Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Horror

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Have you ever been so bored of the men at a party that you create an entirely new genre of literature? Did you then follow that up by writing one of the most enduring monster stories of all time? That’s the potted version of Mary Shelley’s life, but that’s what happened, and we should all be worshipping at her feet. I’ll talk more about her fascinating (and terribly tragic) life in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at her best-known work: Frankenstein, the story of a young scientist and an unorthodox experiment that went horribly wrong.

The original full title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, though most modern editions (including mine, see above) exclude that subtitle, which is a shame because it tells us a lot about the story. A quick Greek mythology lesson: Prometheus created mankind on Zeus’s orders. He taught us to hunt and read and talk and do all those human-y things we love to do. Zeus was a bit disappointed with the final product, though, so he punished us by keeping fire for himself and the other gods. Our boy, Prometheus, wasn’t having that, and he told Zeus to fuck right off. He brought fire down to us, and copped his punishment on the chin. Zeus sentenced him to be eternally fixed to a rock, where each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for it to regrow overnight and he’d have to go through the same again the next day. So, yeah, we owe Prometheus a lot, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with Shelley’s Frankenstein

Oh, and another quick note to get out of the way before we dive in: yes, we know, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. We fucking know. People who point it out are (generally) wankers. Shelley never gave the monster in the name, identifying it in the book as the “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “fiend”, and so on. Of course, she was making a point about how the lack of a name prevents a sentient being from forging a true identity and all of that, but the confusion also means that mistakes will happen and I wish readers wouldn’t make such a big deal about it. I’ll be calling the monster “the monster”, for the sake of clarity, but just so you know if I ever hear you say um-actually-Frankenstein-was-the-doctor in conversation, I will roll my eyes at you.



So, the story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually framed a couple of different ways in the book. It’s an epistolary novel, with events taking place sometime during the 18th century. Captain Robert Walton kicks things off with a few letters to his sister; he’s been trying to sail to the North Pole, and his crew picked up one Dr Victor Frankenstein off the ice, where he had apparently collapsed while chasing after a monstrous creature.

Through a series of conversations with the good doctor, Walton is able to deduce that he actually created this monster and now lives a life of misery and horror as a result of his creation. Frankenstein offers up his story as a cautionary tale, and tells it so…

Young Victor was obsessed with science as a kid, even though everyone else thought he was a weirdo. After his mother died, he took himself off to university, and he began doing experiments as a way of escaping his grief and keeping his mind busy. That’s how he stumbled upon a technique for creating life from inanimate objects.

Now, you might assume he used electricity to do that, but that’s actually not in the canon – Shelley, in her book, described an elemental process and some vague alchemy. The use of electric shocks and screws in the monster’s neck didn’t appear until the 1931 film adaptation and other early depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. So, there you go.

With his new secret chemical formula to make dead things become alive things, Frankenstein created a huge humanoid form (it had to be big, he explained, otherwise the small bits would be too fiddly) out of pieces he scrounged from cadavers. He tried to make it pretty, but when the monster came to life it was scary as all hell. Frankenstein, freaked out by what he had done, reverted to the age-old tradition of doing a runner. He bailed the fuck out of his laboratory, leaving the monster there.



You’d think that would take up most of the pages of this slim book, but Frankenstein moves really quickly, so the story is only just beginning. In perhaps my favourite plot point ever, Dr Frankenstein returned to his laboratory to find the monster missing… and he’s all “Phew! We’re cool! Problem solved!”. He doesn’t even wonder where it went. LOL!

The whole situation stressed him out so much that he ended up getting really sick. He recovered just in time for the monster to kill his little brother. The criminal justice system being what it is, the authorities arrested and convicted the kid’s nanny of the murder, and put her to death. By Frankenstein’s math, that put his monster’s death toll up to two, and he was pissed.

After a while, he reunited with his monster. The poor creature tried to explain himself, saying he was just sad that everyone hated and feared him (aw!). He asked the doctor to build him a wife, so he didn’t have to be lonely anymore. That sounded pretty reasonable to me, but then the monster threatened to kill everyone Frankenstein loved if he didn’t comply with this request – which was, admittedly, less chill.

