Over 200 years ago, a teenage girl started a literary legacy that continues to haunt us today. Why do we still keep telling this story and how does it reflect our darkest fears? The New York Public Library's curators join monster theory scholars and best-selling authors to trace the history of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley’s classic. This special podcast episode unpacks the genius of Shelley’s novel, its origins and evolution—from the British Romantics to Black Lives Matter—to uncover how it’s helped us better understand ourselves, our humanity, and our future.
Victor LaValle, award-winning novelist and creator of the comic book Destroyer.
Kiersten White, best-selling Young Adult novelist and author of The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein.
Michael Chemers, Professor of Dramatic Literature and Theater Arts at the University of California Santa Cruz, and author of The Monster in Theatre History : This Thing of Darkness.
Elizabeth Young, Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and author of Black Frankenstein: The Making of An American Metaphor.
Elizabeth Denlinger, Curator of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle of The New York Public Library.Charles Carter, Assistant Curator of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle of The New York Public Library.
John Calhoun, Chief Reference Librarian of the Billy Rose Theatre Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Billie Fulford-Brown, voice actor.
Narrated by James Langton, Audio Book Studio Manager at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library.
Music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special Thanks to John Bidwell, Carolyn Broomhead, Gwen Glazer, and Lisa Hagan.
This feature was produced by The New York Public Library, with production by Richert Schnorr, Schuyler Swenson, Gabrielle Galanek, and Margaret Kelley.
Click here to find out how to subscribe and listen to the Library Talks podcast.
[MUSIC PLAYING] You're listening to Library Talks, from New York Public Library. I'm your host, Aiden Flax-Clark.
Today's episode is going to be a little different than normal. We're going to talk about a classic novel, Frankenstein, which was published in 1818 by Mary Shelley. The reason we're talking about Frankenstein is because at the main branch of the New York Public Library-- the one with the Lions in Bryant Park-- there's a really cool collection called the Pforzheimer Collection. It gathers material of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle. And, of course, Mary Shelley was very much of his circle.
So to learn about all of this you're going to hear from some of our own librarians, the people who work in the Pforzheimer Collection. You're going to hear from bestselling novelist Victor LaValle, and YA author Kiersten White, as well as scholars who have studied the Frankenstein story as a metaphor in American history and pop culture. So let's get to it. Here's Frankenstein-- Our Dark Mirror.
[Mary Shelley] I busied myself to think of a story, 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 around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.
[Narrator] Over 200 years have passed since an 18-year-old girl named Mary Shelley, wrote one of the most popular novels on the planet-- Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus. And it is still as horrifyingly relevant as ever. The New York Public Library is pleased to present an audio exploration of Shelley's novel and its legacy, featuring the library's expert librarians and curators, as well as authors still working with Shelley's legacy to create new Frankenstein stories.
And one doesn't need to search farther than New York Public Library's collections to find Frankenstein and his monster lurking in the stacks. We'll hear about Shelley's lineage, and the story behind her 19th century novel.
[Elizabeth Denlinger] She has this dream of a medical student kneeling beside this thing he had made.
To the novel's theatrical and film adaptations.
[Film Clip] Crazy, am I? We will see whether I'm crazy or not.
The many Frankenstein metaphors.
[Michale Chemers]Monsters come back, and the reason why they come back is because they are made of fear, our fear.
And authors still working with Shelley's legacy to create new Frankenstein stories.
I love that we have this entire storytelling tradition built around the imagination of a teenage girl.
But before we dive in, if you haven't borrowed the novel from the library in a while, first a quick refresher. Shelley's story is about a young scholar, Victor Frankenstein, who is eager to discover the secret of life through science. He crudely gathers parts of corpses and stitches them together to create a new human form. Frankenstein successfully reanimated that form into the creature.
Horrified by his hideous creation, Frankenstein abandons him. The creature then runs away, and is forced to raise himself, alone in a society that brutally rejects him due to his appearance. Nevertheless, the creature learns how to be human. He learns how to speak quite eloquently, and reads books, but he continues to be ostracized by Frankenstein and society, and is prone to violent rage.
Eventually, that creature confronts Frankenstein, requesting that he create a mate to keep him company. Frankenstein agrees, but just before he's finished piecing together a second creature, he decides to destroy her out of fear of starting a monster race. And at that point, the creature vows to seek revenge, and goes on a violent rampage, murdering Frankenstein's wife and close friend.
