This coming June 16 is a big deal. Astronomers have confirmed that it was some time between 2 and 3 a.m. on this date two hundred years ago that a girl of eighteen had a dream, under the influence of which she unleashed upon the world a ghastly and prophetic nightmare from which we have yet to awaken.
A few nights earlier, Mary Shelley and her poet husband Percy Shelley were staying at the Villa Deodati on Lake Geneva, guests of the infamous “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Lord Byron. Owing to a major volcanic eruption in the Spring, that whole Summer was unusually dark and stormy – “the summer that never was”– and the three together with Byron’s mistress Claire and personal physician John Polidori were up late as thunder crashed and lightning flashed, telling ghost stories and reading Coleridge’s long poem Christabel. Inspired by the mood, Byron dared the company to write something even scarier.
As it would turn out, neither Shelley nor Byron delivered on this challenge, but Polidori was to write a long tale entitled The Vampyre which would originate the idea of a romantic, suave bloodsucker – based largely on Byron himself – that we still know today from its best known example decades later: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Young Mary also took up the challenge, setting out to create a story to curdle the blood and quicken the heart. The dream that took hold of her in the wee hours of June 16, 1816 was of an agonized and abandoned monster and its reckless, callous creator. Setting down this vision, many would argue she single-handedly founded both modern horror and science fiction with her brilliant masterpiece, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
Of course Shelley’s Frankenstein has been been adapted in many ways from terrifying to hilarious over the centuries, and many books have been written about the book’s genesis. Two different movies also tell the tale of that fateful June night: Ken Russell’s kinky, phantasmagoric 1986 film Gothic starring Gabriel Byrne as Byron and Natasha Richardson as Mary, and Ivan Passer’s 1988 film Haunted Summer with Eric Stoltz and Laura Dern as the Shelleys, and playing Polidori one Alex Winter, soon to be forever second fiddle as Bill to Keanu Reaves’ Ted in their Excellent Adventure. These would make the perfect double feature to keep you up past midnight on the 15th, to gaze at the waxing moon and shudder at what man hath wrought.
Get in the mood to celebrate this monstrous bicentennial this Monday night, June 6 at 7 p.m., as the Seattle Public Library joins Washington Commission for the Humanities in hosting scholar Lance Rhoades for a multi-media presentation entitled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Anatomy of a Masterpiece; here’s a Facebook event to share with your friends. Come learn more about the towering cultural and ethical significance of this epoch-making work of genius. It’s free, and will be a lot of fun.
– Posted by David W