While it’s pretty much common knowledge to anyone who’s made it through high school English that Frankenstein was a novel before it was a film (lesser known fact was that it was initially published as a short story before it became a novel), the story surrounding how Mary Shelley conceived her classic tale of terror is every bit as fascinating as the work itself. In the spirit of Halloween, today we take a look back at the events surrounding the creation of one of horror fiction’s most enduring stories.
Back in the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley (then 19) and her soon-to-be husband (poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) spent the season in Switzerland. It wasn’t a good time for a trip, as the author wrote that “it proved a wet, uncongenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.”
The Shelley’s, bored by being stuck in their home, spent many days with poet Lord Byron, his young girlfriend, and his personal physician. For entertainment, they read a series of German ghost stories aloud to one another – which served as the spark of inspiration for what would soon become Shelley’s masterwork. Having enjoyed the tales of terror so much, the group decided that they would each write – and read – their own horror story.
The young Shelley took this as her opportunity to shine amongst a room filled with poets. She set about crafting a horrifying ghost story – but found herself stymied at every turn. It was the worst time ever to have writer’s block…
Then, one evening, after days of trying and failing to come up with a compelling plot, Shelley sat by the fireplace while her husband and Byron discussed the possibility of reviving corpses using electricity. Shelley then retired for the evening but was fascinated by the idea. We’ll allow the author to recount what happened next in her own words.
“When I placed my head on the pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arouse in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw -with shut eyes but acute mental vision- I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together …I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half-vital motion.
“Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of light which he had communicated would fade; that this thing would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery eyes…”
Shelley was so terrified by her thoughts that she had to convince herself that it was all in her imagination. Yet, even after being gripped by such a powerful and horrifying idea, she didn’t immediately begin writing Frankenstein. She returned to her ghost story – and only then did she realize that the tale she’d been trying to come up with all week was right in front of her.
She announced her story to the group the next morning and began work in earnest. Frankenstein morphed from a short story into a novel after Percy Shelley encouraged his wife to expand the idea. For years, it was assumed that Percy had written the book – since Mary didn’t think it was an important enough work to put her name on it, but the preface was written by her husband. Eventually, she did claim the book as her own – and assured herself literary immortality.
In the nearly two centuries since Shelley first birthed Frankenstein into the world, the characters (most notably, the monster) have become iconic. The tale of the book’s creation is no less fascinating, though – and has also been immortalized in film, serving as the focus of Ken Russell’s crazy fictionalized retelling, Gothic.