Frankenstein is forced to chase his creature away from society, into the Arctic, where eventually Frankenstein dies, and the creature runs away into the wilderness, where it is presumed he dies as well.
So how did a teenage girl imagine such a horrific story that has engrossed its readers for over two centuries?
[TRAFFIC AND FOOTSTEPS]
Chapter One-- Standing On the Shoulders of Giants.
[FOOTSTEPS BECOME LOUDER]
We begin our journey at the very location where scholars of 18th and 19th century Britain often begin their own research.
[BUZZER SOUNDS AND A DOOR IS UNLOCKED]
The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle.
[Elizabeth Denlinger] Hi, I'm Liz Denlinger, I'm the curator of the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. We're the largest repository in North America for the papers of PB Shelley and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her parents Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneer feminist, and her father, William Godwin, who was a philosopher of considerable fame in his day.
What inspires me in this collection is seeing what kinds of hideous situations people have lived with and fought against in the past. The Shelleys were living at a time when women had no legal rights to divorce-- in England anyway-- and no right to their children if they got divorced. And that has changed. And it's changed in part because of some of the people in the collection, like Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she exhorted women to go get educated, and to learn to change their situations.
[Narrator]Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin in 1797. As the daughter of two respected writers, she very much saw herself as being in that vein. There was likely no doubt in her mind that she was going to be a writer like her parents. Sadly, Mary's mother died from child-bed fever, just 10 days after she was born. Shortly after, her father remarried a woman who had children of her own. Mary and her stepmother didn't get along, so by the time she was in her teens she sought opportunities to leave home.
Mary met her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 16. He was 20 and already married. But they fell in love and ran away together. They travelled around Western Europe, with Mary step sister Claire Claremont. And the three of them were sort of on the run, escaping from their responsibilities at home, and seeking adventure.
On one of these trips in 1816, they visited one of Claire's romantic interests-- the most famous poet of the time, Lord Byron. He was summering in Geneva. However, it wasn't the sunny Swiss vacation one might hope for. There had been a volcanic explosion in Indonesia that had worldwide effect on the climate. It caused a lot of rain and darkness. So they spent a lot of time indoors, reading to each other.
Which is how Lord Byron came to propose the infamous ghost story contest that inspired Mary Shelley's novel. Here's Elizabeth Denlinger.
[Elizabeth Denlinger] On or about the night of June 16th, 1816, Byron proposes this contest and says, we will each write a ghost story. So that each in this case was definitely Mary Godwin, Byron's doctor, Polidori, who he had brought along as a traveling companion, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Young Mary Godwin doesn't come up with the idea right away. She sort of beats her brains for days , and tries to think of something.
In the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explains the details of her ghost story in the introductory portion of the novel.
[Mary Shelley] I thought and pondered vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention, which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story?-- I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
And then one night Shelley and Byron are talking about Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather, who is also a scientist. So they were talking about Darwin. They were talking about galvanism. They were talking about whether or not life could be returned to a dead body.
[Charles Carter] The two people considered to be true writers-- Byron and Shelley-- don't really take the contest seriously.
[Narrator] This is Charles Carter, Assistant Curator of the Pforzheimer Collection.
[Carter] Mary Godwin is really inspired, and she writes what will become the originating kernel of the story of Frankenstein, in part inspired by a nightmare that she has about this creature that's looming over her as she's half-awake and half-asleep.
[Denlinger] What she remembers was lying down, and she doesn't say it's a dream.
[Shelley] I saw with shut eyes but acute mental vision, I 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. He sleeps, 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.
[Denlinger] She has this dream of the medical student kneeling beside this thing he had made, and that is the originating image of the novel. So she took it and ran. And like her father and mother before her, just wrote very steadily over the next year, and was finished with both the first and a second draft by the spring of the next year. So she spends the year that she is 19, writing Frankenstein.
[Narrator] Mary Shelley was influenced by Gothic literature, which was popular at the time. But she also likely drew from her own experiences with mortality-- the deaths of her mother and her first child with Percy.
[Carter] One of the most emotionally affecting manuscripts that we have in the Pforzheimer collection is the letter that Mary Godwin writes to her friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg in 1815, when her first baby dies. She ends the letter by saying, for I am no longer a mother. It's quite gut-wrenching.
[Mary Shelley] March the 6th, 1815. My dearest Hogg, my baby is dead. Will you come to me as soon as you can? I wish to see you. It was perfectly well when I went to bed. I awoke in the night to give it suck. It appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning. From its appearance, it evidently died of convulsions. Will you come? You are so calm a creature, and Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk, for I am no longer a mother now. Mary.
