The Many Looks of Death

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Celebrate the bicentennial of the publication of Frankenstein with two new books that explore death and the continual resonance of Mary Shelley’s story’s.

frankenstein bicentennial

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was first published on January 1, 1818. Christopher Frayling’s new heavily illustrated book, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, details how a ghost story told at a Lake Geneva villa has consistently found purchase on the cultural currents of the past 200 years. As Frayling sees it: “The real creation myth of modern times—the era of genetic engineering, three-parent babies, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and singularity, human/animal interfaces and secularism—is no longer Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden … The real creation myth is Frankenstein.” Frayling makes his case, very convincingly, by scouring the journal entries of those in attendance that fateful night, including poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, and visually documenting how Frankenstein has inspired everything from movies to political cartoons and ads for donuts and vodka.


As Shelley wrote it in her book, Victor Frankenstein created his Monster—not called “Frankenstein”—to challenge the “bounds” of life and death in order to “break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.” But as Frayling points out, there is a good reason why there has always been confusion around the name of this creature created without the “divine spark.” For the first six years after its release, only 459 copies of the book circulated. The story might well have gone the way of most first novels if not for an 1823 theater adaptation at English Opera House, Presumption! Fate of Frankenstein.

Shelley had nothing to do with the production, and by the time she first saw it in London, the play of her story already had rivals and imitators, like Frankenstein, or The Demon of Switzerland and The Man and the Monster. “According to Frayling, “In all Presumption would inspire at least fourteen English and French versions or burlesques within three years of its opening.” And it was at this same time that “Frankenstein” started being applied to the monster and not its creator. As Frayling explains: “Frankenstein was in the process of turning from literature into myth—a parallel text to the novel, within the public realm, which made a different kind of sense and which responded to the anxieties of the moment.”

I was a teenage frankenstein

Frayling’s book contains several never-before-seen images from the earliest productions of this story and wonderful examples of how “The Monster, and the Franken-label, came to be associated in political cartoons with a wide range of perceived social ‘dangers,’” like “The American Frankenstein” portrayed as a walking locomotive that represents the railroad industry and its disregard for “the little people in its way.”

American Railroad

Anxiety about technological change: the monster of the railroad tramples on the rights of the little people in its way, with the cloak of ‘justice’, a cartoon by Frank Bellew entitled The American Frankenstein (c.1874)

O Smith

Sketch by Richard Wynn Keene—later known as the designer Dykwynkyn—of the actor O. Smith as the Monster in the first revival of Presumption! or the Fate of Frankenstein, at the English Opera House, Lyceum, in summer 1828, published here for the first time.

The poster for the first film adaptation in 1910, by The Edison Kinetogram company, featured a man made up looking more like a kabuki actor than a monster. And from there, as page after page of colorful examples make clear, the monsters and iconic scenes are not drawn from the pages of the book, but from other interpretations, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Metropolis and The Golem. As Frayling writes: “Universal’s Frankenstein fused a domesticated form of Expressionism, overacting, an irreverent adaptation of an acknowledged classic, European actors and visualisers—and the American carnival tradition—to create an American genre. It began to look as though Hollywood had actually invented Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll.”

The associations, varied likenesses and abstract concepts of Frankenstein have manifested in myriad appearances on pulp paperback covers and stamps, in Archie comics and New Yorker cartoons, and in countless spoofs, ranging from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Disney’s Frankenweenie to Frankenhooker and Blackenstein. Frayling has amassed all of it not only to tell the origin story of an iconic tale, but to demonstrate how popular culture often cannibalizes itself to yield something not entirely new, but just different enough to seem fresh.

