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.
The Human Alchemy by Michael Griffin
We rarely speak of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as being about the angst related to artistic creation, and instead grasp at more solid metaphors. Understandably enough, received wisdom has it that this is first and foremost a parable warning against scientific hubris on the thematic level, and emotionally, it resonates with us thanks to the undeniable pathos we feel towards the creature: rejected by a father who only half wanted him, with no reference points in a world that wants nothing to do with him.
So I was glad to see that Michael Griffin’s creepy but complex tale of a successful pair of surgeons — with otherwise also picks up on the ‘standard’ intertextual cues stemming from Shelley’s original text — also pitches its Frankenstenian couple, Reysa and Magnus Berg, as frustrated creatives looking to satisfy their unconventional cravings in a world that has yet to — ethically as well as aesthetically — catch up with their tastes and ambitions.
In the case of Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s initial revulsion at the Creature he’s made could find a direct corollary in the way most young writers — or artists of any stripe — would view their juvenilia. “I expected to create something at least as beautiful as the work of the forebears in the field that I admire,” they think to themselves as they grimace at that first draft, or that hesitantly completed painting, “what the fuck is this shit?!”. And in it goes into the proverbial fire.
But Reysa and Magnus are not young: Aurye is, and though their wine-soaked gathering at the rich couple’s mountaintop castle may suggest all the trappings of a cliche seduction into a three-way, this mundane idea is dispensed with fairly quickly. In fact, the couple reject all mundane ideas suggested or imposed by society, a dogma whose limits are tested by this increasingly disconcerting, but equally sensitive and intelligent, contribution to the anthology.
And the way Griffin manages to walk this tightrope is, in fact, by couching the couple’s past history and future dreams in the most precise, and even reasonable, discourse. As one example, let’s get back to the artistic creativity metaphor. Midway through the story, the couple start explaining — always to Aurye, as their increasingly eager acolyte — the challenges posed by their unconventional lifestyle.
In the meantime, the story’s unsettling vortex intensifies, and Griffin actually piles all of the cosmetic details you’d expect from a Frankenstein story
Without spoiling anything, the way Reysa describes it sounds exactly like the kind of set-up a freelancing couple of any profession would face; with partners alternately sacrificing time and comfort while the other aims for their dream job, or at least helping to create a mutually beneficial situation for both based on their relevant skills.
In the meantime, the story’s unsettling vortex intensifies, and Griffin actually piles all of the cosmetic details you’d expect from a Frankenstein story: the Gothic castle, the operating table, the thunder… and a monster. But on their own, these details are now blunt: Frankenstein’s Creature is indeed eternal, yes, but the moralistic discourse about scientific ambition needs fine-tuning and updating if it is to sustain its chilling menace into the modern day.
And this is precisely what Griffin does with his two surgeons. But arguably, he completes this effect with the help of the young Aurye most of all, whose role in the drama flouts expectations in more ways than one.
An urbane and superbly structured little chiller that is intellectually engaging more than it is viscerally scary, but that is all the more rewarding for it.