[Carter] When Mary Godwin begins to write Frankenstein, she has a six-month-old, William, but she has already experienced the loss of one child. And there are a number of scholars who see this as a very probable source of life experience that influenced the creation of the story of Frankenstein, bringing the dead back to life
[Narrator] On January 1st, 1818, Mary Shelley's novel was published anonymously. However, it wasn't until a few years later, in 1823, that the book became a sensation after it had been adapted for the London stage.
Chapter Two-- I Bid My Hideous Progeny Go Forth and Prosper.
[Narrator] After the novel's success, a playwright named Richard Brinsley Peake, adapted Shelley's Frankenstein for the stage. Both Mary Shelley and her father, William Godwin, were in the audience for the premiere at the English Opera House. It was a huge hit.
However, the play adaptation was much different than Shelley's novel. For pure stage business and entertainment value, the creature in Peakes version was mute. He was no longer the articulate intellectual Shelley envisioned. That wordless monster-- a dramatic change from the one Shelley created-- endured in Hollywood's treatment of the story, and it remains the popular version who still lives in the public imagination.
To explain Frankenstein's rise to movie stardom, John Calhoun, Chief Reference Librarian of the Billy Rose Theater Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, has more.
[John Calhoun] Universal Studios was kind of a B-level studio in Hollywood-- more budget productions. One of the ways they branded themselves was starting with Dracula, producing these horror films.
[Movie clip] Dracula, the very mention of the name brings to mind things so evil, so fantastic, so degrading, you wonder if it isn't all a dream, a nightmare.
They would do them pretty quick, but wonderful craft in the filmmaking and in the sets. And so, anyway, they did Dracula. That's what really launched the whole monster movie cycle at Universal. The next one was Frankenstein. So this is several months after Dracula.
Dracula's come out as a huge hit. Bela Lugosi is the star. OK, let's do another monster movie with Bela Lugosi. Well, Bela Lugosi did not want to do Frankenstein, because he didn't talk. He's just this brutish monster, right? It's not like Count Dracula, who gets to be a little sexy maybe. So he was out.
So Karloff was a contract player. Boris Karloff-- although he is called Karloff in some of the films. So he took the role. Now, the director, James Whale, stepped forward to direct the film.
[Movie clip] There's nothing to fear. Look, no blood, no decay. Just a few stitches.
Henry Frankenstein, known as Henry in the movie, has unknowingly planted a criminal's brain into this creature. Now, that's not something that's from the book, clearly.
[Movie clip] Think of it, the brain of a dead man, waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands. With my own hands.
The whole electricity aspect of it is introduced here.
[Movie clip] Throw the switches.
[THUNDERSTORM AND ELECTRICAL CHARGES]
There was a lightning storm, and he's got bolts in his neck, and he's hooked up to get the electrical charges. And the performances! Colin Clive, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, he's a neurotic mess. Which is kind of appropriate, but you think some of it even goes maybe beyond the script, and it's the actor.
[Movie clip] You're crazy!
Crazy, am I? You'll see whether I'm crazy or not.
There's an unsavory aspect to him. That's what I've always thought when I see Colin Clive in these movies. There's just something about him. He's very sallow complected, and just around the bend the way he's acting-- the strangulated voice. It's fascinating.
[Movie clip] It's alive! It's moving! It's alive! Oh! It's alive! It's alive! It's alive! It's alive! Oh, ho, ho! In the name of God!
So he's not a real obvious hero. And then we've got Karloff playing the creature, and I don't know, he's just calling on our sympathies. The relationship is complicated, and our relationship to the story, to the narrative, is somewhat complicated by that.
[MOANING AND THRASHING]
[Movie clip] Quick! Fetch the rope! Quick!
In the original Frankenstein, Karloff is not talking. But he's making sounds which have a very pathetic animalistic kind of quality to them. There's his face, which there's a strange gentleness that comes through those eyes.
[Movie clip] Would you like one of my flowers?
Even though it's a big blubbering monster, there's an elegance of gesture that I think counters that, and makes it more fascinating than just appalling. He uses his hands in a very expressive way. There's something very delicate, almost.
[Narrator] James Whale's Frankenstein was a big box office hit in 1931. Karloff became the iconic Frankenstein monster that we think of today. Because of the commercial success Universal continued their monster movie saga with a 1935 sequel-- Bride of Frankenstein. Film buffs agree that the sequel was Whale's real masterpiece, including Calhoun.
