It’s the summer of 1816, Switzerland, although it doesn’t feel like it—the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora has cast the world into a long volcanic winter. What’s a bored girl to do?
If you’re 19-year old Mary Shelley, you decide you’re going to win a bet about who can come up with the scariest tale, this although you’re up against Percy Shelley (you’re not married to him yet) and Lord Bryon.
And a classic novel that bent, blended, and invented genres, is born.
Although Frankenstein most obviously checks the horror genre box, it carries romantic and gothic elements and is considered by many to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction too. That genre mix was popular with readers, not so much with critics. The Quarterly Review called Frankenstein, “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity”.
Apparently they hadn’t read the Monsanto prospectus.
As if mixing horror, gothic, romance, and sci-fi wasn’t enough of a feat, Frankenstein also sprinkles in some Greek mythology. Five second quiz for all you horror aficionados this Halloween—what was Frankenstein’s alternate title?
A) Not so Warm Bodies
B) Dawn of the Newly Re-Assembled Dead
C) The Modern Prometheus
You’re right, it’s C (can’t fool you none).
Prometheus was more than a bad prequel to Aliens. In the Western psyche, Prometheus serves as the epitome of bad things that happen when you pursue science without understanding its dangerous consequences, interesting because at the time Shelley wrote Frankenstein, experiments were being performed on dead flesh. These experiments included the electro-stimulation of executed prisoner George Forster’s limbs at Newgate in London. “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”
Don’t even ask me about the frogs.
So now we have horror, gothic, romance, sci-fi, Greek mythology and the moral implications of contemporary issues. Let’s add some personal experience, shall we?
Shelley did what any good writer of her, or any time, would do, which was to mix bits of her own life, her experienced horror, into the story. Frankenstein, (the scientist, not the monster who had no name), loses his mother to scarlet fever, then his brother and wife are murdered by the creature. Shelley’s own mother died eleven days after giving birth to her, leaving an epic void in her life. She lost one of her children shortly after giving birth, and lived through the suicide of her stepmother and stepsister. Not exactly a stranger to death’s sting. And it’s quite probable that the emotional impact of her personal experience is what gives Frankenstein its longevity and contemporary relevance.
When I first started to shop my novel POE, everyone loved the writing but no one knew where to sell it. And they told me that if, miraculously, they did find a publisher, where the heck would the bookstores shelve it? All would be better if POE colored inside some genre lines. It couldn’t be horror and new adult and dark urban fantasy and literary. It couldn’t span Russian occult practices in the early 20th century, the séance craze during America’s gilded age, a contemporary and economically depressed New England town, magic squares, ghosts, angels/demons, my own horrific hospital experience plus my parents’ deaths, and, for god’s sake, be irreverent too.
I tried, but I just couldn’t write it any other way. It wouldn’t let me.
Through sheer, dumb luck, I finally entered POE into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest where it placed first in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror category. Then, through an even bigger stroke of dumb luck, Amazon’s 47North was publishing the winner because they were looking for genre-bending work.
I’d finally found the island of misfit toys where I belonged, in a cadre of other authors who don’t fit into boxes neatly either (you can see them here – buy all their books, please). Maybe Shelley should be our patron saint.
Because if Frankenstein is any example, one should be careful about underestimating the market for books that defy easy categorization.
Here’s to new latitudes, odd genre blends, and virtual shelves you can call whatever the hell you want.