Saturday, August 19, 2023

Re-writing Mary Shelley's Monster




The Monster from Frankenstein has far eclipsed knowledge or memory of his actual creator, Mary Shelley. Frankenstein has become embedded in Western mythology, popular or otherwise, with takes on and alternate versions of the novel and its film versions abounding. It's daunting to even contemplate producing yet another such.

To use Stephen King's word for Salem's Lot, my "riff" on Frankenstein began with an anthology proposal from Sarah Zettel, founder of Book View Cafe: that Byron and Percy Shelley had not merely discussed the possibility of artificially creating life, but had gone ahead and done so. And what, then, became of the resulting "automaton/s"?

Among enthusiastic responses, mine was one that foregrounded Mary Shelley herself, but it didn't reach the anthology. I was left with a half-written short story, titled "Spring in Geneva," first sketches of a modified Monster, and the narrator: M. Anton Zyli, a banker in Geneva in 1818. 

I had intended Anton as your stereotypic banker: conservative, cautious, constantly shocked by the gyrations of the other two. On first confronting the Monster, he would recoil in at least decorous shock. Alas. Anton's first response was to offer money to a presumed famine victim; the second, to ask his origins, and then respond enthusiastically to the reply of, "Tierra del Fuego." Every plan went astray from there, for to my horror, Anton wasn't a banker. He was that most insatiably curious and intrepidly enthusiastic of creatures, an SF geek. 

Consequently the Monster also left the proposed rails. I had described him in Shelley's literal words: seven feet high, lank black hair, livid complexion, straggling beard. No patch-work skin, no nuts or bolts. As in the 1984 cover above, those descend from the Boris Karloff 1930s film portrayal. Anton, however, was not only un-horrified, but instantly made his discovery speak: whereupon my story took its first giant step away from Shelley's, since despite his looks, the Monster presented as a civilized, educated man. When "Mary Godstone" entered in the next scene we took  the second step, for unlike anyone in Shelley's novel, my Mary addressed the Monster by a given name: "William," she said. 

In the characters' terms, this might have been either a delicate attention to Mary, or an unconscious wish from "William," since the name belonged to both Mary's father and son. I was still too far behind Anton to dispute even the potentially confusing correspondence. William the character became, and William he stayed. His very different backstory kept one crucial correspondence with Shelley's. "William" too was taught to read, but unlike the Monster, he was given rather than found books, and he became a positive knowledge sink. Otherwise, rather than a whole nested tale, he had only one scene to describe his creation, naturally to Anton. He retained the Monster's attributes of superhuman strength and potential violence, and evinced a positively volcanic hatred for his creator; but when he reappeared in the sequel, "The Waters of the Amazon," he had added a scientific career, a reputation among the tribes as a demi-god, and Anton, who once wondered if William, being "made," could have a soul, now joyfully acknowledged him to be not merely human, but a notable human: he had acquired "gravitas."

As the short story expanded into a novella, Anton's viewpoint was crucial to William's evolution. I did not foresee how Anton's perspective would affect "Mary." Early on I gave her a number of Shelley's own words, outside the novel proper, and I first envisioned her in the journal's terms: the mute devoted listener to Byron and Percy's debates. Within Anton's orbit all that changed. Her ethereal appearance, her aura of "melancholy" captivated Anton, that closet romantic, at first glance. Yet in this version she was already a single mother, abandoned when Percy left for Italy, who for two whole years had fended for William, her son and herself. She very soon displayed a formidable composure and a most steely intellect, adding physical courage to the time's much admired quality of "address" - what we would call "gumption" nowadays. This ability to meet peril and crisis with speed and resource very soon morphed Anton's semi-attraction into admiration and beyond.

In this process "Mary" also evolved a feminist dimension, so to speak. Much recent foregrounding has focused on the "female" aspects of Shelley's daughterhood and motherhood, notably in the famous reading of Frankenstein as a birth myth generated by the loss of her own newborn child. My Mary, however, turned to the father-daughter relationship. One of the strongest links to Frankenstein is a scene, ostensibly of concern about the violent side of William's nature, in which Mary echoes the ambivalence of loss and hate Walton briefly discerned in the Monster after Frankenstein's death. My Mary echoes this waver in describing her own relationship with William Godwin, her "Creator." Given Godwin's overall treatment of his daughter, such a view seemed very plausible, though in this plot's context, so much introspection was a surprise.

The plot indeed developed with plenty of action and skulduggery, dismissing Percy Shelley, villainising Byron as the creation's mastermind, now determined to reclaim William, doubtless for sinister ends, and imperilling the principals with night-time potshots, daytime attempts at abduction, hand-to-hand scrimmages, and outcrops of the original Monster's superhuman strength, rage, and violence. But Anton increasingly shifted the Frankenstein ambience, as another influence filtered in. 

Unlike Frankenstein, the Victorian popular favourite, Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is now all but forgotten, though "Ruritania," as a wild and wacky Eastern European scene for outrageous adventure, still survives. In 1897 it had already migrated to Dracula, with Stoker's Transylvania. I met it first in Margery Allingham's Sweet Danger (1933), when Albert Campion masquerades as the "Paladin of Averna," then in Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool (2008), and most recently in Sherwood Smith's 2010-12 Dobrenika series. All these descendants preserve the original's swash-buckling, sword-fighting, and often melodramatic romantic elements. Zenda's hero Rudolph Rassendyll falls desperately in love with the heroine, whom he can never marry, and the novel ends with a single red rose sent annually as token of his devotion. Here, I had barely adjusted to Anton's SF geekness before he began to "Rassendyll." 

First his admiration increased to the point of a capitalised "She" every time Mary displayed wits or address, and amid the rising violence he grew increasingly melodramatic. When he fell on his knees after a crisis, crying, "Madame, Madame, I have betrayed you! ... I have ruined all!" I realised with - sort-of, shock-and-horror - that we were skidding in and out of what I can only call anti-climax comedy.  At one point I even managed to fulfill a lifetime ambition, of having someone exclaim, "By heavens, I will crush you all!" This vein climaxed in Anton's eventual proposal, only slightly less disastrous than Mr. Darcy's first, where his rapturous catalogue of Mary's virtues concludes with, "You were born to be a banker's wife!"

Zenda itself never touched comedy; nevertheless, its closure produced a very strong echo at the end of "Spring in Geneva," where, if Anton isn't sending annual red roses, he is resolved to answer a summons from Mary, from anywhere, any time in the years ahead. And ten years later, it comes. But that's a subject for another post.  

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