[Calhoun] I think Bride of Frankenstein takes all the elements are so wonderful about Frankenstein and just upset a notch, or two, or three, or four, or a million.
The movie actually opens with Mary Shelley telling the story to Byron and Dr. Polidori, and everything. I mean, it's a very tongue-in-cheek take on what that was all like.
[Movie clip] Come, Mary. Come and watch the storm.
You know how lightning alarms me. Shelley, darling, would you please light these candles for me?
Ha! Mary, darling! Astonishing creature!
Aye, Lord Byron?
I think the prologue sets the tone in this really wonderful way with Mary Shelley.
[Movie clip] Can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived a Frankenstein? A monster created from cadavers out of rifled graves?
It's a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.
So anyway, Elsa Lanchester has already appeared as Mary Shelley, but then here she is again at the end of the movie. She is the animated Bride.
[Movie clip] Friend?
The hair is inspired by Nefertiti, apparently. She's wearing that headgear that comes straight up high off her head. Well, let's do Nefertiti, but let's do it in her hair. And, of course, they did this white lightning bolt pattern through the hair to make it look even crazier. I mean, of course, this is a completely iconic look. And, of course, the Bride is created, but she immediately sees her intended, and doesn't react well. Like (GAGS) and (SCREAMS).
[Movie clip] She hate me. [INAUDIBLE]
He's not happy, of course. And he decides that they should all die, except he lets Dr. Frankenstein go. He says, you go. At this point he can talk a little, right? You go! We stay! Referring to himself, and Pretorius, and presumably the Bride.
FRANKENSTEIN AND JOHN CALHOUN: We belong dead!
And so, then there's a fire, and they're all destroyed, except for Dr. Henry, who escapes.
Chapter Three-- Monsters Always Come Back.
[Narrator] Few people have studied the Frankenstein monster as obsessively as Michael Chemers. As Professor of Dramatic Literature and Theater Arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he tracks the progression and significance of the idea of monsters in theater and film.
[Michael Chemers] Any time you have a monster in culture that has any kind of longevity or popularity among people, it is because that monster speaks very specifically to some social, political, spiritual, or other kind of crisis, or schism, or fear, that is occurring in the society around it, and is being reflected in the culture. So Mary Shelley was writing a story that is actually a very deep engagement with the very real adult responsibilities of parents to children.
And not just parents to children, but by extension, rulers to the ruled, governors to the governed, people with power to people without power. And one of those factors that she deals with varies in a very sophisticated way, is the power of scientists. Because, I think, science, and other forms of knowledge, other systems of knowledge, have moved forward quite rapidly in the last 200 years since this novel was written. Those anxieties about how we use science are still very much with us. And so we are still telling the Frankenstein story-- particularly in performance culture-- in a thousand, thousand ways.
So the common thread between Frankenstein the novel, all the play adaptations of Frankenstein, all the movie adaptations of Frankenstein-- movies both really good and really bad, that we have been inundated with over the past century-- is that it is a meditation on the importance of ethics in science, and a manifestation of our fear that science, without ethics, is extremely dangerous.
So in 1920, I want to say 1922, a Czech playwright named Karel Capek wrote a story-- very much a Frankenstein story-- called "R.U.R." And it is the first time that we ever use the term robot. It's actually a Czech word that means drudgery, or robota. So the first robot is very much a Frankenstein creature. It's built from flesh, not machines, and it revolts against its creator and takes over the world. So that sets up a whole new sub-myth of Frankenstein, a sub-genre of Frankenstein-- of robots that achieve sentience and destroy their creators. So that's The Matrix, right? That's Terminator.
So the first film version of Frankenstein, like the first play version of Frankenstein, has some very iconic images. The film is getting it right from the place-- storms, laboratories, the creature running amok. And very specifically, there's a scene in the film where the creature and Frankenstein are examining each other through moving machinery. In this case, it's a windmill. In the climactic scene they look at each other through the machinery of the windmill. And I cannot help but think of that scene in terms of its performance manifestation.
When I watch the last scene of Blade Runner, the original with Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, where in their final scene, they are regarding each other through the blades of a fan, which reminds me of that windmill.
[Movie clip] Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave.
And you'll notice Terminator also has a storm in it. And also the creature's born from lightning in Terminator, when he goes back in time.
