It's one thing to attempt to review something written before your grandparents were even born. Its another thing to review a book that old that pretty much every other monster type book or movie has spent the last hundred or so years ripping off (or ripping off the copycats, just to make things more interesting). There's been parodies and musicals and rock operas and probably interpretative dance numbers that are based on this book, with no doubt more being concocted as we speak. How the heck can you even approach something like this with any sort of fresh look and read it for what it is and not what people have spent over a century adapting and embellishing and mocking it?

Well, in my case it helps that I've never actually seen any of the Frankenstein movies (yeah, apparently I had a sheltered childhood, it doesn't help that I'm a giant coward when it comes to scary movies) so my recollection of what a Frankenstein monster should be is mostly based on vague cultural memory and probably old episodes of Scooby-Doo. People who are a little more versed in various horror cliches might find themselves both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised at the differences between the Frankenstein you thought you knew and the apparent result of Mary Shelley's poor decision to go right to bed after eating pickles and ice cream. Some people have dreams where they wind up in class naked, some people have terrible waking nightmares where mad scientists bring their creations to life. How many of your dreams are people going to be reading a hundred years from now?

But to those people who do venture in, they may not find what they expect. For one thing, lest the date of publication didn't tip you off, its a Gothic novel written in the nineteenth century, which if you've never had experience with that kind of thing before may give you a slight bit of culture shock. Instead of getting sharp sequences of undiluted horror you have long passages where the narrator talks about his feelings in a highly dramatic "woe-is-me" melodramatic fashion, interspersed with dead bodies turning up, which gives him more fuel for lamenting. Very few characters can answer a simple question in less than a paragraph and without declaring their feelings on the matter in as effusive a way as possible. Even the monster is super chatty (more on that in a bit). These aren't really bad, per se, but they are things you've going to have to accept if you read any novel from this time period. Nobody was real big on the snappy plotting. You'll get to the good stuff eventually but you have to give it some rope.

I should also take a moment to point out that some Frankenstein purists prefer the original published in 1817, which is a little harder to find in book form unless you check the edition carefully (being its public domain I'm sure its easy to find online) you'll wind up with the later revised edition from 1831, which seems to be the popular choice. I'm pretty sure that's what I read and while you can probably read texts detailing all the differences and arguments over which is better, I'm not about to write a thesis on it so I'll just say I read the revised version and leave it at that. It worked just fine for me.


 

The other big difference that people will pick up on right away is that its not really all that scary. Its "Gothic" in the brooding, atmospheric sense, especially as the novel is basically a series of tragedies and things going wrong (or one thing going really wrong and leading to a series of tragedies, depending on how you want to look at it) but at no point does it really raise your pulse or make you want to read it with the lights on. There are murders but pretty much all of them happen offscreen and while there's some horror in finding dead bodies all over the place (and even the basic, brilliant concept of the novel is frightening in itself) its more gruesome or grotesque than anything else. Contrast that with something like "Dracula", which scared the living crap out of me as a kid (in book form, at least, I've never seen the movies because coward) and this will seem very tame in comparison. Even the "let my creation have life!" scene that everyone remembers with crackling electricity doesn't even appear in the book. In fact, the creation of the monster is so low-key I thought I had missed something, its more a "well hey, that worked" that quickly devolves into "this the worst idea in the history of bad ideas".

So where's the appeal beyond giving credit to the innovator (SF writer Brian Aldiss has claimed this should be considered the first SF novel). For me at least its the scenes with the monster, who is far, far different than anything you've probably ever seen in a film adaptation. Unlike all those portrayals where he "urrr" and grunts his way through the proceedings, the monster here (not named although he seems to flirt with the name Adam for a bit) is not only capable of speech but actually quite eloquent and intelligence. He also kind of acts like a spurned lover and the meat of the novel rests with the conflict between the creator and his creation, where Frankenstein wants nothing to do with his creation except kill it and the monster demands some measure of responsibility from his creator. After all, the monster somewhat convincingly argues, its not like he asked to be made hideous and hated and shunned by everyone. Doesn't he deserve a little bit of happiness too? In that sense the novel functions as a strange romance where neither of them can quit the other but also aren't able to make the other do what they want, leading to a long chase scene across the European countryside and further north that would almost be teasingly flirtatious if not for the corpses that keep cropping up and the sheer desperation in figuring out some kind of resolution to all this.

Interestingly, and this will probably depend on how the reader wants to interpret it, but it really seems like Victor Frankenstein doesn't come off too well in the novel. He denies the monster's one request and then can't seem to understand why someone might blame him for being condemned to a life of loneliness, misery and heartbreak because of that. Being eight feet tall and ugly, its not like he can blend into a crowd and his best option, which is to channel that anguish by moving to the suburbs and starting an emo band, won't available for over a hundred and fifty years (though in Michael Bishop's "Brittle Innings" he seems to join a baseball team).

In the end, the monster is the one that winds up being the star and not just because its like nothing anyone had really experienced in literature before. Why Frankenstein gets most of the screen time (and the endless moaning about miserable the situation he entirely created himself and perpetuated beyond logic has become) his degree of doomed tragedy is somewhat offset by the fact he comes from a loving, well-off family and is possessed of great intelligence that pretty much guarantees him to be successful. Despite everything, his problems are almost entirely of his own making. Here, the monster is the victim and his two big passages where he either takes the narrative reigns or gives a speech are the highlights of the novel, as he details with passion just what its like to live in a world that hates and fears you without even bothering to talk to you first or at least see what sports team you like. It almost seems at time that Shelly's sympathies lie with the monster and that may explain why the monster ultimately gets the last word, in a crackerjack of a speech that intermingles sadness and anger and resignation in such a nuanced way that it reveals the rest of the novel for the overwrought pot-boiler it often threatens to become. He seems to suggest at the end "I could have been so much better if you and the rest of the world had been so much better" and despite the monster having blood on his hands there's still a lingering unfairness to it all that suggests he might have a point. The monster is only a child, and what children need are adults to guide and show them how to act. But when every adult can only show him fear and the backs of their hands (and their pitchforks), its no wonder everything goes south so quickly. If there's anything that can be learned through all the hand-wringing and extreme emoting, its that talking sometimes works better than lashing out and listening might work best of all.