Poor Monster

Poor Monster

A review of Charles de Lint’s “Pity The Monsters” in The Ultimate Frankenstein (Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I was surprised to see that Charles de Lint set his Frankenstein tale Pity The Monsters in the city he invented – Newford – a city that he generally sets tales of fairies and fantasy in, but in doing so, he illustrated the fantasy quality of Frankenstein tales, and he stuck to areas that he has often evoked in his Newford-centred stories. De Lint used a Frankenstein tale to explore ideas of poverty and homelessness, setting his tale in the impoverished part of Newford generally called The Tombs, an area of abandoned buildings that house squatters of the human and supernatural variety. De Lint explores the interweaving of normal city life with the uncanny, as he generally does in his Newford tales, having characters pulled out of their normate lives as they encounter something seemingly otherworldly. He illustrates to his audience that normalcy is a facade, a construction, and that it is a thin veneer that shows its artificiality when scratched.

Pity The Monsters is a tale that explores ideas of mental illness and altered perceptions while also examining the dispossession that often faces people with mental illness. It explores parental abuse and violence, entitlement and bodies, because Frankenstein IS a tale of violence, parental abuse, and entitlement over the bodies of others. It is a tale about the pain of Otherness and rejection and a tale about the policing of othered bodies.

To find out more about Charles de Lint, go to https://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

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A Frankensteinian Bluebeard Tale

A Frankensteinian Bluebeard Tale

A review of Kate Horsley’s The Monster’s Wife (Barbican Press, 2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

While some would argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has some gothic elements to it, Kate Horsley’s The Monster’s Wife emphasizes these gothic characteristics. Set during the period where Victor Frankenstein travels to an island in the Orkney’s to create the female monster for his creation, Horsley’s tale expands upon this episode of Shelley’s novel, highlighting the complexities of Victor’s arrival in the Orkney’s and his treatment of others in his travels.

Horsley sets her tale on a far off island, highlighting the possibility of a gothic tale, emphasizing the role of the island as a symbol of isolation. She maps ideas of bigotry and backward behaviour onto the people living on the island, underlying an assumption that many authors make about island culture – namely, that it is cut off from the ‘civilized world’. Gothic novels tend to emphasize isolation, and the use of the island symbol helps to bring attention to this idea of isolation (which is one that Mary Shelley describes as characteristic of both Frankenstein and the monster he creates). She further brings attention to this isolation characteristic by having Victor move into a mouldy old manner house and isolate himself from all of the islanders, becoming the mysterious, strange, handsome man that is characteristic of gothic fiction. His choice of locale – the mouldy old manner house – is also a central aspect of the gothic novel.

If the mouldy house wasn’t gothic enough, Horsley further emphasizes this gothic element by also having secret rooms. The notion of the gothic house belonging to a strange, mysterious gentleman evokes the fairy tale Bluebeard, which is supposed to be a lesson about becoming too curious. In Bluebeard, a young woman marries a man with a blue beard and he tells her that she can go anywhere in his large house except for one room that he keeps locked. This, of course, makes her more curious and when Bluebeard leaves the house and gives her the keys, she is overcome by her curiosity and unlocks the door to that room and finds all of Bluebeard’s previous wives who he has murdered because they similarly became curious about that room. In Horsley’s The Monster’s Wife, the character Oona is similarly overcome with her curiosity and finds the keys to Victor Frankenstein’s hidden room, and I will leave the rest a secret for you to discover when you read Horsley’s book.

Yet, Bluebeard isn’t the only fairy tale that Horsley weaves through her tale. Characters in the tale understand themselves through reference to fairy tales, relating elements of their life to the tales they have been told and there is a mythic vein that runs through island life. Oona, in particular, regularly relates her notions of selfhood and her experiences to fairy tales about Selkies, seals who can take off their skins and become human and who frequently hunger for the human experience and will abduct people to be their wives. As much as The Monster’s Wife is a reimagining of Frankenstein… it is also a fairy tale retold and shaped through the lens of the monstrous.

Horsley weaves elements of gothic romance through her tale – the dark old house, the closeness of death, the romantic stranger with a dark past, people haunted by their past, and the ever present quality of secrecy. Yet, she doesn’t isolate that gothic nature to Frankenstein or the castle he occupies. Horsley’s isolated island is similarly full of secrets for the reader to discover and a buried past to uncover. People are shunned for their differences on the island and celebrated for their similitude. It is a community shaped by gossip. Oona herself is shunned for her heart condition, which allows others to assume that she is weak and vulnerable and easy to prey upon.

This is a novel where knowledge is danger and threats lurk everywhere. It is a tale full of grey areas where there are no innocents or heroes, only shades of villain.

To find out more about Kate Horsley, visit http://www.katehorsley.co.uk

To discover more about The Monster’s Wife, go to http://www.katehorsley.co.uk/project-view/the-monsters-wife/

A Cure For Grief

A Cure For Grief

A review of Emma Carroll’s Strange Star (Faber & Faber, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In Strange Star, Emma Carroll explores the genesis of Mary Shelley’s story Frankenstein by exploring the events that led up to the evening of ghost stories that Mary Shelley suggests was the genesis of her ideas about Frankenstein. Carroll weaves different characters through her story that would serve as figures to generate Shelley’s thoughts and perspectives on the tale she would eventually tell.