[Movie clip] That Terminator is out there. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever.
In Jurassic Park-- which is also very much a Frankenstein story-- there's a lab, there's a storm--
-- there's a betrayal, there's a monster running amok.
[T-REX ROARING AND WOMAN SCREAMING]
The Avengers-- Age of Ultron, which is absolutely a Frankenstein story, and absolutely about the responsibility of fathers and sons--
[Movie clip] Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war, invaders creative avengers, people create children designed to supplant them.
I'm watching this going, "oh! Frankenstein. Frankenstein. Frankenstein." And there's a storm in it. There's a god of thunder in it, a god of lightning. You know? So, hello!
I think one of the wonderful things about Frankenstein in particular is that both as a character and as a cultural body, he will not die. He is pretty much invincible. The monster, I mean. He keeps coming back.
Monsters come back, and the reason why they come back is because they are not made of flesh and bone that can be destroyed. They are made of fear. Our fear. They're made of our fear. So as long as I'm afraid of the advance of technology without morals, Frankenstein is going to come back and be relevant to me.
Joseph Roach, one of the great theater scholars in America, wrote a book called Cities of the Dead, in which he talks about the process of surrogation, where we need to see ourselves fighting manifestations of our anxieties and winning. And that alleviates our anxiety.
This is how it works in your head-- I'm afraid of the advance of science without morals. I'm also afraid of death. I'm afraid of childbirth. I'm afraid my father didn't love me. There's all these things that are going on in your head. And then suddenly Frankenstein appears on the movie screen or in the theater.
You don't think about it rationally, but something inside you goes, I recognize this! This is all my anxieties put together into one thing! I'm so scared! I'm so horrified! I'm seeing myself reflected back! Oh, no! And then, they get him, and they toss him off a cliff, or they freeze him in ice, or something. And they defeat him, and the good people of the village are saved. And you go, oh, phew! I'm saved!
And then you go back to work and you feel better, until you don't anymore, because the underlying causes of your fear are not alleviated by the silly little piece of culture. So we have to go back again, and we have to go back again, and we have to go back again.
All of my work on monsters is motivated by a desire to understand more about how human empathy works. And monsters are a terrific opportunity to explore this, because when they emerge in cultural products, they appear to be surrounded by elements that showcase a fear response. They're often grotesque, for instance, and threatening.
But I think that we, as viewers, can do one of two reactions to this. We can do what is usually done, and we can try to project people that we hate, that are causing us anxiety, onto those monsters. It's so easy to use the monster to deepen our own fear of the other. The harder thing to do, and the more worthwhile thing to do, is to recognize that if you are having a fear reaction to a monster, it's almost certainly really got more to do with you than with the other.
And if we look at monsters as dark mirrors of ourselves, that they reflect our own fears and our own anxieties back at us, and if we are willing to turn towards the things that scare us, then what we learn is that we are looking at ourselves in a dark mirror. And I believe, and the great romantic scholars believed that the more we do that, the more we can confront the monstrous qualities that we ourselves embody.
Chapter Four-- confronting our monsters.
[Narrator] As Professor Chemers outlined, the potential applications of the Frankenstein metaphor are infinite, helping us to analyze our own fears as a society or as individuals. Professor Elizabeth Young has used this metaphor to better understand American history and racism. Young is a scholar of US Literature, Culture, and Film at Mount Holyoke College, and the author of "Black Frankenstein-- The making of an American metaphor."
[Elizabeth Young] The Frankenstein monster has been used as a story of resistance and used in particular, both to humanize people who are deemed monsters, and also to turn responsibility towards the figure of the monster-maker. I was watching the film Bride of Frankenstein in the midst of a period of reflecting deeply on the novel and its impact, and I noticed that the creature-- who by then is called the more negative term, the monster-- is very sympathetic. And also, he is often depicted as running from what looks like a lynch mob, a mob of people who are trying to capture him, and string him up on a cross, and even to burn him.
[Movie clip] Are you ready?
[CROWD ROARS ASSENT]
Light your torches and go!
[Young] That imagery, in relation to the 1930s in America, which is a period when there were an increase in lynchings of Black men, and also a great deal of protest against lynching by Black activists and White allies. And I started to speculate on whether you could interpret the film as being a kind of allegory of lynching, even though race is nowhere mentioned in the film.
You might be able to see the monster in the film, played by Boris Karloff, as a kind of sympathetic victim of a lynch mob. So the kind of aha moment that I had in looking at 19th century histories, was responses to the revolt of Nat Turner in 1831.