How is the monster able to communicate these demands, you ask? Well, it turns out he spent most of the intervening time stalking a kind immigrant family, peeping in their windows, and somehow all those hours watching them and stealing from their library taught him language. He’s startlingly eloquent, given the basis of his education. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but if the monster learning to speak is the most unrealistic part of this novel for you, you might need to re-evaluate your priorities…



The doctor headed for England, taking a friend with him, and the monster followed hot on his heels. Frankenstein got to work back in the laboratory, but inside he was still freaking out that the female he created would hate the monster, or turn out even more evil than him, or (worst of all) they might fall in love and start breeding, unleashing a new generation of horror on the world. When that thought occurred to him, it was the final fucking straw. Frankenstein had had a gutful, you guys! He destroyed all the work he had done and told the monster to shove it.

You’d think the monster would fly into a rage at this point, but he actually took the news quite well. In sum, his reaction was: “Yeah, okay, no wife for me, but no wife for you either – when you get married, I’m coming for your girl on your wedding night, so watch your back,”. And then he killed Frankenstein’s friend, just to show he meant business.

Now, I realise Dr Frankenstein doesn’t have a great track record with decision-making, but at this point he makes a truly, unbelievably bad call. Despite the monster’s warnings, and his own growing anxiety, he went ahead and got married to his adopted sister (whom he referred to as his cousin – it’s almost-but-not-quite incest, which is a bit gross, but George R.R. Martin has pretty much deadened our sensitivities on that subject forever).

And, sure enough, that very night, the monster showed up and took her out. The doctor, enraged, chased him all the way to the North Pole, determined to defeat his monstrous creation once and for all, but he collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia before he could catch him. That’s where Walton and his crew found the man, and we’re back at the beginning again.



Dr Frankenstein promptly dies, but he makes Captain Walton promise to kill the monster on his behalf. The monster, of course, conveniently appears on board shortly thereafter. I was expecting a big violent showdown, but he is able to talk Walton out of killing him by making a big show of mourning the death of his creator. He promises to kill himself instead, and Walton’s all “Um, okay?”, and watches as the monster drifts away on the ice, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy ending – heck, it’s not a happy book.

It was a lot more introspective than I expected. Really, this whole story is about interior worlds. Frankenstein, at its heart, is about the shame and guilt of the Doctor, and the loneliness and desperation of his monster.

Now, this is one of those rare cases where the story of how a book came to be written is just as fascinating as the book itself (if not more!). In 1814, aged just sixteen, Mary met and fell in love with the then-unknown poet Percy Shelley, and she ran away with him. They weren’t married until 1816, shortly after Percy’s first wife died by suicide (oh, yeah, the guy was a real peach).

The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary that year, when she was holidaying with Percy and his mate Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that they have a writing competition, to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary dithered for a few days, and struggled to come up with anything she thought would be scary enough, but she knew she was onto a winner when she dreamed of a scientist who created life but was horrified by what he had made. She connected that premise with her earlier travels in Geneva, where she’d passed Frankenstein Castle (yes, a real place); in there, a couple centuries earlier, an alchemist had engaged in strange and dark experiments. Boom! A horror story, and the science fiction genre, was born.



The themes of the work, we can see in retrospect, were very clearly drawn from Mary Shelley’s real life. She had a pretty rough trot: her mother died, she had a terrible relationship with her father, her first child was born prematurely and died in her arms while Percy was off having an affair with one of her step-sisters. From these experiences, she distilled themes of loss, guilt, and the consequences of defying nature, and funneled them into Frankenstein. Consider how the monster turns evil due to a lack of parental and spiritual guidance, for instance…

Mary initially conceived Frankenstein as a short story, but with Percy’s encouragement she expanded the manuscript into a full-length novel. She wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister (told you! rough fucking trot!), and the first edition was published anonymously in January 1818. Then she moved to Italy, where she lived with Percy until he drowned in 1822 (seriously, the woman’s life was just an endless parade of death and misery).

