haunted summer

Preparations are already being laid for the 2020 centennial of American women’s suffrage, partly in the form of that year’s already-scheduled first-time appearance of a woman’s face on American paper currency. Preparations have been laid for years for the 30-year anniversary of Back to the Future, partly through a recurrent hoax that goes viral every few months. However, I’ve heard of no preparations for next year’s bicentennial of the “Haunted Summer,” the event that launched upon the world the romantic vampire figure, the modern epic satire, and that foundational text for so much of contemporary horror and science fiction, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Come on, people, we’ve got one year to get ready. We can do this.

As you’ll see, I begin with feminism and fantasy for a reason. The backstory to John William Palidori’s The Vampyre, Lord Byron’s Don Juan, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is almost as fascinating as the books themselves, and has been told, in fictionalized form, in at least two films, Gothic (1986) and Haunted Summer (1988). Actually, the backstory to the backstory is itself rather exceptional. Shelley’s mother, upon writing Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), became the world’s first widely published feminist. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that if women seemed inferior, that was only because of lack of access to education, and though she expanded on this in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, she had precious little time to explain it to her second daughter, whose birth caused a puerperal fever that, ten days later, killed Wollstonecraft in 1797. Mary was named after her dear departed mother – somewhat like “Sybbie” on Downton Abbey.

Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was a notorious philosopher, pioneer of utilitarianism and anarchism (at least in terms of absence of governments) in the 1790s, and writer of perhaps the world’s first mystery novel, Caleb Williams. Godwin took on raising both Mary and Wollstonecraft’s first (and illegitimate) daughter Fanny, though “raising” may not be the right word; despite his admirable insistence on their education, he would leave them in others’ care as often as not. Godwin married a much younger neighbor and acquired a stepdaughter, Claire Clairmont, who was about Mary’s age and would always compete with her. Not least because of disparaging Wollstonecraft after her death, Godwin was disrepute and somewhat destitute by the time of Mary’s maturing, and initially welcomed attention and money from the young successful poet Percy Shelley, but became less enamored of him as Shelley and his daughter fell deeply in love.

When Percy met Mary, he was married to Harriet Westbrook, who, early on, had threatened suicide if Percy would not see him. After months of knowing Mary, Percy accused Harriet of marrying him for his money, and threatened suicide if Mary would not see him. As a writer, Shelley was so radical that publishers often paid him yet refrained to publish the poems for fear of charges of blasphemy or sedition, yet Shelley in turn considered Mary’s stepmother, Godwin’s wife, a “vulgar woman.” In 1814, as the Napoleonic Wars seemed to be winding down, and while Harriet was pregnant with her and Percy’s son, 16-year-old Mary and 21-year-old Percy enacted one of Godwin’s novels and sojourned across France on foot, keeping themselves amused by reading aloud works by Shakespeare, Rousseau, and Mary’s mother. Claire was invited (and came) because she could speak French; Fanny, also in love with Percy, was left behind and devastated. When the three returned to England, Mary was pregnant. Harriet gave birth to one child of Percy’s and Mary had another early in the third trimester – but Mary’s died “of convulsions” within a day. Percy spent more time with Claire. Godwin was furious with all of them, but still demanded more money – under an assumed name so as to avoid scandal. Mary was haunted by visions of her dying baby, only to recover after becoming pregnant again by Percy – and their son William was born in January 1816.

All this is just background to the Haunted Summer of 1816 – or what much of Europe called “the year without a summer,” because of fallout from the Tambora volcano eruption, the largest in the last 10,000 years. Claire, tired of being Percy and Mary’s third wheel, seduced the most famous (and attractive) young poet of the time, Lord Byron himself, who then left England partly because Claire informed him that he’d made her pregnant. Claire turned this lemon into lemonade when she convinced Byron and Shelley to meet each other and rent neighboring houses in Lake Geneva for the summer. Shelley brought Mary and their son; Byron brought his young doctor and former lover, John Palidori.

Just pause the story right there. These five adults of considerable reputation, education, and attractiveness, all under the age of 30. Here sharing two houses for the summer as well as the accumulated wisdom of the Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment and the French Revolution and the long wars that followed. Finding ways to release the pressures of society and love and liberation and the desire to make meaningful lives. We know that during that summer of Claire’s early pregnancy by Byron that Shelley made numerous provisions for that girl in his will (and took over her custody for a time). What exactly happened during this 1816 version of The Real World? We’ll probably never know, but Mary did keep a diary of the period which has been lost. If you’ve got it, come forward before next year’s bicentennial, and we’ll re-enact it!