Death: A Graveside Companion

Death: A Graveside Companion, edited by Joanna Ebenstein, published by Thames & Hudson (October 26, 2017); image courtesy Thames & Hudson

The roots of Frankenstein are found in the burgeoning scientific fields of “galavanism” and “vitalism,” which had gripped the collective imagination of the general public at the time. As Frayling points out, Shelley’s book contains very little science; it’s the evocative power of weaving so many theories an
d hypotheses and possibilities into a narrative that provides continual resonance. Behind all the notions of eliciting life from a lifeless object, however, lurks death. As Will Self tells readers in the Foreword of another new book,
Death: A Graveside Companion: “Lives are beads of quicksilver, trapping us in their mirroring surface tension, so that for the most part we can see the world lightly. But the truth is that death—not love—is all around.”

Compiled by Joanna Ebenstein, this book is “an alternative art history” buried in responses and reactions to, wishes and nightmares about what it means to shuffle off this mortal coil. An incredibly informative Timeline of Death accompanies Ebenstein’s Introduction, indicating how humans have dealt with our inevitable ends, from 6000 BCE when Peruvian fishing communities preserved their dead to the advent of embalming in the mid seventeenth century, right up to 2016 and the Capsula Mundi project that offers “biodegradable egg-shaped coffins that convert the body into nutrients for a tree growing above.”

‘Tête de Mort’ - “death’s head” postcard

In the early 20th century, optical illusion postcards such as ‘Tête de Mort’ (or “death’s head”) postcards became a hugely popular novelty. As a vanitas of the era, they imply that death is everywhere; courtesy Richard Harris Collection; photograph © Dan Gottesman

From there, more than 1,000 illustrations reveal how various cultures have coped with, celebrated, feared and embraced death. There are carved Japanese memento mori, Congolese funeral sculptures and photographs of Indonesian death rituals. To be sure, the majority of the examples are from Europe and the New World, but even with all the familiar images of Mexican Day of the Dead artifacts and classical paintings inspired by Biblical stories, this is a singular and comprehensive collection of death’s depiction. Where else can you learn about Cabaret du Neant (Tavern of the Dead), the late-nineteenth century Montmartre death-themed nightclub, with death-themed drinks and coffin tables?

Théâtre du Grand Guignol

Paris’s theatre of horror: In addition to the Cabaret du Néant and L’Enfer, Paris was home to the Théâtre du Grand Guignol, which operated from a former chapel between 1897 and 1962. A forerunner of the slasher movie genre, the Théâtre du Grand Guignol presented a challenging and heady mix of plays, often featuring violence, horror, gore, insanity, and the supernatural. Fainting was rife amongst the audience; within a year of opening, proprietor Max Maurey capitalized on this by hiring a house doctor, thereby attracting more publicity for his theatre. By the 1920s, improvements in lighting and sound facilitated long drawn-out torture scenes—scalpings, disembowelments, strangulations, and burnings. Author Anaïs Nin fondly remembered the Grand Guignol as a place where “all our nightmares of sadism and perversion were played out.” © Collection Mel Gordon

The themed chapters—the moment of death, cadavers, “the material culture of remembrance and mourning,” anthropomorphizing death, skulls and skeletons, “Death as Amusement,” attempts to contact the dead—also include short essays by contributors steeped in such matters. These are nice complements to the riot of imagery, but this book is really a visual reference, with quite descriptive captions.

Guild of Surgeons

Guild of Surgeons: Like other trade guilds in Amsterdam in the 17th century, the Surgeons Guild commissioned paintings of its members and activities, such as The Osteology Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz, 1619, by Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy. © Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam

Frankenstein is about defying death, though the creature’s fate hinges on all the death he causes. It is the intrinsic human desire to escape and challenge death that has allowed the story to be repurposed time and again over the past 200 years. Death: A Graveside Companion serves as a rich and wonderful counterpoint to everything that has originated from Shelley’s original tale about science and the pursuit of making death unnatural, reminding readers that death is “not antithetical to beauty,” and rekindling the “paradoxical notion that it is precisely by keeping death close at hand and coming to terms with its inevitability that we are able to lead full rich lives.

Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years is published by

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