OLDSTYLE TALES PRESS publishes edited anthologies of classic ghost stories, tales of the supernatural, horror novels, and Weird fiction, circa 1767-1939. Editions feature original illustrations, annotations, and introductory notes on each story or chapter.
When it was first published in 1818, Frankenstein was a caustic indictment of the Enlightenment by way of Romanticism. The intellectual movement in question (lasting from the mid 17th century to the end of the Napoleonic Wars) had privileged reason over empathy, thinking over feeling, and science over expression. While it was an extraordinary era which gave birth to countless advances in what we today call S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math), it was a post-religion world seeking a new god in the Individual, and the global trauma that resulted from that sudden elevation of ambitious young mavericks would last for centuries. With the church made anachronistic by the Goddess Reason, European males who had enough money for college rejected the communalism of previous centuries in search of what was “right for themselves.”
No longer interested in how their actions affected others – and in the name of Science, many unethical behaviors could be excused – these young rebels went on to transform the world: agrarianism was replaced by modern capitalism and with it the Industrial Revolution; the Kingdom of France was replaced by the short-lived First Republic (intended to be a uptopian society stripped of churchy artifice or elitist classes, it descended into a horror-scape known as the Reign of Terror); communities previously organized around land and nature were suddenly uprooted as ambitious young men left the country to work in city factories, leaving their villages to age and die.
Mary Shelley’s parents, husband, and friends were all very active in the Enlightenment, and as a watchful, intelligent young girl, she quickly sniffed out its hypocrisies and unintended effects. When she wrote Frankenstein it was partly a commentary on the world that Europe had recently murdered by creating a new, man-made society. It would be possible, of course, for such a book to become dated – anchored to its historical context. But it hasn’t. Frankenstein is as relevant today as it was in 1818 – in fact, it may be even more cutting it its criticisms of our current society: the way we treat each other, the world around us, and ourselves. Here are just eight of the powerful ways that Frankenstein plugs into the 21st century.
8. ISSUES OF IDENTITY AND BULLYING
Frankenstein’s dejected Creature would likely fit right into our selfie society – which is perhaps another way of saying he would feel that he fit in at all. The Creature’s greatest despair comes from his uniqueness (being the first man made by man), and the way he fails to find a role in society. He tries to befriend some humans, saves the lives of others, and quietly hopes for acceptance and inclusion – ever to be disappointed. In our own culture we find that identity – especially for young people – is more critical than ever. People want to simultaneously fit in and feel unique. This is all the harder when you are made unique from the beginning – by physical, emotional, social, cultural, or sexual differences – leaving you cut off from acceptance and the object of targeted attacks. The Creature is repeatedly physically assaulted for his looks (at one point driving a happy-go-lucky son of the Enlightenment, Felix, to a frenzied, psychotic attack), and kept on the run to escape derision. I need not go into much detail about the way internet bullying works today to draw the parallel.
7. PREJUDICE AND REFUGEES
Hand-in-glove with bullying and identity are issues of prejudice. Frankenstein has frequently been interpreted on stage with racial undertones, and for good reason. Everywhere the Creature goes he is rejected because of his appearance. Unlike the movie monsters whose mumblings and growls suggest animalistic stupor, Shelley’s Creature is intelligent, well-spoken, and articulate. This is not enough, however, to absolve him for the sin of his skin. Physically unique from those around him, he is reminded that he doesn’t fit in with acts of violence. Another contemporary parallel here is the reactionary treatment of refugees worldwide: like them, the Creature is homeless, helpless, and desperately in search of Home. He longs to have a wife and to live a quiet life of peace, but is forced to constantly move whenever he is discovered (and, naturally, chased out of town).
6. ENVIRONMENTAL HUBRIS
Mary Shelley seemed to see the Creature as the mutant hybrid of Man and Nature. Whereas the first man in Western folklore was made by the divine touch of the gods, a man created by man must be crafted with some power pirated from Heaven (implied to be lightning: Victor’s first great memory was of lightning devouring an oak, and whenever lightning is mentioned, it is a harbinger of the Creature). The Creature is at home in Nature: impervious to cold, he treats the Alps like a playground and the Pole like a skating rink. He maintains a vegan diet, and can live for weeks on a few berries and roots. Essentially, the Creature becomes a metaphor for the environment once mankind has harnessed and enslaved it. But Shelley warns us – while Nature can be temporarily enslaved, it will always become free eventually, and return to restore balance and order (usually through acts of punishing violence). Thus the Creature makes up for his own creation by killing off Victor’s family and himself. While Shelley observed the pollution of mill towns in northern England, nothing could have prepared her for the devastation of the following 200 years. Today we are inundated with warnings of what will happen when nature overcorrects to restore the status quo to our glutted waters and poisoned air – if Mother Nature has any reaction even approaching the Creature’s, we had better prepare for a nightmare.
5. THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF PRIVILEGE
To have social privilege is not to be evil, but to use that privilege for selfish gain without turning back to help those left behind is to be part of a problem as old of humanity itself. Victor Frankenstein had all the privilege that a middle-class Swiss doctor could expect: college educated, independently wealthy, idly rich, and the son of a town magistrate to boot, he had all the power he could manage, but none of the responsibilities. When Justine – a woman and a minority Catholic – is accused of a murder he tacitly brought about, he lets her hang without a word in her defense, failing to use his privilege to bring justice to the falsely accused. When his family comes to him for support during their sorrows, he uses the privilege of his occupation and wealth and abandons them for years, leaving them to their grief because he can afford to. Our society is constantly struggling over the meaning of privilege, but few can doubt that some groups in the 21st century feel as abandoned, betrayed, and left to swing as Justine and Victor’s family.
4. THE PERILS OF NARCISSISM AND NEED FOR EMPATHY
The old adage puts it: “Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is the doctor; wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster.” Victor Frankenstein is one of the great villains in western literature, and while his Creature has taken the brunt of the hate, a reading of Shelley’s text reveals an A-grade sociopath with enormous – or should I say “huge” – levels of narcissism and profound deficits in empathy. Like a classic narcissist, he doesn’t seem to understand how profoundly he has been responsible for others’ misery: Justine’s execution, his father’s broken heart, and the murders of William, Henry, and Elizabeth. He mourns them, but places the blame solely at the Creature’s feet. Having rejected his self-made son from the moment life entered his heart, Victor refused love and acceptance to a vulnerable dependent with the mind of an infant. Like a deadbeat dad, Victor moves on and tries to forget his existence. Today more than ever – especially politically – our world has little use for empathy, having developed “digital courage” that makes it easy to harass, humiliate, and demean other people (either as groups or individuals) without ever expecting to have to answer for it. As Victor Frankenstein learned, however, even if you feel like you’re big league important today, that can all change in the blink of an eye, leaving you alone, unloved, and unimpressive.
3. FEMINITY AND MASCULINITY
In many ways Frankenstein represents a battle of the sexes – or, rather, of gender. Victor, naturally, represents hard-nosed, business-minded, self-interested masculinity. His sometimes androgynous Creature represents femininity with his more circular (even Eastern) views on life, love for others, eloquent ability to express emotion, and long-suffering patience. Elizabeth, too, represents positive femininity, as did Victor’s mother: nurturing, self-giving, community-minded, and generous. Where Victor is all reason and science and logic and “collateral damage,” Elizabeth is intuition (sensing immediately Justine’s innocence in spite of the evidence) and nature and love and belonging. Their marriage would have brought their opposing natures together in a harmonious union between masculine and feminine qualities – celebrating and edifying each – but Victor’s sexist rejection of Elizabeth’s (and the Creature’s) feminine sensibilities (primarily their tendency towards generosity, inclusion, and self-sacrifice) ruins their future and wrecks their happiness.
2. THE RIPPLE EFFECTS OF IRRESPONSIBLE SELF-INTEREST
Our world is now keenly aware that acting in self-interest can have horrifying aftershocks. The 2008 Great Recession was caused by people acting without concern for others, as has been the steady pollution of the seas and air over 200 years of industrial activity, as have been the hundreds of acts of terrorism, mass shootings, and mass murder committed by fanatics on the far-left and far-right fringes of society. Victor’s rejection of his newborn son seems nipped in the bud when he leaves him in the middle of the night. “Oh well, that was weird…” But his selfishness has far-reaching effects, including the unjust execution of an innocent woman, the extinction of his entire family, and the murder of his long-suffering wife before he has a chance to warm the wedding bed. Victor learns (or should learn), as we have, that indiscriminate acts of self-interest might avoid complications for a while, but eventually we all reap what we sow.
1. INDIVIDUALISM VS. COMMUNITY
The thesis of Frankenstein can boil down to a conflict between individualism and community. Victor abandons his family, rejects the natural means of procreation by putting off his relationship with Elizabeth, and secrets himself away in the loneliest spots he can imagine: graveyards, attic rooms, the wastes of the Alps, the wilds of the Hebrides. The ultimate individualist, Victor is sickened by the idea of mentoring the Creature (Responsibilities?!! Gross!), and bored by his family’s “neediness.” They miss him (gone for four years), they need him (his brother died), they want him to get married (Elizabeth is depressed and growing old). Nag, nag, nag… What Victor misses is that community – read: friends, family, love, acceptance, trust, honesty, openness, respect, appreciation, support – is the solution to all of his problems, and up until his very death, the decision to open himself to community would have put an end to his misery had he taken it. But he never does. Our own culture is enraptured with individualism, which is often wonderful (creativity, expressiveness, and art spring from it), but can also lead to the narcissism, lack of empathy, anthropocentricism, prejudice, bullying, and identity issues discussed earlier. If there was any lesson Mary Shelley had for the 21st century it would probably be this: open your hearts to each other, open your lives to community with your fellow beings – do this, for God’s sake, while you still have time.
You can read more of our thoughts on Frankenstein HERE in our annotated and illustrated edition of the Gothic classic
The first story in the King in Yellow Mythos (the first five – or possibly six – works in the eponymous 1895 collection) introduces us to a universe of instability, irony, and pitiful meaninglessness. It is a world turned upside down, one where time and logic are useless, where status and power are pointless, and where all ambitions, hopes, and loves are destined for obliteration. “The Repairer of Reputations” tells of a strange man whose job is to retroactively clean up his clients’ pasts, saving their character from their own poor judgment; and yet most of his clients appear to be lunatics, conspiracy theorists, and ruined men who already live in altered realms of reality. The narrator is a fey aristocrat who made the poor decision to read “The King in Yellow” while recuperating from a personality-altering head injury: a man who longs to live in a militarized, pseudo-fascist, empire-obsessed American dynasty where icons of progressivism and the increasingly mobile working class are replaced with military strong men and authoritarians. He manufactures this world around him, conspiring with the titular character to elevate himself to the role of emperor over this new, heavily armed, strength-obsessed country. The question must be asked, what truth does this delusion hope to avoid or correct?
