“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” – Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
The limping Phantasm of a new horror bristled across the dreamscape of a young woman’s darkest imagination. The misshapen Thing beckoned to her, demanding concession for its own hideous sentience; demanding to be recognized, the Creature rapped its corded fist of scars and confused tissues against the smoky glass that separates our waking world from the shadow realm of sleep, shattering the delicate veil, and roaring to be brought through to us. From nightmares, the Thing of death called out to to be brought to life and she granted it entrance.
Much like her obsessed titular character, Mary Shelley was on her own quest to bring life to things wrought from fretful dreams. She admits to having seen a terrible shadow pass along her room one night, a thing shown but only briefly by a searing flash of blistering light. Her Monster, her own very personal demon, was brought to life before her eyes by the lightning.
That nightmare left an imprint on her soul.
A fitting origin to what would become her horrific masterpiece!
How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea? – Mary Shelley
A marvelous question, but asked by a writer of titanic skill. Be warned, dear reader, when a writer has a marvelous question many dark little horrors can be given shape from it.
Example: a young father had moved his small family to a new home, a home just a little too (precariously) close to a busy road. This father just barely caught hold of his young boy who, as little boys do, run very quickly and take little heed to the dangerous world around them. The toddler’s quest to cross the road was stopped and the father held the lad to his chest as a truck, all eighteen wheels roaring, flashed down the road before his eyes. A truck that surely would have made quick and gruesome work of a tiny boy such as his son.
The father thought, “What would have happened if I hadn’t been quick enough?” Oh, did I mention there was a pet cemetery out in the woods behind their house?
You see, those are the questions that keep us writers up at night. The only way to expel them is to share them, and I believe that’s exactly why gods and devils disturb our thoughts and rest. We are unwilling ambassadors of the dark world. What scares us shall surely frighten you too.
It takes a marvelous question and then, with time, a whole lot of obsession.
The Art of Obsession
Perhaps it’s the curse of our times but few truly understand the need for wild obsessions. I mean the pang of desperation. I want writers to have a deep-rooted passion for their craft, not to make money (though who can bitch about monetary gain?) but to release demons, horrors beyond time and space, and to break taboos without ever feeling the need to apologize for the black miracles they’ve unleashed upon the world.
That’s the kind of obsessions I mean. The kind we’d all be locked up for if we should ever dare explore them in real life, but, vicariously lived through the monsters and madmen we unlock while writing.
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Each word is poetry begotten of the macabre, stitched together in such eloquence that we cannot turn our eyes away. Imagine not knowing the story! Imagine the sickening thrill of the slightest twitch of the creation’s finger. Readers howled and screamed upon first reading Shelley’s gothic horror masterpiece.
A masterpiece about death but brimming with, although nefarious as it may be, life! It’s been told and retold across the generations as new horror fans come to know the name of Frankenstein, a man who dared to play as God.
Mary Shelley was not ignorant of the questionable practices, or shall we say, abominations committed all in the name of science of her day. It was a well-known secret that educated men blatantly combined alchemy with the practice of medicine, and, most importantly, the Occult was often employed to further their maddening pursuits. Doctors were driven by the devil himself to unravel the mysteries of life by invading the taboo of death.
Graves were robbed. Cadavers were stolen. Experiments to envy the lectures of Hell were practiced. Such things were not unheard of and became haunted gossip among social gatherings. It all boiled down to this: Could a man create after his own image?
Reality and fiction are very thinly divided and sometimes the two cross over.
So what if it could really be accomplished? Among these bodily pieces of dead men’s tissues, organs, limbs, and bones, what if, out of a thousand efforts, one single man proved more driven than his peers? What if one manic student reached into the shadow of death and pulled something out?
“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!” Frankenstein, Marry Shelley
Shelley dared explore this phantasmal taboo and wisely included her own personal trauma to weave together an immortal tale that will outlive us all.
There’s a reason the story stands the test of time.
Shelley’s Grim Philosophy
Another inspiration for Frankenstein came from one of Mary Shelley’s favorite tales, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic depiction of the Genesis account and Fall of Lucifer. Hints to the poem’s immediate influence over her thoughts can be spotted across her own epic tale.
God made Man in His image and that image turned to Sin, brother murdered brother, and, in time, wars left corpses outside the guarded gates of Paradise.
That was the result of a created being made after the image of God. So, what tremendous malevolence can be expected from a thing made after the image of (fallen) Man?
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Victor Frankenstein stood to lose everything for the sake of his creation. The story is a tragic narrative of a weary man whose wick has not long for this sad world. His youth was eaten up by the sorrow gleaned by his own hands. He dared to play God and so finds himself utterly God-forsaken and damned at the story’s end. He is pursued by his Creation to the very end of the world where nothing but ice and barren landscapes are found.
Frankenstein’s story is a brutal cautionary tale for the ages. Grave robber, thief of death, madman, scientist, and creator of monsters. But who is the true monster in the story? The Creation did not beg to be a new Lazarus. The Creation was given life unwillingly and then abandoned by his own father.
True, it was the Monster’s hands that ripped, tore, strangled, and left a trail of carnage and tears. But it’s to be argued that such an abomination would never had the chance to lay a single finger against anyone had Frankenstein not created him.
The Creation does go on a glorious rampage to punish Victor Frankenstein for the unwanted curse of life. The Monster, as we call it, kills everyone Victor loves until only the graying husk of a man is left of the bright student from Geneva.
So it is a story of Ouroboros, the snake ever eating its own tail. And in like manner, Frankenstein is an eternal story that will outlive us all. Even as the worms devour this flesh the Creation of the madman will continue to haunt the world.
Dear reader, let’s talk about now. If Shelley teaches us anything from her personal life it is to never ignore the germ of an idea. Oh but especially a hideous idea; a creeping, howling, malignant idea birthed out of nightmares!
How many horror stories are being ignored right now? How many good scares are we being robbed of just because you haven’t written it? Mary Shelley didn’t set out to make a world-wide phenomenon. She just wanted to scare her friends. So that’s a really good starting place. Scare the people closest to you. And never, ever give up.
Your idea could happen while you’re on a walk. It could make itself known while you look out the window, or pick up a coffee. You might have to put aside the internet a little bit because writing demands time and attention just like Frankenstein’s Creation.
Hunchbacks in bell towers, Ghosts haunting Opera Houses, Vampires in Transylvania, men who go invisible, a masked horror that rises from Crystal Lake, a dream demon who haunts nightmares, a puzzle box that opens Hell, a psychopath who invents torture traps and leaves his victims to make the ultimate choice to live or die.
Monsters are out there, and there are so many of them, but guess what? There’s even more not yet discovered. Are you willing to be possessed by a need to tell a story? I for one would love to read it.
What are your fears and nightmares? What monstrosity might you end up stitching together? Piece by piece, stitch by stitch, nightmares tied to social anxieties, and powered by the engine of your own dark influences what great terror might we expect from you?