Dear Readers and Gothic Horror Fiction/Film Lovers,
Many writers, especially in their earliest works, will create one or more characters like themselves. Admittedly, all four of my detectives have at least one of my traits. Here are some my head detective, Lanyon “Lanny” Wyatt, and I share; and, yes, there is a Gothic horror tie in.
Lanny and I love classic movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He and I are also enthralled with nineteenth century British fiction. His hero is Sherlock Holmes. Mine are many from that era–in particular, the authors who wrote Gothic Horror fiction and Gothic Romantic literature. One such novelist was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.
I find it interesting that for her novel–and for all film and play spin-offs–Mary Shelley created her characters with mere pen and paper. But her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, created his “character,” a monster, by stitching together parts of cadavers from questionable sources, infusing it with the creator’s own evil tendencies!
The novel is a masterpiece of bleak themes, namely, dangerous knowledge, creator/creation relationship, abuse, prejudice, rejection, lack of family identity, abandonment, loneliness, isolation, futility, and revenge. (Don’t read it while depressed!) It spotlights how the monster–or anyone!–possessing humanity, goodness, intellect, and sensitivity, can become violent when refused sympathy and companionship. As a result, even the monster’s vilest actions have evoked pity and sadness in many readers and moviegoers. (Kids, this is what literary people call “pathos.”) The scintillating story plot and memorable characters became grist for the Hollywood film-making mill in the 1930s and ’40s.
In honor of Mary Shelley, the Frankenstein novel, Universal Pictures’ films of the work, and the month of October–all of which for some conjure up images of deepening twilight, jack-o’-lanterns, and graveyards–here is some interesting trivia related to Frankenstein:
Mary Shelley (1797-1851) wrote Frankenstein in 1816 when she was eighteen years old. It was publishing anonymously in 1818 when she was twenty, not least out of concern that she might lose custody of her children. No one could have imagined that a woman had written such a work. Indeed, many thought that Percy Shelley had written the book, especially since he had written the preface. Today, scholars believe Mary Shelley wrote it.
Critics bashed the book when it first came out in 1818, calling it “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity” (John Croker, conservative member of Parliament). But Gothic fiction was popular, so the novel quickly gained a wide readership. A revised version was published in 1831 with Mary Shelley’s name on it. In the introduction, she downplayed her role, saying she had merely written a transcript of her dream, perhaps “to avoid the scandal of her own brain” (Lepore).
In 2018, M.I.T. Press, with leaders from the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at Arizona State University, published an edition of the original text, annotating it for “scientists, engineers, and creators of all kind.” It was funded by the National Science Foundation as a cautionary guideline for designers of robots and artificial intelligence: “Scientists’ responsibility must be engaged before their creations are unleashed” (Lepore).
But Frankenstein was original and revolutionary, considered the first major science fiction novel. The author is also credited with inventing the concept of the “mad scientist” and what would become horror fiction.
Mary Shelley wrote the novel on a dare from her fiance, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, their mutual friend, another poet, Lord Byron, and the physician John Polidori. In June 1816, the group was housebound for three days in Cologny, Switzerland, near Lake Geneva at the Villa Diodati due to stormy weather. To stave off boredom, they sat before the fire reading ghost stories from the book Fantasmagoriana. Byron suggested they have a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Try as she might, Mary Shelley experienced writer’s block. Then . . . an idea came to her in “a waking dream” in which she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” Needless to say, she won. (For his story, Polidori wrote The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story, which later influenced Bram Stoker to write Dracula.)
The book’s settings are Switzerland, England, Scotland, an island in the Orkneys, and the North Pole.
Mary Shelley’s literary ambitions and free lifestyle were ignited by the work and reputation of her unconventional mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin), who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. She died when Mary was only eleven days old. Another tragedy could have influenced the author. Before starting Frankenstein, her baby daughter Clara had died at the age of six weeks. She often dreamed that she and Percy brought the infant back to life by rubbing warmth into its body in front of the fire.
Another influence on Mary Shelley might have been from the experiments of Luigi Galvani, which were “concerned with the destructive nature of power when allied with wealth.” In addition, the Shelleys had visited the real Castle Frankenstein on a trip to Germany. An alchemist named Konrad Dippel used to live there. He had tried to create an elixir to make people live for over a hundred years.
The author often echoes John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, of which the monster was well read. The creature identifies strongly with the poem’s Satan, who felt abandoned and desirous of revenge. The book’s monster is also well-spoken: “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.” And “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel . . . ” The monster remained unnamed in the novel, often referred to as “monster,” “creature,” “demon,” and “it.” Over time, the name “Frankenstein” came to apply not only to its creator but to the monster itself. (See the movie from 1948, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.) Even Mary Shelley had no other name for her creation.
On March 18, 1910, Thomas Edison released his fifteen-minute film of Frankenstein, one of the first horror movies ever made. Thought lost, the film was rediscovered in the 1950s. (Catch it on YouTube!)
Between 1931 and 1943, Universal Pictures Hollywood made five Frankenstein movies. English actor Boris Karloff (1887-1969) starred as the monster in the first three Frankenstein movies (1931, 1935, and 1939) after making eighty other films. He is still recognized as one of the true icons of horror films.
Boris Karloff’s real name was Sir William Henry Pratt, the youngest of nine children. He and his family were members of British aristocracy, but he left all of that behind to become an actor in America. He took many jobs in Canada and California to make a living before becoming a famous actor, namely, farm laborer and plaster bag carrier. He overcame his childhood stuttering but not his lisp or bow-legs, the latter two evident in many of his films, including the Frankenstein movies.
His mother, Eliza Sarah Millard Pratt, had some East Indian ancestry, which gave Karloff his relatively dark complexion. That made him stand out in British society at the time. Karloff’s maternal grandaunt was Anna Leonowens, who wrote about her life as a governess in the royal court of Siam (Thailand). Her tales became the basis for the musical The King and I and the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon.
On the day his only child, a daughter named Sara, was born, Karloff was filming Son of Frankenstein. He reportedly rushed from the Universal Pictures’ set to the hospital wearing his bulky Frankenstein’s monster costume and full makeup. Sara was born on November 23, 1938–her father’s 51st birthday! He said at the time of her birth that Sara was the best and most expensive birthday present he ever received. His monster shoes weighed eleven pounds each and were four-inch platform boots, making his 5’11” height look even more formidable.
Despite playing such a fearsome character as the monster (he also played Imhotep in The Mummy in 1932), Karloff was really a kind, charming gentleman whose favorite pastime was growing roses in his backyard. The actor was often listed in his Universal movie credits only as “Karloff” because he was so famous and inimitable.
Karloff narrated and was the voice of the Grinch in the cartoon television special of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). He has two stars on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame”–one for movies and one for television.
When asked about being typecast as a monster, Karloff is quoted as saying, “My dear old monster. I owe everything to him. He’s my best friend.” He died in 1969 at the age of 81 from complications of emphysema after years of smoking. His net worth was estimated at $20 million (by 2019 standards).
Sources: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; mentalfloss.com; “Mary Shelley,” “Boris Karloff,” and “Frankenstein,” from Wikipedia; Biography.com; IMDb.com; and, The New Yorker, “The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein,'” by Jill Lepore, February 5, 2018 .
So get a clue, Readers. Which famous character of horror literature and movies said, “Listen to them–the children of the night. What music they make!”? Come back next time for the chilling answer.