Like so many of Chambers’ horror stories the pathos of this character lies in a disappointed romantic pursuit which left him feeling powerless, pathetic, and overlooked. Enter the King in Yellow, the only entity which has the power to repair his reputation – to save his dignity and set aright his hopeless crush on his cousin’s fiancée. But who or what exactly is the King in Yellow and what is the significance of its name? Deeply associated with the Decadence movement, the color yellow was first connected to themes of corruption and impropriety several decades earlier when the fops of Jane Austen’s Regency period wore the garish color to suggest their appetites for the indulgent, grotesque, and shocking. Later in the century, French books banned in England for their lewd content were at first discreetly packaged in yellow jackets, but when the code was figured out, booksellers even went so far as to wrap relatively tame publications in the lurid amber color because it would increase sales amongst eager buyers. Yellow became a symbol for all that was diseased in the soul, all that was unconventional, contrarian, rebellious, and decadent. If something was “Yellow,” it was gaudy, luscious, vulgar, decayed, infamous, scandalous, poisonous, sensual, leprous, golden, lurid, bawdy, ghastly, seductive, corruptive, grotesque, fantastic, alien, fabulous, alluring, shocking, fascinating, ribald, repulsive, and repellent. During the 1890s, members of the Decadent movement and the literary avant-garde began publishing “The Yellow Book,” a journal of high brow prose, poetry, and fiction most notably for Aubrey Beardsley’s (second only to Oscar Wilde in Decadent circles) unsettlingly crass, Oriental-inspired illustrations.
Critic Richard La Gallienne noted that "The Yellow Book was certainly novel, even striking, but except for the drawings and decorations by Beardsley, which, seen thus for the first time, not unnaturally affected most people as at once startling, repellent, and fascinating, it is hard to realize why it should have seemed so shocking. But the public is an instinctive creature, not half so stupid as is usually taken for granted. It evidently scented something queer and rather alarming about the strange new quarterly, and thus it almost immediately regarded it as symbolic of new movements which it only partially represented." Even though its contents were fairly conventional (if esoteric), the title alone was enough to make it an infamous scandal to be seen with it. The King in Yellow play was probably inspired by another Decadent work, Wilde’s French-published play Salomé, which was banned in Britain and became a moral scandal raged against for its depiction of the victory of vain sensuality over pious self-denial.
While no one claimed that reading Salomé would make one lose touch with reality, it was regarded as highly corruptive and vulgar, and it was preached against from pulpits and the press. Like Wilde’s drama – which challenged Victorian ideals of morality and womanhood – The King in Yellow challenges civilization’s ideals of the value of human life, the virtues of work and ambition, and the power of love. In a deeply Lovecraftian blow, reading The King in Yellow (an obvious predecessor of The Necronomicon, even if Lovecraft claimed to have invented it before reading Chambers) causes its readership to doubt everything: humanity, ambition, work, love, hope, peace, faith, compassion, and society. Nothing escapes the dominating influence of the King. Whether you interpret him as a symbol of madness, death, mankind’s smallness, moral corruption, cosmic existentialism, selfishness, artistic decadence, or a combination of two or more of these, there is no denying that his role in mankind is not unlike that of the merciless apparition in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” – the proliferation of hopelessness and the squashing of human ambition. For the protagonist of “The Repairer of Reputations,” this unfortunately has the opposite effect: suddenly aware of society’s meaninglessness, he abandons his grip on reality and reimagines his city twenty-five years in the future as an empire he is capable of leading. And his demise in the King’s hands is appropriately pathetic.
Ultimately any probe into the reality of Hildred Castaigne’s narrative is a hopeless bound into speculation. Virtually nothing he tells us can be trusted without question. It is a popular trend to defend his 1920 setting by pointing to the fact that Louis and Hawberk and others appear to observe and comment on several of the futuristic elements in his story; this is largely done in a bid to celebrate this story as an early example of dystopian science fiction, but even this hinges on Hildred’s narration, which is unquestionably compromised. Ultimately, even Louis and Hawberk and Constance may be figments of his imagination (or, if they are real, their words might be fabricated by Hildred’s deranged mind). Some popular – though purely speculative – stabs at finding the reality in his delusion have included the theories that the suicide refuge is really a subway (construction was underway on the first underground system at the time; it finally opened in 1904) that Hawberk is nothing grander than tinker or clockmaker or mechanic, that Louis’ uniform suggests that he is a mounted policeman and that the cavalry drills are just parts of city parades, that the navy flotilla are merely merchant steamers and passenger barks, and that Hildred’s history of the war with Germany is just the result of his mind parroting stories which he has manically read about Napoleon and (if his obsession with Prussia is any indication) the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.
We can check his futuristic setting by cross referencing it with his contemporaries in later stories (Boris in “The Mask,” who dies before him in 1890s Paris and Jack Scott in “The Yellow Sign” who was friends with Boris and recalls Hildred’s recent death; this is further checked by historical references in that story). Then there is the question of Wilde: who or what is he? Shrunken, shriveled, yellow-skined, with missing ears and fingers and a disfigured face, he surely represents the epitome of decadence, fantasy, delusion, and fancy. His sadistic cat, however, has a lineage that dates back to Edgar Allan Poe as a symbol of Truth and confrontation. In reality, Wilde may be the corpse of a recluse which has begun to rot (the yellow skin), whose cat is slowly devouring it; his first visitor – the newspaper magnate who knocked on the door – may be a concerned landlord; his second visitor, the stooped client whom Hildred didn’t at first notice, is likely nothing more than one of Hildred’s hallucinations; his torn throat may have been the result of the cat’s ravenous appetite, or perhaps Hildred missed when he swung at the cat and struck the odious corpse – or maybe there is no cat or no Wilde – who can say?! We do suspect that the narrator, a Mr Hildred Castaigne, committed a crime – killing Dr Archer, perhaps – and died in an asylum for the criminally insane.
This is all we can be confident of, or cite as truth. Everything else is conjecture (which can be terribly fun, but must be treated with a grain of salt). What IS true, however, is that Hildred believes what he sees and it is THIS which has meaning: Hawberk may be a hallucination, but in Hildred’s world he has a place; the suicide booths may be daydreams, but in Hildred’s mind they have a purpose; Wilde and his cat may be fabrications (or just a rotting body and a feral stray going unnoticed), but in Hildred’s universe they are significant. So what IS the significance of Hildred’s universe? The King in Yellow reigns over it with the power to raise up maligned Hildreds and punish arrogant or disrespectful Louises. Hildred – like any protagonist in a good Poe pastiche – is deathly sensitive about his grasp on sanity. Comments suggesting that he has lost touch on reality send him raving and terrify those around him. The King who took away his sanity offers him the dignity of fear – at least if he cannot be respected, he can be feared. And what sort of society would let a frightening bully cow his enemies into submission unchecked?
In Chambers’ world it would be one of the militaristic empires of Europe with a tradition of squelching republicanism and enthroning strong men: Turkey. Russia. Prussia. So Hildred stitches together a history that would require decades of development, pushing his present ahead twenty-five years until he finds himself – finally – in a society that could offer him the dignity of being feared and obeyed and catered to. Whether anything else in this story is real – or to what degree it is real – is pure speculation. What is true is that a man named Hildred Castaigne felt small and weak and rejected, and he found solace in the King in Yellow – the emblem of debauchery, of human frailty, of madness and despair and hopelessness. Like a patron saint of madmen, the King became Hildred’s deity, the Yellow Sign his crucifix, and The King in Yellow his Bible. He became a missionary, spreading the word that the King was coming – that he would bring with him an Armageddon which would crush the powerful and empower the rejects (the tramps, the madmen, the clients of the Repairer of Reputations – those who had lost their respect in the community).
Ultimately this new Messiah – this King of Kings – would be the ultimate repairer of reputations: he would invest the wealthy and happy with terror, bringing anarchy to the world and delight to the madmen who had been banished from it. Hildred rushes to Wilde – the symbol of his increasingly decomposed hopes – to confirm his expectations, but it is too late: Reality has struck a death blow. There is no empire. No coronation. No death booths. No white fleets in the harbor. No restoration of dignity to the insane. No repairing of Hildred’s mangled reputation. There is only the King in Yellow, and as Hildred is dragged away by the police and placed in a padded cell, he finds himself alone with his monarch and moans – as if speaking to himself – “Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!”
Among Blackwood’s most effective ghost stories are several tales of rooms inhabited by the prowling presence of their former occupants. “The Listener” is an epistolary account told through the diary of its protagonist. Much like Guy De Maupassant’s similarly-themed “The Horla, or Modern Ghosts,” Blackwood’s tale depicts the gradual encroachment of a parasitic spirit into the life of an arguably mentally-compromised man. “The Listener” is an excellent exploration of approaching and voracious threat, much like Blackwood’s later masterworks “The Willows” and “The Wendigo.” The protagonist is a stubborn and caustic man who holds the entreaties of his friends and family at bay, isolating himself in a world of self-imposed exile. Tormented by hereditary mental health issues, illness due to malnutrition (and a sedentary, reclusive lifestyle), and mounting paranoia, the narrator finds that his efforts to exclude others from his personal affairs have left him defenseless from the destructive forces that loneliness invites.
Often anthologized with “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” “The Listener” is widely considered his best ghost story. It combines all the best elements of a typical Blackwoodian spook tale: an urban setting; an impoverished intellectual protagonist; a deceptive, penny-pinching landlady; a creeping, predatory evil; a deeply psychological atmosphere of paranoia and vulnerability; and a bizarre, malignant specter. A young writer takes rooms in a rundown house where he is haunted by hordes of vicious cats, strange odors, and a sense that he is being watched. The narrative is long – almost a novelette – and follows him through a diary that records his increasing sense that he is being watched and drained by a hostile presence. This culminates in a night when he awakens to find a strange figure with a face that he can only describe as lion-like – misshapen, yellow, and grotesque – peering into his bedside mirror. The next morning he learns about the fate of the previous tenant: he died from complications of leprosy, and it is his miserable spirit that haunts the decrepit rooms – the voyeuristic listener of the title. Certainly the quintessential Blackwood ghost story, “The Listener” highlights the isolation and introversion of the big city – something which Blackwood loathed. Like all of his best ghost tales, it criticizes the anonymity and callousness of urban settings (and modern society in general), viewing the individualism of modernity as a dangerous, parasitic toxin just as disfiguring and dehumanizing as leprosy.
Like many of Blackwood’s protagonists, the narrator of “The Listener” is dragged to the very threshold of annihilation as a result of his self-imposed exile from thriving society (“Wendigo,” “Glamour of Snow,” “Sea-Fit”). Disgusted with the pettiness of human relationships, he urges away the well-intended offerings of his sister (whom he remembers as an affectionate childhood companion) and his chum, Chapter (whose extended job would profoundly assist his declining mental and physical health), leaving his mind and body vulnerable to the encroachments of peripheral spirits bent on absorbing the energy of exposed outliers – not unlike a lion stalking gazelles which have strayed from the herd into the thick and shadowy grass. Blackwood was, himself, something of a loner, and his difficult relationship with his family genuinely left him on the brink of death on several occasions. “The Listener” may not be entirely autobiographic, but it is not far-fetched to imagine that he may have been reminding himself of a lesson he had learned more than once: misanthropy and social reclusion may grant one a break from the triviality of society, but it is not an exclusive hermitage – the environs of human company are prowled by very real monster – neurosis and paranoia, insanity and suicide – and they wait, hungrily, to strike.
