Mary Shelley (nee Wollstonecraft Godwin: August 30, 1779 – February 1, 1851
She was the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. And if this lineage were not enough in the way of bone fides, she was married to the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Mary Shelley was no dummy.
In 1816 Mary and Percy Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Clair Clairmont near Geneva, Switzerland. It was a cold, rainy and wet summer, and often the company was confined to the house. It was here, in that house, by the shores of Lake Geneva, that Frankenstein was born.
Lord Byron proposed a wager. East of the company would write it’s own ghost story, and they would see which one was the scariest. Each went to work, but Mary was having a lot of trouble thinking of something to write about. Finally, she hit upon her idea. “What,” she wondered, “if a corpse could be re-animated?”
The rest was history, and needless to say, Mary won the wager.
Her story was indeed the scariest, and has been scaring folks for almost two hundred years now. It started as a short story. With Percy’s encouragement, it expanded to a novel. It was a hit, spawning countless incarnations and versions.
It has never gotten old. Frankenstein is of course a gothic novel, but it was groundbreaking as well for its day and age. It is considered to be one of the very first science fiction stories.
It plays on one of our most basic phobias. Not only things that go bump in the night, but our very real, and largely well-founded fear of science gone mad and out of control. It worries us with the possibility of medical mistakes (For instance I have often been accused of having received a criminal’s brain) and with the hubris and god-complex of many practitioners of the medical arts today.
Cloning and biological engineering come to mind.
Our fears were given a face–and it was not a pretty one. Perhaps no other actor so personified the face of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation than that of the late great Boris Karloff. He owned the monster. No one would ever do it better. Boris can perhaps be credited with scaring the stuff out of more children than any other person who ever lived. I know he scared the crap out of me.
Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff were made for each other, and it was a shame that they would never meet in life. Mary Shelly passed at only age fifty-three, the victim of a brain tumor.
Perhaps they sit together now on a distant moor, cooking up even scarier yet ghost stories between them. It would be appropriate. After all, Mary Shelley, a diminutive woman, was the true designer, creator, and architect of the most famous monster that ever lived.
And yes, he does live, in our collective psyche. In our hearts, our minds, our imagination, and most of all–in our darkest nightscapes.
Not too bad for a result of a wager made between four very bored literary type individuals, on a cold, dark, rainy summer night–a couple of centuries ago.
Thanks Mary, for a job well done . . . and for all the goosebumps.
Next time . . . the scariest story ever written. The Monkey’s Paw.
Until then . . . Happy Nightmares.