It was a rainy, gloomy day on Lake Geneva, and a bunch of Romantic poets were stuck in the house with nothing to do. To pass the time, Lord Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. Nineteen-year-old Mary wracked her brain to think of a good one. "I busied myself to think of a story, - a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror -- one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart," Shelley wrote. The story came to her in a dream. It was a vision of a creature brought into the world by human hands, of life without birth. It would be a story of all that could go wrong when men try to play God. She awoke and began to write the world's first modern horror novel - Frankenstein.
Let's get a few things straight. First of all, in Shelley's book, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster he creates. Second, Shelley's monster does not have a greenish-gray blocky head, or that weird pin thing stuck in his neck. Those details came from the hundreds of movie versions that have been made of Frankenstein in the last century. Most important, the monster of Shelley's book does not rise from the laboratory table all raging and bloodthirsty. Shelley's monster is a tragic figure. He has been created, but has no mother. He has been brought into a world that doesn't want him. He wants to feel love and acceptance. It is only when he is rejected that he turns against the world that made him.
Frankenstein was published anonymously on New Year's Day, 1818. It was a phenomenal success. Everyone assumed a man wrote it - how could a woman conceive of such a gruesome tale? Frankenstein was hit because it was a thrilling page-turner, yes. But it was also completely timely, a book that tapped the right fears at the right time. The Romantic era was approaching its close. Ahead lay the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The Romantics were fascinated by science and technology, but they also feared its consequences (much in the way we worry about cloning and nuclear weapons today). Frankenstein brought those fears into chilling relief.