Mary Shelley’s name wasn’t connected to the book until the second edition was published with a proper byline in 1823. She was 25 years old. When the author’s gender was revealed, the British Critic published a review that said:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

“Oh, snap!”, they might have thought, but the reading public didn’t give a shit. Frankenstein sold gangbusters; it was an immediate popular success, and by the middle of the 20th century it was demanding serious and extensive critical attention from academics. The list of subsequent adaptations and re-releases is longer than my arm, and readers are, even today, always hungry for more.



Frankenstein fused elements of the Gothic and the Romantic, capturing the attention of both audiences, and it levelled-up the popular ghost stories of the time to create the first true science fiction novel. No longer were monsters and mysterious beings purely fantastical; Shelley gave us a monster that was the product of man’s own actions, his own scientific experimentation and discovery, and that had never been done before. Not bad for a teenager who was just trying to show up her boyfriend and his mate on holiday, eh?

There are now a few different editions floating around, the later ones being highly revised and sanitised. It’s up to you which you’d prefer to read, but I’m a fan of dirty bits in literature, so I’d recommend trying to find the earliest version, as close to the original as you can. I’d also highly recommend you check out this great discussion over on the Keeper Of Pages blog, for more fascinating insights into reading (or re-reading) Frankenstein.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Frankenstein:

  • “free book enough said” – andrew
  • “*SPOILER ALERT* Basically, this guy spent time of his life trying to life from scratch. But when he finally succeeded, he got scared and ran away from it? There are a lot of questionable decisions from him too. He fits the definition of “coward”.” – Rusydi Farhan
  • “I thought I had the wrong book when I started reading it. Very different from most of the Frankenstein movies.” – Mark B
  • “WRONG LANGUAGE” – jackeline
  • “This book stinks! Munsters re-runs are much better” – Rich Fish from Glen Ridge
  • “Very boring story about a crazy science guy who wants to reanimate a Trump lookalike. On the positive side I would like to pitch in and her a hand” – Prince Henri I
  • “Movie was a million times better than that stupid story but I will say that it was very poorly written” – JMann
  • “Terrible novel; long, preachy, unrealistic, especialy where Frankenstein’s “monster” has read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and other classics and holds forth like an Oxford don.” – Richard Kelly
  • “This book was so boring I threw it out my window. (Almost) It just had too much detail” – Bernard Callahan

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of being concise. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on The List). Wordy bastard.

James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters). As much as James could really drone on, The Turn Of The Screw is (ironically) the shortest work on the list (the next shortest is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – it’s so short that it’s usually published now in combination with another of his works, The Aspen Papers (as is my edition).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why – so she sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.


The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable. Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!


It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

“I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

One of James’s more readable passages, from Chapter 22

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

1) The governess was crazy;

2) The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or

3) Trying to work it all out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… and my review is up now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

Dracula – Bram Stoker


I was casually strolling past the secondhand bookstore a couple of months ago, minding my own business, when this bad boy peeked out from the bargain bin, advertising itself at the irresistibly reasonable price of $3. Normally, such circumstances would be cause for much rejoicing, except that they came the day after I had promised my husband I would purchase no more books until after our honeymoon (an ill-fated attempt at fiscal responsibility). I had some shame-faced ‘splaining to do when I came home with a brand new copy of Dracula under my arm (even if it was one of the best book bargains ever).

Think what you will, but I’ve never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’ve never read Twilight or any other semi-erotic watered-down vampire romances, and I’ve avoided basically all vampire-themed pop culture since I was a child (when I discovered, thanks to the selection of spooky books at the local library, that vampires scared the pants off me). So, I came at Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a very clean slate.

