Ben Percy: She does not know what's happening outside right this minute, as a small brigade of vehicles, the armored vans, the black sedans with government plates, appear at the end of her block with their headlights off. She lives in a wooded neighborhood, each house set back on a half-acre lot. There are not streetlights, no sidewalk. <music fades> The vehicles purr to a stop. Their doors swing open but do not close. Any noise that might bring Claire to the window, the stomp of boots along the asphalt, the clatter of assault rifles and ammunition clips, is muffled by the steady snowfall, a white shroud thrown over the night. She doesn't know about the tall man in the black suit and black necktie, his skull as hairless as a stone, who stands next to his black Lincoln Town Car. She doesn't know that he has his hands tucked into his pockets or that the snow is melting against his scalp and dripping down his face, or that he is smiling slightly. She doesn't know that her father and mother are sitting at the kitchen table, drinking their way through a bottle of Merlot, not holding but squeezing each other's hands in reassurance as they watch CNN, the coverage of what the president called "a coordinated terror attack directed at the heart of America." So she does not know that. When the front door kicks open, splintering along its hinges, her father is holding the remote in his hand, a long, black remote that could be mistaken for a weapon. She does not know that he stands up so suddenly his chair tips over and clatters to the floor. That he screams, "No," and holds up his hand, the hand gripping the remote, and points it at the men as they come rushing through the entryway. The dark rectangle of night, with snow fluttering around them like damp, shredded paper. She only knows when she hears the crash, the screams, the rattle of gunfire, that she must run.
That was Benjamin Percy, reading from his novel Red Moon. And this is Art works the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. In thinking about this podcast, I realized Halloween was approaching and that over the years, I’ve spoken with authors who have taken monsters as their focal points and have woven tales of horror with them that are oddly pertinent. So, our Halloween gift to you is a compilation of those podcasts dealing with all manner of the supernatural--beginning with Ben Percy’s 2013 interview about his book Red Moon--a book particularly apt for this moment.
Red Moon begins like a coming of age story. But Percy creates an alternative universe inhabited by humans and werewolves. The werewolves came into being through an infection or prion, and they're capable of passing that infection to humans by biting them. The werewolves viewed with suspicion and treated like second-class citizens. They are forbidden to transform and medicated to suppress their Lupin urges. The extremists among them react to the oppression with acts of terrorism. Again, elements that are very familiar to us and yet are not. So what inspired Ben Percy to write Red Moon.
Ben Percy: Some of my favorite fantasy stories, some of the most resonant fantasy stories, channel cultural unease. And when I sat down a few years ago to build this plot, I was thinking about that. I was thinking about what we fear right now. And we fear two things. We fear infection, and you need only look to the entryway of any business in America or the countertop in any business of America to see the Purell oozing from it as evidence of that. And we fear too, terrorism, as the aftermath of the Boston bombing marathon so sadly reminded us. So terrorism and infection. I braided these two things together and took a knife to the nerve of the moment. Just as, say, Godzilla channeled cultural unease in the post-atomic era, or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" channeled the Red Scare. Or Frankenstein channeled anxiety swirling around the Industrial Revolution, the fear of man playing God, the fear of science and technology. So in this alternate universe, everything is the same, in "Red Moon," except for one thing. And that is that the infected live among us. And this began in Prehistoric times, when an animal-borne pathogen that is the equivalent of chronic wasting disease or mad cow disease, leaps out of the wolf population and mutates in its human host. If you fast forward to today, roughly five percent of the population is infected, and they have, throughout time, been marginalized and treated as the other. So this disease targets the mind, and they are particularly vulnerable to rage and sexual impulse, a heightening of the adrenal glands. And as a result of this, they are part of a public registry equivalent to a sex offenders list. They are unable to hold certain jobs. They have been subjected to genocide throughout history, and been pushed to the corner throughout history, and now in this time, there is, of course, an uprising. And in response to this uprising, a swift government response, which makes this I guess you could say a post-9/11 reinvention of the werewolf myth.
Jo Reed: Why werewolves? I'd like you to talk specifically about why it mutated into werewolves in your novel.
Ben Percy: Well, I have always been fascinated with the myth of the werewolf. I have, I guess you could say, a history with the werewolf. And I can remember the time when I was in kindergarten and pulled off the library shelf the Universal Studios book of monsters, and paused on the page with Lon Chaney, Junior, as the Wolf Man, with his ridiculous, hoggish nose and pompadour and shag carpeting hair. You know, I was enchanted and I was terrified, and I didn't sleep that night. And the next day I came back to the library and I pulled the book off the shelf again. And later on in sixth grade, I still have this artifact. I wrote a paper, a research paper, called "Werewolves!" with an exclamation mark. That's how excited I was about the subject matter. And it had a table of contents that was only five pages long, and the final subsection was called "The Ceremony of the Wolf." And in that section, I attempted to transform myself in my backyard beneath a full moon. And I received a B-minus on this paper, which is one of the--
Jo Reed: A B-minus?
