This isn’t a review, it couldn’t possibly be. Reviewing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be like attempting to give a critical appraisal of The New Testament.
But did want to write something about what it’s like to read Frankenstein when the story and characted have had 200 years to percolate in the creative minds a million writers, film makers, and TV producers and how the view of those who have never read the book differ from the original text.
Frankenstein is one of those odd books which is so engrained in modern culture that everyone thinks they know the story, but very few actually do — myself included. As such Frankenstein comes with a a 747’s worth of cultural baggage, and being the cultural plebeian I am, I really had no idea what to expect when starting to read Mary Shelley’s classic. Spoiler warning, the monster isn’t even green.
It took several chapters to train my brain to read the flowery 17th century language fluently, and even then it was sometimes a struggle. At the start it’s kind of like driving a car with the steering reversed, but once you get the hang of it it’s very rewarding. Also, I didn’t fully “get” the pacing, story structure, or character voices until much later on in the book, and several times I sunk into a self debasing funk where I almost gave in and dropped the book into my “I’ll pretend I read this to seem clever” pile.
The thing to remember when taking on a book such as Frankenstein is that modern culture — films, books, and television — has twisted the world of Shelley to such a degree that I found discovering the character of Frankenstein and his monster completely fresh.
Yes, this is a horror story, but the creeping sense of dread is built up not by jump scares from a brainless monster, but rather by Frankenstein’s own slow declension into depression at his terrible and hopeless situation as the monster slowly picks apart his life. What makes this even more oppressive is that the monster isn’t the lumbering, groaning, brainless creature of Boris Karloff fame, but instead an intelligent, even brilliant mind, who fully understands the actions it is taking and takes sociopathic pleasure in his killings.
All the bits of pop culture fans will be familiar with: the hulking green monster with bolts in his neck; the throwing of a switch to bring the creature to life; the lightening strikes in a gothic lab; are all inventions of Hollywood and don’t exist in the original text. In fact, there is barely any description of the monster or its creation at all, we’re just told he is horrific to look at. It’s entirely possible he could have been made from pasta twists and celery, but the story is slightly less threatening if you assume this.
In the book, Frankenstein himself is a likable, if flawed character, brought down by his own attempts to become a great scientist. The monster itself is not the mindless killer we’re so familiar with but is instead often naïve and misunderstood, only wants a companion, and speaks with such eloquent language that despite only being three or four years old at the end of the story would shame most English speakers into taking elocution lessons.
Frankenstein is a keystone of the horror and science fiction genres, but with books of this age I always wonder — pointlessly I might add — whether they would find a publisher in the modern world. I can’t help but feel that had Mary Shelley from Stoke-on-Trent submitted her horror story to a publisher in 2018 that all she would get back would be suggestions about changing the pacing, making the language a little easier on the reader, and differentiating the voices of the characters a little more.
And on the note of character voices: Frankenstein is told from a first person perspective, and so the narrative is from a single perspective, but every character — from Frankenstein, to the poverty stricken Felix, to the successful judge, to the monster itself — speak an identical voice. I’m sure there’s some clever literary reason for this which has completely gone over my head, but to me it seemed rather strange.
Frankenstein is a great, horrific tale, if you can get past your own expectations and some pretty flowery language. I’m not going to rate Frankenstein out of ten, that would be ridiculous. Instead I’m just going to post an affiliate link and encourage you to buy it. Buy it.