In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.
Thermidor by Siobhan Carroll
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has inspired dreams and nightmares about weird science and body modification, but let’s not forget that at the core of this much-referenced Gothic text is a tortured meditation on what it means to be human… and what it means to be its opposite.
If a creature is made from scratch with very little reference points to guide it, what does it think and feel? This is the tragedy of the Creature — a shambling creation in more ways than one, improvising his way through a makeshift life with only sporadic successes along the way.
But the Creature’s problematic physical make-up is nothing when compared to the chilly and nervous reaction of Victor Frankenstein to his creation. It shocked me to listen to Kenneth Branagh describe Victor as intrinsically a “good man”, while he talked about the thought process behind his own take on Shelley’s novel in a Charlie Rose interview, because while Frankenstein may be many things, I struggle to imagine him fitting into even the most liberal of ‘good man’ molds.
In fact, one of the main strands of the novel, to me, is Victor’s chronic inability to take responsibility for what he did — to allow himself to feel enough empathy to accept the Creature’s pain as a legitimate enough sign of his humanity.
So apart from its oft-propagated Gothic trappings and monster-movie-ready fodder, Frankenstein is a story about dehumanization, from both ends of the scale: the abjection of the creature exists as a result of Victor’s callousness, or denial of all of the things that should bind the two together in mutual understanding and love.
All this being said, Siobhan Carroll isn’t shy to indulge in a variety of cosmetic thrills that Frankenstein brings up, and neither does she resist making some delicious intertextual and historical connections to dream up her merciless little tale.
But by connecting Victor Frankenstein to the Marquis de Sade — using the name ‘Justine’ common to both Shelley’s text and Sade’s oeuvre — Carroll betrays a sensitivity to how dehumanization is what infects Victor’s project from the word go.
Like Sade’s own early novel Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue — which takes place just at the brink of this key moment in history — Carroll’s story is saturated in the spirit of Revolutionary France, as seen over the shoulder of Justine — a character whom we could more or less equate to a Bride of Frankenstein figure. To wit: she procures still-breathing bodies for her master, who in this case is not a nervous weakling but a scientist who views torture as a necessary part of the experimental procedure.
Being a product of the very processes she helps enable Justine is in a perfect position to show how chilling lack of empathy can really be. And the story’s most intriguing passages concern her faded, ghostly rememberance of empathy past, when she sees but doesn’t feel previous pain and fails to put two and two together upon witnessing the suffering of others.
This is also a subaltern story in many ways, with Justine catching on to the Victor’s — aka the patriarchy’s — privileged and exploitative ways. But because she’s hard to sympathise with for obvious reasons, Justine’s ideological struggle makes for complex reading.
Like Shelley’s novel, Carroll’s story is about humanity at its outer limits, and throwing Sade into the mix feels like a logical extension of that literary experiment.