Horror is perhaps best dictated to the senses – to the animal rather than the intellectual faculties. Amelia B. Edwards shoots for both in this cerebrally visceral tale by cushioning a quaint, fireside chat with a scholar of the natural and supernatural between two lonely, agonizing experiences of fear. The first is an experience that anyone might have when a car breaks down in an unfamiliar county on a winter night. The second is a vision that most can only say to have viewed – and smelled – in their nightmares. It is the intellect behind its construction that projects this story directly into the soft underbelly of irrational human terror. Like Wells, Edwards (whom E. F. Bleiler ranks amongst Le Fanu and Broughton as one of the Victorian’s best supernaturalists) introduces us to a bleak landscape in a bleak universe – one hostile to humanity and devoid of help or guidance.
The plot is virtually archetypal: lost in the grim, snowy moors of northern England, a hapless hunter is on the brink of death when he is directed to the warm cabin of a bitter alchemist, whose theories on the unknown spike his imagination before setting off once more, this time in hopes of encountering the local coach set to come their direction. The title of the story allows for little subtlty: he does find a coach thundering down the frosty highway, and he does halt it and manage to gain entrance to its interior. But what lurks within the interior might send him rushing back into the black winter night.
Edwards’ chilling tale is – especially in its climactic scene – a montage of masterful atmospherics. A blend of shadowy scenes weave one into the other, culminating in the pungent horror awaiting in the phantom coach. Tension builds and depresses like a road bobbing along a series of moorland hills. While it may be argued that the middle section fails to set up the conclusion, the antique metaphysician suspends the reality of the frosted air and the pensive wife waiting at home. Upon entering his candle-lit domain the protagonist is ushered into a world previously invisible to him – one which is only too real once he exits. The wasted desolation of the moor country minimizes human agency and enhances the threat of the outer unknown.
The cosmic terror of the outerspaces and unbroken landscapes – of impersonal snow and all-consuming night – is temporarily deflated by the appearance of a lantern and the safety of the philosopher’s hearth. The temporary respite may seem jarring and unnecessary, but it is an essential transition: before the conversation in the cabin, the north country is a bleak, uninhabited cosmos – a threat of its own, godless and teeming with spiritual hostility. After conversing with the exiled academic, however, the blackness he returns to is now the domain of the once-invisible world: the universe is no longer the same to him, no longer warm and promising, but cold and consuming: he is indeed the “fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach” a fellow passenger on a grisly journey, finally conscious of his awful status in the universe.
A huge thanks to the Feedspot Blog for voting Oldstyle Tales' Classic Horror Blog the 9th best horror blog on the internet. Now, without invalidating the vox populi, I feel most sincerely that there are many bloggers out there with far edgier, hipper, more interesting content, but I know that our readers -- you, my dear friends -- appreciate the rather subdued tone of our content. If you haven't seen our website recently, we have been working round the clock since last October to bring it up to more professional standards, and have been unleashing a torrent of new content on classic horror, classic horror writers, and classic horror genres. There are scads of new posts under our "best of" (lists of the 7 or so best short stories by a particular author), "spooky spotlights" (a post undressing the history, symbolism, and bibliography of a particular sub-genre; e.g., supernatural cats, devils and demons), and our "macabre masters" (a deep analysis of a particular horror writer's oeuvre) tags. Check them out if you are so generously inclined!
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As a student of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, it stands to reason that the eponymous protagonist of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would draw from Sir Isaac Newton, one of the movement’s most lauded progenitors. Indeed, Victor Frankenstein specifically cites the English physicist as an inspiration during his collegiate shift from naturalist mysticism to empiricist pragmatism early in the novel (238), and the influence of physics appropriately haunts him throughout the work. While neither specifically Newton nor any of his laws of natural motion are expressly responsible for the catastrophes which bludgeon Victor’s stillborn future, Newton’s unshakable third law of motion—that the mutual forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal, opposite and collinear—manifests in the supernatural physics of Victor’s transgressions, haunting him with vicious, karmic accuracy, repossessing interpersonal potential in favor of isolated vacancy and substituting decay for fertility. Nature’s mystical physics arrest Victor’s profane efforts with every spiritual misdeed.
In the moment of his attacks, Nature gives way to his aggression, but after the blow, like a bent sapling, snaps aright with a brutal, inverse replication of his force. In time, all the sowings of his perverse ambitions are squelched by weeds of horror. Frankenstein’s rebellion against the natural order of birth, youth, marriage, procreation and a humble death, his essential attempt to alter the processes of the Hegelian Weltgeist, results in an explosive misfire of the natural process, wherein marriage, youth and intercourse beget the odiously charnel rather than the melodiously carnal. In its initial retribution for his currish meddling, the mechanism of “super-Natural” (so spelled hereon in order to emphasize the sentience and participatory agency of the natural world through the supernatural conduit) justice sacrifices the precocious William to the tomb. Still unable to don the burden of responsibility for his genesis act by providing his miserable Adam with a miserable Eve, he condemns his own fertile matrimony to be nullified by the harmonizing momentum of super-Natural physics.
The only feasible solution for karmic resolution is the creator’s own destruction—an event that comes too late for his brutalized family, and is ultimately accomplished by an act of Nature itself rather than by his own, ever-avoidant hand. Frankenstein’s inability to recognize the equilibrium-bringing physics of the super-Natural Order evict him from the protection of both Newton’s responsible empiricism and Coleridge’s sublime romanticism. Insensitive to the cautious sense of duty necessary to abide in either camp, he is blind to their guidance and thrust into the path of a swift-returning pendulum.
As seen in Coleridge’s haphazard Mariner, whose insensitivity to the critical hierarchies honored by “the spirit who bideth by himself/ In the land of ice and snow” (401-402), the British romantics were prone to extend warning to intellectuals who sought to submerge the organism of the natural world into formaldehyde, quantifying it beyond appreciation, without expecting a thrashing reprisal. Nature is not to be meddled with and is both hallowed sacrament and active agent: “Nature (for Wordsworth) and the World Spirit (for Hegel) operate in man and through man, but without acquiescence, and often in spite of man’s conscious will” [emphases added] (Stuart Curran 90). Frankenstein is reprimanded in a method grimly similar to that of the baleful Mariner: both execute an act of bravado against an incomprehensible and often unsympathetic world without fear of chastisement, and are involuntarily driven to make penance until the spiritual debt has been repaid and harmony reestablished: “Since then… That agony returns/ And till my ghastly tale is told,/ This heart within me burns” (Coleridge “Rime” 581-585); “You may give up your purpose; but mine is assigned to me from Heaven and I dare not” (Shelley 184). For both fallen adventurers, the cost of insulting the scriptures of Nature is the exchange of living companions for the chilly dead and Cainic banishments on grueling philanthropic missions. Frankenstein is released with death, the Mariner perhaps not until Judgment Day (Coleridge “Rime” 577-590), but each character suffers in isolation until the debt they have amounted in the natural world can be redeemed.
Frankenstein struggles with an uncertain liability (as it is that, by his estimation, the Creature, one of a “race of devils,” stands to endanger the “existence of the human race”(Shelley 144)), whereas the Mariner is shackled with a damnation which is structurally formulaic—though arresting—and born with stern devotion to the ventriloquistic agency of the World Spirit (“I pass like night from land to land/ I have a strange power of speech” (Coleridge “Rime” 586-587)), rather than frantic anxiety. Conversely, the cadaverous and pathologically unrepentant Frankenstein drags a mounting arrearage, unrelieved by communing with “goodly company” in prayer (603-606). Instead, the sullen Frankenstein is tormented as long as his mind is interfered with by consciousness or reality: “My life as it has passed thus, was indeed hateful to me, and it was during sleep alone that I could taste joy … in sleep I see my friends” (174). Paul Sherwin accords that “[Frankenstein’s ambition for] transcendence is equivalent to transgression, and his presumptuous deed is invested with the aura of primal sin against nature … condemned by nature’s gods to [indefinite] suffering” (883). Left to the mercy of his ordaining spirits, Victor (still in mystifying denial) finds solace in controlled personal fantasy rather than conscious remorse and willing servitude.
Unlike the Mariner, whose horrors are sunk in the harbor, and whose recompense is ritualistic though spontaneous, Victor is ravaged by his lack of control (returned only within the climate of the dream world), and fails, even to the end of his journey, to learn that this vain compulsion has all along been his ruination. Rather than being ordained to spread the gospel of his just reckoning—although he does successfully, if inadvertently, deter Walton from nosing further into the impregnable North (179)—he is captivated by the unpredictable recoil caused by his grisly genesis act. Though the progenitor of him whom he considers the epitome of evil, Victor remains convinced that he has been commissioned and blessed by celestial providers to wage justice against his creation—“a task from heaven” (175)—and fails to recognize the true villain of his story, and that it is perhaps his own soul which continues to forge a ponderous chain of mounting spiritual interest: “As the central misreader, Frankenstein is the chief victim of the text’s irony, particularly cruel whenever he thinks he is addressing the super-Natural powers that oversee his destiny, for his invocatory ravings never fail to conjure up his own Creature” (Sherwin 883).
In divorcing himself from responsibility for the circumstances of his Creation, Victor also fails to realize his profound debt to him as his father and god; while Victor’s life is made miserable through the extermination of his beloveds, the Creature’s life is made utterly meaningless by the death of his hated adversary, and all of his vile energy is consumed in the instant of his maker’s demise. Richard K. Sanderson notes that “the monster carries thoughts of suicide with him almost from the beginning. So long as he hopes that Victor will create a female companion for him, he is determined to cling to life” (54), and that “So long as Victor lives and suffers, the monster is ‘satisfied’, but when his creator dies, the monster loses his only reason for living” (55). Stripped of Maker and being singular as a species, the Creature’s only loss, that of his neglectful father, is lethally existential. Like many Christians floundering in the fallout of the French Revolution—through its spiritual chaos and societal decapitations “at a period when Christianity was considered to be part of the law of the land” (Curran 63), resulting in a religion that served “only as … the mask and the garment by which [society identifies] the symbols of worldly power” (65)—the Creature is overwhelmed by the demise of his distant Divinity, and subjected to the philosophical crises modeled by Revolution-era Christendom. Consumed by existential angst, “rebuffed by the world” (Sanderson 55), he surrenders himself to suicide in hopes of “annihilat[ing] himself from that world.”
