October 3, 2010

Frankenstein Fundamentals

Question: What are the basic books, the fundamental texts that would give anyone an introduction, a grasp, an understanding of Frankenstein and its cultural endurance?

I’d start, logically, with Mary Shelley’s original. Search “Frankenstein” on Amazon and you get 3,741 hits, most of them editions of Mary’s public domain novel. You have your pick of the 1818 original or the better-known 1831 revision, and any one of countless introductions by scholars that cast vastly different interpretations of the book. A good read, unfortunately long out of print, was Leonard Wolf’s annotated version, The Essential Frankenstein.

Of all the editions currently available, I’d spring for an illustrated Frankenstein, and that would be a toss-up between the superb Lynd Ward version, originally published in 1934, now in an inexpensive edition from Dover Books, or the equally breathtaking Bernie Wrightson version, first published in 1983 and reissued in 2008 by Dark Horse.

For a wider, cultural and historical perspective on Frankenstein, I find myself circling back to three all-purpose titles. One looks at the roots of Frankenstein, another traces its cultural history, and the last one catalogues the films of Frankenstein.

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler’s The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein (Little, Brown, 2006) zeroes in on the Villa Diodati event, when Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein and it builds its story from there.

The Hooblers trace Mary Shelley’s difficult life and draw fascinating biographical portraits of all the extraordinary and often tragic characters she interacted with, including her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, her lover and husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, Claire Claremont, and various children, relations, friends, and estranged wives.

It’s a bracing, powerful saga and, like any good, wide-ranging book must, it will send you scurrying back to the bookstore to explore some of these characters in greater detail.

To understand Frankenstein’s significance and its phenomenal endurance, there’s no better read than Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s Frankenstein: A Cultural History (W.W.Norton, 2007). Hitchcock follows The Monster as it precipitates out of Mary’s novel and into popular consciousness, effortlessly adapting to the stage and from there to all forms of media including films, comic books and rock music, ultimately becoming an infinitely malleable metaphor. This one’s not only an essential book, it’s an enormously satisfying and fun read.

Barely five years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published, it was swiped by playwrights and transformed into some of the most popular plays and pantomimes of the late 1800s. With the advent of film, The Monster’s career was reinvigorated for a new century, with Boris Karloff’s portrayal achieving iconic status. Stephen Jones’ The Illustrated Frankenstein Movie Guide of 1994 (also known as The Frankenstein Scrapbook: The Complete Movie Guide to the World's Most Famous Monster) is a valiant attempt at listing all the Frankenstein films. In fact, Jones casts a very wide net, including films only marginally Frankensteinian.

The catalog format and the sheer number of entries keeps the information on individual titles down to the bare essentials, but this is a very busy and generous book, with tons of stills and posters, that makes it a reference work — a practical checklist, if you will — of Frankenstein and related films.

Jones’ book is out of print and would deserve an update. Used copies can be still be had at reasonable prices. I recommend Abebooks.

Websites for Bernie Wrightson, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, Susan Tyler Hitchcock,
and Stephen Jones.


164613538 said...

A most excellent list, thank you! In fact, thank you for a tremendously enjoyable and informative blog that, as a life-long Frankenstein fan (54 years), I've been delightfully perusing for a while now!

What are the chief differences between Mary Shelly's first published version of the book and her later revision? (Besides, of course, the introduction in which she describes the origins of the tale and sends her "hideous progeny" forth.)

John Rozum said...

I'm happy to say I own all of those except "The Monsters" which I shall soon correct. I am in complete agreement that all of those make for excellent reading.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading "The Monsters" this weekend. I was impressed by the way the authors wove a wealth of historical detail into a highly readable story. Extremely well researched and a great read.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Pierre, excellent post. "The Monsters" just went onto my must-read list. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Christopher said...

Thanks for reminding me of The Monsters:...I'd meant to check that out awhile back..Looks like just the thing for fall/winter reading..

Anonymous said...

And here's a shout out for Don Glut's FRANKENSTEIN LEGEND (1973) and FRANKENSTEIN CATALOG (1984).

Pierre Fournier said...

Anonymous: Glut’s books, and I would add Greg Mank’s, are important, but you’ll understand that I meant to feature a handful of titles that covered the bases and, importantly, were currently available. The Jones book is OOP, but easy to find at ridiculously low prices.

164613538: The changes Mary Shelley made are detailed in Hitchcock’s book. To recap: By 1831, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were dead and, it seems, so was the revolutionary idealism that had nourished Mary and the Diodati group. Mary’s revisions to the book emphasized a newfound morality. For instance, the meerest hint of incest was eliminated, making Elizabeth an adopted child instead of the original cousin. Frankenstein was made more repentant of his deeds, and The Monster became a true fiend.

The framing of Justine for little William’s murder was originally revenge by The Monster against all those who had rejected him. In the 1831 version, it’s more personal, with sexual undertones, as The Monster hovers over the sleeping Justine, whispering “Awake… Thy lover is near!” He says he murdered the child, “…because I am for ever robbed of all she could give me, she shall atone. The crime had its source in her: be hers the punishment!”

Mary was also influenced by the recent theatrical productions, referring to The Monster as “the living monument of presumption”.