I’ve mentioned before, most recently here, that I had subscribed to the Easton Press Horror Classics. This series allowed me to read a good number of works that I’d not read before (but that every horror aficionado should read). But it also allowed me the opportunity to replace some dog-eared paperbacks with better looking books and, much more importantly, to reread some classics that I’d last perused in high school.
Our first subject today is Frankenstein. Talk about a seminal work. Mary Shelley‘s little ghost story written for a challenge in which she was very much the junior writer among the participating trio not only established her as the most famous of the three (I challenge even the readers of this august blog to name a work by Bryce Shelley or even by Lord Byron without Googling it–and they were much more famous than 18-year-old Mary before the publication of Frankenstein).
A blow-by-blow is unnecessary, of course, as everyone knows the story (mostly from watching the numerous film adaptations), but suffice to say that, if you haven’t reread this recently (or have–shame, shame!–only seen the films) I highly recommend it. This isn’t a book about a guy who builds a monster; it’s a tale of suffering and penance and retribution, and ultimately about justice. It’s more of a sad tale than a frightening one, and the structure, another thing that falls into the cracks of memory, is interesting, couched as it is in epistolary format.
Of course, this one isn’t really a horror book; it’s the very first real science fiction novel. It explains its creature via science that still makes a certain amount of sense today, as opposed to the handwavery that was so common back then and still is today. Even more than the pathos of the creature, that is what I like most about this book.
There’s a reason the book is a classic, and it has little to do with what makes the film a classic – they are very different experiences.
The second novel I reread was Gaston Leroux‘s The Phantom of the Opera, a book that became much more interesting to me once I realized that Leroux, far from being a horror writer, was actually a writer of detective fiction.
Read back-to-back with Frankenstein, the overarching impression is that the plot is much more important in the Leroux than in the Shelley. There is little insight into the mind of the Phantom (or the other protagonists, really) other than through his actions. The upshot, of course, is that watching any of the film adaptations, or even (shudder) the Lloyd Weber musical* gives one a reasonable approximation of what the book feels like.
This one is basically a crime novel with a horror element, and it reads that way. And that may also be what made it so popular in the first place.
Perhaps the main takeaway from these readings is that the eternal discussion about whether a focus on plot or character make a book “better” are pretty much moot and a waste of everyone’s time. Only the passing of the years can establish a book as a classic, and these two are basically opposite in their approach to that equation (Frankenstein drags a bit while deep thoughts are expressed, The Phantom races along) and yet both have become parts of the popular consciousness by way of literary acceptance.
Just about the only thing they have in common is a memorable and menacing, yet somewhat pathetic monster as the antagonist… perhaps that’s the trick.
*Honesty compels me to admit that, while musicals in general (except for the comedies from the London stage of the twenties and thirties) should be punishable by death, The Phantom is actually bearable. One of the few that can say that.