Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Horror (page 1 of 2)

Flowers In The Attic – VC Andrews

I’m a sucker for a content warning. If the news anchor says “the following content may be distressing to some viewers”, you’d better believe my eyes will be glued to the screen. When the ladies of the My Favorite Murder podcast warned their listeners about the twisted, sickening premise of Flowers In The Attic, I knew I had to give it a go. After all, they’d read it as teenagers, how bad could it really be? Keeper Upperers, consider my lesson learned…

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Flowers In The Attic is a (relatively) contemporary (supposedly) gothic novel, first published in 1979. It’s the first book in the Dollanganger Series, so named for the family at the center of the story. It all starts in 1957, with a beautiful family of six (mother, father, and four adoring children) living a comfortable suburban life in Pennsylvania. Naturally, tragedy must strike. The father is killed in a car accident on the evening of his thirty-sixth birthday. Given that he was the family’s breadwinner, and his wife had no marketable skills, the remaining Dollangangers are forced to flee their newly-repossessed house and throw themselves at the mercy of their estranged (but very wealthy) maternal family.

All of this is narrated by Cathy Dollanganger, the second child and eldest daughter. Her perspective reminded me a bit of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird: a grown woman telling a story from her younger perspective… but that’s about all these two books have in common. Harper Lee’s classic American tale of racial injustice and coming-of-age was confronting in a way, but Flowers In The Attic is grim and sickening on a whole other level.

See, the mother feeds Cathy and her siblings (older brother Christopher, and younger twins Carrie and Cory – all Cs, yes, very clever) some cock-and-bull story about how their grandfather is evil. She says the kids will have to hide out in a far-flung wing of the family mansion until she convinces the old coot that kids aren’t so bad to have around, then he’ll welcome them with open arms and give them all his money. Sounds hinky, right?

When the family arrives, they are given a very cold shoulder by their grandmother – by which I mean she hands them a printed list of heinous “rules” they must follow in order to keep their existence a complete secret from everyone else in the house (even the help! imagine!), under the very serious threat of physical violence. Oh, and there’s a lot of God-talk too: no being naked in front of each other because it’s sinful, no thinking about what anyone looks like naked because it’s sinful, no looking at yourself naked because it’s sinful… you get the drift.

The mother is exempt from all of this, for the most part. She cops a flogging, but at least she gets to move around the house and the servants know she’s there. She tries to reassure the kids that they’ll only be locked up for a few days, but those days turn into weeks, and then the weeks into months. On one of the daily food drops, the grandmother reveals to Cathy and Christopher that they are all, in fact, the product of an incestuous union between their mother and her half-uncle. Heaven forbid! That’s why the kids have to be kept secret, it would seem. If the grandfather knew that his daughter’s marriage to his half-brother had produced progeny, he’d… well, it’s not clear what he’d do exactly, but it would be bad.

Are you following this? It’s a bit convoluted, I’ll grant you. So, here’s a little mid-point tl;dr summary for you: Mummy married her Uncle, and now the kids are locked in the attic so the rich Grandpa won’t write them all out of his Will. Ick. Now, I’m not going to tease you with content warnings or thinly-veiled references to more icky stuff (that’s the carrot that lured me to Flowers In The Attic in the first place). Consider everything from here on out extremely spoiler-y (and gross). Proceed at your own peril.

Things really start to drag in the middle. I mean, there’s only so much of kids whinging that they want to go outside a reader can take. Plus, the holes in the logic of the story become less “mysterious” and more mystifying. I tried to assume that it was all part of a masterful plot, that Andrews was being clever and leading me down rabbit holes, but 200 pages in I had to concede. The fact that they all just seemed to forget entirely about those extensive rules by the second act was what killed Flowers In The Attic for me. On day one, it was all “not a PEEP out of you until AFTER 10am or YOU’LL ALL BE WHIPPED!”, and (it felt like) the next minute the kids are all screaming their little lungs out by breakfast and no one gives a shit.

