Monster storms and monster monsters, or the time I read Frankenstein during a hurricane

Five days and 900 bags of potato chips later, I am back in business.

To clarify: I suffered no real damages from Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Superstorm/Royal Pain in the Ass Sandy. The No Parking sign across from my apartment blew down, as did the scaffolding hiding the construction site next door and the gate blocking off entry to an abandoned lot across the street. In short, when you live in Bushwick, epicenter of mostly defunct manufacturing facilities and empty plots of land, there’s not much to destroy. (And the potato chips mostly just reflect my poor grocery choices in the face of adverse weather conditions.)

But Sandy did wreak havoc on my neighbors (in the New York City sense, not my actual neighbors, who spent most of the storm playing really loud music and screaming whenever the lights flickered) and my heart continues to go out to people still dealing with power outages, ruined homes, lack of food and water and more. If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to visit and hand over some of your hard-earned dolla billz. It is the second-least you could do, after the actual least, which is nothing.

I should also thank those non-NYC peeps who reached out to me via phone or text or Facebook to make sure Godzilla and I fared well in the storm. Other than the brief panic attack I had over whether or not to take out my window AC unit, I got incredibly lucky in all of this, and Godzilla mostly just slept. I don’t think he even knows anything is amiss, except that I’ve been working from home for a week and so he can’t invite all his friends over, or whatever it is cats do when their owners aren’t around.

In any case, even as I type to the soundtrack of irate honking (my local BP station either has already or is about to run out of gas) and depressing NY1 news updates, I know that the show must go on. And it is oddly timely that the book I read for this week was Frankenstein, both an appropriate Halloween novel and a tribute of sorts to the briefly-dubbed Frankenstorm that just tried to take down my extremely resilient city.

So acute was my ignorance of Mary Shelley’s classic that, before reading it, I never realized Frankenstein is actually the name of the scientist, not the monster that emerges from his experiments (though I’m sure there’s some English Lit major argument to be made for the symbolism of confusing the two). This was one of many tidbits from the novel that have been mostly excised from modern interpretations, which are pretty much limited to tall green men with big foreheads, bad haircuts and neck bolts issuing monosyllabic grunts with their arms outstretched, as they slowly advance on their intended victims. In other words, Frankenstein has been pretty well botched by pop culture.

The actual novel opens with letters from R. Walton to his sister, in which Walton is describing his journey by sea to the north, during which the ocean basically freezes over and he runs into Dr. Frankenstein, who is traveling by dogsled across the frozen water in pursuit (we later discover) of his Creation. Once Frankenstein is on board Walton’s ship, we shift to his telling R. Walton the story of his life, which is the Frankenstein parable we all know and love: scientifically inclined dude, motivated by potential power over death, sets out to create a human and succeeds. Immediately terrified of his own creation, Dr. Frankenstein peaces out, and only later discovers that this abandonment, coupled with mistreatment at the hands of other humans, have pushed his creation to want to kill him and everyone he loves. Truly, an uplifting tale.

I’m not shocked by the simplification of the Frankenstein story that’s taken place since it was written 200 years ago, but it was still a pleasant surprise to discover the novel’s nuance. For example, did you know that the monster could speak? Not only that, but that he learned to speak (and basically conduct himself like a really large and terrifying-looking human being) by watching a rural family through a hole in their wall? It sounds creepy, but was actually rather endearing, …at least until he reveals himself to them because that part definitely doesn’t go well.

Of course, there are some very obvious logistical questions that come out of reading Frankenstein. Like, if you’re going to create an artificial life-form, maybe don’t start out with one that’s double your size and strength. Or, if a giant monster-human hellbent on your destruction vows to execute said destruction “on your wedding night,” maybe don’t ignore the warning. All in all, Dr. Frankenstein is kind of a bitch, and considering the intellectual capacity it must take to do something like create life (in the non-sexing way), he really makes some poor choices during the course of the novel.

That said, I enjoyed Frankenstein. It’s true that the book starts slow (and I’m not entirely sure why Shelley felt it needed to be a story within a story within a story) but it’s a relatively quick read once it gets going, and serves up all the suspense you’d expect (or maybe more than you’d expect, since most of us know how it ends). If you haven’t read this particular classic, go for it (but feel free to skip the scads of introductory and supplementary materials). Enjoy the novel that spawned an entire mythology, and ruminate on the ethical questions of whether morality is intrinsic to life. Just don’t let a fictional monster with an impressive aptitude for learning language and human customs distract you from what’s actually scary in this world of ours: global warming.


TITLE: Frankenstein
AUTHOR: Mary Shelley
PAGES: 225 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Last Man, other stuff
SORTA LIKE: The Frankenstein you’re used to, meets Heart of Darkness
FIRST LINE: “To Mrs Saville, England. St Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17–. You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

2 thoughts on “Monster storms and monster monsters, or the time I read Frankenstein during a hurricane”

  1. On the book- glad you finally got to this one… a real classic. Watch one of the early B&W versions of the movie and that seen where he learns by watching the villagers will make you cry!

    Speaking of crying- the great NBC telethon that hopefully raised a small fortune for hurricane relief re-played all the visuals that I’ve been crying over since I got my power back and can actually watch TV. It’s Katrina redux… but this time it’s ‘home.’ If you grew up in Philadelphia, spent your Summers at the Jersey shore and considered NYC just ‘the big city’ (v the smaller one that I lived in), well, this is just devastating on a more personal level. And yes, I will respond with my checkbook. 9/11 couldn’t keep the city down and this won’t either. As soon as tourists can reasonably get into and around the city, I’ll be up to spend some of my money!

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