Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s the prototype for horror novels before there were horror novels. Oh sure, you could argue that horror novels go back much further, and really things like Beowulf and Greek legends have all the elements of a good horror story: heroes, monsters, death and destruction, and a bad, bad ending. But this novel and Brahm Stoker’s Dracula are the ones horror fans go back to for old school feel.
I’m actually surprised I hadn’t read this book before. It’s such a staple of English lit classes in high school and college that I wonder if I missed a reading assignment somewhere along the line. I skipped a lot of classes, so it’s entirely possible. The book is chock full of five paragraph essays, an infinite mine for essay themes like father-son and creator-creation relationships, moral duties in science, nurture vs nature in upbringing, etc., etc. If you’re pressed for time on an English paper, I wouldn’t choose this book as a basis. It’s a long, slow read and there are elements of the story buried in rambling passages where the protagonist describes how miserable he is for the eleventeenth time.
You should also be warned, kiddos googling for essay topics, that the classic horror movie of the same name bears NO resemblance to this novel. Do not put the words “lightning”, “castle”, or “Igor” in your essay. You’ll get an F!
A young privileged man from a good family and happy childhood goes off to University with dreams of becoming a master of natural philosophy (biologist/chemist). He abandons his study of alchemy and pursues knowledge of physiology with a passion that borders on OCD-like. He gets the brilliant idea to test his knowledge by piecing together a human body from spare parts and then reanimates it (though he never tells us how). He immediately flips out and abandons his now-alive creation to raise itself in the wilderness while he goes slowly insane.
The re-animated person (daemon, fiend, monster, whatever) finds out he’s a hideous abomination in the eyes of humanity and gets a little pissed off about being abandoned by his creator. He vows revenge and hijinx ensue.
The language in the book is beautiful. It was written when people still cared about five-dollar words and prose as poetry in the written word. It’s no wonder, Mary Shelley was married to a famous poet, and dabbled herself. The characters have depth and are fleshed out well, especially Victor and the Monster. You feel like you would know them if you passed them on the street and could have a conversation with them.
The scope of the book is also impressive. It ranges from the cities of Austria to the polar wastelands of the North and dozens of well-described locations in-between. Just reading the descriptions of the mountains and valleys of Switzerland, France, and Austria made me want to get on a plane and see the majestic sights for myself.
The underlying theme is brilliantly creepy and fitting of any horror story in any setting. You’ve created a monster with super-human abilities and it’s gotten free. Your creation is beyond your control and now it’s coming to get you and everyone you love. Pretty fucking scary if you think about it.
It’s pretty simple. Even though Victor Frankenstein is a compelling character, he’s a great big pussy. I’ll say that again really slow. He’s a cowardly, pathetic, impotent, dishrag of a man who makes you hate him by the end of the book. You don’t feel sorry for him, or empathize with him. You (or at least I) end up disgusted with him. He created this monster and set it loose on the world, and allows innocent people to die because he’s too cowardly to admit to the world that he’s made a colossal mistake. He spends most of the book telling the reader about how miserable he is. If he’s not in prison, or an insane asylum, then he’s in a sick bed, or moping around on a lake somewhere being pathetic. Just to give you an example; at one point, Victor knows the monster is coming for him right now and Victor gets pistols and a dagger to exact revenge. The battle is imminent, and when the monster appears on cue and does something completely evil…Victor collapses with the vapors. WTF.
Ultimately, the other thing that makes the book irritating is the grand finale is anything but. The ending isn’t satisfying. It doesn’t give anyone in the book completion of mission or revenge or retribution. I’m not going to give you the exact spoiler, but the reader is left to wonder if this creature will keep his word and end the story. Even the intrepid young explorer who relates the tale of Victor after finding him on the ice doesn’t achieve his goal. After many grand speeches and retelling of would-be adventures, everyone goes home a loser. And that just fucking sucks.
I would only recommend this book to classic horror fans who have patience, anyone interested in studying the philosophy of creation, or English Lit majors that need a book that can be debated endlessly without anyone really being right.
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