Hearts of Darkness Tome 1: Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, we start out with a tale spun from a ghost story, and possibly the start of a whole new genre.

Repeat after me: Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster. Got it? Good.

Right, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus is often pointed to as the first science fiction novel, as a driven scientist creates something as a triumph of the rational mind, only to be destroyed by it, something the genre has taken and ran with ever since. Poor Doomed Victor finds echoes across the SF genre, and is a huge influence on popular cultures image of scientists even today, yet his inception was a night of ghost stories, and his tale, of hubris, ambition and madness, owes much to the tradition of Gothic Horror that swept through the 19th century.

The story is quite simple – entranced with a combination of the new Natural Sciences and a romantic view of the old alchemists, Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with creating life in his laboratory, pretty much because he can. Successful, yet horrified, he abandons his creation, who stalks him, threatens him, and makes him promise to create him a mate. Frankenstein at first agrees, then revolts, and the creature takes it’s revenge, then flees, leading them both to death in the frozen north.

Structurally it’s told in a pretty clever way – a framing narrative by an obsessed Arctic Explorer who finds Victor lost and dying on the ice and recognises a kindred spirit, only to be told his shocking tale. In the middle, Victor recounts the story of the creatures life, as told to him, a story of innocence shattered that in many ways is the most moving and thought-provoking section of the novel. The creature is painted as a blank canvas, someone who only learns of humanity through experience, a process that leaves it both longing and contemptuous of what it cannot have.

Both Victor and the Creature are difficult characters in many ways – the Creature is guilty of calculated murder but is in many ways a child, abandoned and adrift and no without sympathy. Victor on the other hand is seems wildly unstable, prone to months long nervous breakdowns at the drop of a hat (seriously, he has about 5 in the course of the book), and a man who runs away from his problems rather than face them. Both are prone to long bouts of self-pity.

That said, you can see why Frankenstein is such an enduring classic. The core concept of being destroyed by your own hubris and pride is very powerful, and for all the histrionics, the mounting horror of a being pursuing you, slowly destroying your life and sanity, is well played out. The final denouement, with Victor dead and the creature  mourning him, played against the explorers return home, free from own obsessions, is thematically clever and neatly done. All in all, a good start to the year.

Next time: Master of the Macabre, Edgar Allen Poe!

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below of via twitter @thegrampus.

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