Ben Percy: Which is one of the many reasons it feels so good to hold the book in my hand today and say, "In your face, Mrs. Zegenhagen."
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Ben Percy: So I have this background, but I'm also interested just in the way that the wolf, the werewolf myth, is how we can all relate to it. How we all, due to rage or exhaustion, too much to drink, drugs, have been pushed into the abyss and we have lost all inhibitions. And this happens sometimes when the shades, you know, the shades are down. When we remember that time when we were all wolves ranging the woods so long ago. So I'm tapping into that in the same way that Jekyll and Hyde did, in the same way that the Incredible Hulk does. You know, it's the idea of the unleashed id, the wildness barely changed inside of all of us.
Jo Reed: Why do you think there is such a focus on this in popular culture? Do you see a relationship between the werewolf and the vampire, which, obviously through the "Twilight" series, but then also this plethora of zombie novels?
Ben Percy: Well, I think the vampire has always been most popular because the vampire is aspirational in a way that the zombie and werewolf are not. People like the idea of being able to live forever, even if it comes with corpse-y breath. And people like the idea of the sort of sexiness surrounding the vampire myth. And vampires have always appealed to us for those reasons and more. But the zombie and the werewolf I guess are a little less aspirational. Nobody wants to be hairier. Nobody wants to be rotten and staggering. But it seems like the werewolf and the zombie, especially if you look maybe at the zombie in George Romero's work, the zombie is oftentimes metaphoric, allegorical. Look at the way the "Night of the Living Dead" taps into the Civil Rights Movement, look at the way that "Dawn of the Dead" taps into the rise of consumerism in the ‘80s. Look at the way that "Day of the Dead" taps into Cold War anxieties, and you'll see that. So I guess the larger point is that oftentimes through fantasy we have a mirror held up to society, a mirror with a crack running through it. We're able to see ourselves and sometimes it's easier to see ourselves and to approach difficult subjects through fantasy, through the haze of fantasy. Whereas anything that might deal with, say, the war in Iraq, or any hot-button topic, say, like racism or capital punishment or whatever. If you approach this directly, there's always that worry about it being polemical. And there's always that baggage that the audience carries with them where they're unable to sort of believe in the characters because they're so worried about the author using them as sort of sock puppets for their own beliefs.
Jo Reed: That was author Ben Percy from 2013 interview about his novel Red Moon an apt novel for today written by someone who could find a second job as a voiceover actor specializing in horror. This is the Halloween edition of Art Works, and we move from werewolves to zombies.
Male Voice: "The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Driven by the need to preserve the first-hand experiences from those apocalyptic years while they still exist in living memory; Max Brooks traveled across the planet to find and record the testimony of men, women and sometimes children who came face to face with the living, or at least the undead. Hell of that terrible time. World War Z is the result. Some of these voices were chosen for the uniqueness of the perspectives and information they provide, others are included because they speak for hundreds of millions who were forever silenced. Never before have we had access to a recording that powerfully conveys the fear and horror and also the brave spirit of resistance that gripped human society through the plague years."
Jo Reed: That's opening of the audio book version of World War Z : An Oral History of the Zombie War. It was written by Max Brooks. You'd have to be dead or living under a rock not realize the cultural zeitgeist around the undead. Well, writer Max Brooks is not a late arrival to this particular party. He's been writing about Zombies for nearly two decades. The son of comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft, Max has written The Zombie Survival Guide, the hugely successful World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a comic book series about Vampires and Zombies called Extinction Parade, and quite a few others. And even though Max Brooks has written for Saturday Night Live among other varied projects, he is a genuine zombiephile…one of the originals… and again as I relistened to the interview, I was surprised by how much his work, his obsession with zombies addressed this moment. When we spoke in 2014, I asked him the obvious question: Why Zombies?
Max Brooks: I will begin with an obvious answer: Fear.
Jo Reed: Okay, and I'm glad you answered that way because I hate being scared and yours is the first zombie book I've ever read so that was a very interesting experience, but why choose to confront your fear that way?
Max Brooks: Well I didn't choose to confront my fear. The fear was already there, sitting in the room. I am extremely OCD and when I'm obsessed with something it's just there so literally at some point I had to set my fear down and be like "Look. I can't get you to move out so we're going to have to establish some ground rules" and that was Zombie Survival Guide.
Jo Reed: And it was always zombies.
Max Brooks: There were many, many fears but zombies to me were particularly unique in that you didn't have to go find them in that every other sort of monster movie begins with a group of young, good-looking Caucasian Americans making a bad choice and looking for trouble whereas most zombie stories you can be minding your own business and it surges up around you and destroys the world. And I think for me that's also what makes zombies unique is that in a zombie plague you're just as likely to die from dehydration, starvation, infection, accidents as you are from ever confronting a zombie.
Jo Reed: Obviously, society has kind of followed you down the rabbit hole of zombie-ism. Why do you think we really have become so intrigued with the notion of these undead who eat us?
