Thoughts on “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often thought to be a cautionary tale about taking science too far. Yet, there are practically no details of how the monster was created like I might expect to find in a modern work of science fiction. We see Frankenstein collecting body parts (described pretty much just that vaguely), and his emotional reactions to that task. What Frankenstein creates and how he creates it aren’t the main shock value of the story at all. No dead bodies are stuffed with bolts and manually cranked up on a platform by a hunchbacked assistant during a lightning storm. Instead, the cautionary tale seems to have a much more human, rather than technical, implication.

While H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Crichton, and more recent authors and movie producers tend to emphasize a theme of “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” that lesson never made sense to me when applied to real science or other things in life. Particularly when I live in a culture that praises concepts like “you can do anything you put your mind to,” “knowledge is power,” and “the sky’s the limit.”

In Shelley’s novel, knowledge is a vice. Or, rather, knowing enough to mess around with something but failing to plan or take responsibility for the unexpected consequences is a vice. It seems that Frankenstein’s utter lack of understanding as to what exactly he had created and how he might deal justly with his creation are what made the story so tragic. If he had known more, if he had explored further and come to understand more fully his creation from the beginning instead of letting it wander away and hoping it would go extinct, it might never have become a monster at all. Nor appeared as one to its creator, whatever “deformities” it possessed. Frankenstein turned away from his thirst for knowledge and understanding too soon. Or, perhaps, he had already turned away from a true and honest pursuit of understanding in favor of his own glory or “ambition” long before his creation came to be.

That probably isn’t what Shelley meant. She lived closer to a time when it was thought some things were not meant to be explored or explained by human minds, though this usually held supernatural connotations as well. And that brings me to the broader and rather powerful lesson that I believe Frankenstein actually presents. It’s about taking anything too far. Frankenstein’s ambition or self-glorification in trying to bring back the dead wasn’t so much “playing God” in the sense of trying to unlock the mysteries of Creation, or explore something interesting that no one has explored before, or gaining mortal power over death. It was, rather, a sort of self-idolatry.

Frankenstein’s thirst for knowledge was not his fatal flaw, then, I would argue. The fatal mistake was elevating his ambitions above and at the expense of things that really, primally mattered: his integrity, his health, his joy, his family, and all loving relationships with other human beings. The monster’s appearance in this story is nebulously described in value-based terms: “hideous,” “uncouth,” “miserable wretch,” etc. That creature is therefore a symbol of human negligence. The consequence, without any sort of intervening Christ figure in the story to restore Frankenstein and all who would be afflicted forever by this one mistake the man could not recompense on his own, whatever his efforts to do so, is that this particular monster born of self-glorification would rob that man of all he held dear. It would leave him miserable, alone, and psychologically damned like unto the monster itself. (Frankenstein’s monster did compare himself to Satan numerous times, so this seems a fitting metaphor).

I loved the milieu descriptions, the characters; and the fact that the character Frankenstein came from a warm, loving, functional family rather than a broken home life (another part of what made the story tragic). Some of the descriptions, particularly of people’s life stories, have that old-fashioned pacing that I find a bit cumbersome (I’m not cut out to enjoy Classics, apparently). But the relationship tension is riveting. The mounting twists of horror are heart-wrenching. Super depressing book, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

I recommend the audio version narrated by Dan Stevens, which you can find here on Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/Classics/Frankenstein-Audiobook/B00FQRCM9O.

Recommended Read: “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury

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Back in May, I fell in love with an audio book about two young boys whose lives change forever when a circus with an enticing and terrifying secret comes to their town. It is easily one of my favorite creepy stories, one which I’m delighted to share my thoughts on today.

Ray Bradbury is an amazing storyteller. His imagery and his ability to evoke mood are haunting and wonderful. His way with words is a treat in itself. Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of Evil, in all its subtle creep, seeking the destruction of the most fundamental part of our humanity, that which gives our lives meaning–our relationships–with a candy apple smile and tantalizing false promises to satisfy our lusts and desires while preying on human misery. With it’s beautiful nuggets of wisdom about love, life, family, friendship, time, and the battle of good vs. evil, this story is as powerful and allegorical as it is imaginative.

This is a great story!

This is a great author.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from this book:

“The train skimmed on softly, slithering, black pennants fluttering, black confetti lost on its own sick-sweet candy wind, down the hill, with the boys pursuing, the air so cold they ate ice cream with each breath.”

“Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it. Why speak of time when you are Time, and shape the universal moments, as they pass, into warmth and action? How men envy and often hate these warm clocks, these wives, who know they will live forever.”

