Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Pity and Horror of Frankenstein

In 1818 Mary Shelley published a book about the relationship between two men, a relationship forged in blood, unrequited love, rage and unbreakable hatred. Both men in the tale of ‘Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus’  have the capacity for doing great good, yet only evil comes of their relationship.

The pity of the tale is that the main character, Victor Frankenstein, is a good and loving man marred by two fatal flaws; his compulsion to take science into a new realm and his inability to feel empathy for the creature he creates. For its part the monster contains within its massive and ugly form a vast capacity for love and passion and learning. Yet like a child it feels things to extreme. When it suffers rejection, first by its creator and then by the other people it meets on its journey, it is overwhelmed by a blinding need to revenge itself on Dr Frankenstein and all that he loves. Far from the clunking brute of the movies, Mary Shelley’s original monster is a sophisticated being whose acts of savagery have an eloquent and awful logic to them.

It is well to remember that the title of the story is ‘Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus’. In the ancient Greek myth it is Prometheus who stole fire from the eternal Gods to give to it to the mortal humans. Fire is essential for human development but the focus of the myth is on the deeds, thoughts and suffering of the stealer of fire. Likewise the focus of Mary Shelley’s story is on Doctor Frankenstein, the stealer of the ultimate secret, how to create life. It is his deeds that create the monster, his deeds that compel the monster to carry out such awful acts. It is Dr Frankenstein who is central to the most gruesome and terrible sections of the tale. It is he who plays with the gore and flesh of the dead in order to create a creature, and it is he who is responsible for one of the most tense and dark moments in the book.

It is this event that for me proves (if proof were needed) how important and constantly relevant and contemporary Mary Shelley’s tale is. The doctor returns to his family home to find it filled with awful suffering. His youngest brother, a mere child, has been strangled. Worse, it is the family’s much loved maid who has been arrested for the crime. Yet Frankenstein has no doubt that it was his creature that committed the murder. But he does not speak out. As the evidence is gathered the doctor is racked by guilt but he will not reveal his secret, that he has created a living being that is bent on murder and revenge. The maid is put on trial, is found guilty, and sentenced to die. Yet still the doctor remains mute. On the evening before her execution, the maid asks for Frankenstein and his adopted sister Elizabeth to visit her in her cell. But though Frankenstein is possessed of a ‘horrid anguish’ he chooses not to speak out. The maid is hung. 

Though the story is two hundred years old, it resonates in this era of monstrous crimes and monstrous enemies – crimes and enemies often created by those who now oppose them. One result of this seemingly endless new normal of fear, paranoia and hatred is good, passionate and clever men - and it is inevitably men - take decision every day that cause great hurt to the innocent. Often those decisions are made to ensure that important secrets remain hidden: secret agendas, secret negotiations, secret alliances, secret Intelligence sources, secret (and shameful) responsibility for the whole awful, gory and yet entirely avoidable mess.

The true horror of Mary Shelley’s book is the same horror that plays out on today’s twenty-four hour news cycle: the impossibility of knowing who the real monster is.

** ** **
A creature with many similarities to Frankenstein’s monster is the Golem of Jewish folklore. In 1911 a version was written down for children by ‘Aunt Naomi’. To hear the audio version check out The Golem ofPrague 
I read a lot of horror stories. One of my favourites is We Are Wormwood  by Autumn Christian. I highly recommend you go get a copy now.
Stay tuned to my blog to read more of my articles about horror stories. 

For more about my work as a storyteller, blogger, author, tutor and performer see rabfultonstories Follow me on twitter @haveringrab and Instagram @celtictalesgalway


  1. Have you seen Der Golem from 1920?

  2. No I have not. Do you have a link I can check out. Also I've just finished writing up a review of a stunning show based on Japanese horror stories, which you might find interesting