Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

His daughter, the wife of Shelley, was much more successful; and her inimitable Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is one of the horror-classics of all time. Composed in competition with her husband, Lord Byron, and Dr. John William Polidori in an effort to prove supremacy in horror-making, Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein was the only one of the rival narratives to be brought to an elaborate completion; and criticism has failed to prove that the best parts are due to Shelley rather than to her. The novel, somewhat tinged but scarcely marred by moral didacticism, tells of the artificial human being moulded from charnel fragments by Victor Frankenstein, a young Swiss medical student. Created by its designer “in the mad pride of intellectuality”, the monster possesses full intelligence but owns a hideously loathsome form. It is rejected by mankind, becomes embittered, and at length begins the successive murder of all whom young Frankenstein loves best, friends and family. It demands that Frankenstein create a wife for it; and when the student finally refuses in horror lest the world be populated with such monsters, it departs with a hideous threat ‘to be with him on his wedding night’. Upon that night the bride is strangled, and from that time on Frankenstein hunts down the monster, even into the wastes of the Arctic. In the end, whilst seeking shelter on the ship of the man who tells the story, Frankenstein himself is killed by the shocking object of his search and creation of his presumptuous pride. Some of the scenes in Frankenstein are unforgettable, as when the newly animated monster enters its creator’s room, parts the curtains of his bed, and gazes at him in the yellow moonlight with watery eyes—“if eyes they may be called”. Mrs. Shelley wrote other novels, including the fairly notable Last Man; but never duplicated the success of her first effort. It has the true touch of cosmic fear, no matter how much the movement may lag in places. Dr. Polidori developed his competing idea as a long short story, “The Vampyre”; in which we behold a suave villain of the true Gothic or Byronic type, and encounter some excellent passages of stark fright, including a terrible nocturnal experience in a shunned Grecian wood.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927)

We don’t know when H. P. Lovecraft first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it was sometime before 1920, and quite possibly was read as a child, from a copy found among the books in the family library. During his life, Lovecraft would perceive the growing influence of this critical work of science fiction and horror in pop-culture: the first film adaptation, starring Boris Karloff as the Monster, was released in 1931 and Lovecraft would see it in the theatre; and Weird Tales would serialize Shelley’s novel between May and December 1932 as part of its “Weird Reprints” series, and Lovecraft would read it then too. Various writers in the pulps, including Lovecraft himself, would show the influence of Shelley’s creation, and Lovecraft was sure to include her in his survey of weird fiction “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Lovecraft would not quite live to see Frankenstein’s Monster become the icon—and stereotype—that he turned into in the 1940s and 50s; for him, Shelley’s novel would always have precedence over other depictions.

The Book (1818)

By the way—my F. is a 9 ¼ x 5 ½ volume–2 columns & very thin. The date is missing, but from the typography I’d tend to place it in the 1830s. That would seem a bit late for the first Am. ed. of a  volume issued in 1818. My copy has been re-bound. On the title-page the author is very explanatorily listed as “Mrs. Mary W. Shelley, wife of Percy Busshe Shelley the Poet.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 238

There are two main editions of the text of Frankenstein: the original edition issued in 1818, which was revised in 1823; and then heavily revised again for the 1831 one-volume edition. The 1831 text has been the most popular version of the text, and the version that ran in Weird Tales. While Lovecraft dated his personal copy to the 1830s, the details he gives—an American edition in two columns and with that byline—point to the 1845 edition by H. G. Daggers of New York.

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Title page of the 1845 H. G. Daggers edition.

Of the novel itself, Lovecraft does not write much in his letters, so we are largely left to his notes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as to his thoughts on the work. Nor is there any real evidence that he read The Last Man (1826) or Shelley’s other novels. There is one interesting highlight however:

As for weird reprints—I agree that short items are best. “Frankenstein” undoubtedly drags in places, yet has its tense & terrible moments—especially when the monster first comes to watch its creator at night.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 31 Mar 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 28

It is notable that Lovecraft cites this very same scene in his entry for “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and, perhaps tellingly, this very scene is quoted in Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917), which Lovecraft consulted before writing that essay. Which suggests either that either both Lovecraft and Scarborough were struck on the same passage…or that, perhaps, Lovecraft relied on Scarborough rather than re-reading the entire novel while composing his essay.

