During an interminable rainy spell that saw Lord Byron, his physician Dr. John Polidori, and married couple Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley fortressed inside a Swiss villa, the need for diversion and entertainment was large. But what to do? Rousing game of charades? Philosophical banter over cups of tea? Key party (oh come on, Byron was there; anything was possible)?
Instead, they shared scary tales and committed them to paper. During that short time, Dr. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, a claustrophobic tale of terror and insanity with the eternal Lord Ruthven based on Byron himself. Mary Shelley called upon her nightmares and created a truly unique monster.
Many are inclined to dismiss Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus as a trifling story, fodder for a series of future matinees and backdrop to furtively frotting teens in the dark. But it is so much more. Frankenstein is the initial canon blast, a heavyweight for fans of Gothic, science fiction, and monstery goodness everywhere. And it was written by an 18-year-old woman.
A prescient tale about humanity's hubris as it swaggered cocksure into the Industrial Age, Frankenstein also completely re-stitched our perception of monsters. Previous beasts in literature had shown us the esoteric and supernatural grostesqueries of the unknown or the Hell's humanoid hunters, but Mary Shelley had created something new: a monster of men, created by man.
Man is now the monster and is crushing nature. Nature was now the prey. It is from this point we encounter The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, far later, the cinematic world birthed the beloved Toxic Avenger (a reaction to environmental damage) and, to a lesser degree, Godzilla (Japan's acclimation to a post-atomic world). Stephen King examines these human monster archetypes in great detail in Danse Macabre.
As a quick aside, that Frankenstein sprung from fear and boredom shows the wellspring of creativity of which we are capable. True boredom is a gift. We don't have enough of it. Instead, we expend our energy on micro-commenting through a high tide of transient information. From boredom comes creativity and true innovation can come.
Previous monsters underscored our fear and ignorance of nature. Mary Shelley saw the truth: the greatest monster in the world is us.
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Amy Gray is a writer and photographer who is fascinated with art, literature, and the murky side of life. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her daughter.
Books mentioned in this post
Amy Gray is the author of How to Be a Vampire: A Fangs-On Guide for the Newly Undead