Before there was Anne Rice, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, H.G. Wells and a wide variety of authors, science fiction and horror writers that make our imaginations run wild, there was 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
In the summer of 1816, Godwin traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, with her future husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their son William. Accompanying the young couple was Godwin’s step-sister Claire Clairmont.
In Geneva, the group stayed in the Montalègre, a chalet. While Clairmont’s ex and Romantic poet Lord Byron accompanied him, Dr. John Polidori, his physician, stayed at the not far away Villa Diodati.
Now let’s set the scene; this wasn’t an ordinary summer; this summer was called “The Year Without a Summer.” The British Library says, “The eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia in April 1815 sent clouds of volcanic ash billowing into the upper atmosphere. The sun was obscured; levels of rainfall increased and temperatures fell. The summer of the following year was thus dismal and damp,with low temperatures and torrential rain causing disastrous crop failures throughout North America, Europe and Asia.”
This gloomy weather created the perfect atmosphere for the group to stay indoors and tell each other ghost stories. Byron suggested a contest on who can write the best ghost story. This is where Godwin shined, inspired by galvanism, the Age of Enlightenment and a nightmare she had.
Godwin spun a story infused with Gothic horror and Romanticism, a cautionary tale of a scientist playing God and creating a new life just to end up abandoning it because he is scared of his creation. And with that, “Frankenstein” was born.
Also during this same contest, another story emerged in Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” a short story published in 1819. The story predated Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897) by about 80 years and is one of the first modern vampire stories
In 1818 now Mary Shelley published anonymously (a common practice for many female writers at the time) her first novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” “Frankenstein” to many is considered the first science fiction novel and gives Shelley the honorific title of the mother of science fiction.
It makes sense that Shelley would leave her mark on literature and be revered like Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters.
Her mother and namesake Mary Wollstonecraft (who sadly died from an infection not that long after giving birth to Mary) was an advocate for women’s rights and wrote one of the fundamental works of feminist writing and philosophy “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792).
The influence of “Frankenstein” can be seen everywhere in pop culture. One of the most well-known interpretations of the book is Universal Pictures “Frankenstein” (1931) starring Boris Karloff as the creature and Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein (Victor in the novel).
Along with the films 1935 follow-up “Bride of Frankenstein” with Karloff and Clive reprising their roles and Elsa Lanchester playing the dual role of Mary Shelley in the framing device and the titular bride.
Universal, seeing the success of these movies, produced many other “Frankenstein” movies. The Universal films gave us many things we now associate with “Frankenstein” that were not originally in the book like the phrase “It’s alive!” to the creature being green.
Who can forget the bride’s white streaks running through her hair that will inspire many Halloween costumes to come.
But every generation has given their own twist on Shelley’s creation. We have the comedic portrayals as seen in Herman Munster from the sitcom “The Munsters” (1964-1966). Mel Brook would parody the Universal films in “Young Frankenstein” (1974) with Gene Wilder starring as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein the grandson of Victor Frankenstein. Fun fact Brooks’ was able to utilize the lab equipment that appeared in the 1931 adaptation.
One of my first memories of “Frankenstein” oddly comes from a 2009 episode of “Wizards of Waverly Place” titled “Franken-Girl” where Justin takes on the role of Frankenstein and builds his own version of the creature.
If part of your childhood was in the 2010’s you will remember the Monster High doll Frankie Stein the teenage daughter of the creature and his bride. Frankie Stein is an excellent example of how the Universal films have influenced how we see the creature. Her skin is light green and bolts come out her neck like the ‘31 version and her hair is black and white like the bride.
In the article “Frankenstein at 200” from The New York Times Jennifer Schuessler writes about the broader legacy of the novel and how it has been recontextualized through the years, “There have been camp Frankensteins, feminist Frankensteins, queer Frankensteins, and political Frankensteins of all stripes, which have taken the monster’s murderous revolt against its maker as allegory of everything from scientific overreach to capitalism to racism to war.”
It is amazing the lasting impact an 18-year-old’s ghost story has had on how we tell stories. Where would the world be without Mary Shelley and “Frankenstein?”