Frankenstein’s Phantoms: Mary Shelley on Ghosts (Anniversary Series #6)
Everyone remembers Frankenstein‘s monster – helped along in large part by the 1931 film adaptation that made him so lumberingly, hulkingly corporeal. But fewer people remember that Mary Shelley’s most famous novel is also peopled heavily with ghosts, and a general pervading sense of the ghostly that reflects Shelley’s fascination with the supernatural and a genuine spiritual world. The first post in this Anniversary Series explored the fascinating context of the ghost-story-telling competition out of which Mary Shelley’s novel emerged. In many ways Frankenstein conforms to conventions of the supernatural that had long been established and made popular by the Gothic genre of novels, not least of which is the much more supernatural way that the “monster” is represented than we often realise.
In contrast to its filmic representations, in the novel, the creature is described with a set of shifting terminologies that more closely recall the discourses surrounding ghosts and spirits that were increasingly entering the British public discourse, and which would continue to grip its attention for the next century. Referred to as a “demon,” “fiend,” “spectre,” and even “vampire”, the creature’s physical frame receives little description, allowing it to assume a terrifying mutability according to the reader’s imagination, and taking on, in many ways, a more ghostly character. “I thought I saw the dreaded spectre glide into the room” says Frankenstein.
Frankenstein’s science itself is bound up in a strong sense of the arcane and occult. When he first begins his studies, he reads books that teach “the raising of ghosts or devils,” while later in the novel, when he is pursuing the monster after it has murdered his family he calls on “you, spirits of the dead, and on you, wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work.” These “spirits of the dead hovered round and instigated me to toil and revenge.” From start to finish, Frankenstein’s “work” – whether creating or destroying the creature – is bound up in the ghostly supernatural.
The two previous posts in this Anniversary Series explored the tragic deaths that haunted Mary Shelley throughout her life, and the way that Mary Shelley drew on a powerful sense of her mother’s spiritual presence at her grave after losing her when she was just 10 days old. Throughout Mary’s life, and particularly following the tragic deaths of her husband and children, Mary would write in terms that echo Frankenstein’s sense of his departed family members peopling his dreams. She remained interested in the supernatural, fuelled in part by the growing interest in ghosts shared by the British public. In her essay “On Ghosts” published in the London Magazine in March, 1824, Mary Shelley questions “is it true that we do not believe in ghosts?”, a question that draws on two conflicting popular ideas: on one hand, the idea that the nineteenth century was entering an age where the folkloric and barbarous superstitions of a provincial age had been left behind by the march of enlightened progress; on the other hand, the undeniable fact that a large proportion of the public were at worst completely thrilled, and at best, skeptically intrigued by the idea of a real supernatural world that crossed over into our own via spiritual hauntings. The popularity of the Gothic novels, which Mary Shelley read as a child, and which she drew on when writing Frankenstein, was undeniable, and though the boom in gothic novel publishing had passed, its continued influence throughout the nineteenth century on writers like Mary Shelley and her contemporaries, as well as later authors like Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker and others, was powerful.
Mary’s essay “On Ghosts” contains many interesting elements (including some amusing references to my local Sydney-side Australian landscapes of Botany Bay and the Blue Mountains), but some of her most interesting passages are worth including in full for the way they indulge in titillating excitement and established conventions of the supernatural. From Mary Shelley’s “On Ghosts”:
“But do none of us believe in ghosts? If this question be read at noon-day, when–
Every little corner, nook, and hole, Is penetrated with the insolent light–
at such a time derision is seated on the features of my reader. But let it be twelve at night in a lone house; take up, I beseech you, the story of the Bleeding Nun; or of the Statue, to which the bridegroom gave the wedding ring, and she came in the dead of night to claim him, tall, and cold; or of the Grandsire, who with shadowy form and breathless lips stood over the couch and kissed the foreheads of his sleeping grandchildren, and thus doomed them to their fated death; and let all these details be assisted by solitude, flapping curtains, rushing wind, a long and dusky passage, an half open door–O, then truly, another answer may be given, and many will request leave to sleep upon it, before they decide whether there be such a thing as a ghost in the world, or out of the world, if that phraseology be more spiritual. What is the meaning of this feeling?”
“For my own part, I never saw a ghost except once in a dream. I feared it in my sleep; I awoke trembling, and lights and the speech of others could hardly dissipate my fear. Some years ago I lost a friend, and a few months afterwards visited the house where I had last seen him. It was deserted, and though in the midst of a city, its vast halls and spacious apartments occasioned the same sense of loneliness as if it had been situated on an uninhabited heath. I walked through the vacant chambers by twilight, and none save I awakened the echoes of their pavement. The far mountains (visible from the upper windows) had lost their tinge of sunset; the tranquil atmosphere grew leaden coloured as the golden stars appeared in the firmament; no wind ruffled the shrunk-up river which crawled lazily through the deepest channel of its wide and empty bed; the chimes of the Ave Maria had ceased, and the bell hung moveless in the open belfry: beauty invested a reposing world, and awe was inspired by beauty only. I walked through the rooms filled with sensations of the most poignant grief. He had been there; his living frame had been caged by those walls, his breath had mingled with that atmosphere, his step had been on those stones, I thought:–the earth is a tomb, the gaudy sky a vault, we but walking corpses. The wind rising in the east rushed through the open casements, making them shake;–methought, I heard, I felt–I know not what–but I trembled. To have seen him but for a moment, I would have knelt until the stones had been worn by the impress, so I told myself, and so I knew a moment after, but then I trembled, awe-struck and fearful. Wherefore? There is something beyond us of which we are ignorant. The sun drawing up the vaporous air makes a void, and the wind rushes in to fill it,–thus beyond our soul’s ken there is an empty space; and our hopes and fears, in gentle gales or terrific whirlwinds, occupy the vacuum; and if it does no more, it bestows on the feeling heart a belief that influences do exist to watch and guard us, though they be impalpable to the coarser faculties.”
“I have heard that when Coleridge was asked if he believed in ghosts,–he replied that he had seen too many to put any trust in their reality; and the person of the most lively imagination that I ever knew echoed this reply. But these were not real ghosts (pardon, unbelievers, my mode of speech) that they saw; they were shadows, phantoms unreal; that while they appalled the senses, yet carried no other feeling to the mind of others than delusion, and were viewed as we might view an optical deception which we see to be true with our eyes, and know to be false with our understandings. I speak of other shapes. The returning bride, who claims the fidelity of her betrothed; the murdered man who shakes to remorse the murderer’s heart; ghosts that lift the curtains at the foot of your bed as the clock chimes one; who rise all pale and ghastly from the churchyard and haunt their ancient abodes; who, spoken to, reply; and whose cold unearthly touch makes the hair stand stark upon the head; the true old-fashioned, foretelling, flitting, gliding ghost,–who has seen such a one?
I have known two persons who at broad daylight have owned that they believed in ghosts, for that they had seen one. One of these was an Englishman, and the other an Italian. The former had lost a friend he dearly loved, who for awhile appeared to him nightly, gently stroking his cheek and spreading a serene calm over his mind. He did not fear the appearance, although he was somewhat awe-stricken as each night it glided into his chamber, and,
Ponsi del letto insula sponda manca. [placed itself on the left side of the bed]
This visitation continued for several weeks, when by some accident he altered his residence, and then he saw it no more. Such a tale may easily be explained away;–but several years had passed, and he, a man of strong and virile intellect, said that ‘he had seen a ghost.'”
What do you think of Mary Shelley’s interest in ghosts? Let me know in the comments below!
Read the full text of Mary Shelley’s “On Ghosts” online here: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0602881h.html