we don’t like our dirty liturgical laundry being hung out where anyone might see it.

Skal’s treatment doesn’t stop at the cinema. He has a chapter on modern vampires, and Stephen King has earned his own chapter (or at least most of one) as the poet laureate of the novelistic form of the genre. More often than religion, Skal traces what’s happening in the monster world to the larger social issues of the day. Quite rightly so, as scary movies go nowhere without a receptive viewership. Looking around these days it’s easy to be scared. Even what was once a grand occasion of debate over higher principles as we ponder our next leader has become a farce in one of the parties that could make its own horror movie. Hitler, it is said, was a huge fan of King Kong. Large apes manhandling women never seem to go out of style. Some call it horror. Others try to get away with saying it’s politics. While the daily commute grows more and more dangerous, and the rhetoric grows even worse, is it any wonder we like to dim down the lights and watch monsters that we know really can’t get us at all?

Nightmares

I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters. Could there be any more statement of the obvious? The deeper issue, however, is why. Why am I, among countless others, drawn to the monster? This may not be politically correct—I apologize in advance—but that which is unusual naturally draws our gaze. Humans, along with other conscious creatures, are curious. (There’s another trait that reductionism hasn’t adequately explained; we’d be far more secure sticking with what we already know works.) The out-of-the-ordinary will keep our attention although we’re told not to stare. The monster is defined as something that isn’t “normal.” We’re captivated. We stare. Indeed, we can’t look away.

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

The media play into this with their coverage of Trump. I realize I risk participating in that rude behavior by even addressing the topic, but as I hear intelligent people everywhere asking why Trump has captured the imagination I have to ask, have you seen the headlines? Newspapers that don’t endorse him run huge headlines when his name is in the news. It’s horrible, but I can’t look away. Historians scratch hoary heads and wonder how Hitler came to power. Populism combined with an undereducated population in a democracy may be an equation that political analysts should try to solve before it’s too late. Meanwhile, my thoughts turn to monsters. Ugly, large, and threatening, they rampage through my dreams and now my waking reality. I watched in horror as the electorate lined up behind Reagan. Bush, I told myself, was an aberration. Until the second time. Then I realized it was the summer of Frankenstein indeed.

From my youngest days I recall the antipathy that my classmates showed toward school. I didn’t mind school that much, or at least the learning part. Gym I could’ve done without. I never did get the socializing thing down. Feeling a bit like Frankenstein’s monster myself, I realized I was a pariah (that was a vocabulary word). When did monsters shift to being worthy of emulation? The monsters of my childhood were to be feared, and curious creatures will always keep an eye on that which causes fear and trembling. The media say we don’t want Trump but they give him all the air time he could wish and more. In headlines in massive, almost misshapen letters. They’ve expended their superlatives on what they tell us we shouldn’t see. They have, perhaps unwittingly, played into the very hand bitten by that which it feeds. I can’t help it. I’m staring.

Teaching Vampires

VampireLecturesWhat do you get when you cross German literature, psychology, and the undead? The Vampire Lectures, of course. Laurence A. Rickels, one gets the feeling, must be one interesting guy in the classroom. When I was a student the thought that anyone would take vampires seriously enough to offer college credit to study them was, well, a foreign concept. We all know that there’s no such thing as vampires, or werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monsters, or mummies—wait, mummies are real, but just not animated. In the reigning cultural paradigm, if something’s not real, it’s a waste of time. The human psyche, however, disagrees. The fact is there’s an awful lot of mental baggage that the vampire addresses. So much so that the University of California at Santa Barbara can offer a twenty-six lecture course on the topic. The results are what we have in this unusual book.

Rickels has read widely in the literature of the undead. The vampire’s share of the material goes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novel that defined, in many ways, the modern concept of vampires. The lectures do cover earlier and later literary representations, but when movies began to be made, they started with Stoker. One of the most interesting aspects of the lectures is the utter breadth of movies Rickels addresses. Movies that I’d never heard anyone else mention, let alone analyze, are here, alongside the more famous examples. It becomes clear that vampires have been a favorite of film-makers as well as readers. Culturally they are omnipresent. One gets the impression that Rickels might have an inkling of why we have this fascination, although his analysis is often Freudian, he does come back to the concept of mourning. Vampires (who would’ve guessed?) mask our unresolved sense of loss.

The style of The Vampire Lectures reflects the kind of literary criticism that isn’t always easy to follow. The book has more puns per hour than any other academic title I’ve ever read. Perhaps such serious topics as loss, parental relationships, and sexuality require a good dose of humor to make them less overwhelming. Still, the puns show the shifting nature of the ground beneath your feet when you try to take a topic like this seriously. Not surprisingly, Rickels does spent some time reflecting on the religious nature of vampires. There’s no question that monsters trespass on—or maybe even arise from—sacred precincts. They also occupy similar mental spaces. Perhaps it’s no surprise that as the number of nones grows so do the fans of monsterdom. We need an outlet for our surfeit of fear and loss. Come to think of it, perhaps I need to take a class in this as well.

