Eternal Frankenstein (2016) asks horror writers to imagine, or reimagine, the life of Mary Shelley’s infamous doctor and his “creature.” The book includes 16 stories, all of them original to this anthology, with one that appeared in a different form in the publication Perihelion.
Make no mistake, these are horror stories. Some may glance at science fiction, and some flirt with fantasy, but their primary purpose is to scare us, or make us uncomfortable as we read, and this collection succeeds at that.
The story that succeeded the best for me, because I felt the horror on multiple levels, was “Post Partum,” by Betty Rocksteady. The first-person narrator, who was widowed just before the birth of her first child, has failed to bond with the baby. Her mother urges to go out and get fresh air and exercise. While walking, she discovers the strange, nearly intact, skull of an animal she can’t identify. She takes the skull home but it still defies categorization. Then she realizes she doesn’t have to identify it; she can taup her dead husband’s strange hobby of crypto-taxidermy, using bones from a variety of creatures to create skeletons of imaginary ones. From there, she is obsessed with creating a body that will match the strange fanged skull and bring an imaginary creature to life.
The ending is shocking, but it isn’t a surprise, because Rocksteady has pulled us toward it step by dreadful step without letting us look away. Beneath that shock is the horror of our narrator’s struggle, because she has moments of clarity when she sees what she is doing and recognizes her own madness but then is sucked under again. And underlying all of that is the very real fear of profound depression, the sense of this woman’s isolation and lack of a support network, even though she lives in the basement apartment of her mother’s house. The language, dark, depressive and elegiac, draws us into this claustrophobic nightmare by playing on all senses (particularly the sense of smell) and letting us see that there is no escape.
“Marry me to Death, deep down in the core of what I am, and let the good times roll with the heads.” “Living” by Scott R. Jones, is a straightforward tale of rising tension and suspense, in which it is left to the reader to decide what happens at the end. I know what I think happened and it isn’t pretty. Jones chooses to riff on the section in Mary Shelley’s book where the creature talks to his creator; in “Living,” an enhanced super-soldier shares some insights about her existence, while she is on her way to kill the man who directed the program that created her. She remembers the parts of the other soldiers, her comrades, who were used to assemble her, and identifies with one in particular: a poet. As you would expect, the “monster” in this story is not the soldier, and the horror comes from the particular changes the program used to ensure that their enhanced assassins would enjoy killing and torturing. “Living” is short, with a good balance between the scenes where Tusk, the director, is hiding and the narration of the soldier. It packs a punch.
The tone of “Torso, Head, Heart” by Amber-Rose Reed is more sad than horrifying, and I think editor Ross Lockhart chose it as the book’s opener for that reason. Reed walks us through the final moments of the lives of the people who, er, donated organs and parts to Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment. These vignettes share language that is poetic and firmly rooted in reality, whether it is the bar where a brawler meets his end, the forge of a town blacksmith, or the last steps of a heart-broken suicide. It’s done well.
Several of the stories nod to the 1932 movie Frankenstein, directed by James Whale. Both “Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet,” by Orrin Grey, and “The Un-Bride; or No Gods or Marxists,” by Anya Martin, pay outright homage to the director. “Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet” will take late baby-boomers back in time to TV shows like Creature Features, low-budget TV shows where hosts assumed the personae of horror characters and introduced cheap black-and-white horror flicks.
In this story, told in the second person, the child watching the show admires and loves Baron von Werewolf. Baron von Werewolf is a student of cinema and this particular day he is providing a rare gem of a film. The Baron loves stop-action, and he loved the movie King Kong. That director, Willis O’Brien, always wanted to make a movie called King Kong vs Frankenstein. He was never able to, but today, Baron von Werewolf will show a film made by one of his protégés, a woman named Gabriela Moreno, who was a master of stop-action. The film is very, very rare, the film host stresses, and the person who obtains it pays a great price for it. Then the film rolls. Grey’s descriptions are crisp and evocative, interspersed with reactions and thoughts from the boy watching (because I think Orrin Grey is male I defaulted to “boy”). The most chilling line in the story comes at the end, and von Werewolf’s plaintive, “Please. Not in front of the kids?” is horrifying indeed. Grey blends homage to the film-makers and creature-feature hosts with a touch of Ray Bradbury in this one.
In “The Un-Bride, No Gods or Marxists,” our narrator is none other than Elsa Lanchester, who played the Bride of Frankenstein in that movie. Elsa relates a tale of gigolos turned spies, murdered maidens, dead bodies and devastating plans to reanimate them. I loved the twists and turns, and the way Martin captured an authentic and lively voice for Elsa. This was suspenseful and scary, but not horrifying, and would not be out of place in an alternate history anthology or any action-adventure publication. It also fits perfectly here.