So, let me skip ahead. It turns out the reason that the evil grandmother was so hard on them with all this God business was that she was worried history was going to repeat itself… which, of course, it does. It comes on gradually, with Cathy suddenly noticing her changing body, and catching her older brother staring at her now and then, but eventually they’re snuggling and making out and there is a particularly awful incident whereby Christopher forcibly rapes Cathy, only for her to later tell him that she “secretly wanted it” and he “didn’t need to feel bad because they did nothing wrong”.

Feel free to take a moment to let the wave of nausea pass. I know I needed to take a few, myself.

The thing is, I’m really only assuming the grandmother’s motivation and role in the whole business. As a villain, she’s completely two-dimensional. Her dialogue and mannerisms are laughably cliche, like a child’s imagining what an evil grandmother would be like. At one point, she is literally (in a dream, no less) likened to the witch from Hansel and Gretel. There’s no insight into her past, her marriage, her motivation for keeping up the charade when (clang!) we find out the grandfather has actually been dead for months.

Ah, yes, the big twist reveal (as if we needed another): the mother and grandmother kept the “flowers” locked in the attic even after the grandfather passed away. The ladies have actually been trying to kill the kids off, by putting arsenic in their daily food deliveries. Andrews explains this strange new malevolence by having the kids overhear the servants say that the grandfather wrote a “codicil” into his will, stating that the mother would never inherit a dime if she had any children. Yeah, sure. Sounds legit. What lawyer wouldn’t sign off on that?

That’s the final straw for the kids (not the locked-in-the-attic-for-three-years thing, not the starved-for-two-weeks-because-Cathy-took-her-shirt-off thing, not the their-mother-didn’t-visit-them-for-months-because-she-was-honeymooning-with-her-new-husband thing, not the death-of-one-of-the-twins thing). Arsenic in their desserts? No, thank you! They hustle up everything of value that they can carry and run away. And they decide not to dob in their mother and grandmother for the imprisonment and attempted murder because…? Something about not wanting to go to a foster home? Wanting their deeply disturbing incestuous union to continue? Holy heck, I could barely bring myself to care by that point. I was just glad to be done with Flowers In The Attic and the terrible, schlocky writing.

Flowers In The Attic is a strange hybrid: a barely-comprehensible poorly-written story full of holes that still managed to disturb and horrify me. At first, I was frustrated by the mistreatment of the children, but all too soon I was frustrated by the children themselves, and the whole ludicrous set-up. I was sickened by the abuse and incest, but also by the fact that this is marketed as a young adult novel. I’m hardly one to restrict any young person’s access to any reading material, but damn. Even for kids that have a taste for the macabre, it’s a bit much, and the quality of the writing and the strength of the resolution (or lack thereof) just doesn’t justify it. If you’re going to serve young readers up a heaping plate of “adult themes”, best you give them some redeeming quality to wash it down with. They’d be better off reading Lolita.

It would seem that I’m pretty much alone in my opinion, however – maybe because I never did, in fact, read Flowers In The Attic as a young adult and as such have no nostalgic attachment to it. The book was an immediate sensation, and went on to sell over forty million copies world-wide. Of course, that success was not without controversy, with schools and libraries removing it from the reach of young readers (with limited success). Controversy also tainted the novel’s supposed inspiration; Andrews maintained all her life that Flowers In The Attic was “based on a true story”, but there is basically no evidence (beyond Andrews’ account and the reported corroboration of an unidentified family member) to support that. I’m not saying people aren’t held captive against their will for years on end, and that terrible things don’t happen… but Flowers In The Attic is so preposterous and flawed, I’m disinclined to believe a word about it.

Still, the legend lives on. There have been two film adaptations of Flowers In The Attic, a stage-play, a slew of sequels, prequels, re-tellings… even after Andrews’ death, the ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman took up the torch and continued publishing under her name. There are now more than 80 books in circulation for the VC Andrews brand, but I can tell you what: as far as I’m concerned, one was more than enough. If you get your jollies being scared, read some decent true crime. If you want some campy gothic fun, read classics like Dracula. If you want taboo, pick up some Henry Miller. But, for the love of all that is good and gory, don’t bother with Flowers In The Attic, not even to see what all the fuss is about.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Flowers In The Attic:

  • “Disturbing and infuriating all wrapped up in one. Don’t think I’ll be continuing the series. Not a fan of terrible parenting, child abuse or incest. No thank you.” – aziza
  • “good read will have to put it down due to getting angry” – Brandy
  • “I liked the movie but I’m halfway through the book and can’t stay interested. Oh look they’re still in the attic…still….yup, still there. Next chapter…still there.” – Kellyann

My Sister The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

As much as we all love a bit of mystery and intrigue, sometimes it’s nice to read a book with the premise laid out completely in the title. My Sister The Serial Killer gives you exactly what it says on the tin: the story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola, who has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends.

