Frankenstein Day

Given the sad news of Gene Wilder’s passing, I’m sure some of you are pronouncing the above in a non-traditional manner: Good for you. However, in a *spooky* coincidence, August 30 has been designated Frankenstein Day because it is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who penned the classic over a weekend on a dare (more or less) to the undoubted chagrin of her cottage-mates: husband Percy and King of Jerks Byron. So full marks to the lady for that.

Here’s a nod to some of the best monsters in the literary landscape:

1. Dracula

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Lugosi and Karloff are forever linked in my mind for their contemporaneous and masterful portrayals of the two biggest baddies ever. Bram Stoker’s Dracula built upon the legends of Vlad the Impaler, and all-around unpleasant fellow from Wallachia, who did win the admiration of many civic leaders and even the pope for stemming the onrush of Ottomans into Europe, thus keeping it some sort of Christian. (Authorities vary on how Christian you can call a man who likes to impale 30,000 people on the lawn while he breakfasts. In fairness, he did not partake of the roasted children, saving that dish instead for their mothers, whom he then had killed.)

But savvy historians may observe a modern-day note of rebellion in Stoker’s work. A villainous foreigner’s bloodlust devastates a countryside, making people despair of both life and afterlife? Any bells? Does it help to recall that Stoker was Irish and writing at the turn of the 20th century? Could he be brought up on terrorism charges for suggesting that the only remedy was a stake through the heart (much the technique favored by the Fenian Dynamite Campaign)? Read and tremble anew.

2. It

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The master of horror really phoned this one in. He made a teenage girl terrifying in Carrie, a car haunted in Christine, and a lovable mutt the town terror in Cujo. Scary clowns? Why not just tell us a story about the homicidal maniac who escaped from the federal pen and now has hostages in the chainsaw store? Fish in a barrel, tsk.

Like just about anyone who disguises themselves, clowns have been scary since before they dug up John Wayne Gacy’s crawlspace. [Fun fact: Gacy’s Wikipedia page has a subhead “Businessman and community volunteer.” This is horrifying. It’s “businessperson,” people. Get with it.] I’m not sure why so many cultures feel the need to frighten their children in this way (there are never stories about men in vans or diptheria, but clowns, dolls, houses [anything otherwise like to make a  young child feel safe] abound), but it’s near the top of the list of human hobbies.

Also, Mr. King, we’re all still waiting for the followup, Poundfoolish. I’m imagining a Brit afraid of weight gain and money loss…ah! you’re too right, the Times has that well managed.

3. Grendel

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Not wishing to cast aspersions on what I’m sure is a fine and horrible monster, the scariest part of Beowulf for me was the Old English. But you can get Seamus Heaney‘s translation these days (Be careful: There are a lot of mismatched products linked here.) and even some excerpts read by himself on audio. Who likes to fall asleep listening to monster stories? This girl.

I found it interesting as an undergrad that we used so many details of this poem to illuminate the Anglo-Saxon life. We know that the Heroic Code was a pillar of social relationships and that wirgild was a culturally appropriate way to compensate for having killed someone. Hrothgar’s hall was emblematic of the times and Beowulf was the ideal warrior. If it was in the poem, we could be sure there was some correlative in the culture. I regret that I did not think to ask: So, were there monsters?

I hear there was a movie, too, with Angelina Jolie, presumably as Grendel’s mother. I did not watch the film, but if I had small children—particularly if they were ethnically varied—I would find that very scary indeed. Unfairly, perhaps, I imagine it lacks some of the poetry of the original.

4. Nyarlathotep

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Somewhere in adolescence, where two roads diverge, one to conventional thinking and social success, the other to the rarer perks of geekdom, there is a signpost made entirely of the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Unknown in life, he has posthumously become the godfather of horror. If you have never heard of him, you have a nerdy friend who has.

Among his many creepy creations, my favorite is the Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep (also a pet name for the hall closet). While the Old Ones—the ancient gods of the Lovecraftverse—are sleeping (while yet remaining extremely frightening), Nyarlathotep roams the world, taking many guises. He is sort of the waking caretaker of the Old Ones, but no scrivener he. He is too terrifying to describe precisely, but Lovecraft describes how those who encounter him feel, and that does the trick. Having met this beast, can you imagine the unfathomable, next-level horror of Cthulhu? Yes. Yes, you can. Keep the lights on.

That’s my off-the-cuff report of what’s frightful in fiction. Noticeable for its absence is the truly scary way an observant reader can scry to the page when John Grisham’s editor called and reminded him of his deadline or the far scarier parts of the world where people do not read at all. We’ll leave such imaginings to braver souls.

 

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