Lockhart made a place for some genuinely surreal works and some pastiches. Rios de la Luz provides a vivid and nightmarish tale with “Orchids by the Sea,” in which a man brings body parts to a house marked with crucifixes, bibles, and “pictures of blue-eyed Jesus.” He builds a figure and reanimates it with electricity, telling the woman who awakens that he chose the body parts from suicides, because they sinned by playing God. He will give them the chance to die in the right way. The writing has an ethereal quality but the descriptions are graphic, and things to do not go the way the reanimator intended. There is a nice irony that the “creator,” punishing others for playing God, doesn’t seem to think that this is what he did. This is a lovely and deeply disturbing work.
In “The Human Alchemy” (Michael Griffin), a successful physician couple invite the bartender at the local bar to their beautiful home in the hills of central Oregon. Both physicians are plastic surgeons; the husband has had a scandal in his past, and as the three of them talk over glasses of perfect wine and admire the breath-taking views from the house, it becomes clear that there is more to the bartender, Aurye, than we saw at first. I thought the character of Aurye read as older than the age we are given for her in the story, and when her secret is revealed it was too subtle for me to understand. The conversation spirals around to Paracelsus and alchemy, enhancements and improvements, and the types of things that are forbidden by society even though medically possible. The center of this story is not creepy medicine, though; it’s a more metaphysical concept of an un-healing wound. The prose is polished and lush, and the ideas are intriguing, but I just didn’t understand this story.
In “Sewn Into Her Fingers,” by Autumn Christian, the narrator tells us in the opening paragraph that he grew a girl in his laboratory, as a personal project, a toy. He works for Indigo Labs, which has perfected the growing of human avatars, used mostly to re-create the bodies of people who died, to provide a substitute and comfort for the survivors. That’s creepy enough; the journey this character makes with the person he creates — who, despite his intentions, is a person — is seriously disturbing. The story raises questions of memory, identity and personhood, and also disturbs us viscerally as the constructed woman lashes out, damaging herself because she cannot reach her creator. The end is suitable for the kind of dystopian horror of this kind of story.
It’s hard to imagine Frankenstein’s creature these days without considering Artificial Intelligence, and “The Frankenstein Triptych,” Edward Morris’s trio of events, tackles it. In the first vignette an educational robot/doll’s subroutine does not shut down at the appointed time. In the second, an AI Ground Recon Unit (Grunt) in a war zone tries to fulfill its mission. I loved the point of view in this section and how simplistic Morris keeps it. The third section is cold and tragic, as an unfeeling military takes action against the “children” it has created for space exploration, while the human person who cared for them is powerless.
Both “Wither on the Vine; or Strickfaden’s Monster,” (Nathan Carson) and “The New Soviet Man” (G.D. Falksen) are pastiches of the pulp age of action adventure. “Wither on the Vine” completely captures the feel of something out of Amazing Stories, and even name-checks Hugo Gernsbach, as our hero, Strickfaden, an engineer and regular guy, starts on a cross-country trip at the end of World War II. Partway across Utah he has car trouble, and when he finds a service station he has a random encounter with a boy and his father. That encounter changes Strickfaden’s life as he is invited to the man’s house, to work on a top-secret project that involves Strickfaden’s hero, Nikola Tesla. In short order Strickfaden has met a disturbing pair of sisters and seen several women in the compound who are not shaped like ordinary women. The story has a breezy tone that is right for the period and the type of tale; it is complicated enough, with a heroic woman secondary character and great descriptions. Tesla is more of a showman —and a con man — than scientific genius here, but it all works.
Falksen’s “The New Soviet Man” has a darker narrative quality. It is set in Siberia, where Captain Sergeyev and his bruiser assistant Kirilov come to a gulag to inspect the scientific work being done there. As an officer of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Sergeyev has a great deal of power, and a lot of suspicions, since the work of the scientist who runs the gulag cannot be replicated. Dr. Zapadov was a war hero, but Sergeyev has no patience for what happened in the past, and there are too many unanswered questions at the combination prison/coalmine/experimental laboratory. Zapadov greets him with a slender young woman who he identifies as his assistant; she is lovely except for some strange scarring around her wrists and arms. Sergeyev immediately figures out that she will be Zapadov’s weak point. Zapadov’s statement that he can rewire the brains of humans so that they will be loyal to the Soviet Union, completely, is met with skepticism, but Sergeyev and Kirilov soon find out just how effective Zapadov’s methods are. This is a “biter bit” story, with Falksen’s descriptions of landscape, exterior and interior, providing a shivery realism.
Kristi DeMeester explores parents who project their own needs onto their children in “The Beautiful Thing We Will Become.” Mary Anne’s mother has foisted her own body-image issues onto her daughter, while Katrina’s widowed father imagines something far darker for his child. For now, he contents himself with harvesting her skin. In spite of the terror of this, Mary Anne is drawn to Katrina’s house and her life. This is a dark tale of how easily we can internalize oppression, as, in the end, Mary Anne at least believes she has made the choice to participate in what is happening. Katrina’s final word to her in the story shows us what both girls are willing to endure in order to be together.
