10 Surprising Facts About Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Theodore Von Holst (1810-1844) - Tate Britain. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Theodore Von Holst (1810-1844) - Tate Britain. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Frankenstein, the story of a mad scientist who brings the dead back to life, only to discover that he has created a monster, continues to be one of our lasting horror stories. Here are the nuts and bolts about the 200-year-old tale that forever touched on our fears about what can go wrong when people play God.

1. FRANKENSTEIN WAS WRITTEN BY A TEENAGER.

Mary Shelley’s teenage years were eventful, to say the least. At age 16, she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next two years, she gave birth to two children. In 1816, the couple traveled to Switzerland and visited Lord Byron at Villa Diodati. While there, 18-year-old Mary started Frankenstein. It was published in 1818, when she was 20 years old.

2. THE NOVEL CAME OUT OF A GHOST STORY COMPETITION.


F.G. Gainsford, Wikimedia Commons

The Shelleys visited Switzerland during the “year without a summer.” The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia had caused severe climate abnormalities and a lot of rain. Stuck inside, the group read ghost stories from the book Fantasmagoriana. It was then that Lord Byron proposed that they have a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story: Byron, Mary, Percy, or the physician John Polidori.

In the end, of course, Mary won the contest. Neither Byron nor Percy finished a ghost story, although Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which later influenced Bram Stoker while writing Dracula.

3. MARY SAID SHE GOT THE IDEA FROM A DREAM.

At first, Mary had writer’s block, unable to come up with a good idea for a ghost story. Then she had a waking dream—“I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think,” she said. In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein [PDF], she described the vision as follows:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. … He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”

Mary opened her eyes and realized she’d found her story. “What terrified me will terrify others,” she thought. She began working on it the next day.

4. SHELLEY WROTE FRANKENSTEIN IN THE SHADOW OF TRAGEDY.


Richard Rothwell, Wikimedia Commons

Before she started Frankenstein, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Clara, who died six weeks later. (In fact, only one of Mary’s four children lived to adulthood.) Soon after the baby died, she wrote in her journal, “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” This circumstance, as well as the suicide of her half-sister, must have contributed to the novel.

5. FRANKENSTEIN WAS THE NAME OF THE SCIENTIST, NOT THE MONSTER.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is the scientist. The monster remains unnamed and is referred to as "monster," “creature,” "demon," and "it.” But if you’ve made the mistake of calling the monster Frankenstein, you’re not alone. Everyone from The Reef novelist Edith Wharton to the writers of the movie Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has done it.

6. THE NOVEL SHARES ITS NAME WITH A CASTLE.


Pascal Rehfeldt, Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mary said she made up the name "Frankenstein." However, Frankenstein is a German name that means Stone of the Franks. What’s more, historian Radu Florescu claimed that the Shelleys visited Castle Frankenstein on a journey up the Rhine River. While there, they must have learned about an unbalanced alchemist named Konrad Dippel, who used to live in the castle. He was trying to create an elixir, called Dippel's Oil, which would make people live for over a hundred years. Like Victor Frankenstein, Dippel was rumored to dig up graves and experiment on the bodies.

7. MANY THOUGHT PERCY SHELLEY WROTE THE WORK.

Frankenstein was first published anonymously. It was dedicated to William Godwin, Mary’s father, and Percy Shelley wrote the preface. Because of these connections, many assumed that Percy Shelley was the author. This myth continued even after Frankenstein was reprinted in Mary’s name. In fact, some people are still arguing that Percy authored the book. While he edited the book and encouraged Mary to expand the story into a novel, actual authorship is a stretch.

8. THE BOOK WAS ORIGINALLY SLAMMED BY CRITICS.

The title page of the original edition of Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Frankenstein came out in 1818, many critics bashed it. “What a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work presents,” John Crocker, of the Quarterly Review, wrote. But gothic novels were all the rage, and Frankenstein soon gained readers. In 1823, a play titled "Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein" cemented the story’s popularity. In 1831, a new version of the book was published, this time under Mary’s name.

9. FRANKENSTEIN WAS CONSIDERED THE FIRST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL.

In penning her gothic novel, Shelley was writing the first major science fiction novel, as well as inventing the concept of the “mad scientist” and helping establish what would become horror fiction. The influence of the book in popular culture is so huge that the term “Frankenstein” has entered common speech to mean something unnatural and horrendous.

Mary went on to write other science fiction, such as her 1826 short story Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman, about a man who has been frozen in ice, and her novel The Last Man, about a survivor in a world destroyed by plague, from the same year.

10. THOMAS EDISON ADAPTED THE STORY FOR FILM.

In 1910, Thomas Edison made a one-reel, 15-minute film of Frankenstein, one of the first horror movies ever made. It was thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1950s. Watch it above.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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