Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Teenage Mary's Monster

"Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed." (The daemon to his creator, Victor Frankenstein)

Far from being the grunting, shambling Hollywood thing, Mary Shelley's monster was looming, eloquent, agile, fleet and sensitive - godlike, if hugely hideous.

The Demon! He is a demon, you know, he is not a man. (Arthur Rimbaud, "A Season in Hell")

Recently I re-read Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818) for the first time in 40 years, since I was an art student, self-educating in horror stuff: comic books, monster movies, monster movie magazines, pulps, etc. 

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was sixteen when she ran off with a married man, Percy Shelley (poet, atheist, free-love advocate and family friend), he ditching his wife, Harriet, who eventually did the Ophelia bit whilst preggers, freeing the literary lovebirds to wed.

Mary was the child of William Godwin (anarchist, philosopher, writer, atheist) and Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of "Vindication of the Rights of Women" (1792). She was either a proto-feminist or the first feminist, depending on what you read.

Due to complications of childbirth, Mother Mary died several days after giving birth to Daughter Mary, this e'er a cloud hanging o'er Mary's oft troubled brow.

The Godwin's circle of fellow radicals included William Blake and Thomas Paine. 

Young Mary was a voracious reader, and still a teenager when she set pen to paper, creating "Frankenstein," a best-seller that's remained in print for nearly two centuries.

Besides being a Gothic novel, some, including Brian Aldiss, claim "Frankenstein" as the first science fiction novel. 

Regardless of label, the novel's strong suit is the monster. His outsider status adds needed depth. Ironically the daemon is the only human element amidst a pond of flatly noble sorts, articulate in his emotions and actions. It's his alienated narrative (a tale within a tale within a tale) that brings the book to life, with a bolt. He tries, again and again, to approach mankind as a friend. But a bullet to his shoulder, his reward for saving a little girl's life, is the final straw, sends him on his murderous mission to make Victor's existence as miserable as his own, even killing the scientist's bride on their wedding night, making Herr Frankenstein not only grief stricken, but, one safely assumes, frustrated in virgin status. So close to consummation - only to have the rug yanked out! Alas and alack! Ha ha!

The version I read, the revised 1831 text, is from the Barnes & Noble Classics series. For $7.95, a sturdy and relatively handsome hardcover (made in the USA, allegedly) with a scholarly introduction by Karen Karbiener, as well as footnotes, etc. to aid readers re a variety of influences and references, not the least of which is Milton's "Paradise Lost."

"Frankenstein" has been given the movie treatment too many times for me to catalog, from the Karloff's versions, that easily remain the most iconic; to Hammer's stylish "The Curse of Frankenstein" starring Christopher Lee as the monster; to American International's 1957 low-rent trash-classic "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," et al. 

A lot of people have made a lot of money from "Frankenstein." Never underestimate a teenage girl's fervid vision.