“Why love the woman who is your wife? Her nose breathes in the air of a world that I know; therefore I love that nose. Her ears hear music I might sing half the night through; therefore I love her ears. Her eyes delight in seasons of the land; and so I love those eyes. Her tongue knows quince, peach, chokeberry, mint and lime; I love to hear it speaking. Because her flesh knows heat, cold, affliction, I know fire, snow, and pain. Shared and once again shared experience.”
*Love is rooted in empathy.

“And men do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells…. Oh, it would be lovely if you could just be fine, act fine… But it’s hard, right? With the last piece of lemon cake waiting in the icebox, middle of the night, not yours, but you lie awake in a hot sweat for it, eh?… Add up all the rivers never swum in, cakes never eaten, and by the time you get my age, Will, it’s a lot missed out on… So, minute by minute, hour by hour, a lifetime, it never ends, never stops, you got the choice this second, now this next, and the next after that, be good, be bad, that’s what the clock ticks, that’s what it says in the ticks… But then, through plain dumb cowardice, I guess, maybe you hold off from too much, wait, play it safe…. Too late, I found you can’t wait to become perfect, you got to go out and fall down and get up with everybody else.”
*A complicated one, but I love how it depicts sin as springing from the simple dread that we might be missing out on something, so we cheat others to get what we want now and, in the process, cheat ourselves. On the other end of the spectrum is a sense of lost time because we didn’t try worthwhile things, avoiding the risk of failure.

“[Y]ou take a man half-bad and a woman half-bad and put their two good halves together and you got one human all good to share between.”

“He felt the vague pain in his chest. If I run, he thought, what will happen? Is Death important? No. Everything that happens before Death is what counts. And we’ve done fine tonight. Even Death can’t spoil it.”

The Audible edition narrator, Christian Rummel, was absolutely fabulous. He did a great job voicing the various characters, and he brought out the mood of the book exceptionally well.

You can check out the Audible edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes here: http://www.audible.com/pd/Classics/Something-Wicked-This-Way-Comes-Audiobook/B00KQBMIBW

Or the Kindle and print editions on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Something-Wicked-This-Comes-Greentown-ebook/dp/B00C2C637I.

Recommended Read: “Rabid” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

With the Halloween season just around the corner, I thought it would be fun in the coming weeks to highlight some of my favorite creepy books. Today’s offering is a thrilling non-fiction about rabid puppies…

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Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Disease by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy is a fascinating book. It takes a look at everything from mankind’s epidemiological interactions with other animals throughout history, especially domesticated animals, and most especially dogs. To the symptoms and molecular mechanics of rabies. To the way the disease conceptually strikes at our primal fears, and its likely contribution to legends and literature since the dawn of civilization.

Are you pondering books to read and movies to watch with zombies, vampires, or werewolves during the spooky season? In large part, you can probably thank rabies for the rise of these legendary monsters by the way it turns its victims into slathering, hydrophobic, bite-happy conduits for its propagation. These and other aspects of its malignancy have contributed to shaping some of our deepest-seated cultural fears about disease and the broader unknown.

Being a horror author myself, I’m fascinated about why some things scare us, not just how. What I love about this book is that it gives serious consideration to the cultural impact of one very nasty disease. This includes everything from the ancient Greek myth of Lycaeon (where the term lycanthropic comes from), to the Bible’s generally negative symbolization of dogs, to modern day classics like I Am Legend, Night of the Living Dead, and Dracula. The disease even makes distinct appearances in modern literary works such as To Kill a Mockingbird, and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

My thoughts? Humans are highly sophisticated social creatures. Our deep social connectivity allowed us to evolve bigger brains, language, and a complex moral compass. At the heart of all things rabies is the very real horror of seeing either an affectionate and trusting pet or an intelligent human being–a loved one–reduced to an utterly mechanical or animalistic state of mind that can turn violent against us. While rare on the street and easy enough to vaccinate against today, the disease’s effects can be so utterly dehumanizing that it subverts the very foundation of our relationships. How do we deal with a raging pet that wants to bite us and likewise turn us into a raging mess of an animal? How do we eradicate such a disease or keep it under control? Rabies scares us because it throws some of the core aspects of our identity as an intelligent, rational, spiritual, and socially cooperative species into chaos.

If you’re interested in learning more about the fascinating and terrifying thing that is rabies, with an in-depth look at both the science and cultural impact throughout history, I highly recommend this book. I listened to the Audible version and enjoyed the narration by Johnny Heller.