I saw—with shut eyes but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put togheter. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. . . . The artist sleeps but he is awakened; and behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, looking on him with watery, yellow yet speculative eyes!
—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
quoted in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction 14

If Lovecraft cribbed a little, it was not because he hadn’t read or didn’t appreciate Shelley’s masterwork—quite the opposite. For example, when his friend Elizabeth Toldridge used the name “Frankenstein” in a poem she was writing, Lovecraft wrote back with a correction that would be echoed by generations of horror nerds:

In the next line remember that Frankenstein (in the novel, a Swiss medical student, Victor Frankenstein) means the creator of a destroying monsternot the monster itself. If you have that intention, it’s all right. If you mean the monster itself, better change to hydra-shapes or some equivalent.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 17 Oct 1933, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 257

The poem, which survives in manuscript, is titled (at Lovecraft’s suggestion) simply “Poetry”, and the line reads:

Come match your strength with steel, meassure your will with iron, your speed try out with the stars! For thine were Frankenstein hydra-shapes man-wrought foes to bear—

And powers of evil, loose in the world, shall reel and titter, in a giant juggler’s roust—

The Film (1931)

The success of Universal’s Dracula in early 1931 spurred the studio on to produce more horror films. Frankenstein was produced and hit theaters by December of the same year, with Boris Karloff in the iconic role—and the distinct heavy-lidded flat-top make-up—of the Monster. The film takes considerable liberties with Mary Shelley’s novel; Victor Frankenstein becomes Henry Frankenstein, and much of the original plot, atmosphere, and motivation is lost. Lovecraft saw the film within the first week of its opening on the East Cost, and wrote:

I haven’t been able to get around to any cinemas except “Frankenstein”—which vastly disappointed me. The book has been altered beyond recognition, & everything is toned down to an insufferable cheapness & relative tameness. I fear the cinema is no place to get horror-thrills!
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 9 Dec 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 85

Also saw “Frankenstein” last month & was vastly disappointed. The film absolutely ruins the book–which indeed it scarcely resembles!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 23 Dec 1931, O Fortunate Floridian! 18

“Frankenstein” was the only cinema I attended during the autumn of 1931, & I was woefully disappointed. No attempt to follow the novel was made, & everything was cheap, artificial, & mechanical. I might have expected it, though—for “Dracula” (which I saw in Miami, Fla. last June) was just as bad.
H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Jan 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 344

Lovecraft was, like many science fiction and horror fans, a bit of a purist who regretted the changes made to the material in its translation from the page to the silver screen. Time did not really mollify this opinion:

I saw the cinema of “Frankenstein”, & was tremendously disappointed because no attempt was made to follow the story. However, there have been many worse films–& many parts of this one are really quite dramatic when they are viewed independently & without comparison to the episodes of the original novel.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Jul 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 33

As a thorough soporific I recommend the average popularly “horrible” play or cinema or radio dialogue. They are all the same–flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings and superficial, mechanical situations. The Bat” made me drowse back in the early 1920s–and last year an alleged “Frankenstein” on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 16 Feb 1933, Lovecraft Annual 8.28

Most radio and cinema versions of classics constitute a combination of high treason and murder in the first degree—I’ll never get over the cinematic mess that bore the name (about the only bond of kinship to the book!) of “Frankenstein”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 8 Apr 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.761

Keep in mind that Lovecraft lived before the home television and VCR revolution; his only experience of Frankenstein and other Universal horror films was if he could catch them in the theater—it was re-runs and rentals which cemented these as classic films, endlessly influential and copied. Lovecraft only caught the very beginnings of that…and, of course, he was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well.

The Dream (1920)

I had a vivid dream a few nights ago–involving the possession of another distinct personality. The period was 1864, & the crux of the dream was a horror in a doctor’s secret laboratory. Think the dream-doctor was going to shew me an artificial man like M. Frankenstein’s uncomely creation, but premature waking robbed the dream of its climax. In this dream I was Dr. Eben Spencer; an army surgeon home on a furlough. The sinister experimenter was a colleague of mine, Dr. Chester. Some dream!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 23 Jan 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 154

In 1920, Lovecraft was finally coming out of his seclusion through the auspices of amateur journalism, and had built up a fairly robust correspondence with some friends. Weird Tales was still three years away from its debut issue, but he was well into his first major period of fiction which included dream-inspired stories such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant May 1920). In addition to this brief recap of the dream to Kleiner, Lovecraft included a much fuller version of the dream to his correspondence circle The Gallomo (Alfred Galpin, H. P. Lovecraft, and James F. Morton):

Speaking of the “Carter” story, I hae lately had another odd dream—especially singular because in it I possessed another personality—a personality just as definite and vivid as the Lovecraft personality which characterises my waking hours.

