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Horror Fiction 101: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley


Horror fiction is a genre with ancient origins and its roots embedded in folk literature. One can usually find supernatural creatures like ghosts or vampires, but also an enchanted castle, a mysterious forest, a haunted house. When talking about the most recent horror fiction, there are stories about psychological horror, where the reader cannot find the difference between what is real and what is not; there are also stories about alien invasions or robots taking over the world. However, to properly talk about horror fiction, one must start at the beginning: Gothic literature.

Horror Fiction 101 will be divided into five different chapters:

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was born in London in 1797. Her parents were Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, who was a journalist and a political philosopher. She was brought up surrounded by highly educated men and women. She married the poet Percy B. Shelley and was friends with Lord Byron, and it was on one of their trips where her masterpiece was born. It was a stormy summer night when Lord Byron suggested a contest between his guests to see who could write the most terrifying story. Neither Percy B. Shelley nor Lord Byron finished their stories, but John Polidori, Byron’s physician, wrote The Vampyre, and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the masterpiece that became one of the most famous horror stories of all time, as well as the first science-fiction novel ever written.

Boris Karloff from "The Bride of Frankenstein" as Frankenstein's monster.

Frankenstein is a novel that offers many elements to comment on and many possible interpretations, from a feminist analysis of the text to a Marxist one. Furthermore, the culturally rich environment that always surrounded Mary Shelley provided her writing with a considerable amount of intertextuality. However, from a Gothic and Horror Fiction perspective, there are a few motifs that present themselves as particularly interesting: a god or a supernatural force that delivers punishment and judgement, and the sublime.

The concept of a higher power that judges and punishes evil is a constant in Gothic fiction. It is very clear in The Castle of Otranto, where the castle rebels against his usurper, as well as in the controversial novel The Monk by M. G. Lewis, where those who fell to temptation are severely punished. In Frankenstein, this concept is first brought up with its very title: Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the titan in charge of creating human beings and therefore acted as their father and protector. In an attempt to improve their living conditions, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the humans. Zeus responded by punishing the humans with Pandora’s Box and sentenced the titan to be chained to a rock for an eagle to eat his liver for all eternity. The connection between Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein lies in several aspects as they both created life, defied a god, and were punished for it; however, there are few key deviations in Victor’s case.