So you think you know all there is to know about FRANKENSTEIN the novel, the films, the graphic novels and what have you… well, think again! This utterly fascinating coffee table book written by the esteemed Sir Christopher Frayling is not only incredibly well researched and lavishly illustrated but lesser know facts about FRANKENSTEIN-author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her influences and distinct circle of friends – not to mention that now legendary night on 14th May 2016 at the Villa Diodati – have been added.

There is no mistake that FRANKENSTEIN: or THE MODERN PROMETHEUS is one of the most influential ‘gothic horror’ novels of all time though strictly speaking it is also about science and the age of enlightenment. Even more astonishing is the fact that its author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (though at the time of writing the first drafts she still was Mary Godwin) was only 18 years young when she came up with the idea for her story. Frayling’s book offers us insights and explanations concerning the highly intellectual and creative mind of young Mary. For one, her father, the political philosopher William Godwin, often had physicians as his dinner guests and indeed the adolescent Mary attended – presumably out of curiosity and interest – one or the other medical lecture. Her mother, who died shortly after Mary was born, was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft so it is fair to say that Mary inherited her mother’s strong-mindedness and the notion that for a woman there is more to life and marriage and domestic bliss. Add to that the fact that Mary was incredibly well-read and of course socialised with the likes of Lord Byron and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom she married in 1816 against the wishes of her father) and one can see that here was a fiercely creative mind at work!

Frayling’s book is divided into various chapters and it is interesting to note that, when Frayling was asked which day in the history of artistic events he would have liked to be present at, he replied that the one event he would have like to be a fly on the wall was not a day but a night… the very night at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland during which Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and physician John Polidori tried to impress and scare each other by telling ghost stories… and it was during that night that Mary told her story (by then still a short story which later was turned into a novel) of Frankenstein. The aforementioned factors like her father socialising with doctors no doubt served as an influence, but Mary was also fascinated by the Latin version of the myth of Prometheus, a creature metamorphosing from clay into a man. Of course, in her novel the creature is made of various body parts from stolen corpses in Victor Frankenstein’s ‘workshop of filthy creation’. Another interesting fact is that, although it is widely assumed the character for Victor Frankenstein to be either Austrian and German he is in fact a proud Genevan – surely no coincidence that the Villa Diodati, which still stands today, is situated by Lake Geneva. Another likely influence for Mary’s story was the groups travels across Europe prior to the arrival at Switzerland and during their trip through Germany the little group enjoyed a boat trip along the river Rhine from which they could see Burg Frankenstein (Castle Frankenstein) – built around 1250 and already a ruin during Mary’s time and still a ruin (and tourist attraction) today. Although it was never mentioned in her travel journals Mary and the others must have heard of the local legend of Johann Conrad Dippel, a 17th century alchemist born in the castle who dabbled in resurrection. Therefore it is widely assumed that both the castle as well as the tale of Dippel indirectly influenced Mary’s fantasy.
Other chapters in the book inform the reader about the early resurrectionists and galvanism, as well as early automatons. Together with descriptions of the political and social climate of the time we get a pretty good idea of the world that Mary Godwin and her friends inhabited – further illustrated through sketches and etchings.

Particularly interesting is the chapter Frankenstein – A Visual Celebration and of course here we have all the usual suspects from American silent film actor Charles Stanton Ogle who, in 1910, portrayed the first Frankenstein ‘monster’, followed by the ultimate creature Boris Karloff (and Elsa Lanchester as ‘The Bride’) to the later Hammer Horror adaptations starring Peter Cushing as the Baron. Naturally, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Munsters, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation, Andy Warhol’s Flesh For Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein and even Benedict Cumberbatch in his stage appearance as ‘The Creature’ are all included but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. More obscure films are also mentioned as it the on-going fascination with the Creature itself… which has the dubious honour to appear on anything from cereal boxes to the cover of MAD magazine, pulp novels, Smirnoff Vodka, stamps, toys, Halloween masks and what have you.
Pity that no visuals from director Ken Russell’s psychedelic re-telling of the Diodati night in his 1986 film Gothic is mentioned and even more of a shame that Mr. Frayling exquisite book fails to provide the Frankenstein-connoisseur with stills from the terrifically terrifying ‘Night of the Marionettes’ – an episode from the 1977 BBC Anthology-series Supernatural which offers a highly inspired twist on how the novel Frankenstein was conceived…
This minor criticism aside, FRANKENSTEIN – THE FIRST 200 YEARS makes for a most excellent Christmas present or simply just a bloody good read!

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