Sunday, 28 February 2010


Shane is another movie - a Western this time - that has a child at its heart whilst not actually being a story for children. The child in question is a boy called Joey who lives with his mother and father on a small homestead in Wyoming. Shane is a mysterious stranger who gets pulled into the increasingly violent conflict between the homesteaders and the local cattle baron. It makes brilliant use of the landscape and glows with the almost Renaissance blues and reds of Technicolour. It is directed by George Stevens.

Joey is captivated by the charismatic gunslinger Shane who also casts a rather different spell over Joey's mother (Jean Arthur). Joey's decent, hard-working but otherwise unremarkable father (Van Heflin) forms an uneasy friendship with Shane and the two men become opposing role models for the impressionable Joey.

The movie has many similarities to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another movie I watched with my son recently. Both movies feature a demonic bad man. In Liberty Valance, it is the psychotic Lee Marvin and his whip. In Shane it is the satanic black-clad and grinning Jack Palance. Both movies suggest that the days of the gunfighter (including Shane) belong to the past, with the additional world-weary message in Liberty Valance that politicians get the credit for the dirty work done by others. Both movies subscribe to the view that there comes a point when you must stand up to a bully - if not for your own sake, then for the sake of others. Both movies offer different models for what it means to be a man.

It is arguable that my generation of men - the generation that is on power in so many places - watched too many westerns in their youth. Perhaps that is where Tony Blair and George Bush developed their foreign policy. But I think good westerns - and Shane is one of those - are invariably more complicated and thoughtful than may appear at first sight.

Bravery is an interesting theme for one thing. Like The Magnificent Seven, it makes it clear that it is easier to be 'brave' when you have nothing to lose. Is Shane braver than Joey's father? No. Joey's father is prepared to fight even though he is ill-prepared and almost certain to lose. How brave is it to wear a gun wherever you go? There are different types of bravery - as Charles Bronson points out to the children he spanks in The Magnificent Seven for calling their fathers cowards. Sometimes it is brave not to fight. Sometimes it is brave to farm and raise a family.

There is a nostalgia for me in watching these movies. They remind me of Sunday afternoons with my dad when I was my son's age. The interesting thing about watching them now, is that I am aware that they ask quite a lot from the young viewer, particularly in regards to the relationships between men and women. In Liberty Valance it is Jimmy Stewart's decent, good-hearted Stoddard who gets the girl, but she still clearly loves the bluff John Wayne/Tom Doniphon character who did the actual cold-blooded shooting of Liberty Valance.

Tom Doniphon helps Stoddard even though he is losing the woman he had planned to marry. Shane helps Joey's father even though it is not his fight. He seems to crave a family to defend. He is a man with nothing and like the hired gunmen in The Magnificent Seven (or the samurai in The Seven Samurai from which it was adapted), the selflessness of the act gives his life some meaning.

The famous final scene still gets me, every time. Shane rides away with Joey shouting after him, begging him to stay. Brandon De Wilde is very good as Joey and there is such longing in those final moments. Shane has been shot - possibly fatally - and is riding away from the gunfight that Joey has witnessed. He tells Joey to take care of his parents and then simply rides off with Joey shouting after him.

'Pa's got things for you to do! And Mother wants you, I know she does.'

I love the ambiguity of 'Mother wants you'. The movie ends with Joey yelling 'Shane! Come back!' The Amazon review said: his parting scene with Shane is guaranteed to draw tears from even the most stony-hearted moviegoer. I looked at my son (choking back my usual sobs) and there was nothing.


Kids these days. . .

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Japanese ship

An advance copy of the Japanese edition of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship turned up today. It looks great. I really like the design of the title. It came out at the end of last year, published by Rironsha.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mean creek

Following on from I'm Not Scared and The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas, I thought I'd talk about another couple of movies I watched recently that have child protagonists but are not made for the children's market.

Again there are similarities between the two. They both feature a group of young people separated from their small town community by the adventure they set out on. In one, the adventure is to find the dead body of a child. In the other they are intent on punishing a bully. Both movies feature troubled and dangerous older brothers and young men. Both movies try to show how children behave together, when apart from adult society. They are both set in Oregon.

