The days grow short and the nights colder, longer. October, Halloween and the Day of the Dead are upon us. For our annual Fall Literature issue, we present two morbid, but very much alive excerpts from the just released Eternal Frankenstein, a collection of 16 stories published by Petaluma’s Word Horde, publisher of horror and fantasy books. The stories use the enduring legacy and power of Mary Shelley’s nearly 200-year-old novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus as a point of literary departure.
“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is many things,” writes editor Ross E. Lockhart in the book’s introduction. “A first novel. A philosophical work. The origin of science fiction. It is a reaction to volcanic dust obscuring the sun, and the apocalyptic skies that distinguished the year without a summer. It is a novel marked by the loss of a child, and the desire to write something more enduring than the poetry of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. It is a story of technology and magic and the desire to challenge god’s and nature’s laws. It is a tale of dreamlike geographies, shifting topographies and finding one’s place in the universe…. Frankenstein, like its monster, its creature, its wretch, has taken on a life of its own. It reflects us. It defines us. It shows us what it means to be human.”
In these pages, we offer an excerpt from David Templeton’s novella-length “Mary Shelley’s Body,” which reveals how Shelley’s life overlapped with that of the creature she created, and a section from Amber-Rose Reed’s short story “Torso, Head, Heart,” the backstory to each of the creature’s various body parts. Enjoy.
— Stett Holbrook
Mary Shelley’s Body
I cannot breathe.
O! God! I cannot breathe!
There is thunder in my lungs, a whirlwind in my throat, bolts of lighting stabbing at my heart, shredding my flesh, shredding my soul like paper. I feel as thin as paper. I am burning! I try to breathe, but all I sense in my chest are those buzzing arcs of light, spreading out like veins of fire through my skin. And still I cannot breathe.
I wonder . . . should I stop trying?
I stop. There is a faint faraway exhalation, as if from behind a dark wet door. I let myself hear it, the sound of it, evaporating. It is an empty sound, as shallow and void as my body, my poor, sick, wrecked, half-paralyzed, once desirable, once fearless, once unstoppable body.
Ah, I begin to understand. As suddenly and certainly as those flashes of light I still see somewhere beyond what used to be my eyes, I see the truth now.
I no longer need to breathe. I am done with breathing.
I am dead.
Well great God, that took long enough!
The doctors are no doubt relieved to be rid of me, the crazy lady from London, wasting away with no obvious cause. For months, for years, there has been only a sense that something was wrong in the spongy muscle of my brain, something vital added or taken away.
And, now my life, my little life, is over.
My hapless heart, so long deluged in bitterness, is finally still.
I feel so much better now.
My head no longer hurts, for one thing.
And that terrible burning smell, like wet feathers set ablaze, that is gone too. How long has it been since it all began, the smell, the headaches, the fainting spells, then the failure of half my body to obey the simplest task?
No matter. I am free of it now.
Free of my body.
Free of my life.
This then, I surmise, is my grave?
This slab of cold carved stone I sense before me, after years of loneliness, is my lonely gray tomb? I cannot see, but I do perceive shapes and structures all around. I cannot feel, but I detect words here, carved into the rock slab before which I stand.
How am I standing?
My body, what is left of it, lies there in the grave.
Yet here I am. Standing.
Kneeling, even. Speaking, if speaking this is.
Had I fingers with which to feel I would caress these carved words, trace out their meaning with my fingertips—and yet, somehow I can. Somehow I do.
I can read the meaning of these etched lines.
Here lies Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Yes. That was I.
A wife. A mother. An author.
Daughter of William and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
Those were my parents, yes . . . though he too much so, and she—dead almost upon looking at me—only my mother in that she conceived me, bore me, and birthed me. And still, in so many ways, Mary Wollstonecraft—the writer, the radical, beloved and despised by so many—gave me more with her life and words than my father, with his calm and silent disapproval, ever gave me with his.
The next line.
Widow of the late Percy Bysshe Shelley.
O, Shelley. My husband, my love, my savior, my only one!
