Horror Author Aria Cain

Aria Cain Meets Frankenstein

Gothic author Mary Shelley

I first encountered Mary Shelley and her modern Prometheus on a childhood Saturday morning. My mother left the television on, and Saturday cartoons segued to black and white slapstick. As I watched from the sofa, two men—one tall and lean, the other short and stout—fled a shambling half-man, half-creature. I didn’t understand Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but I found the monster fascinating. Years later, I realized that this was my informal introduction to horror. The encounter also introduced me to Mary Shelley, a ground-breaking writer of science fiction and horror who also embraced both anarchist and gender politics.

Early Life

Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1797, Mary grew up influenced by the political leanings of her philosopher father William Godwin. Her mother, philosopher and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, died soon after young Mary’s birth. This was not the last time tragedy would strike during the author’s life.

At 16, Mary began a relationship with married author and Godwin follower Percy Bysshe Shelley. The pair would meet in secret at her mother grave in the churchyard of St. Pancras Old Church. In 1814 they eloped to France, taking along taking Mary’s stepsister, Claire. Mary eventually fell pregnant, although the baby died soon after birth. Haunted by visions of her lost baby, she was relieved to give birth to a son nicknamed “Willmouse” in early 1816.

A few months later, Mary, Percy, Willmouse, and a pregnant Claire travelled to Switzerland to spend the summer with Lord Byron—poet and father to Claire’s unborn child. Late night conversations among the host and visitors often turned to Germanic ghost tales. Unable to offer her own, Mary’s thougths turned to the philosophical and the nature of life. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated,” Mary later wrote, “galvanism had given token of such things.” The idea sparked her imagination, and she wrote a short story that would become Frankenstein. With Percy’s encouragement, the story expanded into a novel over the coming year.

The family returned to England in late 1816. Only a month later, Mary received a letter from half-sister Fanny Imlay detailing her unhappy life. Within the week, Fanny was found dead of a laudanum overdose. In December, Percy’s wife, Harriet, drowned in the Serpentine, a London park lake. His wife now deceased, Percy married Mary to better his case for assuming custody of his two children by Harriet.

Later Life

In 1817, Claire give birth to a baby girl, and Mary gave birth to a daughter, Clara. Throughout this time, Mary worked to finish her first edition of Frankenstein, which published anonymously that summer. Often considered one of the first science fiction novels, the work proved a minor hit. To escape creditors, the couple, Claire, and their children fled to Italy. Claire’s daughter was left with her father, Lord Byron, in Venice. While the trio travelled extensively, both Willmouse and Clara died during the following year.

Despite a series of illnesses, Mary gave birth to her fourth child, Percy, in November 1819. She and her husband continued to write during their time in Italy, surrounded by an ever-changing group of friends, colleagues, lovers, and servants. Despite their productivity, tragedy continued to plague the family. In 1820, they fled Naples following claims by servants that a new child, Elena Adelaide Shelley, was actually the child of sister-in-law Clair. The matter never resolved as Elena died soon after the trip to Rome. Claire’s earlier daughter by Lord Byron then died of typhus in a convent at Bagnacavallo. In June, Mary miscarried, losing enough blood that she nearly died. The senior Percy Shelley drowned in 1822 following a boating accident.

Over the next 30 years, Mary would survive a bout of smallpox, several blackmail attempts, and headaches that would often leave her unable to write or move. During this time, she continued to write her own works, edits those of Byron and her late husband, and champion many of the progressive political ideas of her father. In early 1851, Mary died of what was revealed to be a brain tumor. Her son arranged for her to be buried at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth.

Throughout her career as a writer, editor, and activist, Mary pushed the boundaries of what was possible by a woman of her era. Although Frankenstein originally published anonymously, she later received credit for her work and the genres she influenced. Titles like Frankenstein and The Last Man combine Gothic literary traditions with elements of horror and science fiction. Gender relations often play a central role in her works, the feminine posited as a direct counterbalance to the masculine.

Suggested Reading

Interested in learning more about Mary Shelley? Following are a few of my suggestions for sampling her extensive back catalog:

Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. The story of a young scientist who creates an artificial, sentient creature—and his horror at his own creation. Published when Shelley was only 20 years old.

The Last Man. The life and exploits of a former nobleman in the plague-scarred landscape of Europe. Considered one of the first pieces of dystopian fiction.

The Evil Eye. An 1830 short story about Dmitri of the Evil Eye, a man seeing revenge for the deaths of his wife and daughter. A classic Gothic tale with elements of the strange and the supernatural.

The Mortal Immortal. An 1833 short story from 1833 about a man made immortal by a magic elixir. He soon learns that his blessing turns to a curse as everything he loves dies as he lives on.

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Horror Author Aria Cain

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