Nat Turner was an enslaved person who rebelled against his White master and other White people in South Hampton county Virginia. Killed many people, and was on the run for several weeks, and then eventually was caught, tried, convicted, and executed. His story excited a tremendous amount of news coverage and anxiety among the slaveholding South, about the possibility of revolt, and also a certain amount of formal debate.
One of the politicians debating the political implications of the Nat Turner story was a man named Thomas Dew. He gave a lengthy defense of slavery. He made reference to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in a way that makes clear that he was bringing Mary Shelley's novel into the orbit of slavery and American race relations.
He says, quote, in dealing with a Negro, we must remember that we are dealing with a being possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child. To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical passions, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance.
Thomas Dew is using Frankenstein for a conservative purpose-- to argue against emancipation, and to attack Black people in extremely insulting ways. And it's a point of origin for thinking about the racial implications of Frankenstein in America.
There are also many other things going on in the 1830s. For example, Edgar Allan Poe is writing his Gothic short stories, in which there are monster figures, and in which there are frightening murders. Edgar Allan Poe himself would have known of the Nat Turner revolt and responses to it. There are other African-American writers who are writing critiques of slavery, and pleas or manifestos for emancipation like the freeman of color, David Walker. It's a period of intense focus on slavery and protest against it.
When you get into the 20th century, it becomes even more explicit. The comedian and civil rights activist and writer Dick Gregory, who works over and over in about a half dozen different comedy routines and essays, this idea of a Black Frankenstein monster, situating it in the context of civil rights and Black power.
[Dick Gregory] You know who Frankenstein was scared of? I mean, in my wildest madness I've got to be afraid who the monster scared of. He'd go out there and get him out the graveyard. He can do no damage to nobody else. He dead. He pull him out, hook all that stuff to him, and get him to doing bad things. And one day he overshot Frankie, and Frankie backed up on him.
Dick Gregory starts bringing up Frankenstein early in his writing, in an essay collection called The Shadow That Scares Me. He's really thinking about episodes of Black insurrection and violence in the 1960s, in major American cities. He is describing them in terms not of Black violence, but in terms of White responsibility for creating the conditions of violence. And to do that, he is using Frankenstein.
[Dick Gregory] And what I want to show you, America, today, we was in Africa minding our business. You came over there and dug us up.
[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]
Brought Black folks to America, and made a monster out of us.
[Young] The Black Frankenstein story remains salient, because tragically, the construction of Black people as monsters continues unabated in global culture, but particularly in US culture.
The Black Lives Matter movement is partly, in this context, about redressing the ongoing construction or depiction of Black men as monsters. For example, the White police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, he described that the reason he shot Michael Brown was that it-- and he uses the pronoun it-- it looked like a demon.
Gothic monstrosity, or the language of monstrosity, continues to be one of the ways that Black men in America are seen, and defined, and policed, and killed. The Black Frankenstein story remains tragically salient. Particularly as a mode of resistance, a way to take that racist perception of Black monstrosity, and turn it against itself, to use it as a language of sympathy for young Black men, and to use it as a language of accusation and culpability against White people as monster-makers.
Chapter Five-- Frankenstein In the 21st century.
[Victor LaValle] That summer was the summer of Ferguson, and the summer of many, many, many Black people being killed by the police.
[Narrator] Victor LaValle is an award-winning novelist who is the author of Destroyer. It's a continuation of the Frankenstein story in the form of a comic book, that has parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement in America. Over the summer of 2014, LaValle was persuaded to reread Shelley's Frankenstein for a class he was teaching at Columbia University.
[LaValle] The political aspects of Mary Shelley's novel began to blend with the political aspects of that summer, and of that particular concern. I remember seeing a parent who was in front of TV cameras, holding a press conference talking about their child who had been shot by the police. A mother-- she was just in tears about what had been done to her son. And I just was sitting there thinking, how much would this woman be willing to go through to bring her son back? And then, if she could bring him back, what would she do to the people who had killed him?
And so, it was that thought, having read Frankenstein, and a desire to write comic books-- because I'd loved them ever since I was a kid-- that all came together almost instantly. I had, at least, the basic idea for Destroyer.
One of the things that I love most about the novel is that Mary Shelley doesn't shy away from the idea that if you reject another living being long enough, it will lose its mind, turn to rage. It will become angry and vengeful. And that's part of the cautionary aspect of Mary Shelley's book.
