Sunday, May 6, 2012

The origin of Frankenstein -- and the modern vampire too

In the summer of 1816 Mary Godwin (later Shelley) traveled with her soon-to-be-husband Percy Shelley and her step sister Claire Clairmont to a villa in Switzerland to spend a couple of months with world famous poet Lord Byron and his friend Dr. John Polidori.  The idea was that they would spend a great deal of time out and about or on the lake, but the weather had different plans.  One of the strangest weather patterns in history was in place that year causing a great deal of rain and unseasonably cold temperatures.  Some have even called 1816 the year that "summer never came".

Of course in 1816 there was no TV or radio, and travel was only on foot or horse so one had to stay close to home.  This meant that the 5 (plus a small child) young vacationers had to come up with activities in order to avoid boredom.  They spent a great deal of time in conversation with each other debating current issues in all fields.  They also spent a large amount of time reading to each other various books.  At one point they even got there hands on a book of German ghost stories.  It was these stories that would prove fodder for a small piece of history.

The poet Lord Byron came up with the idea of a contest.  They would all write a ghost story to share with each other by the end of the summer.  Mary had a great deal of troubling coming up with the idea for her story.  One night that all changed.  Mary closed her eyes to fall asleep but instead she was greeted by an image of a scientist standing next to a table containing his creation.  She opened her eyes startled, but knowing that she had found her story. 

Over the next 2 years Percy Shelley encouraged and helped her grow the tale and bring it to novel length.  His finger prints can be found in the wording of the book, but based on what he changed it is obvious that he missed her point.  The only portions he adjusted were places where he made the monster less human and more monster-like.

Out of this 2 year labor stemming from a contest we get the book we hold in our hands today.  Amazingly though this isn't the only book (or piece of history) that came out of this contest. 

The famous Lord Byron began work on a vampire story but as far as anyone can see it was never finished.  Its fragment was eventually published at the end of one of his other works.  He did produce other works during this summer though.  Dr. John Polidori on the other hand wrote what may be the most important vampire book of all time in The Vampyre.  In it he creates the image of the modern vampire that has been used by almost all authors since including Bram Stoker.  What you think of when you think Dracula comes from this book.  Percy Shelley did write one of his most significant works during this contest in Hym to Intellectual Beauty.  Like most of his work it didn't receive great reviews.  Claire also wrote a book for this contest but it never found its way to publication. 

I can't find whether they considered Mary as the winner of the contest. I guess in the larger scope of history the answer is obvious. We are reading her book, but have never heard of the other 4 writers.

What we know for certain though is that out of the contest came two of the most important figures in horror writing history in the monster known as Frankenstein and the modern Vampire.

The other thing that came out of this meeting is what is known as the "curse of Frankenstein".  Of the 6 people in the house that summer only Mary and Claire would be alive in just a few short years. 


  1. Interesting. I didn't know it all started with a contest.

  2. I didn't know any of this either. As a writer and book lover, it is always fun discovering these little known facts about the how and why novels came about!

  3. I did remember that her book was born from the contest, but didn't know that Lord Byron helped to create the vampire craze! I love how much research you are doing with these!