Welcome back, everybody! It is October, the month universally regarded as the spookiest (tough break December, and by extension Krampus, Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and the Mari Lwyd. Come back when Santa turns back into the Hogfather). And we are only a few short weeks from our next show opening. AND that show happens to be very horror-centric, being, indeed, three adaptations of 19th-century horror stories performed in repertory. All of which means that, for the next month or so, my shackles have been loosened and my frantic and ceaseless gibberings on the nature of fear, which I usually howl fruitlessly to the cold earless stones in the basement of the We Happy Manor, will be collected, THOROUGHLY edited, and published for the entertainment and edification of you, the reader! And today my ravings have been compiled into some more thoughts about horror in general and Frankenstein and Poe in particular, and also a good deal about science fiction. Because we are not in show yet, and I do my best to avoid show spoilers before opening even though we have never staged a story that was less than one hundred years old, I am going to avoid text-specific discussion for the time being and focus on Frankenstein’s role in literature as a whole.
You may recall last time I hinted at Frankenstein being the (or at least ‘a’) foundational document of two distinct literary genres, which also happen to be my favorites: horror and science fiction. This unusual distinction happens to be shared by WHF’s favorite depressed big-headed alcoholic son Edgar Allan Poe. [He also may have invented the Mystery genre and was an integral figure in the foundation of American Letters. But I’ve already discussed the latter at length and now is not the time for the former, so let’s stay on topic. -ed.] Both claims bear consideration for both authors, but I think that one genre’s case for their respective maternity and paternity is more valid than the other. And, to muddy the waters of this already-confusing paragraph even further, I think the genre in question is NOT the one with which they are most closely associated. It is my contention that Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe have more to do with the creation of science fiction than with the creation of horror, despite being pillars of the horror genre and only being associated with science fiction by nerds like me who think about stuff like the origin and evolution of genres.
From a chronological perspective this is easy to prove; horror as a ‘genre’ is
impossible to define or date with any degree of certainty and so began whenever the chronicler in question chooses to begin counting older than science fiction. When Mary Shelley began Frankenstein in 1814 she and her companions were explicitly trying to write stories in the model of the German ghost stories they had been reading to entertain themselves earlier in the trip. The Castle of Otranto, the widely-acknowledged originator of the Gothic novel, was published in 1764, a half-century previous. Depending on how pedantic you feel like being you can follow the trail of horror and horror-adjacent elements (witches, ghosts, demons, madness, unattainable knowledge, etc) back to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Celtic faerie tales, medieval morality plays…you can trace it all the way back to the Greeks if you so choose. [and I think we both know I would, were I given the opportunity -KH] As for Poe, he didn’t start writing until 20 years after Shelley. He can’t even lay claim to be the first American horror writer; Washington Irving beat him to the punch by a decade with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Certainly Shelley and Poe were early contributors to the modern period of horror, and they are rightfully regarded as integral to the genre, but to label them founders is a stretch.
But it is by no means unreasonable to pin the origins of science fiction firmly onto Frankenstein’s preternaturally broad, corpse-like shoulders. If you feel like doing a fair amount of digging you can probably find some vaguely sci-fi-y stories earlier, predominantly dull-as-dishwater Utopian essays and other unreadable Enlightenment works. But, to my knowledge at least, nothing approaching the popular milieu or carrying the momentum of a coherent literary philosophy. And then up lumbered Frankenstein, a story all about the possibilities and dangers afforded mankind by galvanism, chemistry, and anatomy. Shortly thereafter arrived Poe, telling tales of balloon rides to the moon, scientists feverishly studying the chemical components of apocalyptic comets, and the mind-expanding opportunities presented by hypnosis. Poe’s stories are obviously, inescapably inspirations for Jules Verne; The Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon could not exist without Poe. Verne and H. G. Wells are traditionally tapped as the Fathers of Science Fiction, and without a doubt they popularized the genre, but they are disqualified for the exact same reason that I stripped Shelley and Poe of their title: our linear comprehension of time. Verne was first published in the 1850s, Wells in the 1890s, so Shelley and Poe have the drop on them by several decades. But chronology is just numbers, and numbers are just facts, and facts are boring. Let’s get into why we remember Shelley and Poe as horror masters and not as science fiction innovators.
Science fiction is about human’s reaction to technology. It is no accident that science fiction emerged as a genre in the 19th century, a period of tremendous technological upheaval. Frankenstein takes, at best, a dim view of what can be gained from advances in science and technology, a reaction which we might expect given Shelley’s conflicted Romantic sensibilities. Poe’s science fiction stories, by contrast, posit new technologies as tools to advance human interests; in his mind science is neither to be feared nor worshipped, but used. That utilitarian approach was the standard direction science fiction writers took with their stories in the genre’s awkward and optimistic youth (and again in the Atomic Age of the 1940s and ‘50s). Shelley’s more nuanced take on the pros and cons of new technology put her several decades ahead of the curve, closer to Wells’ Morlocks and islands of animal-men than to Verne’s uncomplicated adventures and fantastical apparati.
The technology to which authors react also changes rapidly. At the time Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein experiments in electricity were new and exciting! It was a barely-understood phenomenon, a bucking bronco of science that humanity was hoping to saddle and harness for the good of mankind. Two centuries later, we have enslaved lightning so thoroughly that many of you are reading this blog post on electronic devices that you carry in your back pocket. Experiments in electricity that were cutting-edge in 1818 are now not even commonplace, but old-fashioned. As technology becomes obsolete, reactions to that technology must of necessity also become obsolete. It is hard for us to recognize Frankenstein as science fiction because, to be trite, the science it is reacting to is no longer fiction. Poe’s science fiction stories have also largely been rendered obsolete by the passage of time, although the larger reason we don’t remember them is that they weren’t very good and he didn’t write very many.
The reason they are still associated with the horror genre, by contrast, is that horror doesn’t change. We still recognize Macbeth as a horror story. If you heard a Roman ghost story you would recognize it as a horror story too. A good horror story in 1818 or 1843 remains a good horror story to this day, and will persist in being a good horror story until every creature which can comprehend both language and fear is dead. Because horror isn’t about what we fear, but that we fear. Fear is eternal; the dark is constant. Shelley and Poe’s recognition of this enduring truth, and their ability to capture and express it to their terrified audience, is what keeps them firmly ensconced in the annals of horror mastery.
I will be expounding on this topic in greater detail in the dramaturgy notes in our programs, so if you would like to learn more about the universal nature of fear (and who wouldn’t) be sure to come to our shows. We open on October 18th with Frankenstein, and will be performing it, A Midnight Dreary, and Dracula from then until the 10th of November. Get your tickets now and come join us!