Out of Control

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Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, 1935


“And now, once again,” wrote Mary Shelley in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, “I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” It has certainly done so, but in ways, and for reasons, she could never have foreseen. Currently there are more than sixty million Google results for a search of the name “Frankenstein,” more than for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There have been more than three hundred editions of the original novel; more than 650 comic books and cartoon strips inspired by it; over 150 fictional spin-offs and parodies; at least ninety films, including James Whale’s 1931 classic with Boris Karloff; and something like eighty stage adaptations. It is now frequently required reading in schools, and passing classroom references to “Shelley” may more likely mean Mary than Percy Bysshe (the obscure author of Prometheus Unbound). In the press the term “Frankenstein” is still standard shorthand for science gone wrong, warning of every supposed scientific “menace” from nuclear power to stem cell research and genetic modification. In short, her monster has become a modern myth.

This mythic prosperity, whatever it signifies today, was slow in coming. Mary Shelley’s original three-volume novel was published quietly and anonymously by Lackington and Co., Finsbury Square, London, in March 1818 and to little acclaim. It had already been rejected by Byron’s famous publisher, John Murray. At the time it seemed so utterly strange that its few reviewers thought it must have been written by Mary’s father, the notorious anarchist philosopher William Godwin, or possibly, according to the great romancer Sir Walter Scott in Blackwood’s, by Mary’s husband, the dangerous atheist poet. The Quarterly Review stonily observed: “Our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing…. The author leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero.”

If they had guessed the author was in reality a young woman, only eighteen when she began her first draft, no doubt the critical chorus of disapproval would have been even more thunderous.

It is astonishing that the book ever got written at all. The nightmare birth of the initial idea, during the celebrated stormy ghost-story competition of June 1816 at the Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, between Lord Byron and the two Shelleys, is well attested by Mary herself and also by the contemporary diary of Byron’s volatile medical companion, Dr. William Polidori, an expert on somnambulism. (“A conversation about principles, whether man was to be thought merely an instrument…. Twelve o’clock, really began to talk ghostly…. Stories are begun by all but me.”)

But the actual composition of the first 72,000-word draft lasted some eleven months, until May 1817, during which time Mary’s stepsister, Claire, bore Byron’s illegitimate baby secretly in…

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