As Mary Shelley makes clear in her forward to the extraordinary Frankenstein, she really did come up with the idea in the way Horrible Histories said; i.e. lake, thunderstorm, Lord Byron hiding behind the curtains*, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley encouraging her to write ghost stories, etc. The idea of the scientist who reanimates bits of dead bodies to make a monster is a brilliant one, and much imitated since.
Frankenstein is a serious cove: ‘The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials’ in his ‘workshop of filthy creation’. Eek. He spends ‘days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses’. No wonder he seems permanently off-colour.
He wants to create new life and pursues his goal with sleepless vigour until, finally (and bafflingly – there is no explanation of how he achieves this), Frankenstein succeeds. Anyone expecting lots of fizzing electricity, with Heath Robinson-style apparatus sparking, and lightning flashes plus manic cries of ‘Rise, monster! Rise!’ (cf. most Hollywood versions of the story) may be disappointed. There are no pyrotechnics. In fact, the monster’s first breath could not be more bathetic: ‘I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open.’
Perhaps in 1816 it was shocking enough for the reader to consider a man daring to play God: ‘I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.’
For his The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Peter Ackroyd happily pootles along, in first or second gear most of the time, behind Shelley. He has fun with the real circumstances of the book’s genesis: Mary is an actual character in this version of events – which more or less mirrors those of her novel. We’ll come to the less in a minute. Victor Frankenstein is a young Swiss studying at Oxford, where he befriends ‘Bysshe’, who marries Mary. It’s a nice conceit – and also gives Ackroyd the chance to set most of the action in early 19th century London – and few authors know so much about the city, or write about it so entertainingly.
As a 21st century man, Ackroyd has more licence in some ways (Mary Shelley probably didn’t even dream of the monster wanking in front of Frankenstein, for gawd’s sake) but Shelley’s book is still the more disturbing, and not just because she got there first. For her Frankenstein, bodies are not ‘the seat of beauty and strength’ but ‘food for the worm…I saw how the worm inherited the wonder of the eye and the brain’. Talk about setting the tone. She doesn’t need Igor or a bolt through the neck (both later inventions).
The Frankensteins tend to abrogate responsibility for having started this unholy mess, but that’s geeks for you. There are more longeurs in Shelley’s story: the monster spends a lot of time spying on a family in a wood, for instance, and learns about civilisation from some lessons he overhears. This is silly – although, so is building an eight-foot tall human out of body parts and that bit works alright.
‘I will be with you on your wedding night,’ the monster warns in Frankenstein, conjuring up unsavoury images not envisaged by the publishers of Bride magazine. Despite his lack of social skills, the monster (in both versions of the story) determines to make Frankenstein’s life hellish, and not just by grinning nastily. He isn’t ‘born’ bad, but – rejected by his ‘father’ and pursued by men hitting him with big sticks whenever they catch sight of him – he is understandably miffed. He tracks down and murders those close to Frankenstein. ‘I had unchained an enemy among them, whose joy it was to shed their blood, and to revel in their groans,’ the good doctor says. It’s not quite Se7en but it’s unpleasant, unsettling stuff.
It is clear that creator and created are to be locked forever in a destructive embrace. They will pursue one another to the ends of the earth. Shelley’s framing device – arctic exploration, snowbound north – is often overlooked but serves to reinforce the dangers of obsession with an idea. Brexiteers take note.
By the end, it would appear that Ackroyd has run out of puff and, in exhaustion, throws in a curve ball. I did not expect to mention Bobby Ewing of Dallas in this context, but I think the comparison holds water. Shelley’s story has been popular for two centuries and will continue to be. Ackroyd’s, not so much.
*Alright, this bit may not be historically accurate