Thursday, February 6, 2014

Remembering Mary Shelley

In honor of Women in Horror month, I just wanted to give a nod to probably the most famous female horror writer of all:  Mary Shelley. (Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; 30 August 1797-1 February 1851.)

She wasn't primarily a horror writer, or course.  More a poet and novelist who sometimes delved into science fiction.  Her private life was filled with upheaval, tragic loss and dead children.  In her childhood, she was exposed to many literary giants.  At the age of sixteen, she eloped with the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (a married man at the time.  His wife later committed suicide, freeing him to wed young Mary.) At a literary gathering she and her husband attended at Lord Byron's castle, Mary...purely on a dare...penned a story of raising the dead by scientific means.  So came to exist her lasting legacy, of course:  Her world-famous novel Frankenstein (or, The Modern Prometheus - 1818.)  Truly a hauntingly disturbing and beautifully written, darkly poetic novel that remains a household word and a cinematic favorite to this day.  Though initially assumed by many to be her husband's work (given the Chauvinistic bent of the nineteenth century) Frankenstein revealed Mary Shelley's talent as a horror writer:

"I heard the creaking of my door, as if some one endeavored to open it softly.  I trembled from head to foot; I felt a presentiment of who it was and wished to rouse one of the peasants who dwelt in a cottage not far from mine; but I was overcome by the sensation of helplessness, so often felt in frightful dreams, when you in vain endeavor to fly from an impending danger, and was rooted to the spot.  Presently I heard the sound of footsteps along the passage; the door opened, and the wretch whom I dreaded appeared."

  But, far more than a horror story, Frankenstein was an agonizing tail of love and tragic loss, of man's insatiable obsession to conquer and control all, including life and death.  The horror taught the tragic and humbling lesson of man's ambition falling short, as always, of his wisdom, his arrogance outweighing his compassion:

"Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured with living animal to animate the lifeless clay?  My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit."

"All my speculations and hopes are as nothing, and like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell."

Shelley's dark journey didn't stop with Frankenstein's tortured soul, but showed us the world through the monster's eyes, as well.  We hear his articulate account of awakening, Adam-like in a forest, achieving awareness alone after being rejected and abandoned by a creator who found his creation's ugliness a failure of his godlike ambition.  We feel his infantile wonder at the first sight of sun and moon light.  We follow the growth of his understanding, his wonder and horror at the marvels and terrors of the human condition.   We see the hurts inflicted upon him by the cruelties of human ignorance as he evolves from innocent to murderer, his dark journey seemingly swift and inevitable, and so clearly and at times fiendishly analyzed.  He's the accusing witness to human evil, but he's also the dark parody of man, almost Job-like as he curses his creator for giving him life and then abandoning him:

"All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!  Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.  You purpose to kill me.  How dare you sport thus with life?  Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind.  If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining. friends."

"I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.  Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded.  I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.  Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

"Shall I respect man when he condemns me?  Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance.  But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.  Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery.  I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred."

In exploring the dark theme of alienation and tragedy, of human indifference creating our own monsters, Shelley holds up a harsh mirror for us to gaze into.  The monster is like a dark reflection of Frankenstein, created in his own image.  It pursues him like a specter of death, killing all he loves, for he has refused his creation love.  He seeks to destroy it, as we all seek to destroy the evil side of ourselves which we've cultivated over the years with our own selfishness, but in the end, he fails.

Sadly, the story's been shamelessly mangled by Hollywood since the 1930's, reducing Shelley's immortal Frankenstein's creature to an inarticulate, grunting, groaning flat-headed lumbering zombie with bolts in his neck and platform shoes.  A running joke, a cartoon mockery of Shelley's genius.

It's also sad that, like so many artists, Mary Shelley is remembered primarily for only one great work.  But, maybe the best horror is the kind that forces us to face our own inner demons.

Thank you, Mary Shelley.

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