(a book review by Mark R. Leeper)

My first thought on seeing Susan Tyler Hitchcock's FRANKENSTEIN: A CULTURAL HISTORY was that it was very much a redoing of book I had read previously. It is essentially a repeat of Donald F. Glut's 1973 book THE FRANKENSTEIN LEGEND. Both books look at the history of the theme and characters created by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley from the novel up to each book's present day. Each starts with a short history of Mary Shelley and her circle of friends. But of course when the Hitchcock book gets beyond 1973 it is able to cover material that Glut was not. Hitchcock's style is a little more formal, or as formal as is possible with this subject matter. She has thirty pages of detailed footnotes at the back of the book and fourteen pages of bibliography. Glut is content with a page or so of footnotes after each chapter, but a much smaller total volume. Interestingly Hitchcock includes in the bibliography a book of essays about Frankenstein edited by Glut, but I see no reference to his book written with so similar an intent.

Of course, the story of the writing of FRANKENSTEIN has been told many times and has even been the subject of multiple films. A distinguished group of friends including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Mary Shelley on a night in Geneva in 1816 gave each other the challenge to write a ghost story. (One wonders if Mary, the neophyte of the crowd, is not now better remembered than her friends are. How many works can the average person name by Percy or Lord Byron?) Mary wrote what is now considered by many to be the first science fiction novel, FRANKENSTEIN. (Incidentally, while FRANKENSTEIN is surely a mainstay of fantastic literature, I believe it does not really qualify as science fiction. In the novel Victor Frankenstein after study of science, natural philosophy, alchemy, and magic one day realizes he knows how to make a man. The novel never makes explicit which of these disciplines he used nor what his method was. The films made it concrete by suggesting that he animated a patched together human using electricity. But for all the description directly from the book he might have just made a large homunculus or even a golem.)

More interesting at least to me is that is was not cinema that created all the blood and thunder versions of the Frankenstein monster. Within a decade after the novel was published and proved to be a literary sensation there were five different stage adaptations with varying degrees of graphic horror. June 19, 1823, saw a stage version called "Presumption" by William Brinsley Peake. This play told the story of novel but made some changes including adding a strange assistant for Victor Frankenstein, named Fritz. So when Dwight Frye played Fritz in the 1931 Boris Karloff film version, Fritz had been around almost as long as Victor had, though he did not appear in the novel. Hitchcock reports that Mary Shelley took great pleasure in the over-the-top stage productions of her novel. So perhaps the extremes of the film series might have met with her approval. Causing confusion for later generations, in 1831 Mary Shelley republished the novel under her name (the original version had been anonymous) making a number of changes, including making Elizabeth no longer a blood relation of Victor's.

Hitchcock continues through Universal Frankenstein films. What she says has not much is new to a real horror fan. Mostly what she writes is just a reminder of some aspects of the first two films. Here coverage of other Frankenstein films is spotty. The themes and characters of Frankenstein have arisen so many times that not all can get the same attention. But some occurrences are more important than others are and one would expect that Hitchcock would cover both series, Universal and Hammer Films, in some detail. In fact she probably has too much breadth and not enough depth in some places to her cultural history. For both the Universal Pictures and the Hammer Films series her coverage of the first film or two in the series is reasonable, but she has very little coverage of subsequent films in the series.

In addition, on page 211 she claims that Hammer's Dr. Frankenstein lives in London and makes occasional trips to the countryside. In fact the setting of the Hammer Frankenstein Films is always someplace Germanic. It is puzzling how she could have made such an error if the films were for her more than a distant memory.

Relatively important films are pushed aside so that she can cover the whimsical fact that genetically modified foods are derisively called "frankenfoods". This could have been given just a quick note. Most people who would read a cultural history of the Frankenstein story are probably more interested in the film versions than in political cartoons that have alluded to the story. Not all allusions to Frankenstein from popular culture are as interesting as other allusions.

But there is a description of some of the minor films, in some cases giving them too much attention, like the execrable FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER. And there are some paragraphs on some of the Frankenstein-themed comic book series as well as the famous "Classics Illustrated" adaptation of the novel, a fond memory from my youth.

The book is fun, particularly the early portions. Hitchock's book brings back some happy memories like staying up late on a Saturday night to see the monster square off against the Wolf Man. And reading it brings back recollections of reading "Famous Monsters of Filmland". The book is an enjoyable read, but on the whole I would a preferred an update of Glut's book.

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper