Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon
edited by Sidney Perkowitz & Eddy Von Mueller
Pegasus Books, 2018
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein turns a ripe old 200 in 2018, and one of the first of a probable flood of books to commemorate that bicentennial is this volume Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, edited by Sidney Perkowitz and Eddy Von Mueller. The anthology is divided into three unequal parts: Part One is about Shelley's book itself (including Laura Otis' very strong “Frankenstein: Representing the Emotions of Unwanted Creatures”); Part Two concentrates on Frankenstein in the media; Part Three consists of two essays about Frankenstein and science, with the standout piece being “Frankenstein and Synthetic Life: Fiction, Science, and Ethics” by Perkowitz.
The emphasis is clearly on Part Two, telegraphed by the book's cover, which shows the Boris Karloff monster from James Whale's 1931 Universal Studios film adaptation, with iconic makeup by Jack Pierce. In another standout piece, editor Von Mueller's “The Face of the Fiend: Media, Industry, and the Evolving Image of Frankenstein's Monster” begins in a distressingly banal way (“As everyone knows who has ever seen, to their delight or dismay, the cinematic adaptation of a beloved piece of literature, from any author, era, or genre, reading books and watching films are vastly different experiences,” we're informed) but includes a telling point about that visual iconography and the role it played in later iterations of the character: “The fact that the monster had no dialogue to speak of (or to speak), and, in succeeding films, a less complex set of motivations and personality, made moot the question of who was under the makeup,” he writes. “It looked like the Pierce-Karloff creation, and that was sufficient.”
Perkowitz and Von Mueller introduce the book with fairly standard-sounding boilerplate about ongoing contemporary relevance of Mary Shelley's book:
As the subtitle "The Modern Prometheus" suggests, this tale touches the topical ethical dilemmas we confront not only on the ever-advancing frontiers of science but also in philosophy, morality, and myth. Small wonder that a tale conjured by a teenager that rainy night on the shores of Lake Como to send a shiver up her friends' spines still exercises such allure for scientists, scholars, artists, and curious minds the world over.
No true literary classic needs any help from “topical ethical dilemmas” (and no lesser work can be saved by them), of course – Frankenstein certainly doesn't need any help: it survives because of those spine-shivers and its undimmed ability to reach right through its own overheated prose and break the reader's heart every single time.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.