For me, my favorite scene really is toward the end of the book, after Frankenstein's monster has been rejected by Frankenstein countless times, he finally vows to become a force of death and destruction. He vows to destroy everything that Victor Frankenstein loves. And it's a really terrifying scene, and I just adore it.
So Mary Shelley's novel ends with Victor Frankenstein dead. But the monster is not dead. It says, I'm going to run off now into the Arctic, and I'm going to set myself on fire and die, now that I have seen my creator, Victor, die. But you don't actually see it, and my feeling was maybe now that Victor's dead, the creation could actually let go of a lot of its daddy issues and just live a while, right?
And since it's in the Arctic, it's far from humanity-- humanity that has treated it terribly. So why not just live a while among the creatures? And when my comic book Destroyer picks up, it's 200 years later. And it's best friends are minke whales, and leopard seals, and things like that. And then humanity essentially draws the creature back into its story when a whaling vessel kills two of the whales that the creature loves. That makes the creature decide maybe I'm just going to destroy all human beings.
The other storyline in Destroyer, is about a doctor named Josephine Baker. She is the foremost scientific mind on nanotechnology, and she is a Black woman who teaches at the University of Montana. She is also the descendant of the only member of the Frankenstein family who survives the monster's wrath in the original novel.
She is living in Montana now, because she moved from Chicago after her 12-year-old son Akai was murdered by the Chicago police. She uses her incredible abilities with nanotechnology to essentially replicate her great-uncle's experiment and bring her dead son Akai back to life, using this modern technology.
One of the things that I find most fascinating about the transfer of Frankenstein's monster from Shelley's book to popular culture, is that the big thing that is almost always leached out of the monster is its rage, and its revenge, and the idea that perhaps it was justified, or at least understandable. But for me, reading it again, certainly I felt terrible for the people who the creature killed, but I totally understood why it did what it did.
Again and again, I felt like the creature is not wrong, Victor is wrong. This is the result of everything that Victor has put in place. Similarly, I would say as a Black male who writes, who lives, one of the things that I find that the larger dominant culture has a real problem with is rage and anger. There's room for the idea of talking about injustice, but we should never talk about the idea that people snap, and that if you treat people badly long enough, they're going to come after you.
The modern day version of Martin Luther King Jr. focuses much more on the I Have a Dream speech and peaceful protest, and doesn't in any way talk about how, when he was alive, he was absolutely considered a threat because he was willing to talk about the anger that Black people were feeling, and the need for White America to change before that anger blew up. That part is always erased.
In my book, in Destroyer, I wanted to lean even the most into the kind of rage that I feel is almost never allowed and never discussed, which is a woman's rage-- and a Black woman's rage. And so my character, Josephine, in the book, is not a character who simply brings her son back, and is just happy to have him back, and life is OK now. I wanted to lean into the idea that Josephine gets her son back, and certainly she's happy about that, but what she wants to do now is burn down the United States, because it's not just her son.
Horror and science fiction are both genres I love, but they tickle different nerves. I enjoy science fiction because I think it's inherently optimistic. There's usually some technological or scientific aspect that is about what human beings can achieve.
Whereas for horror, of all the genres, it's the one that I think stares back at the pain, and the hardship, and the inhumanity that happens every day, all over the world, in real life, and acknowledges that its there, and also often talks about the idea that one way or the other, you might have to try to fight it if you're going to survive. And because it's horror, you often don't survive. Maybe that's the thing that makes it feel more realistic
[Narrator] Another author using the Frankenstein story is Kiersten White. She is a young adult author whose newest book, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is a radical retelling of Mary Shelley's novel. But this time, it's told from a new perspective. Here's Kiersten.
[Kiersten White] Mary Shelley is such a fascinating person and figure. She essentially invented the science fiction genre as a teenage girl. And I love that, because I write for teenage girls. And so often we see teenage girls just absolutely discounted, but really, teenage girls are some of the most intelligent and absolutely ferocious creatures on the planet. So I love that we have this entire storytelling tradition built around the imagination of a teenage girl.
You really view The Dark Side of Elizabeth Frankenstein as a conversation with the original, and I respect Mary Shelley so much I really wanted it to be a conversation with her. In order to have a conversation with her I wanted to know as much about her and the circumstances of writing Frankenstein as I could.