Frankenstein is guilty of a criminal misinterpretation of the modes, purposes and attitudes necessary to yield harmonic and original creations—a critical practice devoutly treasured by Coleridge: “The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power … the imagination” (Biographia 62). To Coleridge, creativity must be overwhelmed by a willingness to submit and harmonize rather than being resistant, nostalgic or defiant. Frankenstein’s creative process struggles relentlessly against the indomitable World Spirit and manufactures only mangled and misshapen products, bitter to eat and fatal to wield. Rather than respecting the specified domains of Eros and Thanatos, Victor forces them into an unholy union—a rapacious intercourse whose grotesque half-breed breaks the laws of both spirits and crosses borders simultaneously and without hesitation or mercy. By rejecting his mutated bastard, Victor enables him to react violently, tragically hating, with equal toxicity, the humanity within and the humanity without. Victor’s perversion of the Yahwistic genesis act leaves him, as Anne K. Mellor notes, stranded from the support and inspiration of humanistic and theistic communities alike:
In his attempt to override natural evolutionary development and to create a new species sui generis, Victor Frankenstein enacts a parody of the orthodox creationist theory. While he denies the unique power of God to create organic life, he confirms the capacity of a single creator to originate a new species. Thus he simultaneously upholds the creationist theory and parodies it by creating a monster. In both ways, he blasphemes against the natural order. (299)
His creative options manifest themselves in Elizabeth and the Creature, respectively. Successful harmonic creative acts are modeled by his parents, whose greatest potential resides within the union between the precarious Elizabeth and their industrious first-born. This legacy falls into Frankenstein’s distracted hands, and is ultimately fumbled in favor of the jigsaw puzzle of recalled body parts thrust together in the solitude of his apartment. This will be addressed momentarily, but before discussion continues, it is critical to appreciate the option of productive procreation that Frankenstein trades for what ultimately manifests in destructive impotence.
Elizabeth flies directly in the face of Victor’s baleful Creation, both in the manner of her intention and composition. Like the Creature, she is a found object, whether as an orphaned cousin or an unconnected foster child “found playing” (43), and is comparably supernatural: a “cherub,” “creature” and “apparition.” Neither are products of their adoptive parents’ sexual nature; they are, instead, products of their adoptive parents’ spiritual, or imaginative, nature. Alphonse and Caroline recognize a budding, provocative replication of their spirit in the insensitively unappreciated beauty, a spirit of benevolence, charity and familial devotion. Called upon by the Coleridgean “subordination of [their] faculties,” the Frankensteins spontaneously respond to the instruction of imagination—imagining her potential should “Providence afford her such powerful protection” (43)—and claim the girl as their own. This act of sensitive appreciation for unnoticed content replicates Alphonse’s own imaginative investment in his wife, whom he took in as an orphan under the role of “protecting spirit” (41), whom he nurtured, and wedded. The two are claimed to have been summoned to one another through “closer bonds of devoted affection” in spite of—and in part due to—their “considerable age difference.” In retrieving the flaxen Elizabeth from her disharmonic situation amongst the brunette peasants, the Frankensteins demonstrate an imaginative sympathy for potential and futurity; their concerns lie with the security and nourishment of youth and the rising generations—their visceral legacy—rather than the bygone concerns of the past.
Unlike Victor, so consumed with restoring a departed spirit to its evacuated vessel, his parents invest in the promise that accompanies dutiful stewardship. Caroline’s Christological willingness to be exposed to the fever that had “menaced” “her favourite” in an effort to “preserve” Elizabeth at all costs epitomizes the importance with which Victor’s parents imbued the spirit of the future (49). Like prudent gardeners, they are willing to shear the tree of their familial legacy of its antiquated features to preserve the trunk which, they acknowledge, will only be nourished by new rather than old foliage. Even in the light of successive murders, Alphonse optimistically insists that “new and dear objects of love will be born to replace those of whom we have been so cruelly deprived” (164).
Elizabeth, both parents believe, stands to offer the richest crops if maintained and cultivated with care: her permanent inclusion in the family amount to Caroline’s “firmest hopes of future happiness” (49) and the “favourite plan” of the couple (163). Caroline’s willing death to preserve her foster daughter underscores the cherishing nature with which both parents’ value the future. They urge Victor towards a union with his adopted sister, hoping for a successful and fruitful merger of their two greatest investments. By crafting their family through sacrifice, nutriment and active shaping and aligning—chiefly through the pseudo-arranged marriage—Alphonse and Caroline have worked towards fashioning a bountiful and productive creation of the imagination, doomed though it is. With Victor and Elizabeth as their selected mediums, the Frankensteins have creatively set into action a precocious intercourse whose only foil is the destructive and nostalgic agency of the male.
Although Alphonse and Caroline have constructed a flawed patriarchal structure consisting of a fanatically ambitious male and a “masochistic [female whose self-exposure] contributes to [her] destruction” (Sanderson 55), their intentions to provide for the future of humanity are not nearly as nefarious and warped as those of their son. Where the Frankensteins seek community and partnership—a “circle … bound close by ties of affection” (Shelley 164)—Victor celebrates the rebellious individual, “shun[ing] [his] fellow creatures like one who has committed a crime” (60). Where his parents foster responsibility towards and compliance with the natural laws of industry, procreation and death, Victor strives to comingle these processes, mistranslating the code of super-Natural ethics to derive life from death through industry. His misreading of his parents’ values is not entirely coincidental or entirely accidental.
Victor’s relationship with his father was not wholly stable, despite his many tributes to the man whom so many horrors wrung so slowly dry. His smug resistance—true to Alphonse’s charge that he had become “pleased with [him]self” (59)—to the old man’s constant pleas to “think of [his family] with affection” and to communicate “regularly,” bespeaks an individual sunken within himself, to whom companionship, the repartee of community and the lack of control produced by coexistence with other free agents has become noxious. Blame and resentment exist in the younger Frankenstein’s lachrymose tones, subtly urging part of the responsibility from his own shoulders: “I then thought that my father would be unjust if he ascribed my neglect to vice, or faultiness on my part; but I am now convinced that … I should not be altogether free from blame” [emphasis added]. This tendency to shirk from the duty demanded by the super-Natural law only succeeds in driving Frankenstein further from the healing baths of community and into the blistering deserts of his egotistical indulgences and his infantile conscience.
Opportunities present themselves on an almost scheduled basis for the creator to own his Creation, to amass the blame, and to realign the disturbed harmonies of the super-Natural world. Justine’s trial (80), the Creature’s demand (128), his Irish imprisonment (154), and the time during his engagement (166) all offered opportunity for Victor Frankenstein to remove himself from the immortal role of creator-god, to assign the responsibility of civic protection to the proper authorities within his community, and to assume the fate demanded by his malfeasance in the stead of his innocent friends and family who suffer without conscious knowledge of why. Rather than commune with this supportive body energized by cooperation and commitment, Victor encloses himself within his Ingolstadt grotto, thus beginning the process of amassing a karmic debt for his failure to dutifully congress with the fragile and fleeting world.
Rather than create, as his parents did, a highway for the future, and being productive by tapping into the natural processes and dictum of an ever-reflexive natural universe, Frankenstein commissions himself to reverse the creative process—to sing the mass backwards, as it were. His endeavors only succeed in creating a repugnant perversion of the stable, rutted path of nature’s unquestionable directives, as he irreverently “pursued nature to her hiding places” and “disturbed, with profane fingers, the secrets of the human frame” (58). Unlike his foresighted, progressive-minded parents, Victor plunges into the worm-infected soil, nostalgically cradling bones and cadavers in the voiceless charnel houses and graveyards—as far as he can remove himself from sentient human interaction, “[i]n a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of a house separated from all the other apartments.” From this Tower of Babel, elevated and defiant, Victor quantifies the mystical within the confines of his infant Dominion.
Elizabeth, dormant as she may be, offers him the chance to create through active and interpersonal procreation: the super-Natural path. His desire is, however, to resist the goading of nature and his parents, to dock his industry in the silent limbs of the dead rather than Elizabeth’s womb. This selection of the voiceless over the vocal flies in the face of the Romantics’ hierarchy of values, who, as enamored as they may have been with independent Byronic industry, were adamant that human expression and communion be cherished and preserved: “The real focus of the Romantics’ critique of their age is on the moral and social values in whose name [industry and rationalization] took place. These social tendencies implied a redefinition and a revaluation of human nature and of the human person to which the poets were all finally opposed” (Curran 74). By declaring more value in the dissected, anatomized human carcass than in the independent, free-willed human soul, Victor joins ranks with the industrialists against whom the Shelleys and Lake Poets so violently rallied.
Choosing the charnel over the carnal, Frankenstein immerses himself in an activity whose blasphemous abandonment of human duty and responsibility is constantly applying tension upon the super-Natural process, the karmic energy of which consistently reacts with a replicative, even imitative mode of violence that goes unappreciated until he has lost all he had failed to value. The Physics of this ever-vigilant World Spirit forge Victor’s perverse creation into an unshakable, inescapable Doppelgänger, whose duality transforms every desire, action and instinct into a polar and repercussive opposite. The solitary Victor is matched by his lonesome double, his “creation” by destruction, his wedding with death, and his deifying victor(y) with undeniable defeat. Sherwin posits that “the developing plot of the novel elaborates the grim psychic consequences of Frankenstein’s deepening subjugation to his dark double. The Creature is cast as an active partner in what amounts to a bizarre conspiracy, rehearsing in another register the scandalous history of the creator’s desire” (886). Karmic, or physic forces of Nature conspire against their self-deceiving usurper to replicate each motion of his rebellious soul with what appear to be repercussions in like, the consequences of which fail, even to his death, to awaken him from his narcissistic trance. “The elemental forces which Victor has released pursue him to his hiding places, hounding him like avenging Furies, denying him the capacity for natural procreation” (Mellor 310). Darkened to the existence of these forces, Victor mistakenly attributes the force of resistance onto the Creature, unaware that the generative force is his own.
As a romantic creator, Victor fails from the beginning, discarding the imaginative industry required. Coleridge decrees that “[imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where the process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead” (Biographia 62). For Coleridge, creativity must involve regeneration; it must be fresh and original, alive by essence, entirely removed from death or established works of any manner. Victor’s godlike machinations are hardly imaginative or even creative, for they recycle the industry of generations and passions past. Rather than enlisting his own power for the betterment of society, he lazily dips into the resting places of the comfortably dead, forging a redundant rather than creative production, something replicative and plagiaristic. As for imagination, it flees him at an early age: “I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared an apparition of any sort. Darkness had no effect on my fancy; and a churchyard to me was merely a receptacle” (56). Rather than being compelled by a desire to draw inspiration from Coleridge’s primary imagination—“the living power and prime agent of all human perception … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am” (61)—Victor evades the perceived intrusion of this mode of inspiration, and secludes himself from meddling God and uncontrollable human alike. Mellor underscores the magnitude of this failure to appropriately imagine, claiming that:
It is … a triple failure of imagination that curses Victor… by not imaginatively identifying with his creation … by imagining that the male can produce a higher form of evolutionary species by lateral propagation than by sexual procreation, [by defining] his own imagination as profoundly anti-evolutionary and anti-progressive … in assuming that he can create a perfect species by chemical means, [defying] a central tenet of romantic poetic ideology: that the creative imagination must work spontaneously, unconsciously, and above all organically. (300)
Victor’s blasphemously plagiaristic activity suggest a man perplexed by humanity, desirous to become the God of his own universe, and to populate, dictate and direct its activities: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (58). By assuming the mechanical role of God, Victor becomes unfit to assume the ethical responsibilities, and waits until all is lost to act on any sense of personal responsibility to humanity. Indeed, his passion for reanimating life is not hampered until those speechless,..