Mean Creek is a movie that I was keen to see when it first came out, but which, like so many others, I missed and have had to watch much later on DVD. I actually bought the DVD some time ago, but it sat on the shelf because, to be honest, I was a little nervous of it, imagining it to be more violent than it actually is. It is superbly written, shot, cast and acted.

The theme of the movie is bullying, but had it been made for children - with that lucrative 'provoking-discussion-in-the-classroom' category in mind - then it would have been far more concerned with delivering a 'message' of some sort. Because it was made for adults it allows itself to be a much more complex and thought-provoking movie. It is more honest.

How many stories or movies feature an odious bully who gets his comeuppance? It is a device that must go back to the dawn of storytelling and is incredibly common in children's fiction. What is clever about this film, is it takes that simplistic wish-fulfilling notion and turns a spotlight on it. What exactly would that mean in the real world? What is a bully anyway? If you pick on a bully, what does that make you? Does a victim have to be nice for us to care what happens to him?

The bully is unpleasant and almost wholly lacking in our sympathy. And yet, because he is a child - and a child with his own problems - and we know that he is being set up and we are (hopefully) not bullies ourselves, we can't help but fear for his safety. Jacob Aaron Estes doesn't make the bully reveal himself to be lovable. That would have been too easy.

The tension in the movie is almost unbearable. We share the tension of the other children who are in on what they believe is a prank, but we also know that this is headed towards a far darker climax than that.

It is an essay on the limits of vigilantism, whether the target be an odious school bully or an odious Iraqi dictator. There is a wonderful line in A Man For All Seasons where Thomas More says he would give even the Devil the benefit of the law. His interviewer has said that he would 'cut down every law in England' in pursuit of the Devil. 'And when the last law was cut down,' says More, 'And the Devil turned on you - where would you hide?'

Justice is there to protect the accused, but also to protect the accuser should the tables turn. It is also there to protect us from ourselves.

I remember really enjoying Stand By Me when it came out and I enjoyed it again this time. It is from the novella The Body by Stephen King. I haven't read The Body - though I keep meaning to - but I do know that Rob Reiner made several important changes.

For one thing, he changes the location - from King's beloved Maine, to Oregon. Sadly he also softened the story quite considerably. Admittedly the resulting Tom Sawyerish quality is a big part of its considerable charm.

Keiffer Sutherland's character is the main problem for me. Leaving to one side the fact that his appearance makes little concession to the 1950s - he looks like he has stepped straight out of a 1980s pop video - and that he has clearly been rehearsing his Jack Bauer cocked head, staring psycho shtick for far too many years, Sutherland's character is not allowed to have the level of threat that the delinquents in Mean Creek have. Ace seems more like Biff from Back to the Future.

In Mean Creek you feel the older characters are capable of anything. You need to believe that for the story to work. In The Body, the boys return to a vicious beating - surely the realistic consequence of having pointed a gun at the local hoodlums. Fingers and ribs are broken. In King's story, those bullies are real. In the essentially nostalgic and sentimental Stand By Me they are simply another version of the scrap yard dog - another trial to be overcome. It is that very seductive myth of the little guy standing up to the big guy and coming out on top. They still stand up to the bullies in The Body, but in the novella they have to suffer the consequences. Perhaps that simply doesn't have the same box-office pull.

Having said that, the cast of children play their parts very well. River Phoenix is a particularly charismatic presence and the opening and closing narrations concerning the subsequent lives and deaths of the other characters seem now to have an even more poignant edge to them.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

CDs of terror

This arrived in the post today. It is the BBC Audio version of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. Bill Wallis did a very nice job of reading Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, so I look forward to hearing this.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

I'm not scared

When I saw Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart the other day, I was telling them both about a few DVDs I had watched recently. The common theme was that they were movies with a child (or children) as the protagonist(s) without actually being made with children in mind as viewers.

You can probably think of many, many movies and books where this pattern is followed - it is actually a very common device. After all, there is a strong autobiographical aspect to literature (and therefore to the films made from books) and childhood is such a vivid experience to draw on for all kinds of reasons. But I thought that over the next couple of days I'd look at some I have watched recently.

