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Watch out this Halloween for a monster celebrating its 200th birthday

Posted on 27 October 2016

If you are taking part in trick-or-treating this Halloween, you are bound to bump into a very familiar monster representing a character that has captured people’s imaginations for 200 years. PhD student, Anna Mercer, tells us more about the 'waking dreams' that inspired a literary masterpiece.

Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare was exhibited in 1782.

Henry Fuseli's painting, The Nightmare, exhibited in 1782.

"Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has existed in many forms during its history, through plays, television and film, but the monster at the heart of the novel wasn’t the only creature to have been born out of terrifying night visions. 

Shelley’s interest in dreams would have been influenced by the artists and thinkers that came before her, perhaps prompting the ‘waking dream’ narrative that she claims provided the basis for her novel’s origins, and her depiction of Victor’s tortured subconscious. 

Horace Walpole, author of what is commonly understood to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto in 1764, claimed he was inspired by a dream. Henry Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare, was exhibited in 1782 at the Royal Academy; the work shocked viewers, and represents a fascination with the unconscious and what dreams might mean. 

In 1797, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would awake from an opium-induced dream and compose the unfinished masterpiece, ‘Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision in a Dream.' 

Ghost stories

Shelley’s account of her novel’s inspiration, carefully constructed in the introduction to her work, takes us back to her experiences as an 18-year-old girl, when she spent the wet summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva.  She had travelled there with her lover, the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont to meet with Lord Byron, an already successful author, who had taken lodgings at the Villa Diodati. 

This group of young intellectuals, which included Byron’s physician, John William Polidori, spent their time reading and discussing literature and philosophy, including ghost stories from Fantasmagoriana (1812). 

Polidori went on to write The Vampyre, published in 1819, where he describes, in the letter prefaced to the novel, a now infamous scene at the Villa Diodati where Byron recited Coleridge’s strange and unsettling poem, Christabel.    

Anxiety and fright                                                                

But Shelley initially struggled to contribute her own ghostly tale and described her inability ‘to think of a story’, and her disappointment in what felt like an utter failure in her task. She wanted to cause anxiety and fright, to write something that ‘would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.' 

Another late-night discussion on the role of science in modern society brought inspiration. Mary heard Lord Byron and Percy Shelley contemplating this topic one evening, detailing the observations of how inanimate objects could be brought to life.  It was from this conversation that Shelley began to think that a corpse might be reanimated. 

As night fell upon the discussions, Shelley describes an evening of unrest, where she felt ‘possessed’ with images of a ‘hideous phantasm’.  When she opened her eyes ‘in terror’ from her half-sleep, the monster we know today had taken root in her mind for the first time. A wild imagination could be genuinely terrifying. 

Menacing tale

When Victor Frankenstein’s creation awakens all hope disintegrates: ‘the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form [...] now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart’. Mary Shelley then presents the reader with haunting, menacing tale of pursuit and revenge. Her original idea has become a permanent fixture of culture, and certainly not just in literature, but in film and countless other formats. 

Yet the genesis of the story as recounted here reminds us that the original text was also designed to question ideas about human and intellectual advancement and the future. Mary Shelley’s text has often been read as promoting a warning against scientific development. Yet in the book itself, Victor Frankenstein admits that although he has failed, ‘yet another may succeed’ in such endeavours. The novel’s warnings about the flaws of humanity are far more complex than any reading that sees Frankenstein as a simple narrative encouraging us to be wary of progress. 

As a PhD student at the University of York , I am examining the collaborative literary relationship between Mary and Percy Shelley (who eventually married), with a particular interest in the social nature of creativity. My research includes considering how in writing the original preface to Frankenstein and a positive review of the text, Percy Shelley also contributed to the mystery surrounding the novel’s conception. Percy also edited Mary’s draft manuscript. 

Captivating

Mary included lines from Percy’s poetry in the novel; many assumed Percy to be the author at first. Collectively, the Shelleys sought to beguile and captivate their readers with their ideas, a purpose reflected in Mary’s Shelley’s hope that ‘What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.' 

So if you are celebrating Halloween this year, take time for a thought on the creative minds that brought us such haunting characters, or better still, dust off your copy of Shelley’s Frankenstein and revisit Victor and his unforgettable monster."

To learn more about Anna’s work, follow her blog at: https://percyandmaryshelley.wordpress.com

The Shelley Conference, organised by Anna, takes place on 15 September 2017. It will focus on the collaborative writing of the Shelleys, and is supported by the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at York and held at the Institute for English Studies in London.  

More information about postgraduate study at the Department of English and Related Literature can be found on the Department's web pages.