The Most Famous Night in the History of Horror


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.

Happy writing!

NM 🙂

References:

– 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

DAY 21 – Favourite picture book from childhood


When they say “Picture Book”, do they mean those books you picked up when you first started reading-the ones with only one or two lines of writing on each page? If that’s the case, I don’t think I have a favourite. Instead I’ll talk about two books both of which, although have plenty of words, are not short on pictures either.

I am very disappointed with myself. I searched everywhere for my Ladybird copy of Dracula but can’t seem to find it. I know its somewhere in my house but knowing Murphy’s Law I’ll probably only find it when I don’t need it or least expect it. I really wanted to show off the little book that made such an impression on me when I was a child. The illustrations especially are beautiful and very vivid.
Luckily, while searching the net, I found an image of the cover (exactly the same as mine)-you can see it on the side.
The story itself is off course, a much shorter version and told in the 3rd person. It’s beautifully written however and still manages to capture the eerie mood of the novel.

I talk about Dracula so much I thought I’d mention another children’s book I absolutely loved (and still do). Witch Stories for Bedtime by various authors is a collection of 7 stories about, yes you guessed it, witches. I read these stories over and over again when I was a kid and I’m not embarrassed to say it, but I think read them well into my teens too!

Along with the gorgeous illustrations by Jane Launchbury these stories are just awesome, and while perusing them now, I can still remember each one.
There is one story (written by Elizabeth Waugh) about the good and kindly Thomasina and her magical island where everything is made of some type of confectionary- from seashells made of bubblegum, to toffee trees and streams of lemonade.
Another tale called “Rachel and the Magic stone” (by Deborah Tyler) is about two witch sisters who keep quarreling over a magic stone given to them.
Then there was a funny one (by Sue Seddon) about a witch who hates cats and is forced to keep one by the Chief Witch. She tries to get rid of the cat but the little feline seems more powerful than her!
There were also some scary and unsettling tales too. Two of the stories seemed to be Hansel and Gretel-inspired while one called “Grumblog” (by Jane Garrett) is about a witch who messes with Mother Nature and then gets her comeuppance in the end.

The Magic Island by Elizabeth Waugh

My favourite story however was entitled “The Witches who Came To Stay” (written by Philip Steele), about 3 sisters who are shipwrecked on an island and impose themselves on a solitary fisherman-the only inhabitant on the island. He’s pissed off, off course, but he’s attracted to the youngest sister who’s quite feisty and verbally abuses him. The women make themselves at home (and a nuisance) and demand that the fisherman have their breakfast ready on time the following morning. They threaten to turn him into all sorts of creatures if he disobeys any of their requests. From this one story I learnt what a porpoise and an archaeopteryx (it’s a type of dinosaur) are. The plucky fisherman steals one of their spellbooks while they’re asleep and starts preparing pies for breakfasts. He adds a special potion to each pie. One sister turns into a fish and he throws her out to sea; the other turns into a seagull and then flies away. The youngest consumes a love potion prepared by the fisherman. She falls in love with him and they live happily ever after. You gotta love it!!

Here are a couple more pics from the book…

The Witch Who Didn't Have A Cat by Sue Seddon

The Witches Who Came To Stay by Philip Steele

With my brain filled with witches and vampires, I must have been one strange kid…

NM 🙂

DAY 20 – Book you have read the most number of times


I sort of have an idea but it’s not like I keep a tally or something. If I really like a book, I do have a tendency to read it again after some time has passed. Therefore there are quite a few books out there that I’ve read at least twice.

Except for the Deathly Hallows, I read all of the Harry Potter books at least twice (I’ve read Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets and Azkaban 3 times).
Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian only got boring for me after my third go.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four and Study in Scarlet were both read twice although I think I also attempted Sign of the Four for the third time but eventually got bored with it half-way through.
Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers was also read twice though I’m not sure why I read it again-it’s not one of my favourites.

The book I have borrowed the most times from the library is the Complete Jack The Ripper by Donald Rumbelow, which is a non-fiction book. This might be due partly to the fact that at one time I was writing a Victorian murder story (I thought it was crap, so it lies unfinished) and was using this book as a reference. It’s still a great book anyway and I wouldn’t mind reading it again.

This leaves us with the two books that keep popping up in this Book Challenge.
I read Hound Of the Baskervilles either 3 or 4 times, I can’t remember. My Penguin Classic version of Dracula I read only once but I have read (as I mentioned in another post) a couple of other editions before and my Ladybird Childrens’ version I’ve gone through like a hundred times (although I know that one doesn’t count! ).

So who is the winner here? I’ll let Sherlock and the Count fight it out…

NM 🙂

DAY 13 – Book whose main character is most like you


Precious Ramotswe, Sister Fidelma, Margaret Hale, Mina Harker, Hermione Granger, Sally Lockheart…

Listed above are the fictional women I admire or identify with. So who is most like me?

The trouble here is that how we see ourselves, compared to what others see or how we would like others to see us can be completely different things.

In a nutshell what I mean is:

I wish I was cool like Precious and Fidelma (both detectives, go figure) or smart like Hermione and even though I identify more strongly with Margaret Hale, who knows? I might come across like the annoying Madame Bovary or the disturbed Carrie White. Although I certainly hope not!

In the end it is Elizabeth Gaskell’s creation Margaret Hale who wins, for character-wise she is the one heroine I see most of myself in. Having just finished North And South, I can easily recall scenes where I found myself chuckling knowingly because of something she was thinking or doing, all because it reminded me of myself.

