Beyond Frankenstein: The Woman and Scientific Theory Behind the Creature
Guess who hit the big 2-0-0 this year? That’s right, it’s Frank! Frankenstein was first published in 1818 and even after two centuries it’s still at the forefront of literature (plus movies, television, and Halloween). Of course, it’s Mary Shelley who deserves the credit for this one, even if she is sometimes a bit overshadowed by the big guy with the bolts. In honor of the Frankenstein bicentennial and Mary Shelley’s amazing accomplishment, we’ve compiled a list of supplemental works that deal with the actual science that helped inspire Frankenstein and/or put Mary in the limelight.
Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
By Kathryn Harkup
“The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science fiction genres. The name Frankenstein has become part of our everyday language, often used in derogatory terms to describe scientists who have overstepped a perceived moral line. But how did a 19-year-old woman with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein? The period of 1790–1820 saw huge advances in our understanding of electricity and physiology. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, and newspapers were full of tales of murderers and resurrectionists.” (Amazon)
So, for argument’s sake (and just for argument’s sake) if one, in theory, were to, say, try to recreate the experiments of Victor Frankenstein (but only in theory, obviously), how would one go about doing it? This book goes through piece by piece to explore what methods Victor might have used to build the creature and also delves into the life of Mary Shelley. Even though this book is very thorough, we certainly have no plans to give the experiment at try ourselves.
In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein
By Fiona Sampson
“We know the facts of Mary Shelley’s life in some detail―the death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, within days of her birth; the upbringing in the house of her father, William Godwin, in a house full of radical thinkers, poets, philosophers, and writers; her elopement, at the age of seventeen, with Percy Shelley; the years of peripatetic travel across Europe that followed. But there has been no literary biography written this century, and previous books have ignored the real person―what she actually thought and felt and why she did what she did―despite the fact that Mary and her group of second-generation Romantics were extremely interested in the psychological aspect of life.
In this probing narrative, Fiona Sampson pursues Mary Shelley through her turbulent life, much as Victor Frankenstein tracked his monster across the arctic wastes. Sampson has written a book that finally answers the question of how it was that a nineteen-year-old came to write a novel so dark, mysterious, anguished, and psychologically astute that it continues to resonate two centuries later. No previous biographer has ever truly considered this question, let alone answered it.” (Amazon)
Here’s a biography that is more focused on Mary herself, rather than Frankenstein, and sets out to explore what made her tick. If you’re looking to learn more about the author without the creature looming quite so much, here’s one to add to the pile.
The New Annotated Frankenstein
By Mary Shelley & Leslie S. Klinger
“Featuring over 200 illustrations and nearly 1,000 annotations, this sumptuous volume recaptures Shelley’s early nineteenth-century world with historical precision and imaginative breadth, tracing the social and political roots of the author’s revolutionary brand of Romanticism. Braiding together decades of scholarship with his own keen insights, Klinger recounts Frankenstein’s indelible contributions to the realms of science fiction, feminist theory, and modern intellectual history―not to mention film history and popular culture. The result of Klinger’s exhaustive research is a multifaceted portrait of one of Western literature’s most divinely gifted prodigies, a young novelist who defied her era’s restrictions on female ambitions by independently supporting herself and her children as a writer and editor.” (Amazon)
If you’re looking for a biography of Mary Shelley placed side-by-side with her most famous work, plus more about Frankenstein through the ages, this is definitely something to add to the wish list. This is the latest of Klinger’s annotated editions, including his three volume Sherlock Holmes set, Dracula, and H.P. Lovecraft. It’s about time Mary and her creation had their turn and, finally, here it is. And, as if that weren’t enough, it includes an introduction by Guillermo del Toro.
Dir. Ken Russell
Here we have a very fanciful re-imagining of the infamous night at the Villa Diodati by Ken Russell. If you’re familiar with Russell’s work, you have some idea of what kind of madness to expect. If you’re not, one of his other major contributions to cinema, The Devils (1971), was banned in several countries, and controversial scenes are still missing from the version floating around today. Gothic doesn’t quite hit the level of The Devils, but it’s still a head trip. Mary, Percy, Byron, Claire and Polidori gather together at the villa and, after spooking themselves with stories and a séance, they each begin to seriously trip out in the worst ways possible, with ghosts, graphic blood orgies, vampirism, and general madness.
Raising the Dead: The Men Who Created Frankenstein
By Andy Dougan
“Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, introduced readers around the world to the concept of raising the dead through scientific procedures. Those who read the book were thrilled by this incredible Gothic adventure. Few, however, realized that Shelley’s story had a basis in fact. What she imagined as her modern Prometheus was a serious pursuit for some of the greatest minds of the early 19th century. It was a time when scientists genuinely believed, as Frankenstein did, that they could know what it feels like to be God. Raising the Dead is the story of the science of galvanism.” (Amazon)
If it weren’t for that fateful ZAP, we might be talking about an entirely different book. Going in a slightly different direction than the other items on our list, this book focuses on the history of galvanism, which is definitely a field of interest for any fan of Frankenstein. (For informational purposes only, of course.)
Frankenstein: How A Monster Became an Icon: The Science and Enduring Allure of Mary Shelley’s Creation
By Sidney Perkowitz and Eddy von Mueller
“The tale of a tormented creature created in a laboratory began on a rainy night in 1816 in the imagination of a nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, newly married to the celebrated Romantic poet Percy Shelley. Since its publication two years later, in 1818, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus has spread around the globe through every possible medium and variation. Frankenstein has not been out of print once in 200 years. It has appeared in hundreds of editions, perhaps more than any other novel. It has inspired a multitude of stage and screen adaptations, the latest appearing just last year. “Frankenstein” has become an indelible part of popular culture, and is shorthand for anything bizarre and human-made; for instance, genetically modified crops are “Frankenfood.”
Conversely, Frankenstein’s monster has also become a benign Halloween favorite. Yet for all its long history, Frankenstein‘s central premise―that science, not magic or God, can create a living being, and thus these creators must answer for their actions as humans, not Gods―is most relevant today as scientists approach creating synthetic life.
In its popular and cultural weight and its expression of the ethical issues raised by the advance of science, physicist Sidney Perkowitz and film expert Eddy von Muller have brought together scholars and scientists, artists and directors―including Mel Brooks―to celebrate and examine Mary Shelley’s marvelous creation and its legacy as the monster moves into his next century.” (Amazon)
This collection of essays, compiled and edited by a physicist and a filmmaker, focuses more on the modern implications of Frankenstein and includes an essay entitled “What Would Mary Shelley Say Today?” that muses on how modern science might have impacted Mary’s work if she were alive in this day and age.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Dir. James Whale
Bride of Frankenstein is a bit of an outlier from the rest of this list, but it still deserves to be included. Not only is it an all-time classic, but Mary herself features in the prologue. We don’t typically trade in spoilers around here, but, without giving the lesser known surprises of the movie away, the final reveal of the Bride herself (at the time her “identity” was a big mystery) brings us back to the beginning in a fascinating twist; both The Bride and Mary are played by Elsa Lanchester. We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about what that implies.