Such movies (and books) interest me because I think there is often a marked difference in the way a movie is made depending on its audience. I don't simply mean that there is less violence or sexual scenes or swearing or whatever - I more mean that there seems to be a difference in the approach. Sometimes this is because there is perhaps a greater allowance for ambiguity in a work intended for adults, but often it is simply a question of what is considered believable or realistic.

Recently I watched two DVDs with a very similar theme. They both are both adaptations of novels, set in the past and dealing with a boy who does not fully comprehend the level of danger and threat to another boy with whom he forms a bond. In both stories, the fates of the boys become intertwined with shocking results. In both books, the world of adults is seen as full of duplicity and violence.

My wife had read Niccolo Ammaniti's novel I'm Not Scared and bought me the DVD of Gabriele Salvatores' movie for Christmas. I had not read the story and had not noticed the movie at all for some reason. It was great to watch something where I had no prior expectations. I can't recommend the novel (though my wife does) but I can certainly recommend the movie.

It is set in the late seventies in the heel of Italy during that crazy time in Italian history when there seemed to be a kidnapping every five minutes. It is beautifully shot and acted and quite apart from the riveting plot, it just seems very honest and true about childhood itself. It seems to grow naturally from the experience of being a child - from that world of game-playing and secrets.

I should say straight away that I have not read John Boyne's bestselling novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I have only dipped into it. My son read it for school and so I bought the DVD of Mark Herman's movie for him. But as truthful as I'm Not Scared seemed to me, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas seemed unbelievable on so many levels.

My son said straight away that it seemed implausible that an eight year-old (with a high-ranking military father) would not know who Hitler was. At eight? In fact I think I'm right in saying he is nine in the book. Would any nine year-old in Germany not know who Hitler was? Would he really not know whether he was a Jew or not? The ignorance of the boy in I'm Not Scared seems believable and true, whereas the ignorance in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas seems only to be there to facilitate the 'twist' at the end.

I have many problems with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and I'm far from being the only one. But apart from issues with the plot, the way the movie was directed was so oddly flat.

Childhood is evoked brilliantly in I'm Not Scared, with wonderful shots of running through wheat fields and cycling down dusty tracks. The camera is right among the children and - for me certainly - it felt like an impossible memory (given that I am sure that I did not grow up in the south of Italy). But I did grow up in those mobile phone-free days when a bicycle was the only thing you needed for a great adventure.

I'm making I'm Not Scared sound nostalgic, but it certainly isn't. It is also sharp and dark. It just feels real. The children seemed like I was at that age - and like children I know now. Friendship is often the concern of children's books, but this story picked up on the fact that children often form little groups and gangs without necessarily liking each other at all. Circumstances bring them together - geography, school, parental friendships or whatever and they form loose, wary, often edgy groupings that get more edgy as the children concerned get older.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and I'm Not Scared are both about the loss of innocence, but strangely, given that it is intended for children, the loss of innocence in the former is connected with the boy's mother, not the boy himself. She comes to understand exactly what kind of man her husband is. But the boy remains innocent of the true nature of the camp and is in no position to learn from the experience.

And even the 'innocence' that is lost seems open to question here. Could you really live next door to an extermination camp and be oblivious?

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Turkish tales

I received this in the post from Bloomsbury. It is the Turkish edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror published by Tudem. It is particularly exciting to have a Turkish edition, because one of the stories - Jinn - is set in south-east Turkey.

Setting is a big part of a story for me. In short stories it is often the thing that sparks the idea. Sometimes I simply want to set a story in a certain location and it is that decision that gets the whole thing started.

I travelled in Turkey many years ago, flying to Istanbul, getting a ferry along the Black Sea coast to Trabzon (the seat of the Byzantine Empire of Trebizond), and then down through the country to Erzerum, Van and then to Dogubeyazit, Diyarbakir and Urfa. To be honest, any one of those places would (and possibly will) make a vivid setting for a story, but it was a little village near the Syrian border that came to mind when I was writing this book.

Urfa, held by Muslims to be the birthplace of Abraham, is where the story Jinn begins and has a scene at the sacred carp pools with a cat is snatching roosting swallows - a scene that was simply drawn from life.

We did not witness a violent death when we went to see the ancient village of Harran with its beehive-shaped houses, but we did encounter some very aggressive children.