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I first encountered Oyinkan Braithwaite at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (she’s lovely, by the way, and she had a queue out the door for book signings after her session). It’s hard to imagine that such an astonishingly dark and laughably twisted plot came out of the mind of such a delightful creature. I’m sure her Google search history must’ve got her on a watch-list somewhere…

But, to the story: as I said, Ayoola keeps killing her boyfriends, and it’s up to Korede to clean up the mess. Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her hide a body (c’mon, we’ve all got one). The story begins with Korede cleaning up the blood spatters of the third man that Ayoola has “dispatched”, and immediately you get the sense that this situation can’t continue indefinitely.

Even aside from the serial murders, Korede and Ayoola have a strange relationship – in no small part due to their fact that their father was horribly cruel and extremely dodgy (in fact, the knife Ayoola uses to off her suitors once belonged to him, a deftly crafted metaphor for the inheritance of violence). Korede feels responsible for her sister, but simultaneously suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. She’s the “homely” one, while Ayoola is unequivocally the “beautiful” one, with all of the privilege and preference that beauty entails.

The plot boils over when a love triangle forms: Ayoola sets her sights on the handsome and charismatic doctor that Korede has loved from afar for months. Sibling loyalty can only go so far, after all. This forces Korede into the small gap between the proverbial rock and hard place: should she keep her sister’s secrets, or divulge them to the man she loves (possibly saving his life)?

My Sister The Serial Killer thus cleverly mixes crime, romance, and family saga. It’s definitely not a thriller, in the sense that it focuses far more on the sisters’ relationship – and what happens to it under strain – than it does any cat-and-mouse games with detectives. It’s also set in Lagos, with a remarkably strong sense of location and culture that we might more commonly associate with “place writing” (and a “place” that’s sadly not often encountered by Anglophone readers, to boot).

The story unfolds in short, punchy chapters. The family backstory – abusive father, complex mother – is revealed incrementally, in a way that naturally parallels and informs the rollercoaster of the love triangle and the will-she-or-won’t-she (kill again). I must say, I thought My Sister The Serial Killer would be more light-hearted in tone – or, at least, more morbidly humorous. Braithwaite focuses more on moral responsibility and culpability than I expected. There were few laughs, and more “wait, what would I do in that situation?” dilemmas. Is Ayoola empowered, or simply sociopathic? Is Korede doing the right thing by covering up her crimes, or is she enabling a murderer? Is she righteously loyal, or simply blinded by the affection of shared experience?

But, I suppose, I can hardly complain that my funny bone wasn’t tickled when it was such a pleasure to spend time with such complex and intriguing characters. The novel’s conclusion was satisfying without being too “neat”. Braithwaite demonstrates a talent for writing far beyond her years and experience. I look forward to seeing what she comes out with next (“My Brother, The Money Launderer”, perhaps? “My Mother, The Armed Robber”?)

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Sister The Serial Killer:

  • “I love this story. This is the first book I’ve bought since scholastic book fairs were a thing for me.” – Lauryn
  • “I don’t understand why I’m meant to care about an unapologetic murderer and her accomplice sister???? Also if I had a sister I feel like my cap would be covering up one murder for her. After that homegirl is on her own. By three I’d probably call the police myself because, you know, maybe my sister needs to work through some stuff (in prison) if she’s killing this many people?” – Miss Print
  • “Hilarious! I have two younger sisters and one torments the other with… well, not covering for murder, but other things.” – Mason J Blacher

Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado through the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast (specifically through her lecture – which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the internet, otherwise I’d link to it directly – about Law & Order: SVU). I’d not encountered her work before, which wasn’t entirely surprising. She didn’t have a particularly long publishing history at that time, just one short story collection: Her Body And Other Parties. Now, it’s truly phenomenal that a book of short stories from a debut author received enough attention to earn her an invite to speak at a festival half-way around the world, but I think it’s more than Machado’s brilliant writing craft that got her to that point. She is completely beguiling, scarily smart, and almost-embarrassingly frank. This short story collection is like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Her Body And Other Parties here.
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Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. The stories aren’t linked by character or plot or even style, but they all address similar themes: sex, death, queerness, vulnerability, women, and their bodies (as the title might suggest).

