Catching up on the Classics - Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Publisher – Penguin Horror

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99

NB – this edition was part of a horror series (also including The Haunting of Hill House – all with he same introduction by series editor Guillermo Del Toro – there are many other editions available in range of formats and prices)

So…I admit this is my first time reading this…. allows time for you to gasp…my reading experiences have largely focused on books published now rather than the ones of the past.  Growing up I tried to read classics like Arthur C Clarke in my library as a teenage womble and really didn’t get grabbed.  It’s been a bit of a gap in my knowledge and one aim for this year is to try at least one older novel a month. So first up one of the founding stories of science fiction and horror which everyone knows…well that’s what I thought until I actually read it.

So as any movie will show Frankenstein works hard at crafting a monster making it alive where it bursts out of control wreaking havoc until pitchforks and fore bring it all down in a glorious climax.   And that is completely not how Shelley tells the tale. This is a story much larger and suitably epic look at how someone’s lack of hubris and unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions results in their tragic downfall.

The book has a lot of tales within tales and starts with the recently rescued Victor Frankenstein near the arctic circle explaining how he got here. Frankenstein as a young man haunted by the loss of his mother finds in his university the age of enlightenment clashing with the older alchemical texts, he self-learned with and this blend of the two leads him towards experimenting with the ability to create life itself. Placing himself away from his family, friends and even at times his classes his single-minded approach for the answer results one night in a creature being created that while on the one hand validates his months of effort also brings about himself a final realisation that he may have gone too far. He suffers what could only be described as a nervous breakdown while his creature now live has vanished.

The story moves on and it becomes clear that the Creature has decided Frankenstein and his family should be punished for his abandonment.  Death and deception create a web of lies that Frankenstein cannot get out of without confessing his role in them. Then we switch narration to the creature himself telling Frankenstein how he escaped the lab and what then caused him to fixate on Frankenstein’s destruction. This part of the novel involves his early attempts to find a place to live and how he grasped his understanding of the world and his place or not in it. The creature (naming himself Adam) progresses into understanding not just language but culture and geography; via handily dumped books in forests, but ultimately rejected by all due to a physical appearance that makes people run away or attack him.  This drives Adam to seek revenge from his creator and finally he demands that Frankenstein builds him a mate, so he can live a life like any other sentient being.  Frankenstein takes back the narrative in the final part of the story as he decides what is the best option and debates what possible consequences can Adam cause him if he refused?

What really surprised me was the story is much more interested in the consequences of Frankenstein’s decision to create life than the actual act of creation itself.  While the use of bodies in medical science is mentioned it’s not made clear how Adam was created and indeed Frankenstein tells us he won’t tell us in order to save ourselves from his fate. Rather than racing through graveyards there is however an examination of how scientific obsession can cut you off from the world and blind you to potential consequences. Frankenstein stops talking to people as he experiments and only when his friends search out for him can he start to recover from the breakdown and in staying with family does he start to see a possible life beyond the goals of new life.  Is this a message that his over-confidence (he’s not afraid even now of telling us how bright he is) meant he missed out on his life while pursuing creating an artificial one?  Ultimately Frankenstein’s decisions end up rebounding on those self-same loved ones in tragic ways even after he tries to rectify the issue for the greater good. Ultimately per Jeff Goldblum he was so focused on whether he could he never stop to tell someone if they should.

Responsibility is a theme.  Frankenstein runs once his creature is alive and that means his impressively strong and intelligent creation is left alone in the world.  Adam learns to speak and read by watching others and gets to an impressive level of logic and eloquence just imagine what Victor could have done if he’d stayed with the creature and the lab. But by leaving Adam to fend for himself in a world where the disfigured will always be turned away he creates a bitterness that ultimately results in a deadly game of revenge. Even Adam admits this revenge path was his own decision and one he belatedly takes responsibility for (way too late) even after studying history and morality he does not go after Frankenstein directly but quite innocent people out of pure malice.  Perhaps the reason we often mix these two characters names is that they are both equally flawed clever people too obsessed with their own aims rather than how they hurt others.

 I think one of the reasons this story has been so often retold and remade is that the vagueness of  how Adam was made means the book allows you to transplant the debates to any new science, act of progress to debate its responsibilities and consequences. There is always going to be a new piece of technology be it electricity, organ donation or gene splicing that means we are pushing the bounds of what is currently natural and rather than saying we shouldn’t do it the more interesting thought is that if you cannot take responsibility for your creations then you and all you care about may be hurt by them. 

Shelley’s style may be one of the harder bits to get used to.  The sentences go on and on very lyrically, so you must adapt to the rhythm, but she’s got a great sense of making scenes live.  Storms in the mountains or the arctic wastes and she can build tension as she hints that nasty events are about to happen. The greatest sense that I got was a theme of grief with Frankenstein haunted by the death of a parent in his youth that may have inspired his studies and later the deaths of those people hurt by Adam pushes an increasing sense of despair across the story.  It is a more thoughtful emotion driven horror story rather than many of the movie adaptations have made out with ultimately both Adam and Frankenstein end broken by their battles with one another rather than some set-piece battle with fireballs.

So, for a novel of a few hundred pages I think there is a huge amount of ideas and approaches to unpack and that I think is why we still reference it today. Frankenstein’s creature may be the more visual medium we have taken away in the adaptations, but the issues of progress and its consequences is a richer theme we have since seen many SF stories mine as the world progresses. That this comes from such a relatively young author and I think really holds up to a modern reader’s eyes is a huge testament to her brilliance.  One classic I can now wholeheartedly recommend!