The Year Without a Summer was the grim conclusion to nearly twenty years of constant global warfare, economic depression, and the toppling of many of the major monarchies and governments of mainland Europe. It was a volcanic winter caused by the eruptions of several volcanoes across the globe, particularly the Indonesian giant, Tambora. Darkness entombed the Northern Hemisphere, snuffing out the granaries of Europe and blasting an already resource-depleted society with a year of widespread starvation, malnutrition, and typhus; looting, riots, and civic unrest throttled governments still staggering from world war.
Weather, too, became a miserable parade of gloom: frost afflicted the Rhineland as early as August, excessive rains bloated the continent’s waterways, destroying riverside settlements, crops, and industries, and red snow – discolored by ash – fell on cities in the last throes of a calendar summer. In total, 200,000 people perished during the Year Without a Summer, but in 1816, Mary Shelley brought something to life.
Switzerland was a haven for political and social radicals, like the rakish adulterer Lord Byron and his cohabitating (and also adulterous) friends Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. But in 1816, it suffered more civil violence than any other country affected by the blight. The Swiss Confederation declared a national emergency as day after day of shadowy weather smothered life out of its wilting cereal grains and skeletal milk cows. In this environment the teen-aged Mary and her male companions languished, prevented from boating, hiking, and picnicking by the pelting rains and the sloshing, black waters of Lake Geneva.
Instead, they entertained themselves with German tales of supernatural horror – as befitted the Gothic atmosphere. When the three, accompanied by Byron’s physician, John Polidori, decided to test one another’s mettle as writers, only the teen-aged mistress and the substance-abusing doctor of two of England’s preeminent poets completed the project. Both exited Geneva with masterpieces: Polidori had written the first modern vampire story – aptly named The Vampyre – basing his aristocratic seducer off of his abusive employer, and Wollstonecraft had completed the most excellent horror story written in English up to that date: Frankenstein.
The novel is doubtlessly a response to the Age of Enlightenment (ca. 1650 – 1795) which promoted Humanism, scientific and social progress, a retreat from empassioned religiosity, and a reverence for reason, logic, scientific method, coolheaded-ness, and methodical rather than reactionary responses to social issues of the day. Medicine in particular was breaching into an culture of experimentation previously untapped: gone were the days of superstitious quackery (for the most part) and the persecution of curious scholars, chemists, astronomers, and physicians who were reprimanded (or perished) by the authority of the church under the titles of alchemist and heretic.
As the eighteenth century progressed, an entirely unprecedented eon of scientific professionalism developed, as Peter Gay noted in his survey of the era: “It had been an age of major innovations in medical theory, astonishing advances in anatomy, proper midwifery, brilliant experimentation, sensible classification of diseases, the professionalization of surgery, an improved understanding of the role of fresh air and sound food in health, and, perhaps best of all, of attacks on superstition” (The Science of Freedom, 23).
It is, to any reasonable person, perplexing why Shelley would react against an age of such progress – both socially and intellectually – especially considering the allowances it afforded the unconventional and the marginalized – that is to say, every person within her family and social circle. But in 1792, within but a few years of the action of Frankenstein, the Enlightenment’s brain child, the French Revolution – a project adored by Shelley’s friends and the Romantics – descended into the Reign of Terror, and the question was immediately raised: did we overrate ourselves?
The Revolution’s failure as a Humanist coup unsettled the British radicals (including Shelley’s father), and caused them to detest the political machinery which failed to protect the weak, the marginalized, and the outspoken (compare with the execution of Justine). One common theory is that while she supported the Enlightenment’s inclusivity and progressivism, she became increasingly disgusted with its emphasis on individualism, especially the brand of selfish machismo that Shelley, Byron, and their cronies practiced at the expense of the women in their enterogue. Shelley has accurately been depicted as an idealist with Byron as a hedonistic foil, but both men were known for causing havoc wherever they went without much regard for the implications for their friends and family.
At one point in the novel, after Justine’s execution, Victor describes Elizabeth’s growing cynicism and her impatience with the idealistic world that Victor and her father have promoted: “When I reflect, my dear cousin,” said she, “on the miserable death of Justine Moritz, I no longer see the world and its works as they before appeared to me.” Elizabeth – something of a stand in for Mary and the other Shelley/Byron groupies – speaks with a weary realism that many have read as Mary’s own feeling towards her self-involved husband. Mary was surrounded by dreaming, idealistic, reckless men who frequently sacrificed human sincerity and comfort for lofty thoughts and unrealistic expectations. Her father, husband, and his best friends all fit the Victor model. Here, however, we can hear Shelley speaking through Elizabeth: jaded, sad, disappointed, and cynical.
Shelley was skeptical of the ideals of her menfolk, especially watching their sometimes callous responses to death and heartbreak, and this disillusionment with her husband’s unsustainable idealism is reflected in Elizabeth’s disillusionment with society and mankind. No fewer than three women committed suicide on Shelley’s account, one of whom was Mary’s half-sister fanny, the other was his pregnant wife whom Shelley had abandoned for Mary. Like Victor, the Romantics often rationalized their libertine, anti-social lifestyles by claiming a sort of hedonistic idealism: they weren’t being selfish, they were being true to human nature. But the love triangles, adulteries, suicides, and accidental deaths that piled around them deeply impacted Mary, and her novel has a consistent message of community over self – a sort of feminine socialism that defies Percy Shelley’s masculine libertarianism.
Victor would still have a family, a wife, and likely children had he gone to university, made friends, passed his classes, gone to bed at night, mingled with classmates during the day, and returned home a shining exemplar of the Enlightenment to his fertile espoused and his loving father. Instead he bypasses the domestic conventions (monogamous marriage and heterosexual intercourse) in the name of science and human progress, reverse engineers the process of life, edits out the need for ethically burdensome, emotionally needy women (procreation in Victor’s world requires no women; and it’s not merely a “gay thing”: it requires no homosocial friends either – it requires only the self-deified individual and their omnipotent will to create).
In the Frankenstein household, Caroline – his mother – was the epicenter of moral wisdom, and as much as Victor loved her, he revels in removing this gendered conscience, cutting free from ethically interrogative women like Elizabeth. And while there is a strong misogynistic strain in Victor, his purge is not merely limited to women: one of the most powerful exclusions in his life is the brutal cleaving out his Godwinian father in a passive aggressive move that is searingly Oedipal. Bereft of his troublesome Super Egos (both the feminine anima that harps on him about family and marriage and the masculine animus that jabbers about duty and obligation), Percy – oops, I mean Victor – is free to carelessly experiment with life, consequences be damned.
Percy Shelley’s own neckbreak nonchalance is unmistakably knit into Victor’s personality: both men regularly boast about physically dominating their enemies, both men recklessly sail into bad weather and unfamiliar waters without navigational aid or skill, and both men aggressively brandish firearms (several of Shelley’s friends feared that he would accidentally shoot them because of how carelessly he fiddled with his prized dueling pistols which he always kept on his person). So while Mary Shelley was certainly a political radical and a friend to the Romantic movement, her most enduring work is largely a moody dressing down of Romanticism’s emphasis on libertarianism, individualism, the monotony of community, the freedom of isolation, and the worthiness of defying conventions, abandoning family, and leading a morally dissident lifestyle. Mary at first tolerated these traits in her father, husband, and friends (for the sake of fitting in to their free love community, she once agreed to take on a lover, but never consummated the relationship: Percy’s was an open marriage, but Mary’s was not), but after the loss of her first child – and especially after the loss of her second born – she grew increasingly impatient with their antisocial, libertine, libertarianism.
Frankenstein was as much a child of the Enlightenment as it was of the Romantics – just as the Creature is the bastard child of classical, Enlightenment humanism and rugged, Romantic individualism, Captain Walton is an unshakable hybrid of intellectual Reason and emotional Romance – but its conclusion is ultimately pessimistic of human ambition, pleading the case for a life of intimate ignorance rather than a path towards self-destruction and oblivion. As H.P. Lovecraft would later write in the beginning paragraph of his chef d’oeuvre, “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
This corresponds – with notable similarity – almost exactly to the ethos of Frankenstein, whose dalliances into the gated worlds of the cosmos nearly (by his own, if inexact estimation) led to the demolition of society and the extinction of humanity. Mary seems to warn her readers that there is virtue in solitude – in quiet thoughtfulness, in lonely boatings to the middle of a lake, in solitary walks through the woods – but that such tastes must be episodic: not a lifelong pattern of self-involved irresponsibility. Victor abandons his family for years at a time to tend to his obsessions, allowing his family to die off one by one until the last living member – Ernest, the second-oldest – fades from the novel like a cloud of mist. This can naturally be read literally as a call on intellectually robust men of independent means not to forget their obligations to family, but it is also a broader critique of the most socially negligent elements of the Enlightenment which had lead to the establishment of self-focused Romanticism.
While the Enlightenment had advocated a strong, Roman-inspired community, it had granted special lisence to the so called “one percenters,” the intellectual prodigies, and the social elite to experiment outside of the moral and social peramaters that were allowed to the less priveleged members of society. We see the way that wealth, religion, gender, and class are valued in Victor’s society – the same society that ennabled and encouraged his negligent “free spirit” – in the manner that Justine – a poor, Catholic, girl of low breeding – is easily convicted on admittedly lean evidence while Victor – a wealthy, Protestant, man from a founding family – isn’t in any jeopardy whatsoever. In fact, he is only suspected of malfeasance when he lands in Ireland – a poor, Catholic country with a reputation for having a dirty, illiterate peasantry – where he becomes an outsider. And there is no greater outsider than the abhuman Creature who is doomed to be outcast from every human community he encounters: the ultimate Other.
Shelley’s novel is deeply concerned with the treatment of otherness – regardless of its form – and the way in which society can deceive itself in believing that it is liberal, inclusive, and fair until a genuine threat to its heterogeneousness appears at its doorstep: famously progressive Geneva is no match for a penurious, Catholic, orphan girl; classically educated and religiously tolerant Felix is a perfect model of progressivism until he catches a glimpse of the Creature’s ugliness; even courageous and intellectually curious Robert Walton finds himself “involuntarily” placing his hands over his face when confronted by the first manmade human being (rather than staring wide-eyed in scientific awe). Indeed, Shelley seems to have engineered the Creature into being a sort of moral litmus test for humanity: by dwelling amongst mortals with a good heart but an ugly visage, the Creature reveals how unevolved mankind is, and how wicked and prejudiced people are at their heart.
