In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits Mary Shelley’s misunderstood parable and founding text of science fiction
Frankenstein is one of a handful of nineteenth-century fictional creations that went truly global and became ingrained in the popular consciousness. Along with Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Mary Shelley’s character has flown free of the text which spawned it: Frankenstein has become synonymous with biological experimentation, the creation of hybrid ‘monsters’, and the perils of playing God. The Oxford English Dictionary includes the prefix ‘Franken-’, used to denote nouns implying genetic modification, most famously ‘Frankenfoods’. The OED also records ‘Frankenstein’ itself, in extended use, as both a noun and a verb.
2018 marks the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s first and most successful novel, written when she was just a teenager and published when Shelley was 20 years old. This fact is often repeated, but it’s worth stopping to reflect on the astounding precocity of the novel’s author. Dickens was 24 when his first novel appeared, and he was touted as a prodigy. Try naming another novel written by a teenager which has attained the status of a classic. Now try naming one that, arguably, spawned a whole new genre in English literature. There was, and in some ways is, nothing else quite like it. Frankenstein is not just a founding text but a foundling text. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of Poe’s short horror story
‘The Black Cat’ was first published in August 1843 in the Saturday Evening Post. It’s one of Poe’s shorter stories and one of his most disturbing, focusing on cruelty towards animals, murder, and guilt, and told by an unreliable narrator who’s rather difficult to like. You can read ‘The Black Cat’ here. Below we’ve offered some notes towards an analysis of this troubling but powerful tale.
First, a brief summary of the plot of ‘The Black Cat’. The narrator explains how from a young age he was noted for his tenderness and humanity, as well as his fondness for animals. When he married, he and his wife acquired a number of pets, including a black cat, named Pluto. But as the years wore on, the narrator became more irritable and prone to snap. One night, under the influence of alcohol, he sensed the black cat was avoiding him and so chased him and picked up the animal. The animal bit him slightly on the hand, and the narrator – possessed by a sudden rage – took a pen-knife from his pocket and gouged out one of the cat’s eyes. Although the cat seems to recover from this, the narrator finds himself growing more irritated, until eventually he takes the poor cat out into the garden and hangs it from a tree. Later that night, the narrator wakes to find his house on fire, and he, his wife, and his servant, barely escape alive. All of the narrator’s wealth is lost in the flames. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic horror story
‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a Gothic novel in miniature. All of the elements of the Gothic novel are here: the subterranean secret, the Gothic space (scaled down from a full-blown castle to a single room), the gruesome crime – even the hovering between the supernatural and the psychological. In just five pages, it’s as if Edgar Allan Poe has scaled down the eighteenth-century Gothic novel into a story of just a few thousand words. But what makes this story so unsettling? Closer analysis reveals that ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ centres on that most troubling of things: the motiveless murder. You can read the story here.
First, a brief summary of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. An unnamed narrator confesses that he has murdered an old man, apparently because of the old man’s ‘Evil Eye’ which drove the narrator to kill him. He then describes how he crept into the old man’s bedroom while he slept and stabbed him, dragging the corpse away and dismembering it, so as to conceal his crime. He goes to some lengths to cover up all trace of the murder – he even caught his victim’s blood in a tub, so that none was spilt anywhere – and then he takes up three of the floorboards of the chamber, and conceals his victim’s body underneath. But no sooner has he concealed the body than there’s a knock at the door: it’s the police, having been called out by a neighbour who heard a shriek during the night. Read the rest of this entry