One girl in particular took great exception to the fact that we had no sweets to give her (tourists had made sweet-toothed beggars of the village kids) and threw stones as we walked away. That incredible place and those fierce children stuck in my mind and eventually became the basis for Jinn.

Friday, 19 February 2010

More Dutch tales.

Further to yesterday's post, Bloomsbury got in touch yesterday to say that Pimento, my Dutch publisher, wants to take Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. Which is great.

I have also been asked to talk at the Bloomsbury sales conference next week. I get ten minutes or so to sell myself and my books to the sales people. It's very nice to be asked, if a little daunting.

I will probably still put a word in for the Tales of Terror books, because they are still very much out there. Tunnel's Mouth is out in paperback in October and all three are going to be repackaged at some point (more about that nearer the time).

But of course, this year's book is The Dead of Winter, which is coming out in October (twinned with the Tunnel's Mouth paperback). It will be good to get back to that book, having been caught in between promoting Tunnel's Mouth and writing next years book.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Top hats and tales

Sarah Odedina from Bloomsbury emailed this to me. It is the Dutch bind-up of the first two Tales of Terror books. I'm not sure whether that makes it more, or less, likely they are taking the third, but it looks good doesn't it? I love the look of that word verschrikkelijke by the way.

I met up with Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart in Cambridge today. They were in town for an event at Heffer's, organised by Kate Johnson. I caught up with them before they were booked to go on and then joined my wife and son for something to eat before heading down Trinity Street to the bookshop.

We ended up walking behind some King's College School boys - from the choir I think. In top hats and gowns. Cambridge is a bit like that. I am constantly aware of another world going on that I am removed from - the world of the public schools and the University. I constantly toy with the idea of setting something in Cambridge that will deal with this idea of a secret world running parallel to the mundane one the rest of us inhabit. But whether small boys in top hats will feature, I couldn't really say.

Paul and Chris were on good form. I envy them the mutual support of a double act. It works well and they obviously feel very relaxed. Chris draws and Paul reads the odd extract and waits patiently while Chris completes another interruption. They play off one another like a couple of old jazz musicians.

It was well-attended, like all Heffer's events, and we left them signing books for a very long queue of of their fans. Chris and Paul are two of my favourite people and I wish them well with their new book, Wyrmeweald, which is out soon.

As for me, Philippa, my agent, has just confirmed an offer from Bloomsbury for my new book proposal. The provisional title is Mister Creecher, and I will tell you more about it over the next few months as I write it. For now I will simply say that it is strongly related to my recent blog fixation with Frankenstein. . .

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Is he man or monster?

When I was a teenager I drew all the time. I tended to respond to anything I saw or read by doing a drawing or two. These were often no more than doodles. I remember doing something a little more finished for Frankenstein though - it was an ink drawing with a colour wash over it and it was heavily influenced by that Signet Classics cover.

The creature was in silhouette against a night sky with a full moon behind. I don't have access to that drawing now - it is in one of many folios that remain in storage - but interestingly, I revisited the image when I came to do roughs for the cover of Redwulf's Curse - the third of the Tom Marlowe mysteries. My original idea was to have the mysterious guardian of the barrow standing alone in the marshes. I was persuaded that this was too stark at the time - but I still prefer it to the one I eventually did.

By the time the cover reached the finished version it had gone through so many tweaks that it had lost the quality it had at the beginning. A lot of the book plays on the fear of desolate places and the image had lost sense of that somehow. The book was eventually repackaged with a completely different cover anyway.

This is the drawing of the creature that graced the frontispiece of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein. It shows the moment where Victor looks at his work and recoils in horror. Note the skeleton under the creatures legs. And the lack of stitches.

The great American illustrator Lynd Ward decided to show the scene where Victor wakes to find the creature looking down at him through the bed curtains. His illustrations were published a few years after the James Whale movie, but as you can see, his is a very different creature from Karloff's, again with no signs of having been cobbled together from spare parts.

Bernie Wrightson used a very similar image in this more recent illustration for the novel. Wrightson's creature is even more muscular than Lynd Ward's and not surprisingly comics had been quick to see the potential of Frankenstein.

