Listen to and find out more about this episode at theallusionist.org/frankenstein.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, build a fort out of language and hole up in it for the next four years, possibly forever. There’s room for you too.
Coming up in today’s show: a tale of darkness, gathering storms, and a terrifying creature that resembles a human man - no, not the news, it’s the story behind Frankenstein, a piece that first appeared on Imaginary Worlds, a fantastic podcast by Eric Molinsky. If you’re into science fiction, fantasy and comic books, you’ll love it. I’m not particularly into those genres, and I still love the podcast. So I’m thrilled to play you this story. And to have a bit of literature on the show.
Before that, here’s a little word history, sponsored by Squarespace. If you need to build a website for your business or art project or band or podcast or campaign for a kinder world, but you are not rich in website-designing skills: lucky you! Squarespace gives you pretty templates and easy to use tools to create your site, and 24/7 online customer service. And if you sign up for a year, you get a domain name thrown in too. Start your free trial today at squarespace.com/allusion to get 10% off your first purchase.
Thanks to Squarespace, and in honour of the story of Frankenstein, here’s the etymology of the word ‘horror’. Entered English by the 14th century via Old French from Latin, in which it had the sense of religious awe - because in so many interpretations of deities at different points in time, they are not benevolent and protective, but fearsome, and a devotee would tremble in the sight of god. This physical manifestation of fear is where the word comes from: the Latin ‘horrere’ meant ‘to bristle with fear’, your hair standing on end or an animal’s hackles rising in anticipation of a threat. ‘Horrere’ evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘ghers’, which also gave us spiky things like ‘gorse’ and ‘eris’, the Latin for ‘hedgehog’, and 'rocket' or 'arugula', whatever you want to call it, same salad leaf, same origin. And if you want a posh term for when you get goose-bumps or your hairs stand on end: ‘horripilation’.
ERIC MOLINSKY: It was a dark and stormy night.
I know that’s the ultimate cliché, but if there ever was a story that began on a dark and stormy night, this was it. It was the middle of June 1816, exactly two hundred years ago this month, when Mary Shelley started writing a novel called, “Frankenstein; or the New Prometheus.”
Now, Arizona State University is actually using this date to kick off a bicentennial project on Frankenstein with lectures, art installations, performances and conferences. They even have a whole department focused on science fiction. Professor Ron Broglio says its overall mission is to encourage positive thinking and less cynicism in sci-fi.
RB: So for much of sci-fi it’s easy to write yet another dystopic novel, but can we use sci-fi to imagine a more productive or better-sustained society?
EM: But here’s the funny thing: usually we celebrate the year a work of art came out, which in this case would be 1818 because Mary Shelley spent two years writing Frankenstein. So why are we celebrating the moment of inspiration? Because June 16, 1816 – not just what was happening in Mary Shelley’s room that night, but what was happening around the world - might actually offer us a glimpse into our future.
You’re listening to Imaginary Worlds, a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief. I’m Eric Molinsky. On today's show: the stormy birth of a masterpiece.
Or, you could say:
CLIP: IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE!
EM: Mary Shelley was famous long before she wrote Frankenstein – famous and infamous. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft was a controversial advocate for women’s rights, who believed that marriage was a type of slavery – at least under English law.
Mary Wollstonecraft died from complications giving birth to Mary Shelley, who became obsessed with the mother that she never knew.
CHARLOTTE GORDON: It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the author of Frankenstein would be someone who was longing for dead mother.
EM: Charlotte Gordon wrote a dual biography of both women, mother and daughter.
CG: She made her peace on some level with the idea her mother couldn’t come back but not really, and I think the driving motivation of her life was keeping mother alive or mother’s ideas alive.
EM: At the age of 17, Mary fell in love with a 22-year-old, aristocratic poet named Percy Shelley. Percy was already married. So the two of them fled to Paris, leaving Percy’s pregnant wife behind. It was a big scandal.
But they were not alone. They actually had a posse. There was Mary’s half-sister Claire – who had a crush on Percy and may have slept with him before moving on.
CG: Claire had heard that very famous rock star poet Lord Byron was between lovers, he was in London, and she decided if her sister Mary could have famous entanglement with Percy, a poet, she would try and do one better love affair with Byron who was much more famous than Percy.
CG: Some of the English get mad at me when I say this by Byron’s primary interest, we think, was probably men.
EM: And Byron had a keen interest in Percy Shelley, Mary’s lover. So this group of young sexy renegades decides to spend the summer together by Lake Geneva.
CG: So they all met in Geneva. At first they stayed in a posh hotel; so much gossip about them; and it was so uncomfortable, no one would speak to them, so Byron rented a villa, which is still standing, just up the hill from the lake.
