Who would have thought that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the frail, delicate wife of the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, would be responsible for writing, in 1818, what was to become one of the world’s most famous works of horror fiction, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In her preface to this Gothic tale of terror she records that she, her husband and fellow poet the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron had spent the wet summer of 1816 in Switzerland reading German ghost stories. Following this, all three agreed to write tales of the supernatural, of which hers was the only one to be completed (she also records that the original concept came to her in a half-waking nightmare).
Frankenstein is in format an epistolary novel, told through the letters of Walton, an English explorer in the Arctic. He tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein, initially an idealistic Swiss student of natural philosophy, who discovers at the university of Ingolstadt the secret of imparting life to inanimate matter. Drawn by the potential to have power over life itself, Frankenstein plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, which he shocks into life with electricity. But this botched creature (Frankenstein’s ‘Monster’), rejected by his creator and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy his maker and all that he holds dear. The story works up to a dramatic conclusion in the Arctic, which is how the story is eventually passed on from Frankenstein to Walton.
For all of the horror, both implicit and explicit, that the novel contains, it is also remarkable for its description of nature, which owes much of its power from being conceived, worked out and partially written while the author was living in the awesome surroundings of the French Alps in the exhilarating and challenging company of the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley. It should not be forgotten, as well, that Mary Shelley was only eighteen at the time she wrote Frankenstein and that perhaps her youth contributed to the novel’s refreshing originality and narrative verve. Frankenstein went on to inspire many film versions and has been regarded as the origin of both modern horror and science fiction. It remains a devastating exploration of the limits of human creativity and is arguably even more relevant today than it was when it was first published almost two hundred years ago. As a cautionary tale warning of the dangers that can be cast into society by a presuming and experimental science, Frankenstein was ahead of its time and contains the essence of a warning that we ignore today at our peril.