This is not the only story with teenaged girls. Both “They Call Me Monster” (Tiffany Scandal) and “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice” (Damien Angelica Walters) address the terrors of high school. How much worse would high school be for a student if she were also a re-made person? These two stories each answer that question, and there is another similarity; in both stories, it is the girl’s mother who is the “Dr. Frankenstein.” In “They Call Me Monster,” Imelda is conscious of birthday cakes, lots of new schools, and the fact that her body is covered with scars. Other children call her “Freak” and “Worm Girl,” the latter because of the shape of one of her scars. Eventually the bullying gets so bad that they move to another school district, another town, and then another and another. In Buffalo, Imelda meets Fiona, who doesn’t mock her or trick her. Is it possible Fiona can be a real friend?
In “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice,” for Tara, the re-made girl who becomes the target of a trio of popular mean girls, the answer to that is a resounding “No.” The story is told in the form of an investigative interview (we see the answers only) of one the three, after something has happened. The narrator tells us that Madison started it, because she wanted to cut off Tara’s hand. Why? Well, to prove what Tara was, of course! She goes on to explain that Tara was average looking in the ninth grade, but when tenth grade started, she was different. She smelled funny, like a hospital, she was angry and strong… and then here are the stitches. The pitch-perfect clueless tone of the narrative voice makes a fairly predictable mean-girl story line shine… and Tara is not just an innocent victim. She did not choose this life and she has her own agenda. The chilling moment in this story comes when the narrator says that Tara told her that her own part in the “Frankenstein” story they are playing out is that of Justine. Our narrator has never read Shelley’s book, she so has no idea that Justine was convicted of a murder committed by the creature… but we do.
(There is a “Miss DeMeester” in “Sugar and Spice.” I believe it’s a shout-out to the author of “The Beautiful Thing We Will Become.” Furthermore, I have a theory that the three writers of the stories with teenaged girls at their centers all know one another and used the same writing prompt to get these different results. I have no evidence for that, but that’s what I think.)
“The sans-culottes march in irregular groups, singing. Some carry pikes. Some carry bottles. Nobody minds the monsters.” “Thermidor” by Siobahn Carroll also springs from the name Justine, but pivots from Germany to France and from Dr. Frankenstein to the Marquis de Sade. In the midst of the French revolution, Justine, a re-made woman, assists a small group of experimenters who are reanimating others. The re-made females are often given as toys to the Marquis, who is part of the group. Justine was tortured by him, and a newly reanimated woman is too. Justine observes the torture inflicted on the new woman without overt emotion, because Justine does not consider the body she inhabits to be hers. Throughout the story, Justine (she is the Justine, from Shelley’s novel) imagines parts of her body in various places; her hands on a rocky shingle of beach, for instance. It isn’t until she accepts the re-made body as her own that she begins to act in her own interest. “Thermidor” deliberately mirrors a particular point in the French Revolution and that is signaled in the title. The story ends with a powerful, evocative scene. This is powerfully written, emotionally difficult to read, and worth reading twice. Before I read the story the second time, that final passage of Justine at the head of liberated army of “monsters,” haunted me. After the second read, it continued to haunt me.
The book wraps up with a novella by David Templeton called “Mary Shelley’s Body.” Mary Shelley is the narrator, and the story begins with her death. Shelley finds her discarnate self in a cemetery, unable to leave it. She wonders why she is trapped, and begins reviewing her life in the hopes of finding the clue that will allow her to move. Templeton is a playwright and he has trained his ear to the spoken word, and that strength makes this piece work. Shelley is smart, sad, and dryly funny.
“…I really must say it. I don’t believe in ghosts.
Never since childhood.
And I take exception at being a thing I do not believe in.”
Later, Shelley comments that whatever happened with her husband Percy, she always had his heart. It’s in her desk drawer, and will probably give her daughter-in-law a bit of a shock.
The novella is a bit too long for the story, giving us lots of detail about Shelley’s childhood, her scandalous liaison with Percy before his wife died and they were able to marry, and their jaunts around Europe with no money. There is a story, though, a tragic and horrifying one, in the best tradition of Frankenstein itself. At the end, Mary does come to realize why she has not moved on, and what she must do. I enjoyed this, and wish it had been shorter.
Lockhart is an insightful and meticulous editor who often picks stories that seem to be in dialogue with each other. I have reviewed these stories out of sequence but even so you can see how some inform others. Like a good selection, there is a type of horror story for every horror reader. If you like Frankenstein, if you wonder about the capability, and morality, of humans creating human life, you should check out Eternal Frankenstein.