When Walton accuses the Creature of brutality in the novel’s climax, the rejected being passionately describes the unwarranted violence he had suffered at the hands of people he had helped during travels. Deeply disgusted with human prejudice, he appeals to Walton to consider which behavior is most detestable: the outcast lashing out at his oppressors, or the contented race of men who reject an outsider due only to his ugliness.
Smattered liberally with moralistic advocacies of the life philosophies Percy Shelley and her father, William Godwin, promoted (vegetarianism, pedagogical parenting, teetotalism, republicanism, etc.), the novel is not perfect. Its protagonist is infamously dislikable and its characters – outside of the marvelously well developed Creature – often seem flat, contrived, or terribly boring. And yet the premise has spawned generations of theatrical, cinematic, and televised adaptations, creating and indelible impression on pop culture.
However, the caricature we continue to promote – the one best illustrated by James Whale’s 1931 film – misses the most fascinating element of Shelley’s novel. Aside from the monomaniacal student of dark arts, the pensive bride throttled in her uncreased wedding bed, and the dramatic landscapes of Arctic ice fields and alpine vistas, Frankenstein is the story of poor stewardship, failed fatherhood, lost innocence, painful alienation, social rejection, the entangled relationship between adoring love and septic hatred, and the unfairness of a world which evicts a warm, gentle, curious, and eager spirit based on the casing of its skin.
Simultaneously spawning the genres of horror and science fiction, Frankenstein established the basic tropes, vocabulary, and themes that would later serve as foundations for the two schools. Themes of mankind’s futile attempt to tame and restrict nature, the sublime duality – both majestic and terrifying – of the universe beyond human society’s microcosm, the humanitarian and ecological costs of technological progress, and the long-term psychological effects of terror, loss, and isolation have all been deeply imprinted into the DNA of science fiction and horror.
Shelley’s influence is starkly clear in novels about the horror that lurks within our own desires and strivings: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and The Werewolf of Paris all delve into these disquieting themes. And yet it also enters into a conversation that was already centuries old, contributing to and expanding the story of bested ambition: the Greek myths of Prometheus, Phaëton, Narcissus, Echo, Pandora, Icarus, and Oedipus, and early modern tales such as Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth provided a mythic backdrop on which Shelley could render her unique interpretation.
As much as Frankenstein has benefitted those specific genres, it has also endowed the English-language canon with a literary text that transcends genric form and appeals to the most emotionally visceral and uncomfortable of human experiences. The story of an offspring who falls short of its father’s expectations can resonate even with those whose paternal relationships were more or less uplifting. In her afterword to Frankenstein, Joyce Carol Oates noted that “[s]urely one of the secrets of Frankenstein which helps account for its abiding appeal, is the demon’s patient, unquestioning, utterly faithful, and utterly human love for his irresponsible creator.” The conflicting emotions of secure comfort and reckless curiosity, of desired intimacy and yearned-for independence, of repelling hatred and inescapable love are all deeply imprinted into the human experience. Shelley herself hoped that the novel would “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature.” Its combined attentiveness to the mythic narratives of the past and a vision of heart-rending imagination assured that her goal would be met.
Frankenstein continues to maintain a reputation as one of the most versatile novels in the language: it attracts the excited interest of Marxist, Freudian, Jungian, feminist, gender studies, structural, post-structural, mythic, religious, linguistic, and new historic critics with meaty passages thick and dripping with content and context. Far from the gibbering, stiff-gaited Neanderthal (referred to bothersomely as “Frankenstein”) handed down to us from the Universal Pictures franchise, the Creature is an eloquent, complex, and earnest rhetorician (not to mention inhumanly fast and flexible) with a story that is heart-rending in its relatability and moral chaos. His violence conflicts with his gentle mindset (and vegetarian diet), and his hatred for the “deadbeat dad” who effortlessly ignored his existence until his relatives began dying conflicts with his suicidal grief at the same man’s fatal suffering. It is unrivalled in the pathos invested in its characters’ motives and fates, and it is the unrivalled as the most versatile and visceral of the novels in the Gothic tradition.
It may seem strange, in a world with so much natural horror, to seek to explore and even celebrate horror that extends even further beyond human control. It may seem misanthropic, pessimistic, or even sadistic to find pleasure in a tradition that is energized by human frailty and terror. What is it that compels so many people to indulge stories of horror and the macabre? Can anything good come from a tradition that focuses so much on the negative elements of our already troubled life - what Mary Shelley called "meddl[ing] in the dark side of human nature"? And what does this press expect to achieve by proliferating fictional terrors on a terrified world? We would like to address those questions sincerely.
Why do People Even Enjoy Consuming Horror Stories?
Horror Engages Our Passion and Our Humanity. Although you may be passionate about horror, this is not the passion that I'm referring to. When we read horror, we become passionate about the plot, the characters, the solution. Will the ending be grim or hopeful? Will we learn what caused the horror or will it be a chaotic riddle? Our minds are invigorated by perilous situations -- fear stands alongside love, hate, anguish, and envy as a prominent human emotion -- and through that same invigoration we feel something uniquely human : a surprising sense of comfort arising through the fear -- the validation of our humanity.
Horror Provides Us With Unfamiliar Puzzles. While most fiction faces its readers with a conundrum (Elizabeth regrets having been so harsh with Mr. Darcy; Tom and Becky are lost in the Cave with Injun Joe), horror -- like fantasy -- presents unique problems that transcend natural law. How can Dracula, an undead sorcerer, be stopped? How can Frankenstein possibly distance himself from his vengeful Creature? What is to become of humanity if Cthulhu awakens in R'lyeh? These problems are just as engaging as detective fiction, but include the added element of unknown suspense : the solutions are extreme because the conflicts are extreme, and the puzzle of the conclusion -- like any game of chess, Angry Birds, or poker -- engages our human yearning to discover resolution.
Horror Excites Our Brain Chemistry. Literally. Reading suspenseful fiction -- like watching a suspenseful movie -- increases heart-rate which increases the flow of oxygen to the organs and tissues, resulting in all of those feelings and corresponding expressions (spine-tingling, bone-chilling, blood-curdling, hair-raising, heart-pounding, white-knuckled). These experiences also release a mild (but invigorating) cocktail of chemicals throughout the brain : dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin and other neurotransmitters flash across our grey matter as the increased oxygen from our pounding heart floods the brain with oxygen. It may not be a workout, but it is pleasant to experience and potentially an outlet of stress, anxiety, anger, and depression.
Horror Makes Our Common Existential Anxieties Relatable. We fear. We fear loneliness; we fear failure; we fear disappointment; we fear alienation; we fear rejection; we fear neglect; we fear loss. Fear dominates a wide range of universal human thoughts and concerns, yet much of our film, art and literature is devoted to avoiding those topics. They are feel-good products which are very useful when the fear becomes so intense that we want to unplug to Anchorman, Harlequin romance paperbacks, or the quaint stylings of Norman Rockwell. These creations have their place to be certain. But horror thrusts those fears forward -- it drags them kicking and screaming from the dark caverns of the mind into the light of the printed word. It is just as reassuring as it is unsettling to feel the lonely rejection of Ichabod, the helpless terror of the victims of "The Dunwich Horror', and the spirit-crushing guilt of Frankenstein, because it is cathartic. It is an exorcism, a ritual of confrontation. And even if the characters do not survive, we are certain that we have, and that our burdens are not solitary incidents : they are universal to humanity.
What (If Any) Good Can Come From the Existence of Horror Stories?
Horror Engages Our Empathy and Our Humanity. Horror can be sadistic. It can be brutal and voyeuristic. It can follow the path forged by many films of rapacious infamy that depict the act of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse in such a way as to be bashfully (if not blatantly) entertaining. But it often is tender and empathic. Regardless of the fate of horror protagonists, we often want them to escape and thrive. Their destruction at a story's conclusion (Frankenstein, "The Signalman," "The Colour Out of Space") does not lessen the genuine empathy that we feel for their suffering. Just as horror manifests our own private anxieties, so to it invests its characters with those personal fears -- loneliness, destruction, emptiness -- and we locate ourselves in their terror. This serves, not only to exorcise our own stifled anxieties, but also to exercise deep, human empathy.
Horror Challenges (and Allows Criticisms, Satires, and Commentaries of) Our Society. Literary horror -- the sort that is aesthetically masterful and psychologically nuanced -- can often be revisited as a commentary either on a political body, a cultural trait, or a human fault. George Romero's zombie films deftly handled issues of race, gender, and socioeconomics. Bram Stoker's Dracula struggled with globalism, sexual ethics, and social classes. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" probed greed, self-importance, and urbanization. Arthur Machen critiqued war in "The Terror." Charlotte Perkins Gilman targeted patriarchy in "The Yellow Wallpaper." While horror is entertaining and often perceived as more concerned with isolated personal experiences (a man walking alone down an unfamiliar lane enters an abandoned hut) than social relationships, it is richly stocked with examples of writings which cause its reader to evaluate the status quo of human society.
Horror Provides Perspective to Life's Ambitions, Complaints, and Fears. While it may sound trite, after reading "The Call of Cthulhu," "A Warning to the Curious," or "The Judge's House" it is difficult not to walk away feeling grateful for the relative peace that we experience in our lives, the comfort of our stable relationships, and the satisfaction of our basic necessities. At least we came home tonight without being stalked by a decapitated phantom eager to pull us into hell with him. Transversely, we might perceive a bit too much of ourselves in an unfortunate protagonist. After reading "The Judge's House" might you not realize that you have been turning away people who sincerely want to help you -- that it might hurt you in the end to deny them? After reading "A Warning to the Curious" might you not reconsider your habit of diving haphazardly into projects without looking both ways or questioning the outcome? After reading "The Call of Cthulhu" might you not find yourself less convinced of your invincibility and more wary of your scheme in a wide, wide universe? Horror can cause us to both embrace and reevaluate our lives.
Horror Addresses Our Common Existential Anxieties Without Sugar-Coating It. Life is rough. Tragedies occur. Sometimes those tragedies are not Nicholas Sparks-esque tragedies; they are simply horrific and no lesson or sentimentality can be taken away from it. While we often try to escape the pain of life (ergo, Mr. Sparks), it is critical that we do not pretend that it does not exist (a la The Giver, 1984, North Korea). Horror allows us to experience concentrations of dread, doom, and fear which allows us to process those emotions and better understand that part of our humanity -- it is both cathartic and self-actualizing to thrust the horrors of life into our imaginations.
What Does Oldstyle Tales Press Expect to Achieve by Spreading Horror Stories?
We Hope to Provide What M.R. James Called, a "Pleasing Terror." Horror can be enjoyable. When I was four I saw "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and was captivated. The Horseman terrified me, but I wanted to see, know, and understand more. What was this bizarre world where Bing Crosby made me roll with laughter for fifteen minutes before abandoning to a ten minute ride through hell? It was enjoyable to be scared. It probed an emotion that nothing in my young life had ever awoken. The stories we select are very carefully chosen to represent a cross-section of the best horror fiction in the prewar English-speaking world. Some is dire. Some is laced with black humor. Some is potentially disturbing. But it all aspires to awaken a pleasing terror.