Dark and Stormy Night

LadyAndHerMonstersI miss my monsters, especially when I stay away too long. I had eyeballed Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece nearly a year ago in a busy Port Authority bookshop, and wanted to curl up with it right away. Well, work and the world intervened, but finally I found time for the beast. Although a member of the monster kid generation, as a child I never felt much kinship with Frankenstein’s creation. I think it is because there was so much human intention involved in his origins. Almost ungodly. Too godly. Vampires and werewolves, and even mummies, seemed to have come up on the wrong side of a curse and couldn’t be blamed for being what they were. Frankenstein’s monster had a willful, if neglectful, creator. A human being, and fully so. There was, it seemed, some kind of blasphemy at work here.

Montillo’s book, however, gives me pause to rethink this. I had never realized, foe example, that Shelley’s book unfolds over nine months, and that Mary Godwin Shelley had suffered as her own fate unfolded—or unraveled—after Percy Shelley’s death. Nor had I stopped to consider that in the lifetime of these young lovers scientists and poets were overlapping careers with philosophy holding them together. I also hadn’t realized that Percy Shelley also shared his beau’s enchantment with the fantastic. But Montillo gives us so much more, wandering through the seedy world of body-snatchers and scientists who experimented on the dead, often with an eye toward a secular resurrection.

Frankenstein’s monster has, of course, become an instantly recognizable fixture in our society. Indeed, it is almost the definition of monstrosity: the ultimate mischwesen while being technically only one species. A creature that crosses boundaries and is both dead and alive, a miracle and a curse, innocent and evil. Morillo places this creature in the context of a world where galvanism was thought to bring life and medical schools scrambled to find corpses to dissect and on which to experiment. A world where the Shelleys would visit Lord Byron and Polidori, literally on a stormy night, and give the world both Frankenstein and the prototype of Dracula. Where the three men of that night all died prematurely and tragically, survived by a struggling Mary who lived only to fifty-three and who gave the world one of its most memorable nightmares. Horror fiction was, and is, considered lowbrow entertainment, but there is something profound here. And we are richer, if more unsettled, for having it.

War in Heaven

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Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”

It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.

The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.

Making a Monster

I was maybe six or seven when Frankenstein’s monster charged us. My mother, brothers, and I were part of a small crowd at Niagara Falls, where we had gone to visit relatives, when we found ourselves in the monster’s path. We were among of a knot of tourists, and plate glass separated us from the great roaring beast, posted to draw visitors to one of the many plastic tourist attractions around the famous falls. Each time the monster charged, we all screamed, knowing full well he could never break through that glass. As a member of the Monster Boomer generation (although on the tail end of the boomer part), the monster that disturbed me the most has always been Frankenstein’s monster. I’m not sure whether that was natural squeamishness, or if it was that as children my brothers and I tried to divide things up evenly and I ended up with the vampire while one of my brothers claimed possession of “Frankenstein.” Certainly when I grew old enough to read the book, it only added to my discomfort. The concept of Frankenstein’s monster was old enough to have lost its scary edge, but the story was very sad. The monster was not evil, but lonely.

HitchcockFrank

Sarah Tyler Hitchcock’s Frankenstein: A Cultural History revealed a new angle on the monster. A thoroughly fascinating anthropological approach to one of the more modern constellations in the night-time sky of fear, what became immediately obvious in this book is just how religious a monster Frankenstein’s creature is. Many of us think of “playing God” as a recent phenomenon. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Shelley)’s Frankenstein was published in 1818 with just that concept in mind. Mary Shelley, barely twenty when the book was published, had tapped into one of the most vital of religious topics—what it means to make life. Hitchcock’s treatment of the subject covers the conception of the monster, the book and its history, the plays and movies based on the story, and Frankenstein’s monster’s reception into popular culture. At every step of the way, religious issues are raised. Mary, in her birth of an immaculate creature, gave the world theological conundrums through which we’re still sorting nearly two centuries later.

Often on this blog I maintain that monsters and religion are cut from the same cloth. Hitchcock provides a compendium of supporting evidence in her compelling book. Even down to the contemporary debates of scientists over genetic engineering and cloning, the story of Frankenstein and the overstepping of ethical boundaries comes up again and again in scientific literature. I couldn’t help but to think how this reflects the current acrimony between the materialists and the dualists among the intelligentsia: is the forging ahead with manipulation of life simply an experiment we must undertake or is it really an ethical (read “spiritual”) issue after all? Mary Shelley was not so strident as her erstwhile husband Percy was regarding the necessity of atheism. Her monster seemed to be raising that question in terms profoundly theological for a girl not yet of seminary age. Sarah Tyler Hitchcock has done us a great favor by producing a history that stitches religion, culture, and science together into a beast that we still haven’t learned to control.