The story centres around Lizzie, a girl who was struck by lightning and became blind and a scientist names Francesca Stein who has a fascination with Galvanism and the power of electricity on biology. Mary Shelley visits Dr. Stein and sees her attempt to conduct experiments on Lizzie as a way of learning about the biological effects of electricity. Shelley herself is experiencing an intense sense of loss because of the death of her daughter and becomes fascinated with the possibility of reversing death through science, so she reacts with fascination to Stein’s entrapment of a young girl and the scientist’s desire to experiment on her.

Thinking Lizzie dead, Mary and Percy Shelley take Lizzie’s sister with them after being told by Francesca Stein that the girl has no parents. Yet, Lizzie follows her sister on her own quest, trying to connect with her family.

Carroll draws themes of Mary Shelley’s novel into her own, exploring ideas of oppression through a character who has escaped slavery and still deals with persecution on the basis of his skin colour, dealing with bigotry and superstition and the effect these have on a person who looks different due to being struck by lightning, dealing with a doctor’s obsession, moral questions, and Shelley’s own grief for her dead child. Carrol deals with complex questions of privilege and people benefitting from the labour and bodies of others… but her novel revolves around people not seeking a cure for death… but, rather, a cure for grief.

To find out more about the work of Emma Carroll, visit her website at https://emmacarrollauthor.wordpress.com

To read more about Strange Star, visit https://www.faber.co.uk/9780571317653-strange-star.html

A Necromantic Frankenstein

A Necromantic Frankenstein

A review of Kenneth Oppel’s Such Wicked Intent: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein Book 2 (Harper Collins, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kenneth Oppel’s Such Wicked Intent takes the Frankenstein story into a darker space where alchemy and trips to the underworld shape Victor Frankenstein’s quest for knowledge. Oppel imagines Victor Frankenstein not just as a scientist, but as a man who craves any kind of knowledge and power.

In Oppel’s first Apprenticeship of Frankenstein book, This Dark Endeavour, Victor begins meddling with alchemical knowledge as a way to construct a cure for his twin brother, Konrad’s illness but eventually discovers that alchemy is substanceless and ultimately ineffective. Now that Konrad is dead, Victor again goes searching through ancient tomes, believing that he has the knowledge and power to change his brother’s death. He is fuelled by grief, but also by his own belief that he has the ability to do what cannot be done.

It wasn’t until reading Such Wicked Intent that I notice how much of Victor’s choices have been influenced by privilege. He had been taught all of his life that he could accomplish anything and was wealthy and privileged enough that everything seemed within his grasp, and he then extends this over people around him who he is possessive of (not just Elizabeth who he is jealous of anyone being romantically interested in, but also his closeness to his brother and to his best friend Henry). His possessiveness motivates him to scheme to bring everyone under his power, to have everyone owe him or need him.

Victor also believes he is entitled to all types of power, which allows him to risk himself and others in order to obtain it. Relationships are secondary to his quest for power and knowledge is only a way of wielding power and finding new ways of attaining power. Victor views any obstacles to his power as problems to be swept away.

In Such Wicked Intent, Victor delves into the occult, learning how to travel into the underworld in order to attain more knowledge and power, though convincing people (including himself) that he only want to venture there to find a way to bring back his brother Konrad.

Victor becomes addicted to the power of the underworld and Oppel explores an addiction narrative in Such Wicked Intent, exploring Victor’s desire for knowledge and power as an actual addiction, complete with withdrawal symptoms.

This is a haunting story, not just about the way that ambition can haunt someone and drive them to obsession, but a literal haunting, an exploration of the darker aspects of human life and afterlife.

To discover more about Kenneth Oppel, visit http://www.kennethoppel.ca

To find out more about Such Wicked Intent, visit http://www.harpercollins.ca/9781554683420/such-wicked-intent

Loneliness

Loneliness

A review of John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus (Saga, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus is a tale of entwined loneliness – lives brought together through a sense of isolation and solitude who seek to understand what it means to be outsiders. Kessel’s work is a “mash up” story of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the uniting of these narratives is effective because of the beauty of language Kessel is able to bring forth and because of the sense of longing that ties both stories together.

Pride and Prometheus focusses primarily on Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and both Victor Frankenstein and his creature from Frankenstein, and although these narratives seem at first glance to be disparate, Mary’s interest in moral education ties into the moral complexities involved in Victor’s encounters with his creature, desiring to morally educate the monster, but also to challenge Victor’s moral uncertainty and self-assuredness that allows him to feel as though he can be an arbiter of morality for himself and his creature.

