Geneva, Switzerland, 1818. A group of friends hunkers down in a cabin overlooking the lake as a massive storm rips through the late afternoon. They’ve been stuck like this for days, and are growing bored. In the spirit of keeping things light, after they shared a few ghost stories from the host’s favorite collections, one proposes a challenge: who can write the best short horror story?
The group separated, and our heroine retreated to her room and sat at her writing desk to think. She considered the storm outside, and as lightning flashed, she suddenly remembered a terrifying dream she’d had the night before. A haunted man, standing above a flat medical slab in a darkened room, lit by candlelight. The creature before him, less than man and more than beast, stirs and begins to stand, prompting its creator to scream.
The harrowing inspiration drove her to create one of the most classic tales of terror in the modern literary canon. In 1818, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously to great acclaim. It wasn’t until much later that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley claimed ownership, and became what many consider to be the first science-fiction novelist.
Mary Shelley was the daughter of a famous feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft was well known for her rebellious spirit, advocating for the equal education of women and men. She was a witness to the French Revolution and wrote about her experiences in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark with the various new cultures and values she encountered. It would be nice to say her daughter learned to be adventurous from her; sadly, Mary Wollstonecraft died a mere 11 days after her second daughter’s birth.
Mary Godwin married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816. This was far from a happy marriage, however; they were plagued by miscarriages and the loss of children very, very young, and the shadow of Percy’s adulterous tendencies. Perhaps it was apt universal foreshadowing when, as they eloped and crossed the Channel, they encountered a horrific storm they weren’t sure they were going to survive.
Perhaps this is part of where Shelley drew her terrorizing writing from; surrounded by tragedy and darkness even so early in life(being a teen at the time), it’s no wonder that the dark experiments happening in Italy, where one Luigi Galvani was causing a deceased frog’s legs to jump with life by the mere touch of electricity, might have held some interest for her and inspired her work.
Mary took these experiments and ramped them up to eleven; she questioned what would happen if one were to apply these principles to a human cadaver. Her novel was one of the first in the emerging genre that would explore the bounds of scientific invention and man’s role in the universe. It fascinated and horrified audiences when it was first released, and has only continued to do so in the ensuing centuries.
“The feeling with which we perused the unexpected and fearful, yet, allowing the possibility of the event, very natural conclusion of Frankenstein’s experiment, shook a little even our firm nerves…”
She wrote several more works, including History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), which narrated her travels with Percy around France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, and Valperga (1823), a gripping historical novel about tyranny and treachery, but none really caught the attention of history like her groundbreaking exploration of the psyche of man.
Mary Shelley’s legacy is that of a genius. Her writing holds up to the test of time; a dark tale about the overreaching of man and the horror of scientific creations that could lay waste to the species that birthed them are still startlingly relevant to the world we live in today. Frankenstein is one of my biggest sources of inspiration, and I will sing its praises until the end of time.