Stan Lee's The Incredible Hulk is a clever cross between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein, but the latter probably had the bigger influence - not only in its fear of science but also in the way Jack Kirby was clearly influenced by the movie representation of Frankenstein when he came to draw Bruce Banner's alter ego.

In the early 1970s - when I was discovering Frankenstein as both movie and novel, Marvel even used Mary Shelley's story as the basis for a series of comics with the creature as the main character - Monster of Frankenstein (later Frankenstein's Monster).

When I was on the Foundation year at art college, in 1976/7, we had to submit a proposal for a graphics project and mine was to do a graphic novel treatment of Frankenstein. I was told - quite rightly - that it was too big a job for the time allowed. It was more of a 2nd Year project. And by the time the 2nd Year came round, I had other things on my mind.

A big part of my desire to do that project was the urge to tell the story exactly as Mary Shelley had written it. Now - thirty-odd years later - I'm not sure that I have the same need to be true to Mary in that way.

I tell my own stories now and though my fascination with Frankenstein has never dimmed - and the idea of of doing a graphic novel of the book still appeals, I find I want to respond to the book in a more oblique and personal way.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Frankenstein unbound

I was a big fan of science fiction when I was in my teens, so a science fiction book that sprang from Frankenstein was always going to be a hit. Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss imagines a future world where time is fractured allowing a scientist to slip back to the 1800s where he meets both Mary Shelley and the characters in her novel. The title is a play on both the subtitle to Frankenstein - The Modern Prometheus - and to the play by P B Shelley - Prometheus Unbound. It was made into a pretty awful film by Roger Corman.

Peter Ackroyd has also produced a kind of parallel novel to Frankenstein with his recent The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein which imagines Victor meeting Shelley at Oxford and his creature as being a tubercular poet.

These versions make no secret of the fact that they are reworking Mary Shelley's story. But right from the start, the adaptations strayed wildly from her novel. And Frankenstein was adapted almost immediately.

In fact had in not been adapted, the novel might have sunk without trace. It sold only five hundred copies when it first came out in 1818. But in 1823 a version of the story with the Austen-like title of Presumption was put on at the English Opera House in the Strand without permission. Mary didn't seem bothered though, and said she thoroughly enjoyed it.

The play was a great success, but it seemed to set a template for further adaptations. Victor becomes a mad scientist with fizzing electrical paraphernalia, he gets a German assistant called Fritz, but most importantly, the creature becomes a 'monster' and is a mute.

Frankenstein: The True Story was a TV movie I remember settling down to watch in the 1970s assuming that this would be a faithful adaptation of the novel (it being the 'true' story). But no - it introduces John Polidori as a character in the novel rather than a member of the Byron set, and has Victor studying in London rather than Bavaria, where he is oddly led astray by Henry Clerval, his blameless friend in the novel. A female creature is successfully created, though the male creature does, unfortunately, pull her head off. And that, as they say, has got to hurt.

It does have the nice conceit of making the creature attractive and able to pass as human. The horror comes as he decays but does not die. That seems to carry some kind of faithfulness to Mary's idea of Victor having intended to make something beautiful.

Kenneth Branagh's version was sold as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but it too could not resist fiddling with the plot (or filming himself stripped to the waist like he was in a Duran Duran video). For some strange reason, after adhering to the novel in most respects (there is the arctic setting, Victor is Swiss, the creature talks) he has the monster insist on Victor reanimating the hanged Justine as his mate, and when Frankenstein refuses, the monster rips out the heart of Elizabeth as punishment. But that's not all - he then has Victor re-animate Elizabeth and Frankenstein and his creature fight for possession of her (while she, revolted by her appearance, destroys herself by fire). It is hard to see how those changes improve on Mary's novel. Better to freely adapt than tinker.

There is still no definitive version of Mary Shelley's book, even after nearly two hundred years and countless adaptations by everyone from Hammer to Andy Warhol and James Whale's versions are still the best movies. Interestingly, the director Danny Boyle is returning to the theatre next year to produce a new staging of Frankenstein.

Now that really should be worth seeing.

Friday, 5 February 2010

I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being

This is the battered copy of the paperback version of Frankenstein I read when I was in my teens. It is a cheap - you could even call it pulp - edition, published by Signet Classics. But I still like that cover. I like it as an illustration and as a piece of simple design, but I also like the fact that the creature is running, not shuffling, and that there is a vulnerability to him. It is not a picture of a monster.

