Happy 200th birthday, Frankenstein! Timely tying into this natal anniversary is the publication of In the Shadow of Frankenstein: Tales of the Modern Prometheus edited by Stephen Jones. The anthology, from Pegasus Books, is a revised and updated edition of The Mammoth Book of Frankenstein, initially published in 1994 by Constable & Robinson. The volume contains twenty-four stories, three of which classify as “short novels,” and one poem. A new foreword by Neil Gaiman notes that Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking work was “the cross-breeding of the Gothic and the scientific romance,” and appropriately, the first fiction entry in the compilation is her Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus. Renowned editor Jones follows up with writings that evoke Ms. Shelley’s tale as a creative springboard. All are interesting in their own right but, for the sake of brevity, a few are here singled out for idiosyncratic reasons.
For Amicus Films junkies, there’s Robert Bloch’s eerie “Mannikins of Horror.” Bloch adapted the tale, as well as some of his others, for the screenplay of the horror portmanteau film, Asylum. The studio generally didn’t venture into single-story-feature-length narratives, but did with And Now the Screaming Starts! It was based on the novel Fengriffen by David Case. His novella The Dead End, termed “unjustly neglected” by Stephen Jones, is reprinted in this collection.
Fans of humor infused horror will delight in stories by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, who may best known as the author of yarns used in the movie The Monster Club, and Stephen Volk; writer of the BBC faux documentary Ghostwatch, as well as the critically acclaimed TV series Afterlife. “The Creator” by Chetwynd-Hayes is a hilarious study of a decidedly oddball family. After the death of his grandfather, mad scientist Charlie finds increased motivation to carry out his experiments: “I find difficulty in describing this product which symbolized the marriage between two widely divided trades. Butchery was of course responsible for Grandad’s torso and the goat’s head; while the motor industry must be given credit for the metal arms, the red flashing eyes and the sparking plugs which were embedded on either side of Grandad/goat blended neck.” Charlie’s take on what he has created is a fine example of demented pragmatism: “Charlie, like all true artists, had not thought of his creation in terms of sordid usefulness, because, so far as he could remember Baron Frankenstein’s monster had not been expected to find gainful employment.”
“Celebrity Frankenstein” by Volk is a wild and witty send-up of pop culture, fame, and reality TV. It is told from the point of view of the brain donor in a Frankenstein reality television show. The character’s responses to his subsequent show business success have a certain familiarity. There’s a child dangling incident that mirrors a Michael Jackson act, preceded by a scene which references James Whale’s Frankenstein. The couch jumping antics for which Tom Cruise was skewered are paid homage. Even behavioral traits of O.J. Simpson are facets of the caricature. Low points in the narrator’s showbiz career are punctuated by such nods. Volk also pokes fun at the inevitability of spin-offs, in this case the aptly titled Bride. The winner of that competition is “A conglomerate of cheerleader from Wichita, swimmer from Oregon and pole-dancer from Yale.” This searing satire leaves the reader in stitches.
Readers who may have wondered about having a dalliance with a manufactured partner will likely find “Creature Comforts” by Nancy Kilpatrick and “Last Train” by Guy N. Smith edifying explorations of la petit mort and the big sleep. In Kilpatrick’s tale, a groupie finally into gets into the dressing room of her rock star idol, and he definitely gets into her. In “Last Train” a rural English youth is determined to lose his virginity in London. It turns out to be a gloomier undertaking than he envisioned.
In terms of sheer power and poignancy, it’s hard to beat Lisa Morton’s “Poppi’s Monster” and “A Complete Woman” by Roberta Lannes. Morton peels away the horrific layers of child abuse, looking not just at the abuser and victim, but also at the bystanders who apathetically allow it to continue. A young girl victimized by her pediatrician father finds a semblance of solace through relating to, and fantasizing about, Frankenstein’s creature. This gut-wrenching and heartbreaking story packs a huge emotional wallop.
“A Complete Woman” is also profoundly moving. A venerated writer is offered the opportunity to have her brain transplanted into a younger and healthier body. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, the woman agrees. What she doesn’t know is why the attractive male surgeon is so keen on her having the surgery. The assemblage of body parts don’t yield the doctor’s desired whole. There are some things that defy the intervention of science. Roberta Lannes eloquently expounds on how matters of the heart can prove resistant to medical tampering.
Editor Stephen Jones has selected a stunning array of stories. In the Shadow of Frankenstein: Tales of the Modern Prometheus does Mary Shelley’s legacy proud.