Daniela Denby-Ashe played Margaret in the BBC series North and South (2004)

Margaret is very opinionated and stubborn but has a heart of gold with the best of intentions. Unfortunately because of her strong opinions she sometimes puts her foot in it and I notice that she loves to argue about almost everything if given the chance! (Sounds a lot like someone I know).

Margaret also has an incredibly heavy conscience. For me, this was her most relatable trait. Even when she knows she has done nothing wrong but is falsely accused, her conscience eats away at her like a flesh-eating bug. She bears the burden of these accusations for the sake of family, proving her loyalty and selflessness. In fact, it hurt me to see how she always puts the feelings of others before her own. She’s always modifying her outward behavior just so others will not be burdened by the pain she feels.
I love her fiery temper. This is when you see her at her best. Her temper is not destructive but she gives as good as she gets, startling her opponent in the process. I found myself punching the air in triumph when she gave it to that old bat Mrs. Thornton.
There were other little idiosyncrasies I found in common with Margaret, like her preference for male company. At the Thorntons’ dinner party,

It was dull for Margaret after dinner. She was glad when the gentlemen came, not because she caught her father’s eye to brighten her sleepness up; but because she could listen to something larger and grander than the petty interests which the ladies had been talking about.

This reminds me of me as a teenager when, at any function, I would prefer sticking close to my Dad and the rest of the men who would discuss sport or other exciting topics with me as if I were a grown man. I hated being stuck with all the ladies, who did nothing but talk about their children or grandchildren. Eeurgh!!

So that’s Margaret Hale. And that’s me. 🙂

If some of the women I mentioned above seem foreign to you, I draw your attention to the following books:

The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Set in rural Botswana, Precious Ramotswe is a woman ahead of her time. This has already been made into a TV series with the wonderful Jill Scott in the lead.

Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe


Whispers of the Dead by Peter Tremayne. If you love anything to do with Celtic Heritage you have to read the exploits of Fidelma of Cashel as she solves crimes in her capacity as a lawyer in 7th century Ireland.

Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman. YA Fiction. Pullman does well in recreating Victorian London and in creating an endearing character in Sally Lockheart.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. Mina Harker nee Murray is the only character in the book, apart from Van Helsing, who has any real balls. She makes her husband look like a peach trifle.

Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. If you are ever up against big, bad Voldy, Hermione is one little witchy you would definitely want on your side!

NM 🙂

DAY 08 of Book Challenge – Book that scares you


Now you would think I’d be in my element right now, being a horror addict and everything but initially I found this very difficult.

My first thought was to choose M.R James’ Collected Ghost Stories. There is a reason why he’s considered England’s King of the Ghost story. This collection contains some of the scariest short stories I’ve ever read. But I’m assuming however that this topic means I have to pick an actual novel per se.

After thinking a bit, I considered Karen Maitland’s Company Of Liars and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian but in retrospect, these were bland considerations.
I also nearly chose Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum which I read when I was in school and which had a decidedly macabre effect on my young mind, only to be reminded that it was in fact a short story as well.
I ran through all the Stephen King, John Connelly, Peter Straub and Dean Koontz books I’ve read in my lifetime and I came to only one conclusion. Some books are called classics for a reason. Even while thinking about all these other great horror novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula just did not want to leave me alone. I did not want to consider it initially for fear of appearing too mainstream and superficial but it kept invading my thoughts like how the Count kept intruding on Mina’s.
Throughout my life, I have read so many different editions of Dracula- a children’s’ version (yes it does exist), many abridged versions, all down to my very own full-length Penguin Classics copy.

Dracula by Bram Stoker, after fighting very valiantly in my mind, has officially taken its place as my No.1 scariest book.

So is it really scary? Or is this one of those cases where we have to make provisions for the conservative Victorian mindset and take the very first audience’s reaction into consideration rather than our own?
I might be bias here but flippin’ hell, you can bet your holy rose water it’s scary!
I will admit that there are some Dickensian instances where the prose goes on a little ramble (I wonder if those Victorians really did write that superfluously in their journals?).

Gary Oldman, my favourite Dracula


There are many singular moments that make up for it however. The scariest scene ever for me, from ANY book in fact, is the one where Jonathan Harker is waiting at the Borgo pass for the special carriage to take him to the Castle.
No movie version of Dracula has ever come close to the book in capturing the terror and fear of this scene in my opinion.

There are other notable passages but I could be here all day.

I hope everybody will start to understand my aversion to modern vampire fiction now. After reading Dracula, you really can’t take the likes of Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer seriously anymore. Well I can’t anyway.

DAY 07 of 30-day Book Challenge – Book you can quote or recite


There are many different lines that I can quote from many different books. No single book stands out.
If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have stated without hesitation: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Obviously the only reason I knew it so well was because, as part of a Drama assignment in school, I chose Viola’s long monologue to re-enact. Twelfth Night is my favourite Shakespearean play and I really love that soliloquoy but for the life of me, I cannot remember a single word of it now!

I also impressed (or stunned) a friend once, while we both watched Hammer’s version of Dracula with Christopher Lee. Just to be a know-it-all, I recited, with precision timing, a few lines of dialogue seconds before the relevant characters said it themselves. I dare say, I think I scared her more than the movie did.
The one fictional character I love quoting the most however, is off course the Great Detective himself.
My favourite quote ever is on the mechanics of deduction:

Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

I don’t even have to look that up to check if I quoted it properly. It’s etched in my brain.
I’ll leave you with a few other gems from Mr. Sherlock Holmes: Continue reading