Story of Frankenstein's monster still popular 200 years later
"It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils . . . the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open."
— Victor Frankenstein
Building A Monster From Human Body Parts
On a similar summer night in 1816, 18-year-old Mary Shelley lay in bed. It was a gloomy season darkened by the ash of a distant volcano. She closed her eyes, and thought up a tale of a madman who builds a monster from human body parts.
"My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me," she recalled later.
Her tale would become "Frankenstein," the Gothic horror story of man's messy attempt at creating life. And this summer marks the 200th anniversary of the night the young English intellectual came up with the idea while on vacation with her lover in Switzerland.
"Frankenstein" Never Out Of Print
"It's always been enormously popular," said Bernard Welt. Welt is a former professor of arts and humanities at George Washington University's Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. He has taught courses on Frankenstein.
"It's one of the two or three most-ordered texts at American colleges and universities," and has never been out of print, he said.
"A Wet, Ungenial Summer"
Shelley wrote later that it was "a wet, ungenial summer." She said that constant rain often kept them in the house for days.
A year earlier, in April 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, erupted in a massive explosion. The volcano blasted ash into the atmosphere and resulted in a "volcanic winter."
Partly as a result, 1816 became the "Year Without a Summer." There were unusually cold temperatures in North America. Cold and rain spread in a Europe recovering from the Napoleonic Wars.
Crops failed, and there was frost in the summer and people starving. "There's a lot of evidence that there were messianic cults and prophesies, and people thinking it was the end of the world," Welt said.
Ghost Story Competition
During the dismal weather, Shelley and her future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, passed the time with poet George Gordon Byron and Byron's physician, John William Polidori. They competed to see who could make up the best ghost stories.
"I busied myself to think of a story," she wrote years later. "One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look around."
Then one night in bed, after a discussion with her friends about the nature of life and the possibility of reanimating the dead, a story came to her.
It was a disturbing thought, but the next morning she told her friends she had her story, and wrote a quick draft.
"A Kind Of Genius"
"Mary Shelley has a kind of genius," Welt said. "She actually takes on the burning, philosophical questions of her time . . ."
"She and her circle were very, very interested in everything going on in science at the time," he said. "She talks about the experiments in electricity and the notion that it could animate lifeless matter."
Mary Shelley wondered, "Perhaps a corpse could be re-animated . . ." Perhaps the separate parts of a creature can be gathered, brought together and made alive again.
Shelley referred to "galvanism." This idea, which was named for the Italian biologist Luigi Galvani, is that an electric current might bring dead tissue back to life.
Galvanism Demonstration Applies Electric Current To Dead Body
A famous demonstration had occurred in 1803 when a current was applied to the body of a hanged criminal.
According to a prison bulletin, when the current was first applied, the jaws of the dead criminal moved. Muscles in his face twisted and one of his eyes opened. His right hand clenched, and his legs moved.
"Bystanders thought that the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life," the account continued.
Inspired, Mary Shelley would have her main character, Victor Frankenstein, say:
"Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave?"
Frankenstein gets his "materials" or body parts for the creature from "the dissecting room and the slaughter-house."
The novel was published in 1818, and Shelley's idea has endured for two centuries as one of Western literature's great horror tales.
It also gave birth to films such as "Son of Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein," "House," "Curse," "Evil," "Ghost" and "Revenge of Frankenstein."
Shelley Liked The "Hideous" Monster She Created
In the introduction to an 1831 edition of the book, Shelley wrote that she liked the "hideous" monster she created.
"It was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart," she wrote.
Nine years earlier, in 1822, her husband had drowned when a boat he was in sank in a storm in Italy's Gulf of La Spezia. He was 29 years old. She was 24.
The pages of "Frankenstein," she wrote, reminded her "of many a walk, many a drive and many a conversation when I was not alone."