But the story that has survived so well for 199 years is: perhaps because of the incessant post-volcano rain, perhaps because of the recent, Pyrrhic victories over America and France, and almost certainly because they were reading German ghost stories, one dark night Byron proposed that they “each write a ghost story.” Well, they worked on it for days, although it seems that during one of their two-man boat trips, Shelley convinced Byron to turn his attention more closely to a Spanish hero who was less womanizer and more victim, what would become Byron’s modern Don Juan. Palidori hadn’t had much in the way of writerly aspirations, and perhaps that’s why he wasn’t so encumbered by the “rules” when he went the other way on the seduction angle, turning the mythic vampire figure into a bit of a tragic Don Juan in his The Vampyre.

I pause here to recount a scene from Ed Wood, directed by one of Mary Shelley’s most prolific artistic descendants, Tim Burton. The character of Bela Lugosi, in an Oscar-winning performance by Martin Landau, complains about Boris Karloff getting all the glory: “What does he do? Ehhh. Ehhh. Ehhh. What is that? That’s not acting.” This scene is brilliant partly because Lugosi (as a character) misses the point of the contrast between Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster – of course the Dracula character is permitted to hit a wider variety of notes, but the Frankenstein story resonates on so many more levels.

Asked about how she came up with her masterpiece, Mary Shelley would later write:

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, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

How can we in the 21st century ever get tired of a myth of creation, when we live only to create, or re-create, our own lives? Either in our children, or through more desperate means? And of course, reflecting on the summer of 1816 is to reflect on a certain myth of creation. (In his masterwork The Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale cast the same actress as narrator Mary Shelley – in a brief introductory scene set during the Haunted Summer – as well as the titular character; did those legendary curvy white streaks in her hair somehow symbolize twisted genius?) Mary’s mother would presumably have been proud: her daughter had outwitted the boys at their own game, with a story that – perhaps – only a woman could understand well enough to originate, a story about the creation or re-creation of life itself. Yes, Mary’s title acknowledged Prometheus, but that was an affair of gods; this was a cautionary tale of modern science over-reaching to the point of hubris. If fiction can have any power at all, surely this story has had as much as any, warning us of the power of uncontrolled (or uncontrollable) technology becoming something like a motherless child.

Believe it or not, this statement isn’t over-reaching: that summer, 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley basically created the genres of horror and science fiction. Read that again. It’s true that one looks back to the past returning to destroy us, and one looks to a future that could still save us, but somehow Frankenstein created all that and more. (Previous stories had fantastical elements, but the protagonist of Shelley’s tale distinguished himself by making conscious choices to do what was normally left to God.) It would be an almost Frankensteinian achievement to generate a full list of everything influenced by Shelley’s story, but just this summer, Hollywood rolled out Ex Machina, Avengers Age of Ultron (3x the Frankenstein, if you count the Hulk, Ultron, and the Vision), Jurassic World, and Terminator: Genisys, all of which would have been impossible without Shelley’s achievement. And there’s much more: Isaac Asimov called fear of robots a “Frankenstein complex”; anything assembled of disparate parts is called Franken-something (e.g. Franken-food, Franken-house, the guitar Eddie Van Halen called a “Franken-strat”); some consider the real Frankenstein to be electricity experimenter Benjamin Franklin, who made America out of stitched-together parts; some say the monster is the first zombie; and some have even compared the story to modern race relations and the creation of the “Other” by those who believe themselves to be white.

We don’t really need to re-celebrate Frankenstein per se, because the monster lives in so much of our culture already. What we need to celebrate is that Haunted Summer. We don’t necessarily need to see Gothic or Haunted Summer (and most of us clearly haven’t). Instead, we need to remember that even people who live with some rather outrageous ideas – child abandonment is one – can throw their fears, doubts, and a few modern concepts into a stew-pot and come up with flavors that last for centuries. In fact, Mary Shelley and John William Palidori should comfort you decades after you’re dead – their stories became far more popular in a century they could never have lived to see. (Oddly, all three of those young men – Byron, Shelley, Palidori – died within a decade of that summer, adding a sort of freeze-frame poignancy to their art and beliefs and messages.) Next summer, let’s mark the Haunted Summer by remembering the idea that five people can get together, get creative, and read about, know, and change the world.