I have no beating heart to ache with, no sense to feel with. How then does your name still stir me so? Almost thirty years have passed since you died, your soul set free beneath the waters of the Gulf of Spezia, your drowned body—with its speaking eyes and face unlike any other who ever walked Earth—burned to gray ashes on the shore. Since that day, O my love, I have missed you so, with only your memory to comfort me these many years.
That, and the singular divinity of your poems.
And, oh yes! I have had your heart.
It’s still in my desk.
Your friend Trelawney snatched it, charred and purple, from your funeral pyre. Your heart, dried and flattened, sits in my desk still, tucked way beneath my papers along with a lock of hair, one from each of our three dead children.
I wonder who will discover them, there in the drawer?
I suspect it will be our daughter-in-law, Jane.
It will give her a bit of a shock, that.
A final line.
Born August 30, 1797. Died February 1, 1851.
Odd. I feel as if I have only just died, but I am already buried. That was quickly done. I suspect it was Jane’s doing. Ever since she married my dear Percy Florence, that daughter-in-law of mine—whom I have loved with as much of my own heart as was left to love with—has proven nothing if not punctual. But then of course, she has had years to plan.
I have been dying for such a very long time.
And now I am dead.
I must be, for there is my name on this tomb.
Shelley used to joke that if I died before he, he would see to it that my marker proclaimed, “Here lies the body of Anonymous!”
It was a joke, but it came with a sting.
Anonymous was the word under which my first novel was published.
Afterwards followed years of ungenerous assumptions that another must have been the true author of my story, that I was not capable of it. Visitors to our house, when engaged in conversation with Shelley, oft interpreted my watchful silence as dullness, and whispered rumors that my husband likely wrote more of my prose than I. Shelley defended me. After that I saw to it that all of my subsequent works were published—if not always under my true name—then at least under a title which made my authorship clear.
For the rest of my days, all my published writing proclaimed, “By the author of Frankenstein.”
Frankenstein. My first great success, born of happier days, too briefly tasted.
My triumph . . . my curse . . . my hideous progeny.
— Excerpted from ‘Mary Shelley’s Body’ by David Templeton
Torso, Head, Heart
Left Arm, Right Arm
Your left arm blocks the swing; your right arm takes a swing of its own. Your knuckles crack against someone else’s nose. When you pull back your fist, you wiggle your fingers. Old Josef takes it as a slight and lets out a growl. He’s like a mutt going for a bone.
He charges again and you sidestep the cur. You didn’t start this fight, but he has a face fit for slapping and you’ve got fists made for hitting. He comes again. The tavern crowd around you buzzes and spits. The barmaid’s calling for someone to stop the brawling. You draw back your arm, ready to deliver a punch. It’ll be the last one you have to release tonight; sure thing, that.
Something crunches against the back of your head. Your vision goes black. You don’t feel any pain.
Your hammer hasn’t met the anvil yet when you hear the screaming. Women, mostly, and you pass the hammer to your apprentice and head out to the street to see what’s causing the noise. Down the way, a cart’s toppled over. You hear the screams as words as you get closer; there is a boy there, and the cart is crushing him.
The muck in the streets sucks at your feet as you rush over. You don’t trip. The crowd parts as you approach. There is none strong enough to help, save you.
The wood is splintered, but you find a grip. All you can see of the boy are his small child’s feet, shod in tattered shoes, and his legs, bare to the knee.
The muscles in your chest pull and twinge and you feel as though all of your upper self is on fire. But the cart gives way from the mud with a sucking sound, and as the boy slides from beneath the toppled vehicle, your eyes meet his. He has a strong gaze, blue eyes meeting yours.
You let go the cart, and mud squelches beneath it. You straighten and take deep breaths, waiting for the feeling of fire to leave your chest. But it doesn’t. You clutch your right hand over your heart. It feels, suddenly, like you are the one being crushed.
— Excerpted from ‘Torso, Head, Heart’ by Amber-Rose Reed