For a bit of inspiration, this past week I’ve been (re)reading In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-century Writing, by Chris Baldick. I picked up my copy secondhand for a song at Troutmark Books, in Cardiff’s Castle Arcade, paged through it on the way home, then left it virtually untouched on my ‘to-read’ bookshelf for the next six months. Fortunately, since the Frankenstein myth plays a relatively large role in my current chapters, I now have the chance to delve back in.
Whether it’s due to the subject matter or the skill of the author, Frankenstein’s Shadow hasn’t aged much since it was first published back in 1987 (frighteningly enough, the same year I was born). Baldick’s monograph is not only useful because of how it deconstructs and re-historicises the Frankenstein myth. In many ways, it actually provides a template for all modern myth — particularly the mythologising of the literary canon. It’s a book about monsters, adaptation, and the self-construction of a cultural imaginary.
In the book’s introduction, Baldick describes the difference between a myth and a literary text:
A literary text will usually, since the advent of printing, be fixed in its form but may be complex and multivocal in its meaning. A myth, on the other hand, is open to all kinds of adaptation and elaboration, but it will preserve at the same time a basic stability of meaning. (p. 2)
In other words, in order for a literary text (or, by extension, any work of art) to become truly ‘immortal’ (or undead?), and to be thoroughly adaptable in the public sphere, it must first be mythologised to some degree. We need to be familiar enough with it on a collective level to play around with its basic plot points, structures, and themes in a meaningful way.
Baldick spends much of the book discussing the history of Frankenstein’s publication and reception, always commenting back on how this impacts our understanding of what, in the most simplistic sense, is a completed, unchanging narrative. He offers, for example, an overview of the changes between Mary Shelley’s original (and anonymous) 1818 edition, and the 1831 edition that came to usurp it. The 1831 edition is still the one most reprints of the novel reproduce.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Baldick mainly sticks to nineteenth-century examples of the myth’s evolution, though he does also consider twentieth-century afterimages in, for example, the work of Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence. As he traces the course of the Frankenstein myth from 1818 through the rest of the nineteenth century, it becomes clear how the story takes on a life of its own. Baldick takes full advantage of this pun, even exploring the idea of the book as monster in Chapter 3 (‘The Monster Speaks’):
Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. […] There is a sense in which all writing must do this, but with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the process goes much further. This novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (p. 30)
Perhaps because my current research is on the subject of monsters in remix culture, I was especially struck by Baldick’s description of the novel as ‘assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole’. How do we classify texts as living or dead? To what extent is this process of reanimation vital to art as a whole, and not just to the novel? These are not questions that Baldick really answers, but the simple fact that he highlights them places his discussion in a much different light than much contemporary literary criticism.
A similar richness of thought and metaphor is present throughout the entire book. Another such observation, simple yet refreshingly thoughtful, is Baldick’s statement about the authority of those texts and readings that follow Shelley’s novel. For him, they are central to the creation and maintenance of the Frankenstein myth:
The point here is not to lament the corruption and distortion of an authentic literary original, nor to correct erroneous departures from the truth of a ‘real’ Frankenstein story. […] That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth. (p. 4)
This is a claim Baldick certainly goes on to prove again and again throughout Frankenstein’s Shadow – that, far from being overshadowed by Shelley’s ‘original’ novel, these ‘adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings’ are a core part of the story of Frankenstein. Shelley’s novel was already firmly in the shadow if its own myth by the end of the nineteenth century.
If you’re at all interested in the history of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the politics of monsters, or just classic horror more generally, I highly recommend this book. Much like Frankenstein itself, Frankenstein’s Shadow connects various circuits of thought in a way that sends off creative sparks long after you’ve stopped reading.