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.

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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