How would you write about the Frankenstein monster?

A portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster, using p...Frankenstein Portrait Image via Wikipedia

Some literary themes never die, and one of them is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster. To think she was just a sweet 18 when she dreamt up this horror! It's been visited many times and most recently by  Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in London this spring. But what I wanted to talk about was Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein that I just finished. I found it a very interesting revisit of the Frankenstein theme, even though I can see Andrew Motion may have had some good reasons to bash it when it came out in 2008 (click here the UK Guardian).

But I think it is largely undeserved criticism. It is still a very good read and a remarkable reconstruction of a kind of gothic early 19th century English that puts you straignt into a dark, ghoulish mood. Peter Ackroyd has had te bright idea of setting up Victor Frankenstein as a real person and writing from his point of view.

He imagines Frankenstein as a mad scientist born in Switzerland and a personal friend of Shelley's. This is a bizarre man Shelley's wife Mary might have met. Ackroyd recounts the travels of the three with Byron to Lake Geneva in 1816. We are shown Victor Frankenstein, who is Swiss, acting as a guide for the group and leading them through a frightening storm on the lake and an ill-fated tour of a ghost-ridden castle. Ackroyd leaves us to surmise that these events inspired Mary Shelley to conceive her famous monster.

What I personally didn't like in this book is the way it slows down in the middle: one keeps expecting Victor Frankenstein's creature (a corpse he has electrified, natch) to somehow haunt our travellers through their trip in continental Europe, but that doesn't happen. Instead, we are offered insights into the complex relationship between Byron and Shelley, while Mary helplessly watches on the sideline. This is all very interesting, but a little too intellectual perhaps, and certainly not scary stuff. A bit of a letdown for horror fans!

Mind you, this kind of slowdown seems to happen to a lot of novels these days... oh woe to us, writers! It is so hard to keep up the pace through a book. In a perverse way, I would argue one could learn a lot from reading Ackroyd's book - I mean in terms of story-telling techniques and how to keep up the pace.

Speaking of story-telling: one might also have expected more about what is the true meaning of Shelley's Frankenstein story. Just glance at the article I listed below which pulls together the various meaning of Frankenstein for modern-day readers. Amazing! There are about a dozen different takes on what the monster means, from a warning on the dangers of failing to raise children properly to the dire consequences of circumventing maternity in the birth process (!). Add to this the surprising fact that I mentioned above: this terrifying monster - the greatest of all literature - was invented by an 18 year-old girl, living her first love with the poet of her dreams...Shelley must have been a hard man to live with!

And yes, another very important point: the summer of 1816 when Shelley and his wife Mary travelled to the continent with Byron was the time Europe was suddenly plunged in a terrifying climate change caused by the explosion of  Mount Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia. It was the biggest volcanic explosion ever: it sent stuff up 30 km in the atmosphere, changing the earth's climate for decades, plunging it in a cold wave that caused untold deaths in Europe from hunger, because there never was a summer that year. It rained incessantly and no crops grew in the unseasonal cold temperatures. There were extraordinary colours in the sky - unusually bright red and yellow sunsets - and those were the colours that inspired Turner. And the strange feeling of impending doom and masses of hunger-stricken individuals, dying left and right, both terrified and fascinated Mary Shelley, probably leading her to the creation of her Frankenstein.

Of course, if the volcano - and that ghastly "non-summer" of 1816 -  inspired Mary, then Ackroyd's novel is left with no legs to stand on. Which is perhaps why the strangeness of that summer is largely downplayed in the novel. And that I think is a real pity, it would have made his book so much more interesting...Which goes to show that if you're into historical stuff you better do your research very carefully! And why couldn't the turn in weather have affected both Victor Frankenstein in Ackroyd's novel and Mary Shelley in real life in the same way? That would have given the book an interesting twist!

Bottomline, Peter Ackroyd did a pretty good job revisiting the Frankenstein theme but there was perhaps space to do an even better job. Did you read Ackroyd's book? Did you like it?

Given half a chance (and the time!), how would you write about the Frankenstein monster?


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