“What is it with you and ‘Frankenstein’?”
A colleague at the Sonoma Index-Tribune, the newspaper I write for (well, one of the paper’s I write for) asked me that question a few months ago, gesturing to the framed poster of James Whale’s 1933 movie version of ‘Frankenstein,’ which used to hang on the wall of my office. (We’ve since moved to cubicles; no wall space; no ‘Frankenstein’ poster). Of course, my colleague’s question extended beyond just the poster, encompassing all of the other various Frankenstein kitsch that (still) occupies corners of my desk: collectible Frankenstein figures, wind-up Frankenstein toys, things like that.
“It’s not ‘Frankenstein’ that I’m interested in, exactly,” I replied. “It’s actually ‘Frankenstein’s’ author … Mary Shelley. Her life was pretty astonishing. And really, really strange.”
That, of course, is absolutely true. As I’ve gleefully argued many times. The story of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) is every bit as interesting, and as controversial, as the famous novel she published in 1818. Probably more so.
I was 16 the first time I read ‘Frankenstein.’
It was a high school English assignment. I’d seen the Boris Karloff film, of course, late night on L.A.’s ‘Seymore’s Monster Party” T.V. show. So when I opened the book, what I was expecting was something like that movie: scary, weird and a little bit dumb. What I did not expect was a dense, convoluted, highly philosophical story that was, frankly, a little over my head at times. It was not an easy read, even for me, a kid whose appetite for reading was so pervasive that by the end of the 6th Grade, the local library granted me special permission to begin choosing books not in the Juvenile Section, since I’d already read all of them, and was interested in expanding to more “adult material” like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “2002: A Space Odyssey,” and “The Egg and I” (the first book I checked out from the grown-up section). Despite my expanded vocabulary and reading comprehension, ‘Frankenstein’ was a challenge.
What kept me pushing ahead with it, returning to my original thread, was a single sentence my teacher uttered when assigning the book to the class (I can’t recall the teacher’s name after all these years—only his face, which ironically enough resembled Herman Munster).
“‘Frankenstein,’ published in London in 1818, is arguably the most influential horror novel ever written,” he said, adding (and here’s the part that got me), “which is rather remarkable considering that it was written by a teenage girl.”
What? A teenager wrote ‘Frankenstein’? Awesome. So I read it. And then I didn’t think much about it for the next 15 years or so. It was while watching a late night television airing of ‘The Bride‘ (the 1985 flop in which musician Sting played Dr. Frankenstein and character actor Clancy Brown played the Creature), that an idea occurred to me that would never leave. As I watched the movie, I began to ponder the stitches that held the various body parts of the Creature together. He was built, of course, from the severed pieces of who-knows-how-many corpses. So I started wondering . . . who were those people? What were THEIR stories? In my mind, I began to form the idea of a movie, or a book, or a play, or a puppet show (I was, and still am, very enthused about the potential of puppetry), in which the back-stories of the Frankenstein creature were finally told. I knew it was a really GOOD idea.
But I forgot it immediately.
Another fifteen years went by, and one afternoon, by which time I’d been a newspaper journalist for over two decades, I found myself sitting down with a publisher of horror books at Graffiti Restaurant in Petaluma. The Publisher, Ross Lockhart, is a pretty remarkable writer himself, and I’d interviewed him a few times before that. At the time of the interview in question, he’d recently started a boutique publishing house called Word Horde Books. The label is devoted to horror, fantasy and science fiction works.
At that point in my own career, in addition to writing articles for papers and magazines, I’d written a number of plays, and the last two had been directed by North Bay actor-director Sheri Lee Miller. One of the pieces we’d worked on together was my own one-man-show ‘Wretch Like Me.’ During that process, I started wondering what kind of one-person-shows Sheri—a pretty sensational actor in addition to being a stellar theater director—might be good for. I decided I wanted to write her a show. After a while, I remembered ‘Frankenstein,’ recalled that it was written by a young woman, and thought maybe there’d be some merit in writing a solo show in which a female actor told the story of ‘Frankenstein,’ playing all the parts herself.
