Thursday, October 31, 2013

We're still listening to the monster's story

I've probably already mentioned this but when I was around 8 or 9 years old I got interested in movie monsters. This was back in the mid to late 70s before VCRs and "On Demand" when we were limited to a few channels on TV.  If you wanted to see those old movies you had to stay up late on Friday nights to watch "Nightmare Theater" (because it took all the fun out of it to show them during the day).  The problem was that I was too afraid to stay up alone and my parents were too tired to stay up late.  But now I think those old movies are kind of fun to watch with the kids because they're not overly scary.  Unfortunately, my kids have turned into teenagers (which is even scarier!), and now my family thinks those movies are outdated and boring and lame – and I get persecuted if I want to watch them.

When I was a teenager I read some of the books that inspired those old movies and I recall being disappointed with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein because it wasn't much like the movie's story as I understood it.  So with my nostalgic fondness for those old movies I thought Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock (doesn't she have a great name for a book like this?) was interesting because she presents all the different iterations of the story and how it changed over the years.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin came from a very liberal background and was only 18 years old and pregnant with her second child by writer Percy Shelley when she got the idea for the story late one night when a bunch of literati challenged each other to come up with a horror story.  (Bram Stoker's Dracula came from that same challenge.)  Percy Shelley (which is a pretty wimpy name for a guy) was a regular cad, who had abandoned his wife and 2 children for the teenage vixen Mary (he finally married her after his first wife killed herself).  Mrs. Hitchcock explains the background of the story and the influences that shaped it: Milton's Paradise Lost, a growing knowledge of anatomy, the popular experiments using electricity to animate dead bodies, etc.  She goes on to describe the various stage productions that soon followed and how they modified the story by adding the creepy assistant and the idea of lightning bringing the creature to life. Before long politicians started using the name, and it didn't take long before "Frankenstein" had become blurred in the public consciousness: was Frankenstein the doctor or the monster?  But it was actor Boris Karloff who gave us the most enduring image in Universal's tremendously successful 1931 film (and Hollywood discovered that sequels could be very profitable).  Incidentally, Mrs. Hitchcock says that Bela Lugosi – who became a huge star after his performance in Dracula – turned down the role of the monster because it was largely a non-speaking part.  (Lugosi learned his lesson and said yes when offered the role in the 5th sequel in 1943, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.)

When I read this a few years ago I was looking for something "different," and this was perfect.  It's a very interesting book filled with photos and illustrations that discuss the many ways Frankenstein became a part of our culture.  Even today, the name is used in scientific issues such as cloning and genetically-modified  "Frankenfoods."  So, whether you're interested in literature (the book finally gained literary respect in the 1970s and 80s), modern culture, or just the monster himself, it's pretty entertaining. 

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