Was Mary Shelley the Most Influential Horror Author?


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San Shearon

As a writer of horror, and variations thereof, I am bound to answer the question, “What is horror?” Mandatory Midnight is my attempt at that answer. I was scarred by the genre first by cinema, when (at the age of two!), my family went to see Night of the Living Dead at the drive-in. And as a child there was a local Saturday night creature feature hosted by a disembodied head called Fright Night (long before the movie). The host was underlit by a dim light against a black backdrop. When the show started with its creepy music his head gave the impression it was floating there on your TV. He would say, “Oooo… welcome to Fright Night!” Scared the piss out of me as a five-year-old. It was always a double feature, and they broadcast all the Universal and classic Hammer Horror films. Christopher Lee as Dracula was my favorite. I remember the night Saturday Night Live premiered for the first time because Fright Night had ended. Let’s not talk about my mother letting me “fall asleep” on the couch, on which I could peep through squinty eyes all the monsters a lover of horror could want. The woman’s a saint.    

The first book of classic horror fiction I ever read was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and for a little boy it was a monumental task to overcome the Victorian language of the narrative style. Mostly, into my teens, I was a reader of horror film adaptations or the books they were based on, such as The Howling by Gary Brandner. However, the first work of classic horror fiction I ever fell in love with was Dracula by Bram Stoker, followed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde. But it’s Frankenstein we are concerned with here. While The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (first published in 1764) is regarded as the first gothic novel, which merged medievalism and terror to give us what would become horror, no other work of 19th Century literature was more impactful than Frankenstein.      

The 18th century saw the gradual development of Romanticism and the Gothic horror genre. It drew on the written and material heritage of the Late Middle Ages.  In fact the first edition of The Castle of Otranto was disguised as an actual medieval romance from Italy, discovered and republished by a fictitious translator. Once revealed as modern, many found it anachronistic, reactionary, or simply in poor taste but it proved immediately popular. Otranto inspired Vathek (1786) by William Beckford, A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1796) by Ann Radcliffe and The Monk (1797) by Matthew Lewis. A significant amount of horror fiction of this era was written by women and marketed towards a female audience, a typical scenario of the novels being a resourceful female menaced in a gloomy castle.

The Gothic tradition blossomed into the genre that modern readers today call horror literature in the 19th century. Influential works and characters that continue resonating in fiction and film today saw their genesis in the Brothers Grimm's "Hänsel und Gretel" (1812), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), John Polodori's "The Vampyre" (1819), Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820), Jane C. Loudon's The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827), Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Thomas Peckett Prest's Varney the Vampire (1847), Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Each of these works created an enduring icon of horror seen in later re-imaginings on the page, stage and screen.

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Mary Shelley had a tragic life from the beginning. Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died from infection shortly after giving birth to her. Shelley grew a close attachment to her father having never known her mother. Her father, William Godwin, hired a nurse briefly to care for her and her half sister before he ended up remarrying. Shelley's stepmother did not like the close bond she had with her father, which caused friction and Godwin to then favor his other two daughters and sons.

Her father was a famous author of the time and her education was of great importance, though not formal. Shelley grew up surrounded by her father's friends, writers and persons of political importance, that gathered often at the family home. This inspired her authorship at an early age. Shelley met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who later became her husband, at the age of sixteen while he was visiting with her father. Godwin did not agree with the relationship of his daughter to an older, married but separated man, so they fled to France along with her stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Later, Shelley gave birth and lost their first child. Over eight years she endured a similar pattern of pregnancy and loss, one hemorrhaging occurring until Percy placed her upon ice to cease the bleeding.

Mary and Percy's trip with Claire to visit her lover Lord Byron, in Geneva during the summer of 1816, began the friendship amongst the two couples in which Byron suggested they have a competition of writing the best ghost story. Historians suggest an affair occurred too, even that paternity of one Shelley child may have been a Byron. Mary was eighteen years old when she won the contest with her creation of Frankenstein.

