“The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room.”(Quote by Mary Shelley; Chapter 4; Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus)
The quote above was written by Mary Shelley is just one example of Gothic horror literature. Its notable features include the elements of horror and romance with an effect of terror as an extension of the pleasures of romance. The attempt that the authors of this genre were making back in Shelley’s time, and perhaps in our own, was to dig deeper into man’s quest to achieve perfection even if attained through an inhuman creature with the moral struggles of a human. It uses both devices of psychological and physical mystery with happenings in haunted houses and dark castles plagued with decay and death, madness and secrets as well as generational curses. The characters tend to be villains, femmes fatales, vampires, werewolves, angels and fallen angels and other ghostly aspects.
The creator of Frankenstein, Mary Shelly, was an English author of Gothic horror novels and short stories and poems. Frankenstein started out as a ghost story sparked by lively philosophical discussions she overheard between her husband Percy and Lord Byron about galvanism, the man-made creation of life from the sparking of electro-negatives and so has elements of both Gothic and science fiction. Ultimately her conclusion seems to be that man’s obsession for perfection ends in ruin. So where does Mary Shelley get the ideas for her work? I have always been curious about the backgrounds of authors and no less so with this one. What was her life like and does her life have to do with her art?
Shortly after her birth her mother, a well-known feminist and author, died and Mary is raised by her philosopher and open-minded father William Goodwin who later remarries. Mary found her step-mother to be cruel and her father somewhat distant emotionally and so frequented her mother’s graveside where she found some consolation. When she was sixteen she met her future husband Percy Shelley who was still married at the time, though unhappily, and was well acquainted with her father’s unconventional ideas, especially for the 18th century. Some of Mr. Godwin’s ideas included his own atheistic beliefs and teachings as well as his philosophy of free-love. Noticing the attraction between Percy and Mary, he forbade them to see each other. Obviously her father’s philosophy free- thinking and free-loving ideas did not extend to his daughter. Still love conquers all and so they left for France to eventually elope, bringing her half-sister Claire with them. For three years they remain unmarried until Percy’s wife drowns herself.
This couple was well matched in terms of wit, intellect, love of travel and they advocated social reform and vegetarianism. Mary did not embrace the idea nor the practice of open marriage as did her husband who longed to experience its freedom and wrote about it in many of his poems. Better to long for and write about than to practice.
This author had several miscarriages but one son, William, did live for three years traveling with them. Mary wrote Frankenstein while on one such trip to Switzerland and was inspired by the ghost stories she and Percy told each other while on sailing excursions there. A year after Frankenstein is published Mary suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her son William. Later, another son, Percy is born and is the only child to survive childhood.
Three years later Percy Shelly died while sailing a schooner, the “Don Juan,” near Livorno, Italy. A sudden, unexpected storm blew in, the schooner sank, and Percy’s body was washed ashore later to be cremated. Mary, pregnant, had another miscarriage that nearly claimed her life. Devastated by her loss she returned to England with her son Percy, is determined not to remarry, and devoted herself to writing, compiling and publishing her husband’s poetry. She continued to work on her own writings of novels, short stories, poems and reviews for magazines as well. During this time she wrote and published The Last Man about the end of human civilization in the 21st century and Valperga, a 14th century romance. Plagued with bouts of illnesses of all sorts and the many stresses and strains she suffered in her life Mary Shelley died at home at the age of fifty-four possibly of a brain tumor.
To me Mary Shelley is an author who lived: she lived what seemed to be a painful life at times, a happy and adventurous life at other times, but always a life full of love that was passionate and extraordinary. She lived and loved as she wrote: with intensity, cleverness and in abundance despite her circumstances. So did her life and art relate to each other? Did her losses like the deaths of her mother and husband and all her miscarriages have anything to do with her writing? Did the work Frankenstein come from her desire to reanimate lost life? You can decide for yourself.
But why read the works of Shelley or Poe or any the work of any author who writes Gothic Horror or Science Fiction? And why do I read and enjoy them? Well I know that I get to experience a rush of adrenaline from the fear I get reading these works. I find they manage to excite my curiosity and desire to explore the unknown and untouched. They allow me to let my imagination go on an expedition of complex issues, for the discovery of my own truth about morality and mortality. With Shelley’s work I find an appreciation of beauty, of life and an uncommon understanding of their fragility, even in their absence, in her work. Reading her stories during the time of autumnal change, and in October in anticipation of Halloween, the perfect time to pick up another of her works and enjoy that little scare.