The creature and Mary are both motivated by their lack and their belief that they need marriage in order to find happiness. The creature has asked Frankenstein to create a bride for him, and Mary feels a longing to be married so that she will not be trapped in the image of the “old maid”, considered too old for marriage by her contemporary society. It is her perception of herself as an old maid and the treatment of her by others as such that allows her to understand the essential isolation of Victor’s creation and the creature feels his own loneliness partially because of his alienation from a society that cannot accept him either.

There is an essential fatalism to Kessel’s narrative, partially shaped by his exploration of the existing texts of Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein, that drives the characters inexorably toward their end, allowing them to experience moral and emotional complexity and changing perspectives while ultimately driven toward a pre-defined end. Victor and his creature, in particular, are trapped in their conflict, unable to understand each other because they have already formed prejudgements of each other.

Kessel presents a complex and compelling story that brings out the uncertainty, love, and fear of isolation that motivate both Austen and Shelley’s texts

Stitching Mary Shelley’s Text Into A New Body of Literature

Stitching Mary Shelley’s Text Into A New Body of Literature

A review of Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (HarperCollins, 2011).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Since Mary Shelley’s publication of Frankenstein, Dr. Victor Frankenstein has shaped the public imagination of the “mad scientist”. He is portrayed as an ambitious, driven man who is willing to do and to sacrifice anything to achieve his goals no matter what the consequences. He is willing to push the boundaries of scientific imagination… and also push the boundaries of morality. But how did his life shape who he became? What transformed him into that driven doctor who was willing to challenge even that great boundary – between life and death?

Kenneth Oppel’s “This Dark Endeavour” winds back the clock on Victor Frankenstein’s life, imagining an early life for the inventor. Oppel’s Frankenstein is an atheist who believes that all of the questions in the universe can be answered by science but that science has not yet achieved its potential and has set its vision too simply. His desire to discover forbidden secrets drives him toward medical science, but also toward alchemy and the dark secrets that it promises, allowing him to push the scientific imagination.

Victor Frankenstein’s ambitions are wrapped around the life of his twin brother, who he has always seen as better at everything than he is. His brother Konrad doesn’t have to work as hard at things, he’s more athletic, and he is better loved by those around them. Victor has structured his life around competition with his brother, but, when Konrad becomes ill, Victor feels a need to save him. This need is partially based out of love, but also out of a desire to finally win at something in his brother’s life – to have control over whether his brother lives or dies and to prove himself a hero.

This Dark Endeavour carries through some of Mary Shelley’s themes, examining ideas of power, competition between men (and the danger that this toxic masculinity can cause), critiques of sexist, patriarchal culture, the idea of the body as something fragmented, and a questioning of the limits of medical science, but it also bring in some new ideas, exploring ideas of biohacking when Victor begins augmenting his own body, ideas of consent, and a distrust for medical doctors.

Oppel’s obscures the boundaries between book and body, creating a narrative of books that shape bodies and books that are made from body parts.

To discover more about This Dark Endeavour, visit http://www.harpercollins.ca/9781554683406/this-dark-endeavour

To find out more about Kenneth Oppel, visit http://www.kennethoppel.ca

Frankenstein’s Daughter

A review of Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of The Alchemist’s Daughter (Saga Press, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is Theodora Goss’ conversation across time with creators of enduring literature that explored things like what it means to be human through the figure of the outsider, the monster. But, more prominently, it is Goss’ conversation with Mary Shelley – a sharing of ideas and perspectives and an opening of dialogue about scientific exploitation of bodies, hegemonic control, the outsider, and the restrictive nature of the category “human”.

Goss resurrects literary monsters of the past by creating a narrative about their daughters, weaving narratives of the abjection of bodily difference with the oppression of women. Like monsters, the women in her narrative resist easy categorization, standing up against subjugation, typification, or any kind of restraint. They speak back to the social pressures and literary tropes that have historically sought to limit them.

Goss draws characters from works by Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Louis Stevenson into an adventure mystery novel that is primarily about the way that people come together in unique ways and draw strength from difference. She brings together the daughters/creations of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Rappaccini to bring attention to the potential danger of depersonalization in medical sciences, the oppression of bodies that don’t conform, the profound isolation that comes with difference, and the power of found family to create a sense of belonging.

As much as this is a brilliant and exciting tale in itself, it is also a discourse on storytelling and Goss’ characters regularly interrupt their own story in order to interject critiques of the writing process, give details left out, and add insights that expand on the perspective given. The characters briefly interrupt the story to say things like “Now you really do sound like a penny dreadful!” These women want to tell their own narratives, tired of being silenced by literary tropes or having their stories told by others. They are active participants in constructing their own narratives, literary partners with their writer, Theodora Goss, who offers them a space to speak.

Goss interweaves Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein throughout her narrative, resurrecting characters from Shelley’s tale, but also having characters critique Shelley’s 1818 narrative, challenging the limitations it places on the characters and expanding upon the potential of Shelley’s tale. But she also plays with thoughts that Shelley began to explore in Frankenstein like the meaning of “monster” and the interplay with the sympathetic outsider. She complicates the notion of the monster just as Shelley does, engaging the reader in a process of remapping the potential boundaries of the human.