Tuesday, 26 January 2010

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship up for Salford Children's Book Award and the awards ceremony is on Friday at the Lowry Centre in Salford. Sadly I'm not going to be able to be there to applaud the winner. I'm head to head with Sally Nicholls again, as I was with the North-East Book Award. The other shortlisted authors are Michelle Magorian, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Emma Clayton and Elizabeth laird.

So - back to Frankenstein. Everybody knows how the creature was brought to life don't they. Frankenstein uses electricity. That's what those bolts in the monster's neck are for. Well - perhaps. . .

Except that Mary Shelley does not say how the creature was brought to life. She neatly sidesteps this issue by explaining - as Victor Frankenstein - that this knowledge is too dangerous to pass on. We all assume it must be electricity because of the great 'It's alive!' scene in James Whale's movie. Mary's monster does not look like Karloff's monster - there are no bolts.

Whales did not completely invent this notion. Although the novel does not mention electricity, the introduction to the 1831 edition does. Perhaps, writes Mary, a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

A little later, when she is talking about the nightmare that triggered the novel, she says that in her dream she 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.

So there is some foundation for Whales' lightning bolt and strange machinery. Luigi Galvani had made a dead frog's leg jump as though alive. In 1805, Giovanni Aldini wowed London with 're-animation' experiments as public performances, running electricity through the corpses or hanged men until they twitched and jerked and grimaced.

But Whales also had the example of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent movie, Metropolis. The scene where Maria is transformed into the robot is very similar to the scene in Frankenstein. Although there had always been a fear of science, the twentieth century is when the idea of the 'mad scientist' really seems to strike a chord.

But what about the business of how the creature is made - before it is 'endued with vital warmth'. Again ask almost anyone and they will tell you that it was made from pieces of corpses stitched together.

But was he?


  1. You would do well on QI, sir. Stitched from corpses is far more fun, though, isn't it?

  2. * Shuffles off sheepishly carrying a mysterious parcel *