Shelley was heavily influenced by both of her parents' works. Her father was famous for Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and her mother famous for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her father's novels also influenced her writing of Frankenstein. These novels included Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, St. Leon, and Fleetwood. All of these books were set in Switzerland, similar to the setting in Frankenstein. Some major themes of social affections and the renewal of life that appear in Shelley's novel stem from these works she had in her possession. Other literary influences that appear in Frankenstein are Pygmalion et Galatée by Mme de Genlis and Ovid with the use of an individual lacking intelligence and those individuals identifying the problems with society. Ovid also inspires the use of Prometheus in Shelley's title.

Percy and Byron's discussion on life and death surrounded many scientific geniuses of the time. They discussed ideas from Erasmus Darwin and the experiments from Luigi Galvani. Mary joined these conversations and the ideas of Darwin and Galvani were both present in her novel. The horrors of not being able to write a story for the contest and her hard life also influenced the themes within Frankenstein. The themes of loss, guilt, and the consequences of defying nature present in the novel all developed from Mary Shelley's own life. The loss of her mother, the relationship with her father, and the death of her first child created the monster and his separation from parental guidance. In a 1965 issue of The Journal of Religion and Health a psychologist proposed guilt stemmed from her not feeling good enough for Percy because of the loss of their child.

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
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The novel Frankenstein is written in epistolary form, documenting a fictional correspondence between Captain Robert Walton and his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. Walton is a failed writer and captain who sets out to explore the North Pole and expand his scientific knowledge in hopes of achieving fame. During the voyage, the crew spots a dog sled driven by a gigantic figure. A few hours later, the crew rescues a nearly frozen and emaciated man named Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein has been in pursuit of the gigantic man observed by Walton's crew. Frankenstein starts to recover from his exertion; he sees in Walton the same obsession that has destroyed him and recounts a story of his life's miseries to Walton as a warning. The recounted story serves as the frame for Frankenstein's narrative.

Victor begins by telling of his childhood. Born in Naples, Italy, into a wealthy Genevan family, Victor and his brothers, Ernest and William, all three being sons of Alphonse Frankenstein by the former Caroline Beaufort, are encouraged to seek a greater understanding of the world through chemistry. As a young boy, Victor is obsessed with studying outdated theories that focus on simulating natural wonders. When Victor is five years old, his parents adopt Elizabeth Lavenza, the orphaned daughter of an expropriated Italian nobleman, with whom Victor (allegedly) later falls in love. During this period, Victor's parents, Alphonse and Caroline, take in yet another orphan, Justine Moritz, who becomes William's nanny. 

Weeks before he leaves for the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, his mother dies of scarlet fever; Victor buries himself in his experiments to deal with the grief. At the university, he excels at chemistry and other sciences, soon developing a secret technique to impart life to non-living matter. Eventually, he undertakes the creation of a humanoid, but due to the difficulty in replicating the minute parts of the human body, Victor makes the Creature tall, about 8 feet (2.4 m) in height and proportionally large. Despite Victor's selecting its features as beautiful, upon animation the creature is instead hideous, with watery white eyes and yellow skin that barely conceals the muscles and blood vessels underneath. Repulsed by his work, Victor flees when it awakens. While wandering the streets, he meets his childhood friend, Henry Clerval, and takes Henry back to his apartment, fearful of Henry's reaction if he sees the monster. However, the Creature has escaped.

Victor falls ill from the experience and is nursed back to health by Henry. After a four-month recovery, he receives a letter from his father notifying him of the murder of his brother William. Upon arriving in Geneva, Victor sees the Creature near the crime scene and climbing a mountain, leading him to believe his creation is responsible. Justine Moritz, William's nanny, is convicted of the crime after William's locket, which had contained a miniature portrait of Caroline, is found in her pocket. Victor is helpless to stop her from being hanged, as he knows no one would believe his story.

Ravaged by grief and guilt, Victor retreats into the mountains. The Creature finds him and pleads for Victor to hear his tale.

