Way back on the first of January, 1818, a slim, but riveting novel about a mad scientist and his monstrous creation was released to the public. It was called Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and is thought by many to be the first true science fiction novel. By 1823, Mary Wolstencraft Shelley was finally credited as the author, earning her lasting fame and an endless stream of imitators.
Victor Frankenstein and his monster have been adapted into film and television almost as many times as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, iconic cinematic characters that keep Halloween stores stocked and profitable, and Gothic horror fans like me always hunting for more. In honor of Shelley’s contribution to Gothic literature, which turns 200 this year, I decided to look at a remarkable reinvention of the same story: This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee.
This Monstrous Thing imagines an alternate 19th century Geneva in which citizens with missing or malfunctioning limbs and organs can have them replaced with clockwork parts. The specialized mechanics who do this are called Shadow Boys, and both are treated with scorn and suspicion by the “real” humans. One of the Shadow Boys, Alasdair Finch, goes one step further and brings his brother, Oliver, back to life. Unfortunately for them both, their friend Mary decides to write a book about their exploits. A book which she passes off as fiction and publishes anonymously, but it still creates a near-revolutionary stir once the clockwork people, Shadow Boys, and their detractors read it.
The idea that Frankenstein is a true story is not necessarily a new one, but this is the first I’ve seen that includes Mary Shelley as an actual character. It would have been easy to give her the role of a dispassionate observer, writing down what she sees and building a sensationalized world out of the pieces. Lee’s vision of Mary is a bold, rebellious young woman who craves adventure almost to the point of recklessness, and gets more than she bargained for with the Shadow Boys.
Alasdair is the main narrator. We hear the story through the veil of his guilt over what his brother has become, his conflicted emotions about Mary, and his sense of betrayal once Oliver starts to behave more and more like a monster. The crux of the story comes when the other clockworks use Frankenstein as a rallying point, but you’ll have to read it yourself to find out what happens in the end.
Check out This Monstrous Thing at your local Chesapeake Public Library here.
Or, go back and read Mary Shelley’s original classic here.