Monday, September 03, 2007

Book: Fire, bad. Context rich cultural history, good.

It could be reasonably argued that the nameless monster created by Frankenstein is the single most successful and important horror icon ever. Invented nearly a century ago by and unwed teenage mother, Frankenstein and his monster have become more than household names, they've become figures of speech basic to our way of thinking about science, ethics, and the boundary between the heroic quest for knowledge and the insane pride of playing God.

In her new Frankenstein: A Cultural History, Susan Tyler Hitchcock - whose previous books include cookbooks and a pictorial history of the University of Virginia – not only makes the case for Frankenstein's centrality as a modern myth, but argues that the original novel's complexities (often hollowed out by later novelistic and filmic adaptations and pseudo-sequels) are still fresh and crucial.

To make her case, Hitchcock gives readers a chronological look at what we might take to be key signposts on Frank's way to legendary status. She starts with the novel, takes us through various stage adaptations, and then details Frankie and the Monster's film careers (from horror icon to gag in Abbott and Costello flicks). After that, the Nameless Monster stomps his way through comic books, gets camped up for television, and, finally, becomes a metaphor so potent that the word "Frankenstein" was deliberately avoided by the Presidential Panel on Bio-ethics. The fictional character's name was deemed to carry too much cultural and emotional baggage.

In some ways, the validity of Hitchcock's observation about the universality of Frankenstein works against her project. Not only are Frankenstein and his beast incredibly well-known – so are many of the stories surrounding the monster's creation. Even somebody with only a middling interest in the famous novel probably knows the general outline of its origins: Shelley was in Geneva with her soon-to-be hubby, their controversial amigo Byron, and some other minor Romantic-Era hangers-on. To entertain themselves, a contest was proposed in which each of the folks at the party was to compose a "ghost story." The begins of Frankenstein start at that party. In fact, the story is so well known that the meta-story of the tale's creation has received (very loose) film treatment twice: once into the intro to The Bride of Frankenstein and again in Gothic.

While, in the name of completeness, Hitchcock needs to retread some well-worn ground, she manages to keep reader interest by liberally spicing her work with the sort of trivia fans of the world's most popular monster pick up such books for. For example, the Geneva home that served as the site of the now famous story writing challenge had previously housed John Milton – inventor of the first Byronic hero in the form of Satan from Paradise Lost. She also fills in gaps that my be missing from even the most dedicated Frank-o-phile's personal database. For example, her extended discussion of the original novels reception and the Monster's first appearance as a political metaphor (instead of being a symbols of science gone amuck, Frankenstein and his monster served Victorian politicians as shorthand for liberal ideologies that got out of hand) will be, I think, new to many readers.

While hardcore Frank-fans probably already have small libraries of books focusing on Hammer Studios' depiction of the monster or the life of Boris Karloff, I recommend this book broad scope. Good stuff.

Frankenstein: A Cultural History is due out in hardback this October – with a sweet collage cover of monster imagery, I should add – and we'll run you $25.95.


Anonymous said...

Most importantly, where does the rank "Young Frankenstein" the the top-10 list of best film adaptations ?

CRwM said...

Fear not - Young Frankenstein gets extensive play. She even includes that fact that Brooks, at first, dismissed the project, saying only that the script was "cute." He had to be talked into taking the gig.