I'm sure I saw the James Whale movie first, but I can't remember when I saw it or when I picked this book up to read - although I would hazard a guess at some time in my mid-teens. What I do remember though was the effect it had on me.

I was astonished to discover that the world-famous character of Frankenstein's monster bore no resemblance whatsoever to the character in the book. He could talk! He could read! He could run! He could even drive a sled drawn by huskies!!!

And he was a sympathetic character, despite his crimes. Victor called him a devil and a fiend, but he was so much more than a mere bogeyman. He looked different too. He was a raven-haired Romantic anti-hero. If there was a lot of Shelley in Frankenstein, there was a fair old dose of Byron in the shunned and exiled creature.

Then there was the setting. I now understood that the novel belonged to the early nineteenth century in the time of Beethoven and Byron. I had assumed all the action took place in some Mittel-European schloss, and was absolutely amazed to find that the action opened aboard a ship in the arctic. It is an incredible opening - a series of letters that do not at first seem to have any connection with what I thought I knew of the action. The first inkling there is of what is to come is at the beginning of Letter 4 when Walton tells of seeing a giant figure on a sled drawn by dogs racing across the ice.

But I was even more surprised to discover that Victor Frankenstein and his creature both visit England and that the attempt to create a mate takes place on Orkney of all places. Frankenstein and his friend Clerval visit London (in a visit lasting months) and then go to Oxford, Matlock in Derbyshire, and the Lake District before going on to Scotland - with the creature watching their every move. Frankenstein's creature visited Britain! I found that idea incredibly exciting. I still do.

And if you needed more convincing that there is something else going on than the simple stitching together of body parts then the events leading up to the creation of the mate should help.

When Frankenstein is in London he says that he was 'principally occupied with the means of obtaining the information necessary for the completion of my promise' (to build a mate) and carries a letter of introduction to an unnamed 'distinguished natural philosopher'. He then says that he 'began to collect the materials necessary for my new creation'.

Since there is no mention of grave-robbing on Orkney, then it would seem to suggest that he was carrying body parts with him for months on end, to Oxford and to Matlock and the Lakes. That is obviously impossible and Mary knew it would be impossible. Clearly she meant something else.

And even if we thought that he had gathered chemicals on his tour and then squirreled body parts away on a sparsely populated island, then the grisly scene where he destroys the mate gives a little more food for thought. . .

The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being.

Frankenstein could simply be saying that he 'almost' felt like he had destroyed the living flesh of a human being because the gruesome remains looked like a dismembered body, but he could also mean that the thing he had created, by whatever means, looked so convincing that he 'almost' felt that it really was human flesh.

In any case, that battered copy of Frankenstein started a lifelong fascination with both Gothic horror, the Romantic era and the Shelley/Byron set.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

It's pronounced Fronkensteen!

There has been some speculation that Victor Frankenstein was Jewish, although there seems to be no evidence for this in the text. But it is interesting that the Jewish tradition does contain a precedent for Frankenstein's creature in the Golem.

The most well-known version of this story is that of Rabbi Loew who was supposed to have created a golem to protect the Jews of Prague in the sixteenth century. The Golem was - like Adam - made from clay and then given life by the magical means using the Kabbalah - the mystical powers of the Hebrew alphabet. He is brought to life using the word EMETH (truth) scratched into his forehead, and stopped by rubbing out the first letter and leaving METH (death). He is destroyed by rubbing out all the letters.

But Frankenstein's creature is not an I-must-obey robot creation. He is autonomous. In the movies he tends to be a shuffling precursor to George Romero's zombies, but in the book, he has feelings and desires. He is not so much undead and as unalive. He is like the not-quite-human-enough androids of Bladerunner. Like Pinocchio, he wants to be a real boy.

The German name of Frankenstein that Mary borrowed, may simply sound as if it might be Jewish, and certainly accounts for the misunderstanding that Frankenstein is German and that the action takes place in some Gothic castle with lederhosen-clad peasants banging at the door waving a variety of agricultural implements. It is this classic idea so beautifully sent up in Young Frankenstein. But Frankenstein is not German or Austrian. He is Swiss.