EM: And we have detailed notes about what happened because Byron brought his personal physician, John Polidori, who was supposed to chronicle the great poet Byron - but he developed a hard crush on Mary Shelley and wrote about everything she did instead.
CG: I think all of this also contributed to incredible charged atmosphere.
EM: Yeah, this was going to be hot and steamy summer by the lake full of drama. But it didn’t turn out that way. It turned out to be very, very different.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood is the author of Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World.
GDW: The largest volcanic eruption of the last ten thousand years on the planet occurred six degrees south of the equator in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, a small island dominated by a volcano called Tambora, which exploded with extraordinary fury. The volcanic matter in the atmosphere created a 100-megaton sulfate layer that enveloped the planet, plunging world into 3-year period of extreme weather - a global cooling effect.
RB: Europe is experiencing frosts in June and July -
EM: Professor Ron Broglio.
RB: - And it’s having real effect on crops; 1816 was absolutely devastating, so we have a lot of food shortages, in fact in Britain the price of bread rose almost double.
EM: Apocalyptic cults were springing up. The press called it “The Year Without A Summer.” But they didn’t know yet that the effects of the volcano would last for several more years.
On a smaller scale, the weather was ruining the summer by the lake for Mary Shelley and her friend.
CG: It rained and rained, and rained, and you can’t keep people like Byron and Shelley cooped up all day long, they get impatient, restless, up to no good.
EM: And Charlotte Gordon says they plowed through every book they got. And finally in the middle of June:
CG: When it was really stormy and they were really bored, Byron had been reading from ghost stories and he finally said, "These ghost stories aren’t scary, how about if we all try and write scary stories ourselves?" Everyone separated that night and here’s what happened: Byron tried to write ghost story and got bored and went back to writing about Byron. Shelley started trying to write same thing; he got bored went back to writing about Shelley. But Mary started writing a ghost story and she did not stop.
READING: We witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura, and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.
That passage from Frankenstein described a real event near Lake Geneva. And Gillen says you can see the motif of lightning running all throughout Frankenstein.
GDW: Which Percy described as a storm-lashed novel.
READING: A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon, to whom I had given life.
EM: Now obviously there were a lot of things inspiring Mary Shelley beyond just the gloomy weather. The news at that time was full of all these experiments on electricity. Earlier that summer, she and Percy traveled in Germany past a castle called Frankenstein. But when Gillen reads the novel, he sees a reflection in a crisis that was unfolding in Europe in 1816, after all that volcanic ash had blacked out the skies and destroyed crops.
GDW: The numbers of peasants who abandoned their farms and took to roads were described as armies on the march, tens of thousands of people displaced. If we think about the Syrian refugee crisis today and the tens of thousand of people on the highways and byways of Europe, that gives us some sort of image of civic disruption. Seen in that light, remember the novel and the monster is shunned, abandoned and homeless and turned away from towns and cities; he is a kind of refugee, that captures, he symbolizes the human crisis unfolding before Mary Shelley’s eyes.
EM: Again, Professor Ron Broglio.
RB: Each of the characters in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, particularly the scientist who creates the monster is always in isolation, cutting himself off from the rest of humanity; and of course the creature flees to isolation, he doesn’t know what’s going on and then when he tries to extend himself to the community, he’s shunned.
GDW: The market towns and cities which were centres of power, they saw these armies of displaced peasantry as a threat because they brought not only demands on food supply, but they brought disease, so we have very graphic and demoralizing accounts of their almost subhuman character and desperation.
READING: I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? Shall I respect man when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.
EM: Frankenstein wasn’t the only work of literature to emerge from that cabin. Byron wrote his famous poem “Darkness”. And he and his physician/frenemy Polidori came up with a story called “The Vampyre” – which is one of the first vampire tales in Western literature. And Charlotte Gordon says the darkness in their writing also reflected their political despair.
CG: They felt the radicalism of previous generation was kind of being eradicated and a terrible right wing backlash was occurring.
EM: And the publication of Frankenstein didn’t help Mary Shelley’s reputation.
CG: But the reason why she became a household name is because in those days in England playwrights and theatre people could take any novel they wanted or any story and produce it without paying the author and people were enchanted; this was a great story, and they put it on the stage and that’s how it became so famous, and so Mary Shelley never made any money really, and on the other hand notorious, because linked with a shocking story on stage in London.
But she was able to establish herself as a writer, and eventually Frankenstein was appreciated as a great work of literature within her lifetime.
Her warnings about scientific hubris started to feel more and more relevant in the 20th century – from atomic power to biotechnology. That “year without a summer” just became a footnote, a piece of trivia.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood wants to bring it back, front and center.
