Today marks the beginning of Frankenweek, and I’m celebrating with the first post in my Frankenstein at 200: Anniversary Blog Series. The story of the birth of Frankenstein as part of a ghost-story-telling competition in a storm-lashed lakeside villa is almost as haunting and fantastic as the novel itself. In the summer of 1816, the young Mary Godwin, only 18 years old, had just travelled to the continent with her lover, the married Percy Shelley, their infant son, William, and Mary’s step sister, Clare Clairmont. After meeting with the celebrated poet Lord Byron and his travelling physician Dr John Polidori in Geneva, they settled in a small lakeside cottage only a short walk away from Byron’s much grander rented mansion, the Villa Diodati. The parties met frequently, and it was at this villa, surrounded by vineyards and with magnificent views of the towering mountains and the shimmering lake beneath, that Frankenstein experienced its first sparks of life.
There was something strange and foreboding about that summer. Unbeknownst to the travellers, the devastating eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before had sent giant clouds of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, which resulted, on the other side of the world, in weather so dark, rain-swept and gloomy that it became known as ‘The Year Without a Summer.’ Across Europe, snow still clung to mountains long after it should have melted away, torrential rain caused rivers to burst their banks, carrying bridges away, flooding crops and causing famine and disaster, and the impenetrable clouds laid a darkness over the land so that candles were lit in the day. In her letters Mary describes the ‘almost perpetual rain that confines us principally to the house,’ and the magnificent power of the electrical storms that beat over the heads and rolled through the jagged mountains that rose behind them: ‘The lake was lit up – the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amidst the darkness.’
On the 16th of June, 1816, Mary Godwin’s party found the storms so wild and unforgiving that they were bound to stay the night at Villa Diodati. Under the flickering light of candles, interspersed with the flashes of lightning from the raging tempest outside, the party read aloud from a German book of horror stories, translated into French, called Fantasmagoriana. Full with references to the occult, ghosts, murder and death, the stories had a thrilling effect on the guests. Inspired by these tales, Byron proposed that each of the party should come up with their own ghost story. The proposition was eagerly accepted, and the two poets, and Dr Polidori had soon all come up with their ideas, though each was abandoned in turn.
Only Mary had yet to come up with a story. She was finding it difficult: here was her chance, as the daughter of two of the country’s most eminent writers and thinkers, to prove herself worthy of her heritage. She busied herself to think of “a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.” When teasingly asked each morning if she had thought of a story, she was “forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”
One night, after listening to the conversations between Shelley and Byron about galvanism and the possibilities of re-animating corpses, Mary experienced a waking nightmare that would prove the fortuitous birth of her most famous creation. As her “imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided” her, she: “saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” Terrified by his creation, and hoping that “the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life,” the artist attempts to sleep, to shut out the horrible vision, but “he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
Terrified by her waking nightmare, Mary’s own eyes snapped open, a “thrill of fear ran through” her, and she desperately tried to ground herself in the realities of the room about her. It was harder than she thought: the “hideous phantom” haunted her, and she tried to distract herself by thinking again of her “tiresome unlucky ghost story.” She thought “if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened,” and then, “swift as light,” she realised that she had already found it. “What terrified me,” she wrote, “will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.” The very next day she transcribed her dream, beginning with the words that open Chapter Four of Frankenstein: “It was on a dreary night of November.” She would continue to rigorously develop the story over the next few weeks, and return to edit and revise it, with the editorial assistance of Percy Shelley, over the following years, but the work of that fateful night was done: Frankenstein was born.
Enter the Vampires: The Tales of Byron & Polidori
Frankenstein wasn’t the only tale to emerge from this ghost story telling competition. Two of the earliest vampire tales in English literature also arose from these storm-lashed, spooky beginnings. Though he quickly abandoned his attempt for the story competition, Lord Byron’s entry was published (without his consent) within his collection Mazeppa: A Poem in 1819, entitled ‘A Fragment’ (it is also known as ‘Fragment of a Novel’ and ‘The Burial: A Fragment’). The story follows the narrator’s journey to the East with an elderly man, who subsequently dies, his face instantly blackening into decay, and is afterwards buried. Byron abandoned his tale here, but Polidori’s writings reveal that Byron intended the dead man to return as a vampire: according to him, Byron’s story “depended for interest upon the circumstances of two friends leaving England, and one dying in Greece, the other finding him alive upon his return, and making love to his sister.”
This fragment inspired Polidori to write his own vampire tale, The Vampyre, modelled on Byron’s fragment and also published in 1819, with his main character, Lord Ruthven – an aristocratic, depraved, seducing vampire – even modelled on Byron himself! Throughout the nineteenth century, the story was often credited to Byron rather than Polidori, much to the annoyance of both. This story is very important for vampire fiction, bringing it squarely within the notice of English literature and influencing its more famous vampire cousin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and subsequently the tradition of vampire fiction ever since). Polidori’s Introduction explains the superstition of vampires, which spread from East to West and held “that vampyres nightly imbibed a certain portion of the blood of their victims, who became emaciated, lost their strength, and speedily died of consumptions; whilst these human blood-suckers fattened—and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even from the very pores of their skins.” Lovely!
What do you think of this way of creating stories? Join the conversation in the comments below!
Read Polidori’s The Vampyre online here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6087/6087-h/6087-h.htm
Read Frankenstein (and Shelley’s 1831 Introduction) online here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42324/42324-h/42324-h.htm