You can find this book here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Rabid-Cultural-History-Worlds-Diabolical-ebook/dp/B0072NWKG0

Or here on Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/History/Rabid-Audiobook/B008K4B6JC

Thoughts on Reading “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

Audible and iTunes have made listening to recorded books affordable and fun the past six months or so as I’ve taken advantage of these digital services. I’ve also been using a Mac program called GhostReader Plus to convert the DRM-free stock of my Kindle collection to audio. This allows me to return reads while I’m at work performing quality control audits on rolls of microfilm and such (I’ve been working for Ancestry.com as an archival digitization specialist for a little shy of a year now). When I’m finished with a story, I go to Amazon and Goodreads (sometimes Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Audible, etc.) to write reviews for fellow authors.

I consider myself an aural learner, so listening to books works well for me. I have a hard time making myself sit down to read “for fun.” Thus I find I’m more likely to focus and finish if someone, or technology, is reading to me. I enjoy hearing a narrator’s interpretation of the text. I also love the timbres and rhythms of spoken word in much the same way I enjoy listening to music.

There are some books I’ve read/listened to lately that I really like. While I’ve focused mostly on reviews for authors I know or share an acquaintance with on my blog, I’d like to branch out content-wise and simply share what I like about a handful of other stories and what I’ve gleaned from them.

Today I’m going to start with Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Lord of the Flies

I think I was ten years old when I first tried to read this book. I’m not sure why this book was presented to me at that age–the subject matter is dark and disturbing enough on an adult level I probably wouldn’t think to recommend it to children myself. None of the characters in this story demonstrates particularly noble desires or qualities (except maybe Simon). I’d neither want to be any of the protagonists nor be friends with any of them (a storytelling quality that would have been essential to my childhood and teenage pallets). This is very much an adult horror story. But hey! *Shrug*

I remembered bits and pieces of the characters and events from the first time I read this. As a kid, I considered the story confusing, dense, and…well, I think I bounced around to get the main scenes but didn’t actually read the whole thing (though I may have written a school report on it ;-). I decided to go back and read/listen to this book again last week. I’ve made frequent enough references to Lord of the Flies in conversations lately that I wanted to solidify my understanding beyond the mere gist of what I thought the story was about.

Coming to this story with an adult perspective, I enjoy it immensely. The milieu descriptions are exceedingly dense, but the distillation of what I like to think of as the “natural man” (Mosiah 3: 19) is harrowing and insightfully executed. Golding explained in the reading of his story that part of his goal was to show the natural rise and fall of societies. Others have suggested this story describes the male psyche and social behavior in particular. It met my expectations on both fronts (though I can only comment on the male psyche as an outside observer with immense esteem for and curiosity about the mind, behaviors, and inclinations of the opposite sex from myself).

I felt this story gave persuasive and meaningful perspective to the concept of “savage” vs. “civilized.” Humans are not nice to each other. Boys are not nice to each other. (Girls aren’t nice to each other either, but it tends to manifest less in physical confrontations and more in subtler forms of manipulation). It’s natural to be impatient with someone or leave someone behind who may have physical or emotional challenges. That individual might weird us out (are they dangerous?), or they may not be able to contribute to the group the way others can and it becomes difficult to decide what’s fair.

We’re attracted to health and beauty and repulsed by their opposites.

It’s natural to be angry, jealous, or wounded when we’re taken advantage of, abandoned, lost, rejected, deposed, shamed, punished, etc. It’s natural to conform to the group under the duress of pain, terrorism, self-preservation, or even the loneliness of exile. Society tends to settle toward tyranny over anarchy because, even if circumstances are unpleasant, humans prefer some sense of social stability and unity over the chaos of every-man-for-himself.

“Natural” does not mean “good” (or “bad,” per say). Rather, it is a state of feeling, of being, of inclination. We have to choose to reach beyond our fears, wounds, and appetites to defend, nurture, understand, and edify each other. Otherwise we could fall into great evil as we become swept up in social machines. This is the great challenge we face as highly sophisticated social creatures who are capable of moral thought. Lord of the Flies narrates how and why the human condition can go so horribly wrong–due to the sheer inclinations of humanity itself.

I think this is an extremely powerful and fascinating story that describes the dark side of human nature, and I’m glad I took the time to read it anew.

What are your thoughts on Lord of the Flies and the human condition? Feel free to share briefly in the comments.

For any interested persons, you can find the Lord of the Flies audiobook on Audible here:
http://www.audible.com/pd/Classics/Lord-of-the-Flies-Audiobook/B002V8KNLK

Or the Kindle edition here:
http://www.amazon.com/Lord-Flies-Perigee-William-Golding-ebook/dp/B000OCXIRG