GDW: I feel like the conventional readings of Frankenstein are somewhat stale and the environmental reading, the ecological breakdown reading, is a new one and it’s a reading for the 21st century.
EM: Of course the year without a summer was very cold and our climate is warming up. But Gillen says 1816 and 2016 stills have a lot in common – temperatures being wildly unpredictable, massive storms erupting around the world.
A lot of scientists think the solution to climate change is something called cloud seeding, which is to inject particles into the atmosphere to mimic a volcanic eruption like Tambora that would force temperatures down. In other words, they want to Frankenstein the weather.
GDW: I mean, even if there were an international authority vested with power, the uneven impacts of artificial cooling of the planet would be grotesque and impossible to rein in.
EM: It seems also we all know on a small level you can be in a better mood on a sunny day, if you look at the atmosphere in Frankenstein and think this could be happening in your head, it makes it very personal.
GDW: Absolutely, and this psychological dimension of climate change has been neglected, and we haven’t reckoned on - I like the phrase you used, "the Frankenstein in our heads", the stress of coping with the unpredictability of weather systems. It will create collective nervousness and anxiety that - it’s impossible to predict what that will be. Will it spur creativity and innovation and adapt well, or will stresses bring us undone somehow?
EM: Mary Shelley understood adaptation. She turned a gloomy summer into an opportunity to create a literary masterpiece. After the love of her life Percy Shelley drowned, she restored both of their reputations by evolving into an ideal Victorian woman, carefully cultivating his legacy as well as hers. She refused to allow forces beyond her control to turn her into a monster.
RB: It’s interesting and it’s part of her romantic self-fashioning, what kind of self does she want to create for herself?
EM: Ron Broglio says that theme runs throughout all of her work.
RB: Other worlds are possible, not just the world we live in; and as a fiction writer that’s important but also as an ethical person that’s important, and if we talk about adaptation or sustainably that’s the case, to be able to see or imagine or project out or model or whatever language you want to use, to imagine those features and I would extend that not only for ourselves but for those who are radically other than ourselves, for the monsters who can’t find refuge.
We rest; a dream has power to poison sleep.
We rise; one wandering thought pollutes the day.
We feel, conceive, or reason; laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away;
It is the same: for, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free.
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but mutability!
HZ: That was 'The Year Without A Summer' by Eric Molinsky; check out Imaginary Worlds at imaginaryworldspodcast.org. He’s just done a miniseries about Harry Potter, and there are episodes about Tolkien, zombies, superheroes, vampires, cartoons - loads of great stuff.
This episode was sponsored by Bombas, who designed socks that don’t slip, don’t chafe, protect you from blisters, and give your feet extra support. And they donate a pair to a homeless shelter for every pair you buy. This week Ryan tweeted me to say, “seventeen new pairs of bombas socks and I've never been so happy, thank you!” - so that’s seventeen other pairs of feet Ryan has clothed at the same time. Excellent work, Ryan. And Bombas. Make your feet as happy as Ryan’s feet, especially in the new festive patterns: go to bombas.com - B O M B A S - and get 20% off your first order of four or more pairs of socks.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts around. I have proof: The Heart, a show that is a really beautiful exploration of sexuality and intimacy, just won the biggest award an audio show can get at the Third Coast Festival, for their episode about FGM, 'Mariya'. You can find The Heart, and all of the Radiotopians, at radiotopia.fm.
Radiopia exists thanks to the generosity of you listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
cachinnate, verb, poetic/literary: to laugh loudly.
Try using it in an email today,
A lot of people turned to the dictionary on the night of the US election - for solace? To try to find the words through which to channel their overwhelming emotions? On election night, Dictionary.com saw a spike in searches for the f-bomb, make of that what you will. Maybe people in their heightened emotional state needed to double-check that they could spell it correctly.
Also, the Oxford Dictionaries just announced that their word of the year. I thought it was bad enough in 2015, when the word of the year was the crying-laughing emoji. But the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year in 2016 is ‘post-truth’.
You know what? I refuse to accept this. Not as the word of the year, but as a concept. We individually have the ability and responsibility to counter it.
This year, particularly, the campaigns for Britain’s EU referendum and the US election showed the extent to which saying stuff you don’t mean gains enormous meaning, whether intentional or not.
We must use words with care, and hold ourselves and others accountable for their words. By this I don’t mean be a pedant, “Er, I think you meant ‘whom’ rather than ‘who’?”. This is even more important than that.
The post-post-truth movement is in our hands.
Thanks again to Eric Molinsky of Imaginary Worlds, to Jane Solomon from dictionary.com, and to Martin Austwick for the music. This show resides on facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org.