My name was Dr. Eben Spencer, and I was dressing before a mirror in my own room, in the hosue where I was born in a small village (name missing) of northern New York State. It was the first time I had donned civilian clothes in three years, for I was an army surgeon with the rank of 1st Lieut. I seemed to be home on a furlough—slightly wounded. On the wall was a calendar reading “FRIDAY, JULY 8, 1864”. I was very glad to be in regular attire again, though my suit was not a new one, but one left over from 1861. After carefully tying my stock, I donned my coat and hat, took a cane from a rack downstairs, and sallied forth upon the village street.

Soon a very young man of my acquaintence came up to me with an air of anxiety and began to speak in guarded accents. He wished me to go with him to his brother—my professional colleague Dr. Chester—whose actions were greatly alarming him. I, having been his best friend, might have some influence in getting him to speak freely—for surely he had much to tell. The doctor had for the past two years been conducting secret experiments in a laboratory in the attic of his home, and beyond that locked door he would admit no one but himself. Sickening odours were often detected near the door…and odd sounds were at times not absent.

The doctor was aging rapidly; lines of care—and of something else—were creeping into his dark, thin face, and his hair was rapidly going grey. He would remain in that locked room for dangerously long intervals without food, and seemed uncannily saturnine. All questioning from the younger brother was met with scorn or rage—with perhaps a little uneasiness; so that the brother was much worried, and stopped me on the street for advice and aid. I went with him to the Chester house—a white structure of two stories and attic in a pretty yeard with a picket fence. It was in a quiet side street, where peace seemed to abide despite the trying nature of the times. In the darkened parlour, where I waited for some time, was a marble-topped table, much haircloth furniture, and several pleasing whatnots covered with pebbles, curios, and bric-a-brac. Soon Dr. Chester came down—and he had aged.

He greeted me with a saturnine smile, and I began to question him, as tactfully as I could, about his strange actions. At first he was rather defiant and insulting—he said with a sort of leer, “Better not ask, Spencer! Better not ask!” Then when I grew persistent (for by this time I was interested on my own account) he changed abruptly and snapped out, “Well, if you must know, come up!” Up two flights of stairs we plodded, and stood before the locked door. Dr. Chester opened it, and there was an odour.

I entered after him, young Chester bringing up the rear. The room was low but spacious in area, and had been divided into two parts by an oddly incongruous red plush portiere. In the half next the door was a dissecting table, many bookcases, and several imposing cabinets of chemical and surgical instruments. Young Chester and I remained here, whilst the doctor went behind the curtain. Soon he emerged, bearing on a large glass slab what appeared to be a human arm, neatly severed just below the elbow. It was damp, gelatinous, and bluish-white, and the fingers were without nails.

“Well, Spencer”, said Dr. Chester sneeringly, “I suppose you’ve had a good deal of amputation practice in the army. What do you think, professionally, of this job?” I had seen clearly that this was not a human arm, and said sarcastically, “You are a better sculptor than doctor, Chester. This is not the arm of any living thin.” And Chester replied in a tone that made my blood congeal, “Not yet, Spencer, not yet!”

Then he disappeared again behind the portiere and emerged once more, bringing another and slightly larger arm. Both were left arms. I felt sure that I was on the brink of a great revelation, and awaited with impatience the tanalisingly deliberate motions of my sinister colleague. “This is only the beginning, Spencer,” he said as he went behind the curtain for the third time. “Watch the curtain!”

And now ends the fictionally available part of my dream, for the residue is grotesque anticlimax. I have said that I was in civilian clothes for the first time since ’61—and naturally I was rather self-conscious. As I waited for the final revelation I caught sight of my reflection in the glass door of an instrument case, and discovered that my very carefully tied stock was awry. Moving to a long mirror, I sought to adjust it, but the black bow proved hard to fashion artistically, and then the whole scene began to fade—and damn the luck! I awaked in the distressful year of 1920, with the personality of H. P. Lovecraft restored!

I have never seen Dr. Chester, or his younger brother, or that village, since. I do not know what village it was. I never heard the name of Eben Spencer before or since. Some dream! If that happened to Co [Edward H. Cole], he would be surely seeking a supernatural explanation; but I prefer actual analysis. The cause of the whole is clear—I had a few days before laid out Mrs. Shelley’s “Frankenstein” for re-reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 71-73
[The original lacks paragraph breaks; these were inserted for ease of reading.]

Lovecraft never fleshed out and finished this story. However, the next year, in the fall of 1921, Lovecraft would write another story that would involve two friends, doctors, with grisly experiments in reanimation which seemed strongly inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the serial “Herbert West—Reanimator.”


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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