Beyond pitchforks and torches

I’ve been a fan of horror for as long as I can remember. As a kid I liked wrapping myself up in a blanket while watching scary movies – lights out, of course. And if it started raining hard, all the better.  It’s not that I wasn’t scared. That’s the thing: I was very easy to scare. I dreaded being the last one downstairs at night because that meant I had to switch off the lights and run upstairs to my room before any monster shows up.

But that’s the fun part about getting scared: you always get a rush out of it. So every time I get my hands on anything horror, I get excited. Even more so when I picked up this novel. And why not? Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most iconic antagonists in fiction. Everyone knows about the stitched-up abomination with metahuman strength and intimidating stature. But before I read the book, most of what I knew about the creature came from those movies which always culminated in a classic pitchforks-and-torches scene. And then there’s Lurch from the Adams Family, though you’d probably want to tip your hat to the gentleman rather than run away from him.

I found it curious that in most other media, Frankenstein’s monster is always portrayed as the tall, slow-talking man with deep-set eyes, a flat head and zombie-like complexion. Nothing interesting, really. Yet here we are, still talking about Mary Shelley’s masterpiece two centuries later.

I suspected there’s more to the story than angry mobs and a one-dimensional fiend, and that added to my excitement about reading the novel. I wanted to find out just how diabolical the monster really was. I wanted to know how this bane of society earned its place among the greatest monsters of all time.

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A leather-bound copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Cover art by Jessica Hische.

And what a worthy creation this book is. I was hooked as early as the opening chapter.  I liked how Shelley told the tale through Victor Frankenstein’s letters. The eerie atmosphere was set up brilliantly with the protagonist’s tone of desperation and regret. More than a horror novel, Frankenstein also has that feel of mystery to it.

I can only imagine how it was for those who read the book back when it was first published. It must have been such a treat to read it with no preconceived notion of what it’s about; of what the monster was. Or perhaps to have read the book without even the slightest notion that there was going to be a monster in the story at all. To wonder why the letters were written with such distress and urgency, and to finally find out what monstrosity Victor Frankenstein had created.

And that’s just the beginning. Throughout the story you get to see the creature evolve from an innocent, even benevolent being, to the most horrible adversary you could ever face – vindictive, hateful, diabolically brilliant, nigh-indestructible. It really is no surprise that this story continues to persist even in other forms of media, from TV shows, to movies, to comic books. But what they say is true: the original is always the best.

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Classics Illustrated #26.

Here’s a vintage comic book which I picked up soon after I finished the novel. Although I like the poster-esque cover art, it is a good example of how the book has been misinterpreted and misrepresented in other media.

The cover depicts the monster frightened, fleeing from a man on a sled. In the story, that man is no other than Frankenstein, out to destroy his creation. But the monster was far from frightened. The chase was a sadistic machination of the monster himself in order to torture his maker. He eluded him, staying just beyond his grasp so as to frustrate and ultimately break him. To make him feel powerless. To make him feel utterly helpless for being unable to avenge the death and destruction brought about by his own creation. But on this cover, it seems the monster is at a disadvantage.

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To the creators’ credit, the comic book did attempt to cram all the important details of the novel into its 30-something pages. But as you would expect, it is painfully stripped down. In the photo above, you see one of my favorite scenes depicted where Frankenstein and the monster hold a conversation, almost a debate, in a cave far up the mountains. But alas, the dialogue fell flat in this interpretation. (Though I find it funny how the monster invited Frankenstein to his cave and the brilliant scientist just went along, safety and reason be damned.)

This is precisely why we shouldn’t be satisfied with just reading or watching simplified adaptations of novels. You will almost certainly lose out on the best parts. At its core, Frankenstein urges us to examine the dangers of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and cautions us against the sin of hubris. Do not be dissuaded by what you see in the movies. It is a brilliantly written book, entertaining and engaging through and through.

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One thought on “Beyond pitchforks and torches

  1. Pingback: A year in books | ReadWhatever

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