We Hope to Conjure Questions that Human Beings Like to Ask but Tend to Avoid. This point has been made before, so we won't belabor it, but we consider it to be highly important to our development as individual human beings that we confront and come to terms with the demons of our species, and OTP hopes to encourage a thoughtful consideration of those anxieties by supplying fiction which beautifully and masterfully probes those caverns.
We Hope to Celebrate the Artistic Achievements of Many Overlooked Masterpieces of English Literature. You know Poe. You simply do. You probably know Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. You know of Stevenson and Hawthorne. You might know Lovecraft. You may know Bierce. If you're well-read you''re familiar with Machen, James, and Blackwood. But even then, we hope to familiarize you with overlooked geniuses of horror fiction : the haunting eeriness of J. Sheridan LeFanu; the vampiric slugs and worms of E.F. Benson; the subhuman subterraneans of Arthur Machen; the agonizing horrors of F. Marion Crawford, Oliver Onions, Walter de la Mare, Fitz-James O'Brien, Edith Wharton, Saki, and W.W. Jacobs. These brilliant artists are often overlooked by the loyal fans of Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, and James, and we hope to honor the unrivalled masters while bringing hard-earned attention to the great, unexplored flavors of English-language horror.
Gothic fiction. What is it? Why did it begin? Where is it heading?
First off, let's have a definition:
"The Gothic novel, or in an alternate term, 'Gothic romance' . . . made plentiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences; their principal aim was to evoke chilling terror by exploiting mystery, cruelty, and a variety of horrors. The term "gothic" has also been extended to denote a type of fiction which lacks the medieval setting but develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom or terror, represents events which are uncanny, or macabre, or melodramatically violent, and often deals with aberrant psychological states (M. H. Abrams's A Glossary of Literary Terms. Eighth Edition, pp. 117-118).
So there it is. Gothic fiction is about an atmosphere of unease and foreboding accented by violence, horror, or mystery. Gothic fiction can be seen in movies like Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, The Others, No Country for Old Men, and even Twilight. It was born in 1764 when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto. Cheap pamphlets detailing murder trials, popular murder ballads, ghost folklore, monster legends, fairy tales, star-crossed-lovers folk songs, witch accounts, and apocalyptic literature predates Walpole's novel and still contain the DNA of the Gothic: they are brooding, sinister, gory, dark, mysterious, and often supernatural. But 1764 saw a shift from the present (or, as in fairy tales, indefinable time), to medieval Europe, where the tropes of Gothic literature were fostered and developed: the innocent young woman in peril, the mysterious stranger, the paranormal scholar, the seductive monster, the horrible family secret, the haunted house, the vengeful sorcerer, the deadly castle, and the melodramatic ghost.
By the time M.G. Lewis and Ann Radcliffe had created The Monk, The Italian, and The Mysterious of Udolpho, the movement was groping its way out of medieval Spain and Italy and into the cities and countrysides of Great Britain and Ireland. Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron was the tipping point that released Gothic horror onto eighteenth century England in 1778. German, Russian, and French writers began amassing a canon of Gothic literature which found its way to Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. The works of Schiller and Hoffmann and de Sade fueled the English-speaking imagination. Even as poets like Blake, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth were ruminating on the haunted landscapes, ruined abbeys, threatened lovers, and lands of ice and mist, the sublimity of the supernatural was leaking into prose as well as verse, and from their very own midst. Shelley's young wife wrote Frankenstein and Byron's personal physician created the modern vampire with his Gothic horror, The Vampyre. Both works exploded in popularity (though Byron was credited with his doctor's work), and a wave of ghost stories, monster tales, supernatural anecdotes, and Gothic novels sprang from British presses.
Across the Atlantic the Gothic had made in impact through the pen of a young attorney who was vaccationing with Sir Walter Scott and reading his German literature. Washington Irving based "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" on German folktales by Karl Musaus and other Gothic folklorists, and his transportation of European supernatural horror to the woolly hill lands of New York State inspired similar transportations by other writers. Hawthorne and Poe especially dug deeply into the Gothic traditions of Germany and Old England when constructing their dismal atmospheres. In turn they inspired a new wave of writers after the Civil War who admired their cynical misanthropy and dire symbolism. Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, and H.P. Lovecraft set out to found the American branch of Weird fiction (the British branch began with the tales of Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany) which saw horrors outside rather than of the world. They minimalized humanity and frightened through a manipulation of the cosmic unknown rather than the standard tool of the Gothic writer: the past forgotten. This is to say that the apex of human terror had yet to come - that it lurked without us - rather than to say that it was soon to come back from our own pasts in our own world.
The ghost story and the supernatural tale reached a pinnacle of excellence in the Long Edwardian Era (1895-1922) where M.R. James mastered the classic ghost story alongside Oliver Onions, E.F. Benson, and William Hope Hodgson, while Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, W.W. Jacobs, and H.G. Wells excelled at horror. It is at this point that - not long after World War I - Gothic fiction began to grow less concerned with the beast without (in spite of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos have only just begun circa 1926), than it was with the beast within. World War II galvanized this sense of inner rather than outer horror with the expose of the Holocaust. Robert Bloch's Psycho epitomizes this shift from the supernatural to the abnormal. Stephen King, too, despite his strong reliance upon the supernatural, found more to terrify within the human soul than in the distant aeons of space. Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Ghost-Face became the new terror: human brutality, sometimes spiced with the supernatural, but just as horrifying without. This trend only lurched forward with the Saw and Hostel series, where gore and sadomasochism supply cheap and tawdry chills at the expense of complex terror.
Although the Hostel, Final Destination, and Parnormal Activity franchises are nowhere near the profound psychological horrors of Lovecraft, Poe, James, and Machen, the themes are the same as those once printed in London during the eighteenth century: innocent young women stalked by lustful maniacs; dark reclusive buildings stuffed with hidden horrors, families hiding decades-long secrets from the light of day, corrupt or helpless officials daunted by unholy villains, and horror manifested in blood, darkness, monstrosities, deformities, mutilations, grisly deaths, pagan rites, and sadistic tortures.
The Gothic is not a genre that jolted to life with Walpole in the 1760s and flickered out in the 1840s with Poe. It is older than time and will live longer than any of us. The Gothic is the human fascination with the Beyond and the Unkown. It is the paradoxical pessimism of progress and fear of decay which motivates us to question impulse and to challenge stagnation. It was born from the flickering fires of our ancient ancestors who warded off the night and huddled in the bowels of caves, yet slept with one eye open, uncertain if they, notwithstanding, were guests in another beast's lair. It is an impulse to fear, conquer, and respect the forces that challenge our lives. It is the sound of a closing door at three in the morning, or the flick of a shadow in our peripheral vision when we get out of the shower: that jolt of fear that reminds us that we are alive, and that we will fight to stay so.
Bram Stoker’s name has become synonymous with horror and the macabre, and with good reason. Frequently associated with nothing more than Count Dracula, Stoker wrote some half a dozen masterpieces of short horror fiction, and another dozen-and-a-half which contribute respectably to the genre. The Bram Stoker Award was created in honor of his short fiction as much as for “Dracula.” Stephen King admired him so profoundly that – when describing Stoker’s contributions to English horror in his nonfiction summary of horror, Danse Macabre,” he raved that “Stoker wrote some absolutely champion short stories – ‘The Squaw’ and ‘The Judge’s House’ may be the best known. Those who enjoy macabre short fiction could not do better than… Dracula’s Guest, which is stupidly out of print.” In his 2011 preface to “Dracula,” King shed further light on his deep respect for Stoker, admitting that “Of all the monsters in my closet, this is the one that scares me most, and probably always will.”
Unquestionably the most influential and best recognized horror novel in the English language, Dracula’s success is in some ways baffling: it is rife with plot holes, agonizingly sappy sentimentalism, a slew of socioeconomic stereotypes, a plutocratic ethos (that clashes horribly with both American and English political sensibilities), flat and obnoxious characters (e.g., Quincey Morris and Professor Van Helsing respectively), unnecessary plot points, and a collection of staggering inconsistencies in characterization, vampiric lore, plot points, dates, timelines, and basic geographic descriptions. And yet it persists, and builds, and swells with new life, challenged only by Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper as the definitive cultural icon of the late Victorian age in the minds of most readers and moviegoers. Dracula’s proliferation is due to its deep psychological resonance with the collective consciousness of Western (and indeed, global) civilization.
Pregnant with a slew of powerful archetypes (the sinister invader from without; the naïve but valiant man of honor; the fallen but alluring seductress; the wise, grandfatherly shaman or guide; the virginal maiden in danger; the madman who imparts wisdom) worthy of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Dickens, it presents a timeless parable that is so deftly and vaguely portrayed that it manages to resonate with the psyches of anyone who encounters it: it may be a bald metaphor for the pitfalls of reckless sexuality, for female anxieties of sexual abuse or predation, for the abuses of class, for the insecurities of manhood, for the paradoxical anxieties of colonial empires, for the construction and preservation of national identity, for the combustible potential of strict gender roles, for the biblical narrative of Satan’s war waged against God, or for the internal struggle between antisocial selfishness and altruistic virtue – between the will and the conscience. Despite Stoker’s artless moments, he wrought a masterwork which speaks to human anxieties, impulses, and struggles just as capably as Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, or Great Expectations.
Stoker himself, born to a middle-classed Dublin family in 1847, was infused into his greatest work, and the psychic fingerprints of the author are left in great smears across its pages. Sickly as a child, he overcompensated for his early sedentariness with an active, athletic youth and an ambitions college career wherein he excelled at and graduated with a degree mathematics; he served as the College Historical Society’s auditor, was president of the University Philosophical Society, and became a respected critic of literature and the stage. His work in this capacity caused him to become introduced to Sir Henry Irving – largely considered the prototype for Dracula – a stupendous stage actor renowned for his Shakespearean villains.
After reading a favorable review of his portrayal of Hamlet, Irving – analogous to the 20th century’s Olivier, Welles, and Day-Lewis – invited the young Irishman over for dinner, initiating a lifelong friendship. Stoker married the Florence Balcombe, a renowned beauty and coquette, in 1878, barely snatching her away from another Draculean prototype, the suave, sexually adventurous Oscar Wilde. Wilde, like Irving, teemed with charisma and eroticism, and initially resented the Florence’s decision. While Stoker resumed a polite friendship with his countryman, the latter’s eventual disgrace and moral defamation helped to fuel the supposition that he had saved his wife from a scandalous seduction.
Irving rescued Stoker from a life of writing tedious manuals and clerical purgatory by hiring him as the business manager of his tremendously popular Lyceum Theatre in London, where he continued to work for three decades, rubbing shoulders with English high society, and developing a public profile as the practical-minded, bean-counting brains behind Britain’s most renowned actor. It was through this medium that he cultivated relationships with some of the world’s greatest living writers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Walt Whitman, heads of state, such as presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and artists like James McNeill Whistler (of Whistler’s Mother). These encounters, along with his oldest brother’s baronetcy (making him Sir Thornley Stoker, 1st Brt.), caused the ambitious accountant to become deeply conscious of his simple, middle classed background, which – despite his public profile – caused him some embarrassment.
