What do you get the monster who has everything?
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s genre-creating gothic horror novel, turns 202 in January. While it may not be a landmark birthday, at that age, every year of continued relevance is worth celebrating.
And we do continue to celebrate. The fingerprints of Victor Frankenstein and his monster are all over our popular culture (raise your hands, Penny Dreadful fans) and our collective consciousness. Even The Royal Ballet has taken a stab at adapting this urtext of modern technological anxiety.
After two centuries of adaptations and riffs, though, what’s left to discover in Shelley’s enduring classic? As it turns out, quite a bit, judging by these diverse, modern takes on our beloved creature feature.
Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Far from any sort of retelling, Saadawi takes the trappings of Frankenstein to illustrate the grim reality of U.S.-occupied Baghdad after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The narrative starts with Hadi, a local junk man, who takes up a rather macabre hobby. In a city plagued by warfare and suicide bombs, body parts litter the streets; Hadi stitches together these disparate parts into a single corpse, so that they might be buried properly. But a supernatural turn of events animates the corpse, now hellbent on vengeance. Instead of putting souls at peace, Hadi inadvertently has created one more thing to fear.
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, Kiersten White
In this tense, deliciously dark, and defiantly feminist YA novel, the original story of Frankenstein is still here, but the perspective is flipped. We see the course of events through the eyes of Elizabeth Lavenza, plucked out of a hardscrabble life of poverty to be a companion to the young, haughty, and enigmatic Victor Frankenstein. Their bond is deep, complex, and (to the reader, at least) troubling. When Victor leaves the family for years to pursue his unusual studies, Elizabeth strikes out after him and discovers where his monstrous appetites have taken him.
Victor LaValle’s Destroyer, Victor LaValle
Shelley’s novel captured anxieties of her time (and some unpleasantries of her own life). In this inventive graphic novel, LaValle both continues and reinvents the story to track with our age. The main character here is Dr. Josephine Baker, the last living descendant of Victor Frankenstein. When she loses her young son Akai to a police shooting, she frantically tries to dig up the Frankenstein family’s dark secrets to bring her boy back to life. Complicating events is the reappearance of Frankenstein’s original monster, reintroduced to society and determined to wipe out the last vestige of his creator.
This Monstrous Thing, Mackenzi Lee
Steampunk Frankenstein origin story? Steampunk Frankenstein origin story. Set in early 19th-century Geneva, This Monstrous Thing finds teen Alasdair Finch reeling from the tragic loss of his brother Oliver. Racked with grief and guilt, Alasdair, a talented mechanic, enlists the help of his friend Mary to bring back his brother in the form of one of Geneva’s reviled clockwork men. The results are … not pretty. Fast forward two years: a new book called Frankenstein sparks a manhunt that backs Alasdair even further into a corner.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss
One of my favorite parts of Goss’s feminist take on a smattering of gothic literature is when the young ladies at the heart of the novel try to discern which of their “fathers” is the worst. It’s a tough competition as the characters who populate this book include Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and, of course, Justine Frankenstein. While this crew of wronged women investigates the misdeeds of a fraternity of mad (male) scientists, their quest intersects with both Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. It’s a daring amalgamation of thriller and horror classics, but the scariest elements relate to ethics of gender and class.
Pride and Prometheus, John Kessel
Didn’t expect Jane Austen ever to make an appearance on this horror blog, did you? (It shouldn’t be a surprise: what’s more frightening than Mrs. Bennet?) It’s somewhat difficult to fathom that Shelley’s Frankenstein and Austen’s Pride & Prejudice were contemporary novels. But that timing is key to Kessel’s intriguing, melancholic premise: what if prim, self-righteous Mary Bennet met and fell for the erratic troublemaker Victor Frankenstein? Mary is pursuing a passion for fossils and fretting about spinsterhood; Victor is avoiding his promise to create a companion for his creature. Their cursed interaction unfolds in rotating points of view and yields a story far more somber than romantic.