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Intelligent and articulate, the Creature relates his first days of life, living alone in the wilderness and finding that people were afraid of and hated him due to his appearance, which led him to fear and hide from them. While living in an abandoned structure connected to a cottage, he grew fond of the poor family living there, and discreetly collected firewood for them. Secretly living among the family for months, the Creature learned to speak by listening to them and he taught himself to read after discovering a lost satchel of books in the woods. When he saw his reflection in a pool, he realized his physical appearance was hideous, and it terrified him as it terrifies normal humans. Nevertheless, he approached the family in hopes of becoming their friend. Initially he was able to befriend the blind father figure of the family, but the rest of them were frightened and they all fled their home, resulting in the Creature leaving, disappointed. He traveled to Victor's family estate using details from Victor's journal, murdered William, and framed Justine.

The Creature demands that Victor create a female companion like himself. He argues that as a living being, he has a right to happiness. The Creature promises that he and his mate will vanish into the South American wilderness, never to reappear, if Victor grants his request. Should Victor refuse his request, The Creature also threatens to kill Victor's remaining friends and loved ones and not stop until he completely ruins him.

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Fearing for his family, Victor reluctantly agrees. The Creature says he will watch over Victor's progress.

Clerval accompanies him to England, but they separate at Victor's insistence at Perth, Scotland. Victor suspects that the Creature is following him. Working on the female creature on the Orkney Islands, he is plagued by premonitions of disaster, such as the female hating the Creature or becoming more evil than him, but more particularly the two creatures might lead to the breeding of a race that could plague mankind. He tears apart the unfinished female creature after he sees the Creature, who had indeed followed Victor, watching through a window. The Creature later confronts and tries to threaten Victor into working again, but Victor is convinced that the Creature is evil and that its mate would be evil as well, and the pair would threaten all humanity. Victor destroys his work and the Creature vows that he will "be with [him] on [his] wedding night". Victor interprets this as a threat upon his life, believing that the Creature will kill him after he finally becomes happy. Victor sails out to sea to dispose of his instruments, falls asleep in the boat, is unable to return to shore because of changes in the winds, and ends up being blown to the Irish coast. When Victor lands in Ireland, he is soon imprisoned for Clerval's murder, as the Creature had strangled Clerval to death and left the corpse to be found where his creator had arrived, causing the latter to suffer another mental breakdown in prison. After being acquitted, Victor returns home with his father, who has restored to Elizabeth some of her father's fortune.

In Geneva, Victor is about to marry Elizabeth and prepares to fight the Creature to the death, arming himself with pistols and a dagger. The night following their wedding, Victor asks Elizabeth to stay in her room while he looks for "the fiend". While Victor searches the house and grounds, the Creature strangles Elizabeth to death. From the window, Victor sees the Creature, who tauntingly points at Elizabeth's corpse; Victor tries to shoot him, but the Creature escapes. After Victor gets back to Geneva, Victor's father, weakened by age and by the death of his precious Elizabeth, dies a few days later. Seeking revenge, Victor pursues the Creature to the North Pole, but collapses from exhaustion and hypothermia before he can find his quarry.

At the end of Victor's narrative, Captain Walton resumes the telling of the story, closing the frame around Victor's recounting. A few days after the Creature vanished, the ship becomes trapped in pack ice and multiple crewmen die in the cold, before the rest of Walton's crew insists on returning south once it is freed. Upon hearing and angered by the crew's pleas to their captain, Victor lectures them with a powerful speech: it is hardship, not comfort and easiness, that defines a glorious undertaking such as theirs; he urges them to be men, not cowards. The ship is freed and Walton, owing it to the will of his men, albeit regretfully, decides to return South. Victor, even though in very weak condition, states that he will go on by himself. He is adamant that the creature died.

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Victor dies shortly thereafter, telling Walton, with his last words, to seek "happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition". Walton discovers the Creature on his ship, mourning over Victor's body. The Creature tells Walton that Victor's death has not brought him peace; rather, his crimes have left him completely alone. The Creature vows to kill himself so that no others will ever know of his existence. Walton watches as the Creature drifts away on an ice raft that is soon "lost in darkness and distance", never to be seen again.


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