This article was written by Sarah Rapacz and edited by Gabrielle Goodleo

It’s no secret that aside from romance, horror is probably one of the most popular modern genres of literature today. But do you know who some of the most famous inventors of modern horror are? Here’s a secret: it’s a woman.

In today’s world, everyone has heard of Frankenstein, a horrifying amalgamation of human parts that terrorizes villages. In common culture, Frankenstein’s only role is to break down doors and make unintelligible noises as he shuffles around causing havoc. However, this portrayal does a disservice to the original conception of the character, who is actually well-read, intelligent, and gentle-hearted. The monster has been thrust into an uncaring world that sees beauty as skin deep. There are many more intricacies lost in adaptation, such as themes surrounding life, death, beauty, hubris, and morality. So although many are familiar with Frankenstein, few know of its roots as a novel, designed by one of the most prolific writers of the era: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 18 years old and she published it later on– in 1818 under the title: The Modern Prometheus. While modern adaptations accurately capture the horror aspects of the work, what they fail to portray is the detail and nuance that makes Frankenstein so unique. Originally, this book was the product of a bet between Shelley, her husband, and their friend Lord Byron; all writers who sought to create the best horror story. Shelley conceived the idea of a scientist and expanded the story out from there. Living in a man’s world, no one ever thought that Shelley’s book would become the cultural behemoth that it is today. Even in her time, when the work was published anonymously, everyone assumed that it was written by her husband, not herself.

Shelley took inspiration from the world around her in the creation of this novel, both from Gothic and Romantic influences; but she also drew on aspects of her own life. Shelley was surrounded by other writers, such as her parents, husband, and his circle of friends, and as a result, she was indoctrinated into the world of literature from a young age and carried this passion throughout her life. There were even times when writing was her only solace in an unforgiving world. Her writing is sometimes reflective of the hardships she faced, such as the deaths of her mother and daughter. These themes become prevalent in her works, which focus on topics of mortality and the inner turmoil of man. Many theorists speculate that Frankenstein’s monster was inspired by Shelley’s loss of her daughter, and that perhaps the monster was just a child lost in a violent world.

Although Frankenstein is Shelley’s most well-known work, she was not a one-hit-wonder. In addition to The Modern Prometheus, Shelley wrote Mathilda, The Last Man, Valperga, Lodore, Falkner, and Perkin Warbeck, to name a few novels. Many of these works featured autobiographical elements, similar to Frankenstein. Shelley incorporated people from her life into these works, creating richer characters and interactions in the process. Additionally, Shelley seemed to have a fascination with science fiction, conjuring up intricate scenarios for her works. Her stories featured everything from massive monsters to interpersonal conflicts, to disease ridden apocalypses. She is truly a pioneer of the science fiction genre, arguably the mother of modern science fiction.

So why does Mary Shelley’s writing work so well? It’s no secret that Frankenstein is the kind of book you either love or hate. There is no in between. Shelley spends half of the story writing complex and winded sentences that never seem to end. The characters, when they aren’t talking about the scenery, spend more time talking about their feelings than Dr. Phil. But it has become popular enough that it is an everlasting icon in science-fiction literature.

Despite being a science fiction novel, there is one thing Shelley does well in the book: she learns to take lessons from the writing around her and use it to express her own story. For instance, Shelley would’ve been largely familiar with the romance literature of the victorian area, especially with her husband, Percy, being a leading founder of the romantic movement at the time. Victorian romance saw nature as a spiritual experience that was open to the viewer any time they wanted to seek spiritual growth. Shelley used the same theory in her own writing. For instance, take a look at this passage from the book:

The weight upon my spirit was sensibly lightened as I plunged yet deeper in the ravine of Arve. The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side, the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence — and I ceased to fear or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements, here displayed in their most terrific guise. (9.13)

In this small paragraph, it’s clear that the mountains are used to express a spiritual experience that would claim romantic literature, but it’s in a science fiction novel. Shelley created vivid worlds of monsters, but she used the theory of ‘write what you know’ when it came to her style of writing and we can do the same.

So how do we do it? Look at the following prompts below and try your hand at studying the art of Mary Shelley. Even consider picking up a copy of Frankenstein and reading through it before taking a stab at the following prompts inspired by the mother of horror.

  1. Prompt Line Starters.

Take one of the lines from Frankenstein below:

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

2.  Nightmares play a big part in the story. Of course, this is part of the reason it is considered horror. Spend some time writing about a character’s recurring nightmare. What is it and how does it affect their daily life?

3. Take some time to describe the nature around you or your character. Is it a spiritual experience or does it drain their energy? How does it affect the scene of the story?

4. If you are familiar with the writing of Frankenstein, rewrite the ending the way you would’ve wanted to end it. Would it be happier?

5. Create several characters who would’ve lived in Frankenstein’s world. What would their journals and letters look like and how would they relate to the book?

I hope you enjoyed this #shewriteshistory based off the famous Mary Shelley, look for more #shewriteshistory in the future!

Did you love Frankenstein or any of Shelley’s other works? Let us know below and remember, Say it with words!


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