A work of gothic genius hits the 200th anniversary of its genesis this weekend. "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley was a fantastic creation that occurred not in a vacuum, but as part of a cultural force that stormed through the Romantic Era.
While vacationing at Lake Geneva in June of 1816, Mary Shelley, her husband, Percy, and their new friend, Lord Byron, indulged in tales of ghosts and horror. According to legend, Mary claims to have had a vivid dream that provided the inspiration for the gothic classic, "Frankenstein." Shari Zeck, associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University said that it was debatable whether or not the idea really sprung from a dream, but that Mary's inspiration was likely fed by long conversations about life and death with many of the educated thinkers with whom she associated. Also, the horror works of E.T.A. Hoffman were gaining a greater audience at that time and could have been an influence.
"When people think of European Romanticism, they think of flowers and lying in the grass staring at the sky kind of stuff, but there's this whole other side to Romanticism that's really gothic and a precursor to the horror genre. The old idea of the overreach of Man trying to be God in some way, so in that way I think it's not a story that came out of nowhere. The gothic aspects of it were an active cultural element that they were interested in."
Mary Shelley's book was published anonymously in 1818, which was not uncommon for works by women. But given her unusual background of strong intellectualism, Shelley may not have minded, said Zeck. "It may have been a game. The anonymity game, like the 'this came to me in a dream game.'
The book is, after 200 years, still very relevant, said Zeck. "We're asking the same questions today about overreaching science. One of the hot debates in our country now is the use of stem cells and cloning and when does science go too far in playing God."