Mary Shelley’s abominable creature in Frankenstein has evolved over two centuries, essentially transforming into the patron saint of October’s macabre holiday. But who (or what) pops into your head when you read the name “Frankenstein”? Frankenstein’s monster or Dr. Frankenstein himself? Boris Karloff or Gene Wilder? Do you empathize with the image, or do you shudder? Or, perhaps, the words “It’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!” simply reverberate in your head.
We chatted with Stephen Jones, a London-based writer renowned for his expansive work editing horror anthologies, about his latest book celebrating the iconic monster. In the Shadow of Frankenstein: Tales of the Modern Prometheus collects two dozen works of short fiction demonstrating the immortal influence of Mary Shelley’s novel from 1818.
Horror vs. Tragedy vs. Science Fiction
“I think [Frankenstein] is often misperceived as a ‘horror’ story,” Jones says in a phone interview with Paste. “Although there are plenty of horrific elements—from its central premise that science can raise the dead to the fate that awaits many of its characters—it is at heart a tragedy. Many people don’t realize that the story is named after the creator, not his creation. It is really his story, his journey, not the Creature’s . . .”
But Jones recognizes that the “tragedy of the misbegotten Creature” often has the most significant impact on audiences. “It probably resonates with people due to Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal of the Monster in the 1931 movie. Karloff—a more talented actor than most people gave him credit for—brought great pathos to the role and basically created the template interpretation that others have followed ever since.”
That a certifiable authority of frights labels Frankenstein a tragedy may surprise you; Jones edits the award-winning series Best New Horror and published Horrorology: Lexicon of Fear last year. But he believes that his most important task as an editor is to transcend the bounds of a central theme or genre. So whereas you have your own preconceived ideas about Frankenstein, the monsters roaming the pages of In the Shadow of Frankenstein will seed some refreshed and poignant nightmares for you.
And even if you consider Dr. Frankenstein’s creation to be the king of monsters, he also proves to be the most unique. Vampires are sexy, zombies are thrilling and ghosts are good for jump-scares. But Frankenstein’s monster fosters a more cerebral dread. Sure, there is shock at the creature’s grotesquery; there is terror in imagining an inherently unpredictable hulk stalking the streets. But he’s also the child of mad science, and that’s chilling in its own right.
“[Frankenstein] is a story of ‘science gone wrong.’” Jones says. “Brian W. Aldiss has called it the first great science fiction novel, and I basically agree with that. It is the story of a man who thought he was a god and could create life. And that hubris not only leads to his downfall, but also [to the downfall of] those around him.”
What’s particularly rewarding about In the Shadow of Frankenstein is that it augments existing interpretations of Shelley’s seminal monster novel. Jones says that Frankenstein merely serves as a jumping-off point, and each short story’s author takes basic themes in unexpected directions.
“The [original] story is about the rise and fall of Frankenstein, who comes to regret all that he has done,” Jones explains. “However, Shelley’s tale has never appealed to me on any kind of visceral level—it’s not that kind of work. It is literally a journey—both figuratively and geographically—that its two main protagonists undertake.”
“I was looking for wildly differing interpretations of the Creature and its offspring over the decades,” Jones says. “As a result, [In the Shadow of Frankenstein has] pulp adventures, literary interpretations, science fiction and horror—even the occasional comedic incarnation.”
Jones’ aim, above all, is to convey the lasting influence Shelley’s story has exerted since it was published two centuries ago. “That is one of the great strengths of Mary Shelley’s creation: it can be reinterpreted in so many different mediums by so many different people. No matter what your idea of Frankenstein might be, you should be able to find some stories in this anthology that will resonate with your own concept of the story.”