Stoker didn’t write the first vampire novel (Dracula was published in 1897, and there were at least a handful of others that appeared before that), but his work has certainly been the most enduring. At first, it garnered pretty much the same reception as Twilight has had today – the hoi polloi enjoyed it well enough, but it was ignored as second-rate nonsense by literary critics right through until the second half of the 20th century. The shift in public opinion came with the emergence of psychoanalysis. All of a sudden, Stoker’s book could be read as an expression of pretty much any kind of “sexual deviance” you can imagine: female sexual empowerment, homoeroticism, interracial fucking, incest and/or pedophilia… pick your poison. Attention from the literary elite and popularity with the masses finally evened out with the advent of film adaptations. As of 2009, Dracula had featured as a major character in approximately 217 films (and, here’s a fun fact, that’s second only to Sherlock Holmes, who has featured in 223). Still, Stoker barely made a dime off the original publication. He was forced to apply for literary grants towards the end of his life, and the note on the author in the front of edition has the best closing line ever:

“Stoker died in 1912, probably of syphilis.”

The story of Dracula‘s migration from Transylvania to London (in search of new blood and young dames) is told through a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. We start out with newly-minted solicitor Jonathan Harker starting a detailed diary of his journey to Transylvania to meet with the Count. He details his initial days there, and the dawning realisation that he is a prisoner in the castle where his host is a literal monster who sleeps in a coffin and summons wolves to eat people. I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but ol’ Jonno was a bit slow on the uptake (as are pretty much all of the characters, really – they should have spent less time writing in their diaries and more time watching what was going on around them).

Just as Jonno is making his exodus from Casa de Creepy, his diary entries stop, and we shift to the letters and journals of his wife and her best friend. They’ve been holidaying at the beach, and weird shit starts happening there too. There’s a massive storm, a missing dog, a shipwrecked boat with no one on board except a dead captain, and the friend sleepwalks right into the arms of an honest-to-gosh vampire. Mrs Jonno doesn’t seem to realise that all of this is weird, though. She’s too busy practicing her shorthand and wondering where the fuck her husband has got to.

At this point, Jonno and his missus both disappear from the story for a bit, and we flip back and forth between newspaper articles describing the apparent illness of the wife’s friend (must’ve been a slow news day), and a wolf that escaped from the zoo. A bunch of the friend’s ex-lovers gather to her bedside, and one of them calls in his doctor mate – Van Helsing – to see if he can sort her out. In the end, though, she dies, and Van Helsing has them cut off her head and stuff her mouth full of garlic.

It’s a bit of a bummer, but everyone seems to just keep calm and carry on. Van Helsing definitely has the hots for Mrs Jonno, he won’t shut up about how she’s “just as smart as a man” and “God must love her a whole lot”… which is probably why everyone freaks the fuck out when Dracula goes after her.

All of the Madonna-whore subtext just bubbles over at this point in the story, and – just to make sure you haven’t forgotten about those super-important Victorian gender roles – all of the MEN go about BEING MEN and devise a VERY MANLY PLAN to slay the evil dragon vampire. This all carries on for quite a while. It gets a bit Moby Dick-esque actually: all the way down to the last 20 pages and the chase is on, but where’s the fucking pay-off?


They do finally catch the bad guy, and Mrs Jonno is saved, woohoo. I flick the final page, only to find that the editors have included a stack of explanatory notes at the end… with not a single mark in the actual text to indicate where they apply. Super helpful guys, thank you so much, I hope you treated yourself to a boozy lunch after mocking up that lay-out.

I can see why other people are really into Dracula, all the key elements are there, but… meh. Not for me. It feels like I’ve read a stack of these lately (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for instance) where there’s a floppity jillion interpretations of the text: Freudian, feminist, queer, post-colonial, Marxist, anthropological… by this point, I’ve run out of -ials and -ists. I’m exhausted, guys! It’d be nice to read a book that’s just about what it’s about for once. Luckily, there’s one coming up, stay tuned…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dracula:

  • “I LOVE TO READ HORROR STORIES. YOU CAN USE YOUR IMAGINATION IT’S BETTER THAN LOOKING AT THE MOVIE” – Amazon Customer
  • “read it and find out, geez” – Kadesh
  • “It turns out dracula is the name of the monster” – H.O.
  • “Drac should get a tan.” – Ryan
  • “…. Suspension of disbelief in Dracula’s mystical power is not as difficult as suspension of disbelief in his pursuers’ dedication to their diaries while in the midst of a life or death manhunt….” – Amazon Customer
  • “I didn’t like it cause it’s a book” – Porter Cave

 

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