Mary's life was just this battleground of women being harmed and even killed by the neglect of the men around them. These men who had the power, who had access to the money and the inheritances, and the ability to make money for themselves, and support themselves and their families, just were not stepping up.
But even she couldn't see a woman being a major player in this story. And that made me sad, and it pissed me off. And so, I looked at what she did have there, and I thought, well, these women's stories aren't being told. Knowing what I did about Mary's own life, and how the men around her controlled her and caused her grief and tragedy, and also love and brilliance really helped me create that character of Elizabeth Lavenza into a fully-formed character.
So Elizabeth Lavenza, even if people are very familiar with the Frankenstein novel, when you mentioned Elizabeth Lavenza, it always takes them a minute to remember who she is. And she's literally Victor Frankenstein's bride that is tragically murdered on their wedding night. It's a 200-year-old spoiler. I don't feel that bad. And for having such a pivotal role, no one remembers her. And it's because she barely exists in the novel. She really exists to be a victim.
Her back story is that the Frankenstein's presented her to Victor as a gift. She was really just there to be Victor's companion. And so, I wondered, what kind of person would that turn you into? So I don't know that Mary deliberately wrote Elizabeth to not matter, but I do think that was what the world presented to her. Women weren't in power. Women didn't matter. Women weren't the protagonists of their own stories. And it definitely reflected her own experience.
So The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is a pretty direct retelling. It takes place during the same time period and narrative structure as the original Frankenstein. But this time, it's from the point of view of Elizabeth Lavenza. And so, the book is an examination of a central question. If the central question Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is, what makes a monster? The central question of The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is, who makes a monster?
In The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, monsters and women occupy the exact same place. They're both absolutely beholden to the men around them, who don't actually care very much about their fates. As long as they get what they want, it doesn't really matter to them what happens to their creations or their dependents.
Young women who read it, I think, relate a lot to Elizabeth. Given the current political climate, and the things that we're seeing with regards to women's rights, and women's voices, and women being believed or not believed, I think it came out at a very opportune time-- if there is such a thing right now-- to have this conversation of what it means to be a woman in a very patriarchal structured world.
I loved getting to have this conversation with Mary Shelley's brilliant original. I loved getting to refocus what I've always seen as a book with deeply feminine themes, and refocus it back on the female characters and the women who were impacted by the story.
[Narrator] Victor LaValle and Kiersten White are just two examples of contemporary writers continuing to keep Frankenstein and his creation alive. In the introduction to the 1931 edition of her book, Mary Shelley writes, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. And 200 years later, her creation continues to thrive with no signs of slowing down.
[Michael Chemers]The novel Frankenstein is the most adapted, translated, transmogrified, reproduced, reinvented, resurrected, retooled, reconfigured, parodied, lampooned, mocked, and referenced novel of all time. There are aspects of this story that remain not just tangentially relevant to us, but front and center.
[Victor LaValle] Frankenstein continues to endure, again, because of the absolute insight and brilliance of one 18-year-old kid, named Mary Shelley. You can't help but read it as a good story, and also a series of ethical and philosophical debates. There's just so much there. It's that blend of science, and-- if you want to call the supernatural-- the unnatural, the immortal, the beyond, the divine. It's that blend of the two that I think makes it an enduringly modern book.
[John Calhoun] It's touching you on some level that's not just a reflex. It's reaching you somewhere that has to do with feelings about humanity and cruelty.
[Elizabeth Young] I think it gives us power to look at these metaphors as consumers of popular culture. It means that what we do when we watch Frankenstein movies, or read Frankenstein comics, or go back to the novel is really powerful. Because we are getting tools to understand and to remake the world.
[Narrator] You've been listening to an audio exploration of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from the New York Public Library. Special thanks to Elizabeth Denlinger, Curator, and Charles Carter, Assistant Curator, of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. Victor LaValle, award-winning author, creator, and writer of a comic book Destroyer.
Kiersten White, New York Times best-selling young adult novelist. Elizabeth Young, Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. John Calhoun, Chief Reference Librarian of the Billy Rose Theater Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Michael Chemers, Professor of Dramatic Literature, Theater Arts, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Music composed by Blue Dot Sessions. With readings by Billie Fulford-Brown. Thanks to John Bidwell, Carolyn Broomhead, and Gwen Glazer. This feature was produced by the New York Public Library, with production by Reichart Schnorr, Skylar Swenson, Gabrielle Galinek, and Margaret Kelly. This is James Langton of the Audiobook Studio at the New York Public Library. Thanks for listening.