My new book, A Treacherous Likeness, is inspired by the lives of the Shelleys – Percy and Mary – and includes my own version of that famous summer on Lake Geneva in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. So it’s no surprise that I’m choosing Frankenstein’s monster as the first on my list. We’ve all seen so many film versions of this book that I think we’ve rather lost sight of how terrifying it would have been for its first readers. No bulging foreheads and bolts through the neck in the book, the true horror of Frankenstein is the very idea of assuming a God-like power of creation – a creation that mocks the human form by mimicking it: “It was already one in the morning… when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open …”
Nosferatu, necromancer, shape-shifter, corpuscle-craver, Dracula has become as ubiquitous in film form as Frankenstein’s monster ever was, and the whole vampire vogue has enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance with the Twilight saga and the likes of True Blood on TV. Dracula may be the daddy of the undead but he was not, in fact, the original fictional vampire – that honour goes to The Vampyre, a story probably started by Lord Byron during that same infamous summer of 1816, but finished and published by his doctor John Polidori.
The Tempest is my favourite Shakespearean play – a magnificent late play that is marvellous in every sense of the word. Shipwrecked on his own island, Prospero has two creatures at his command – the ethereal Ariel and the ‘hag-born’ Caliban. There are many theories about the symbolic significance of Caliban – does he, for example, represent the so-called savages Europeans were beginning to subjugate in the New World? – but for me, part of the power of the portrayal is Caliban’s craving for beauty, which brings out both the beast in him, and the best. On the one hand the attempted rape of Miranda, and on the other his ability – taught him by Prospero – to render loveliness in language. It’s no accident that some of the most wonderful poetry in the play is Caliban’s own description of the ‘island of wonders’ – “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not…”
This is one that takes me back to my university days. Grendel is the monster that Beowulf fights in the Anglo-Saxon epic named after him, which I read in the original for my first year exams. I’ve not seen the Ray Winstone film, so I don’t know how they pictured Grendel, but for me, part of his chilling menace is the fact that he’s never described – he comes by night, unseen, preying on the sleeping warriors and leaving their mangled bodies to be discovered in the morning. He also – like Caliban – has an equally terrifying mother….
I’m sure Freud would have a lot to say about the Minotaur – that half-man half-bull monster lying in wait in the heart of an elaborate labyrinth. I think a lot of the power the Minotaur continues to have as a myth is the way it preys on some of our own deepest fears about what lies hidden in our own psyches. But in the end, isn’t every monster – from Shakespeare’s to Shelley’s – a mirror of our own darkest selves?
This post was originally written in 2013 for New Books magazine