Stoker retained a guilty passion for melodramatic romances and sentimental adventures (his first paper submitted to the University Philosophical Society was titled “Sensationalism in Fiction and Society”), and when his management of Irving’s international tours permitted him the leisure to write, he began producing a stream of fantasies, melodramas, and Gothic tales. Beginning with children’s fairy tales, an embarrassingly preachy temperance novel, and will-they-won’t-they romances, Stoker’s literary career outside of Dracula (and perhaps a dozen tales, most included in his posthumous 1914 anthology) was cringe-worthy. He was adept at prose, fair at dialogue, and had a fine hand at weaving dramatic irony, atmosphere, and setting, but he suffered horrendously from a flair for melodrama, hammy writing, and bloated morals. Consider this excerpt from his ludicrously gory, misanthropic parable “The Death Doom of the Double Born,” a scene struggling to describe the birth of twins to an elderly couple: “In the glow of thy transport all doubts are forgotten; and when the doctor cometh forth as the harbinger of joy he findeth thee radiant with new found delight.” But Dracula required a great deal of focus and effort, and while it is compromised by a horde of flaws, it shines out amongst his otherwise miserable canon of work.
Stoker began work on The Un-Dead (as he first called it) in 1890, spending seven years consuming books on Slavic folklore, vampire and werewolf myths, Eastern European history, and the great vampires (half a dozen or so) extant in English literature. Particularly inspired by his countryman, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (whose Carmilla revolutionized the literary vampire and continues to outperform even Dracula in grace and nuance), and by the aristocratic bloodsuckers Varney the Vampire, Lord Ruthven, and (Coleridge’s) Geraldine, Stoker cobbled together a compilation of these charismatic figures. He wrapped the vampiric essence in the decidedly foreign and barbaric mantle of the historic Vlad III “the Impaler” Dracula, a 15th century Transylvanian prince who waged awe-inspiring psychological warfare with invading Ottomans during a period marked by great political and civic instability in southeast Europe.
Never having visited Romania, Stoker made good use of the British Museum and the Whitby library to color his plot and settings, but rapidly switched the action to London and Whitby, where he lived and vacationed respectively. Published in 1897, the book was predictably received negatively, with critics perturbed by Stoker’s shoddy writing, sensational plot, and sexual subtest. But as a dramatized version took the English stage by storm, the book began to sell in shockingly high volumes internationally. Although Irving declined to depict his tribute, the play was astonishingly successful, and (like William Gillette’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes) set the tone for the Count for the next century, in some aspects diverting from the source material. Nationally renowned as a business manager, Stoker ironically mismanaged his copyright, and earned very little from the book. By the time he died fifteen years later, it had, nonetheless, made his name a household word, and elevated it into the macabre canon of Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allan Poe.
There were two distinct stages in Stoker’s writing career: an early stage heavily influenced by Poe’s “Arabesques” which lasted from 1872 to 1891, and one more directly influenced by Poe’s “Grotesques” and the ghost stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The first phase began with his first published horror story, “The Crystal Cup,” a ghostly fantasy – essentially a pastiche of Poe – that smacks of equal parts “Hop Frog,” “Annabel Lee,” “Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Shadow.” Among the stories printed in this book, it was followed by “The Castle of the King” (another macabre Poe piece influenced by “Ulalume,” “Eldorado,” “Lenore,” and the Greek myth of Orpheus), “The Dualitists” (Stoker’s grisliest, most misanthropic tale – one which concerns two psychopathic boys’ sadistic rampage), and “The Star Trap” (a revenge narrative – not unlike Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Hop Frog” – set in the British theatre, where a love triangle in an acting company proves fatal). While Stoker continued to be influenced by Poe, 1891 saw a shift in his writing style and a sense of gravitas and psychological complexity entered his fiction. The works of his fellow Anglo-Irishman, Le Fanu, seemed to provide a new range of literary colors with which to paint his horror stories, and the 1890s would be remembered in Stoker’s life as the Era of Masterpieces.
Beginning in 1891, he wrote what continues to be seen as his short fiction masterpiece, “The Judge’s House.” It must be admitted that the story is almost a plagiaristic retooling of two of Le Fanu’s best stories: “Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” and “Mr Justice Harbottle.” Both stories (the second is a kind of prequel to the first) revolve around a house which is haunted by the malevolent spirit of a Georgian hanging judge. The first story is the more precise model of “The Judge’s House”: it includes overworked students renting a cheap house, horrible nightmares, a giant anthropomorphic rat (the familiar of the dead judge), a haunted portrait of the previous owner, and the figure of the judge casually coming towards one of the students with a noose in hand. Le Fanu’s story was written in 1853, nearly forty years prior, and Stoker – to his credit – breathes new life into it by changing the tense from first person to third, by reducing the protagonists from two skeptical students to one, by changing the setting from the heart of Dublin to a country village, and by ending the story with a tragedy.
Le Fanu’s fiction typically viewed humanity with cynicism, but also somber pity: the mass of men are like so many flies finding themselves trapped in webs woven by a disinterested creator – a punishing, merciless, vindictive God who has little interest in rewarding acts of righteousness, but focusing all of his energies on reprimanding the slightest misstep, bringing the full force of karmic punishment to bear against the merest accident of a sin. Throughout the 1890s, Stoker committed himself to creating a similar literary perspective. “The Judge’s House” was followed by a chilly ghost story in the pattern of Le Fanu called “The Growing of the Gold,” which witnesses the comeuppance of a murderous lover who is haunted by the hair of his victim. This was in turn followed by another masterpiece, “The Squaw,” which combined themes from Poe (“The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum”) and Le Fanu (“The White Cat of Drumgunniol,” “The Secret of the Two Plaster Casts”) to form a story about a cat’s gruesome vengeance on the bumbling tourist who killed its kitten, and “Crooken Sands,” a strange tale about an Englishman who adopts a Highland costume while touring Scotland – there he is imperiled by a prophetic old man, visions of his Doppelgänger, and hazardous quicksand.
Stoker began “Dracula” in the early part of the decade, working out its plot for several years before it was published in 1897. Also heavily influenced by several Le Fanu stories – primarily the infamous “Carmilla” (Le Fanu’s erotic masterpiece about a lesbian vampire who attaches herself to the only daughter of a widower, a lonely girl whose first friendship is also her first sexual experience), but also “Ultor de Lacy” (an Irish rebel leaves his two daughters in a tower where they wait for his return; one of the two (the Lucy prototype), a romantic sleepwalker, is seduced by the vampiric ghost of a family enemy from a previous century). The first four chapters of Stoker’s chef d’oeuvre are included here with notes and illustrations from our “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Also included is “Dracula’s Guest,” the rejected first chapter of “Dracula,” a masterwork in its own right: Jonathan Harker stops in Germany while en route to Castle Dracula, and finds himself lost in a graveyard during a blizzard where he encounters a ghostly female vampire and the Count himself (in werewolf form).
After the success of “Dracula,” a commercial hit, Stoker turned increasingly towards the novel as a means of income: he wrote a series of Gothic novels during the 20th century, including “The Lair of the White Worm,” “The Lady of the Shroud,” and “The Jewel of the Seven Stars” (about the reincarnated spirit of an Egyptian princess; a predecessor of Universal Pictures’ “Mummy” films). But he did not wholly give up on short fiction during this time. Having died in 1912, Stoker’s second-most popular published work wasn’t printed until 1914. “Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories” was edited by his wife, Fanny, who included several posthumous pieces along with masterpieces like “The Judge’s House,” “The Squaw,” and “Dracula’s Guest.”
Among the previously unpublished stories – presumably written in the 1900s – were three stories with a common theme: fate. “The Gipsy Prophecy” dealt with the dire warning of a Romani fortune teller to a skeptic, “The Coming of Abel Behenna” follows a love triangle that ends in murder and the killer’s exposure with the help of the corpse, and “A Dream of Red Hands” involves a man whose past sins haunt him in a recurring dream of damnation. A fourth posthumous story – now considered a masterpiece of suspense in the tradition of “Three Skeleton Key,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – called “The Burial of the Rats” is a Hitchcockian chase narrative wherewith an English tourist (always a fair victim for Stoker) finds himself lost in one of Paris’ junkyards where mounds of dusty debris form the treacherous landscape, where its cutthroat beggars mercilessly hunt him down to rob and kill, and where dead bodies don’t last an hour before they are stripped clean of flesh by the ravenous rats.
Stoker’s fiction – in all its phases – has a common Hitchcockian theme found in “The Castle of the King,” “The Judge’s House,” “The Squaw,” “Dracula’s Guest,” “The Burial of the Rats,” among others. The idea that mankind is vulnerable, alone, helpless, and surrounded by predators permeates his fiction. No matter how secure we imagine ourselves to be: no matter how rich, how good, how middle-class, how respectable, how wise, how loving, how strong, how clever, or how educated – no matter how prepared we are to face challenges – we are always on the defense, always at the disadvantage, always moments away from destruction. It only takes a second for the fake comforts of status, education, or morality to become useless, and then we are left to fend for ourselves with only our animal instincts as a defense.
As in many of the films of Alfred Hitchcock (e.g., North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew too Much), Stoker’s stories feature beleaguered everymen ensnared in the machinations of insidious forces which are not impressed by their morals or intimidated by their manly dignity. In “The Castle of the King,” the poet hopes that love will save both him and his beloved – it does not. In “The Judge’s House,” Malcolmson relies on his education and skepticism to protect him from evil – it does not. In “The Squaw,” Hutcheson depends on his tested skills as a hunter, fighter, cowboy, and frontiersman to guard him from slaughter – it does not. In “Dracula’s Guest” and “The Burial of the Rats,” the middleclass, English tourists who stumble into trouble are not saved by their breeding, money, morality, or intelligence: both are saved by the deus ex machina intervention of a detachment of foreign policemen (German and French, respectively) who arrive at the nick of time to preserve them from destruction.
Stoker’s world – like Poe’s and Le Fanu’s – is cold and Darwinian, unforgiving and unsympathetic. To survive in it we must band together, cling to our communities, and respect alternative views of the universe (being a materialist didn’t save Malcolmson from the noose nor did being a stoic save Hutcheson from the iron maiden). Travel may be undergone at our own risk as long as we have an understanding that by stepping on foreign soil, we waive our rights to be correct: we must trust local traditions and anxieties and eschew the arrogance of nationalism. Ultimately, Stoker’s vision of humanity and his impression of the world is deeply pessimistic and harshly misanthropic: mankind is deluded into feeling superior to Nature – prince of a domain that seems to have been conquered. But whether the enemy be starving beggars, aristocratic vampires, vengeful cats, ghostly psychopaths, or wolves in the snow, Stoker has one message for us: don’t get cocky, don’t feel too safe; wherever you are you are vulnerable, so – for God’s sake, for your mother’s sake – be careful, watch your steps, and don’t forget to look behind you.
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