The first story of the collection is possibly Machado’s best-known work: The Husband Stitch. It’s a reimagination of an old and oft-retold spooky story (borrowed from a French folktale of unknown origin) The Green Ribbon. You know the one, the woman who marries a man but won’t tell him why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck, until she finally lets him remove it and her head falls off? The thrust of Machado’s version is much the same: basically, we screw women over by denying them self-determination. It’s one heck of an opener, and it really sets the tone for the rest of Her Body And Other Parties. Even the new title is revealing in its gruesomeness (steel yourselves): the “husband stitch” is a euphemism for doctors using more sutures than necessary to repair a woman’s perineum after childbirth, purportedly to make the vaginal opening smaller and sexual penetration more “pleasurable” for her male partner. (Excuse me, I have to go and vomit.)



Another one of the stories that received a lot of attention was Especially Heinous (and it’s probably the reason she was invited to give that lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to begin with). Essentially, it’s a novella-length story told through imagined plot summaries of a parallel-universe series of Law & Order: SVU. It sounds bizarre, and it is. Machado had the idea after she streamed endless seasons of the show while recovering from surgery, which is what lends Especially Heinous its surreal, feverish quality. Plus, it’s a very obvious but still very poignant critique of our culture’s obsession with violence that victimises women. To call it “twisted literary fan fiction” would be underselling it, but it’s a really hard premise to describe, so give me a break!

“VULNERABLE”: For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No rape-murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures. No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.

Especially heinous, her body and other parties (P. 80)

My personal favourite of the collection (though, of course, they’re all worth reading) is Inventory. What looks like a simple list of a woman’s lovers turns into an incredible work of speculative fiction, set in a dystopian world where a virus is killing off the population in swathes. You might think I’ve spoiled it for you now, but I swear I haven’t: it would take a lot more than a single review on a book blog to ruin all of the surprises that Machado has in store for you.





It should be fairly obvious by now, but just in case it isn’t: the stories in Her Body And Other Parties are “dirty”. Like, would-make-you-blush-if-you-read-them-out-loud-to-your-mother “dirty”. The main characters of The Husband Stitch fuck, in graphic detail, twice within the first five pages. Machado is not bashful or coy about sex – my kind of girl! I only mention it because I know that’s not for everyone, but I still want to vouch for the book (even if “smut” isn’t your “thing”). The sex isn’t pointless titillating garbage, it’s integral to the story (as it is to life), and I think even the pearl-clutchers among us will at least admire Machado’s erotic fearlessness.

Also needless to say: Her Body And Other Parties went on to win a lot of awards. A lot. Like, I got exhausted trying to collate them into a list. Every professional review I read was glowing, at minimum (I think they call that “critical acclaim”). Plus, more importantly, in my view, it’s achieved cult status – this is a book that will be passed from youth to youth, on university campuses and at seedy bars and over cheap coffees, for years to come. Machado is the real deal, folks, and I’m going to be overjoyed to be able to say “I remember reading her very first book” late in her long, long career. She’s already on her way, having released a breathtaking memoir – In The Dream House – which has revolutionised the genre and already cemented itself a place in the queer literary canon. Do I recommend Her Body And Other Parties? Abso-fucking-lutely.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Her Body And Other Parties:

  • “fun stories. different. freedom fighter stuff.” – Eddie
  • “that’s all. read it.” – G.S.
  • “Not what I expected, but definitely a well-written jaunt into lesbian-fueled surrealism.” – A Long Walk In The Woods
  • “Hot trash” – Mark Fulghum
  • “I don’t like the book, but it came in great condition and exactly as described.” – Maddie


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 my to-be-read 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


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