As I sat there talking with Ross, we began riffing about the greatest horror stories of all time, and I suddenly remembered that solo-show idea, along with my long forgotten creature-in-pieces concept. I casually mentioned it to Ross, whose mental wheels apparently started turning. After returning from Scotland, where I performed my ‘Wretch’ show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival—and reread ‘Frankenstein’ for the first time since high school—Ross reached out with a suggestion that I turn the theater idea, including with the creature-pieces idea, into a short novel. By then, he’d concocted the idea of publishing an anthology of stories inspired by ‘Frankenstein,’ and planned to reach out to some of the best up-and-coming horror writers currently publishing, to contribute their own original pieces. Ross invited me—who’d written thousands of articles and three plays, but no novels—to take a crack at authoring my ‘Frankenstein’ story … with hopes it would turn out well enough to include in the anthology.
SO … with this adrenaline-surging charge corresponding with a spate of between-jobs unemployment, I spent the next year crafting my novella. It sprung to life in ways that surprised me every bit as much as young Victor Frankenstein was surprised by his own gruesome handiwork. Early on in the process, I did a little research on Mary Shelley—and quickly realized that she was at least as interesting, if not more so, than the story of Frankenstein and his monster.
Her tragic relationship with poet Percy Shelley; the death of numerous children; her fraught relationship with her philosopher father; the mother she never knew; the early death of her husband, and the juicy fact that—after his body was cremated—she kept his heart for the rest of her life. It was all too good to be true. That’s when I realized that my book would have to be narrated, not just by a female voice, but by Mary Shelley herself.
Another other basic details fell quickly into place.
I decided that, in my story, Mary would have just died (as in real life, at the age of 53). She would awaken at her grave. She would begin to recall the story of her life, mysteriously compelled to tell it to the tombstones she is surrounded by. And eventually, that story would overlap with that of the Creature, and his desperate quest to be loved—or kill those who stand in his way.
And I also knew that, somehow . . . I would find a way to tell the backstory story of the Creature’s brain, blood, hands, and heart.
Eventually, shortly before beginning my new job at the Index-Tribune, I finished the book, which I had dubbed “Mary Shelley’s Body.”
Skipping to the end, Ross ultimately accepted ‘Mary Shelley’s Body,’ which he read on a plane on the way to a book convention, emailing me soon after to say that it was “a powerful emotional ride.” I assume he meant the book, not the plane flight. He may have even said he was in tears by the ending. He definitely let me know that my story would appear as part of the upcoming anthology he’d since decided to name ‘Eternal Frankenstein.’
Skipping to the present, the book will be released on October 9 of this year—just 14-months shy of the actual date ‘Frankenstein’ was originally published. I will be counting the days, not just because I’m excited to see my story delivered, trembling and tentative, into the hands of the world. But because, at the time of acceptance, I knew that the next 19 months would mark the 200 anniversaries of the night Mary had the dream that inspired the book (June 16, 1816), the day she completed the manuscript (March 7, 1817), and the day it was published (New Years Day, 1818).
I created this website as a way to have a little fun with the next several months, as I find ways to celebrate — in prose, poetry, song and film — the process that led to the creation of what my unmade English teacher called “the most influential horror novel ever written,” with the occasional note about the progress of ‘Eternal Frankenstein,” available this fall in fine bookstores near you.
Oh, and as for the original idea—writing a one-woman-show? I’m working on it. Plans are for it to be staged in the fall of 2017. It will also called “Mary Shelley’s Body.” Details to be announced soon.
So, back to the beginning of this post, when my colleague asked me, “What is it with you and ‘Frankenstein’?” there was a very complicated answer waiting for him.
In that moment, I kept it short.
“It’s not ‘Frankenstein’ that I’m interested in,” I replied, “so much as it’s ‘Frankenstein’s’ author . . . Mary Shelley.”
I hope you will locate the “follow” button, and continue to read upcoming posts as I move through the next several months and years of tracing Mary’s life, her bicentennial anniversaries, and bring my own twisted dreams and stories into trembling, tentative life.