My Favorite Horror Novel
By Zachary Ashford
If you ask me, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is, without a doubt, the greatest work of horror ever put on paper.
And, yeah, I know that depending on whom you ask, there’s some debate about genre with this one. The reason for that is simple: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, is by turns a horror novel, the first science-fiction novel, a romantic novel, a gothic novel and a fine example of classic Literature (and yeah, that capital ‘L’ is totally intended).
After all, it’s got:
- the scientific experimentation and catastrophic consequences of great science-fiction
- deliberately long-winded descriptions of nature in all its glory a la the Romantics
- the foreboding castles of Gothic work
- and the fact it’s remained one of the quintessential must-reads after two-hundred years of publication to satisfy the literary canon.
But let’s not pretend it’s not a novel that’s imbued with the very essence of horror.
First of all ‘the creature’ pursues its creator, the eponymous Victor Frankenstein, across Europe in a relentless quest to destroy him. And let’s be honest, finding yourself the target of what can probably be described as a superhuman revenant is pretty horrifying, but when you add the fact that ‘the monster’ also commits to ‘swearing eternal revenge…and a thousand other miseries,’ to Victor, not to mention, ‘inextinguishable hatred,’ and a desire to ‘desolate his heart so that he curses the very hour of his birth,’ you’ve got a villain whose reflection is cast in the refracted shapes of a thousand horror-movie antagonists.
Within all of that, you’ve got a novel that drags its characters through hell and back. The emotional turmoil Shelley wrings out of them takes the reader on a journey so rich in pathos that you’re left unsure how to feel.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s patently clear that the shades of grey in this one are murky and that Victor is every bit the monster he thinks his creation is, but that doesn’t mean his creation isn’t a monster. Whatever its reasons, the creature can’t really justify the murder of innocent women and children no matter how much it tries. Yeah, the creature’s a victim, but it’s also a cold-blooded killer and the personified consequence of dabbling with powers beyond human control. The creature also chooses its course of action. And all of this is reflected in the recurring imagery Shelley uses when she describes him. The creature and flames go hand in hand. Given the religious context of Shelley’s world, those palettes of hell are deliberate. To say that it’s not responsible for its actions is to discount its prodigious intelligence and malice. And let’s not forget the creature itself likens itself to Satan. So, yeah, while it may claim to desire love, it’s not above base hatred and revenge.
Victor is just as bad. He tries to assume the powers of heaven and hell and he’s utterly destroyed for it, but he abandons not only his creation, but also his wife Elizabeth in the name of his selfish quest for power. When he has the opportunity to end it and provide the creature with a wife, he refuses. Sure, he convinces himself that he cannot be responsible for a race of ‘superhumans’ ruling the world, but just as important is the fact that if he provides the request, he relinquishes a control he’s never truly had. His arrogance will not allow that, and it leads to the destruction of his family and friends just as much as the monster’s murderous quest for revenge.
And, I’m really starting to drag on, so it’s probably important to note there’s just sooooo much to talk about here that I could go on forever. One thing, however, that always struck me as particularly terrifying is the intimacy of the creature’s murders. They’re, obviously, as vindictive as hell, but he’s a strangler as well. He looks his victims in the eyes and explains to them the insignificance and meaningless of their life as he chokes to death them for one reason. They are related to his enemy. Holy shit!
And again, there’s more, but I think we get the point of all that. It’s time to consider the structure of this absolute masterpiece.
A framed epistolary tale that warns humanity of the dangers of ‘playing God’; it’s also a brilliant tragedy in the Aristotelian tradition. When Victor Frankenstein, weaves his tale of destruction, he’s telling it to another man, Walton, because he has recognised Walton’s hamartia. Walton has, like Frankenstein, ‘drunk from the intoxicating draught’ and is mad with obsession. A flaw that has already led Victor to the very brink of his own destruction.
Frankenstein shares the anguished tale of his downfall with Walton, and it’s all there. A man of high public standing falls from grace because of his fatal flaw – or, to bastardise Shakespeare, ‘the vicious mole of nature from which he draws corruption’ – and that leads to the desolation the creature promised him. Having recognised the stamp of his own defect, Frankenstein knows his only redemption is in convincing Walton to abandon his own quest, and that is why he shares his story.
Obviously, there’s more, but let’s just recount some of the other things that make this book so brilliant in quick fashion:
- the antithetical foils of Walton, the creature and Victor reflecting each other’s flaws and personalities
- the recurring motif of the lightning bolt rending the tree-stump asunder and the way Shelley uses it to show that no one is supposed to dabble with the powers Victor did
- the ambiguity of the text and the fact there’s still debate about the monster two-hundred years after publication
- the use of intertextuality and what’s probably the pop culture of the time to inform her story: the myth of Prometheus and Milton’s Paradise Lost
- The fact that one of the greatest novels ever written was produced by a young lady as she competed with some of the most famous poets of yore to tell the scariest story she could.
In summary, when you really think about the messages and emotional impetus of Frankenstein, Shelley’s novel is not only an intensely horrifying work of literature, it’s also one of the most skilfully written and timeless.
That’s why it’s my favourite horror novel and why I’ll teach it every time I have the opportunity.
Finally, extra brownie points to anyone who has the Bernie Wrightson edition on their bookshelf. It’s a work of art in and of itself!
Zachary Ashford earned his writing chops as a journalist covering heavy metal bands for street press magazines and as a copywriter for a rock n roll radio station. Since those days, he’s done plenty, including operating as a freelance copywriter and editor. Nowadays, he writes fiction and teaches English and Literature in a high school.
You can follow Zachary on Twitter @ashford_zachary
You can find out more about Zachary by visiting his official website www.zacharyashford.com
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