In the summer of 1816, a couple holidayed with their friends at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The man, Percy, despite being married to another woman, fell in love with a girl named Mary and the two lovers eloped to the Europe subcontinent together. They were joined at Lake Geneva by their friend Gordon and his personal physician John.
The Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva. Image permitted courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Swiss summer that year was a wet one and one night, all four companions found themselves in front of a cozy fire in Gordon’s private villa. Outside, an angry tempest provided the perfect backdrop for the reading of ghost stories. Their reading list for the night consisted of various German stories from a book called ‘Tales Of The Dead’.
As the night progressed Gordon came up with an idea.
“We will each write a ghost story,” he suggested imperatively.
Thus began a competition to see who could come up with the scariest tale. The rest of their holiday seemed dedicated to this endeavour.
Percy started a story based on his childhood experiences but with his forte being poetry, he struggled with straightforward prose and failed to complete his tale. Gordon also failed to complete his story about a vampire and John’s efforts, constituting a “skull-like” ghost bride who takes revenge on her faithless groom, failed to impress and he was forced to abandon his creation as well (The good doctor was, however, very impressed with Gordon’s blood-sucking character and intended to write a novel based on this vampire, which he subsequently did).
18-year-old Mary struggled to produce anything at first.
But having recently suffered the loss of her first child and having to listen to discussions about galvanism between the 3 men, the Muses soon took over and Mary wrote a reanimation tale about a monster so chilling and macabre, that when she eventually submitted it to a publisher in 1817, they could not believe a woman wrote it.
Mary named her novella ‘The Modern Prometheus’ but later changed it.
Frankenstein, as it’s now known, is considered a classic masterpiece and according to some, gave birth to a new genre – science fiction.
As some of you have probably guessed, the characters in my little story above were none other than Mary Wolstoncraft Godwin, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dr. John Polidori and Gordon was none other than Mr. Controversial himself- Lord Byron.
When I first read about this I was completely fascinated. I love reading about how authors got inspiration for their famous novels. But what made this event at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati even more remarkable was that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was not the only horror classic that owes its existence to that historic night.
As I mentioned, John Polidori was very impressed with the vampire character that Byron had created. And even though the doctor’s story proved a flop, he later wrote a novel called ‘The Vampyre’ (1819) based on Byron’s creation.
The novel’s main character Lord Ruthven is considered by some websites and literary scholars to be the first aristocratic vampire in English fiction.
More than 70 years later, an Irish author named Abraham Stoker would write a ground-breaking novel whose main character is now deeply embedded in the psyche of popular culture. Stoker listed Lord Ruthven as inspiration for this very character. Few people I think would dare disagree with me if I said Dracula, even after a century, is still the most famous vampire novel ever written.
How is it that one night, one prompt from a competitive literary genius like Byron, one night spent by the fireplace could give birth to a horror classic and also indirectly inspire another?
This question intrigued me, so much so, that I went on a studious quest to recreate that memorable evening (in my head of course). Unfortunately, there are so many different versions of what happened that night in Lake Geneva and in the subsequent days and months that followed, that I almost became frustrated with the lack of consistency.
Luckily my copy of Frankenstein (OneWorldClassics) contained an Introduction written by Mary herself, chronicling (albeit vaguely) her experiences of that night (my little retelling at the beginning of this post is based on her account).
So what does it take to inspire a great horror novel? Or any great novel for that matter?
Is nature important? Atmospheric mood and the natural elements seem to have played a key part in Frankenstein. And the influence of Switzerland’s natural beauty is clearly evident in Mary Shelley’s writing.
Image of the original Frankenstein manuscript, with scribbles/outtakes by Percy Shelley
Maybe pedigree plays a part? Both Mary’s parents happened to be distinguished writers in their own right. Or just maybe that age-old advice about surrounding yourself with the right type of people rings true?
Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were both considered poetic geniuses. Byron had already played his part in the creation of Frankenstein by prompting the creativity in his friends, and Percy, not only proofread and edited the first draft of Frankenstein but also supported and encouraged his wife with her writing career up until his death(like any good literary husband should!).
Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors that results in the telling of a great ‘ghost’ story. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking anything away from Mary herself. There was no doubt that she had talent and was hailed in even higher esteem than her husband and colleagues but inspiration has to come from somewhere. Something magical happened that night in Lake Geneva which cannot be explained.
If not, then is it just one big coincidence that two of the greatest horror novels ever written find themselves linked by a situation as innocuous as four friends sitting around a fire telling ghost stories? I leave you to decide for yourselves.
Whatever the case may be however, if you are a writer or in a creative profession, I hope inspiration comes to you, situations favour you and luck finds you in all your endeavours.
– Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Author’s Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition. OneWorld Classics. 1818 (last ed. 2008).
– John Polidori and the Vampyre Byron
– Folkroots: Vampires in Folklore and Literature by Theodora Goss