And moreover, he is French-Swiss. Well - sort of. At the beginning of Chapter 1 Victor says 'I am by birth a Genevese.' Two pages on, he says, 'I, their eldest son, was born in Naples'. So he was born in Naples, but his family is from Geneva (where it all began for Mary with that teenage nightmare at the Villa Diodati) and that is where he has spent most of his life.

He does go to university in Ingolstadt in Bavaria and that is where he creates the monster, but when the monster escapes into the countryside, it is a family of French exiles he happens across. This is where he learns to talk and, presumably, to talk French. Paradise Lost is being read in the cottage - but then so is Goethe's The Sorrows of Werther. It is not made clear whether these texts are translated or not, but when the creature meets Frankenstein on the alpine glacier, French seems the most likely language for that conversation.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

My own spirit let loose from the grave

There has been a lot of speculation about how much influence Shelley had on Frankenstein. He certainly proof-read it, and he wrote an introduction to the first edition that lead some people to believe that he wrote the whole thing.

Mary and Shelley shared journals and discussed each other's work, and yet there does not seem to be any speculation that Mary influenced his work. Whatever the truth of his involvement it is unlikely that Shelley would have written anything do readable in the modern sense. It also seems very much a woman's book.

The least successful section of the book is the story within the story of Safie, the rather preposterous Arabian refugee whose story the creature learns while eavesdropping at the cottage of the equally unlikely French refugees, the De Lacey family. The only purpose of it seems to be polemical - to tell us about the iniquities suffered by woman at the hands of men (and Turkish men in particular) and of the harsh life afforded to outsiders. Safie is educated by the De Lacey's and the creature is educated along with her, learning to speak and to read.

Justine, the Frankenstein's servant, is wrongly accused of William's murder, convicted and hanged. Elizabeth is also murdered by the monster - on her wedding night (as punishment for Victor having destroyed the creature). Mary does not seem to like the ineffectual and saintly Elizabeth and seems to enjoy throttling this ideal woman. And yet, for all the radicalism of her beliefs - she was the daughter of William Godwin and proto-feminist Mary Wollstencraft - and their rock & roll lifestyle, Mary seems to harbour a desire for domestic bliss she was never likely to have with someone like Shelley.

Although the protagonists are male, it is partly there maleness that is under attack. Victor is determined to pursue his Mary had plenty of experience with selfish, arrogant, driven men, with her father, Shelley and Byron after all. Many people who met Shelley - Keats among them - did not like him and found him overbearing and grating. He seems to be often described as being on the verge of nervous exhaustion or hysteria (much as Victor is in the book), although the rather more macho Lord Byron seems to have enjoyed his company well enough.

There is a lot of Shelley in both Victor and the creature. Shelley was more than a little obsessed by the idea of demonic pursuit, of the supernatural double or doppelganger, and with a few changes Frankenstein could almost be read as a kind of Jeckyl and Hyde situation with Victor and the creature being two parts of the same character.

The whole of the novel is a series of stories within stories. Victor's story is told to Robert Walton, the captain of a ship trapped in the frozen seas of the far north. The creature's story is told to Victor on a glacier and then passed on to Walton via Victor. Safie's story is passed on by the creature to Victor and then to Walton. All these tales are then passed on by letter to Walton's sister. If the creature did not turn up at the end of the book, then it would be possible to believe that Victor was simply insane and had committed all the crimes attributed to the monster. After all he was known to all the victims: his best friend, his baby brother, his wife.

The Ancient Mariner was Shelley's favourite poem by Coleridge. The imagery of frozen wastes at the beginning and end of the book owes a lot to the poem and Mary quotes lines in Chapter 5 of the novel that seem to have struck a particular chord with her husband:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear an dread,
And having once turned round walks on,

And turns no more his head;

Because he knows, a frightful fiend

Doth lose behind him tread.

There is also - as with the death of William - a macabre echo in the fact that the creature takes Victor from Walton's ship with the promise that he will erect a funeral pyre (though where he was going to get the wood from is not clear) and both creator and creature will be consumes in its flames.

Four years after the first publication of Frankenstein, Shelley's drowned (and horribly mauled) body will be burned on a funeral pyre on the shore of the Gulf of Spezia.