Max Brooks: Without sounding I think too narcissistic I think in large respect the public at large their level of anxiety has caught up to where I always have lived. I think we're living in very uncertain times. I think there is a high level of uncertainty and anxiety among the general populace and we haven't seen that since the 1970s when there really was a feeling, subconscious and conscious, that the system was breaking down. And I think that's how people feel now and I think people need a place to explore those anxieties in what I consider a safe way because if you face the breakdown of society and it's too real then instinctively you want to turn away. And I think when you see a zombie story you're seeing the exact same thing you would see in a genuine outbreak or a Hurricane Katrina but because the catalyst of that is fictional you're able to examine it.
Jo Reed: And process it and discuss it.
Max Brooks: Exactly. If you go into a cocktail party and you say, "Hey, how would you guys all prepare for a zombie outbreak?" you could have a very lively, spirited, intelligent conversation about things like bottled water, first aid, having a radio, getting to know your neighbors and it would all be fun and easy but at the same time it would be real. Try that if you go to a cocktail party and say, "Hey, how are we all going to survive the next pandemic?" You're going to clear the room.
Jo Reed: When did you begin writing the Zombie Survival Guide?
Max Brooks: In the '90s.
Jo Reed: In the '90s, and what was going on in the broader scheme of things that inspired that book particularly?
Max Brooks: Y2K. I think that there was a growing anxiety that the good times inevitably had to come to a crashing halt and I think Y2K was where everybody put those fears and there was a lot of survivalist prepper mentality starting to bubble, and I always read that stuff anyway growing up in southern California and I was looking for a book, oh, how would I survive a zombie plague, and there was not one so I thought well, I'll just write it for me. I really never thought it was going to be published.
Jo Reed: You kept on going and suddenly it was published and you were not so happy; the publisher put it under the heading of humor.
Max Brooks: Yeah. That was a marketing decision which had nothing to do with me. I think that they didn't know what to make of this book. I think they thought well, clearly Brooks is not that much of a loser and a nerd and a weirdo that he's really thought about this. Clearly, he's doing it to make fun of those people and oh, by the way, he's Mel Brooks' son and he's just coming off a stint on SNL for which his team won the Emmy so clearly this is a work of witty satire to which I said to them, "No. I'm really that nerdy and uncool."
Jo Reed: Yeah. There is no question that Zombie Survival Guide is a survival guide. It is very well researched and very well documented, which was one of the most surprising things for me as a reader. That was not what I expected.
Max Brooks: No. It's funny. When the galley copies came out I was still on Saturday Night Live and a few of my friends there were flipping through it and one of the writers was flipping through it and he looked at me and said, "This is a real book." And I said, "Yeah. This isn't a joke book." Putting it in the comedy section really hamstrung it for a while because my people, my tribe, sci fi nerds, horror nerds, we're a very insecure lot and I knew that since they didn't know me they had the assumption that Mel Brooks' brat was making fun of them, and so I went to magazines like Fangoria and did zombie lectures where I tried to prove my worth and say, "No, no, no, I'm one of you."
Jo Reed: You had to get up your sci fi creds.
Max Brooks: Yeah, I literally had to get my street cred. It was like running for office. I had to say, "No, no, this is-- I am not making fun of the zombie genre. I am truly one of you" so that was a job for a little while, and then when it came time to write another zombie book that's where World War Z came from.
Jo Reed: And from the beginning, it's told as an oral history, it has footnotes throughout it, and it's told from multiple points of view without one main narrator. Tell me why you used this model.
Max Brooks: Well,I mean I was into zombies so George Romero inspired me to be afraid of zombies—
Jo Reed: And George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, which is probably the only horror movie I've ever seen in my life and probably explains why I will not see another.
Max Brooks: Oh, it ain't got nothin' on his next movie, Dawn of the Dead. So Romero started it for me and it was because of Romero that I didn't want to write just a simple zombie adventure story 'cause in my mind Romero had already done it and had done a better job than I ever could have done. I wanted to tell a bigger story, a global story. Zombies are truly a global crisis and so whenever I would see a zombie story that had tactical-- a small group of people trying to survive I always had bigger questions, "What's the government doing? What are other governments doing?", and I just set out to answer these questions.
Jo Reed: Max set out to answer a different set of zombie related questions in his comic book series The Extinction Parade…which based on a short story he had written.
Max Brooks: Well, on the surface The Extinction Parade is about a zombie outbreak told through the eyes of vampires, very simple, vampires versus zombies instead of humans versus zombies. The vampires suddenly have to confront the fact that their one food source, the humans, are being eaten out from under them so what do they do, but that's not really what it's about. What it's about is the price you pay for privilege is when you are handed everything you are robbed of the survival mechanism. I truly do believe that for most of us and also as a species our greatest strengths come from compensating for our greatest weaknesses, but what if you had a species that was given everything. I like to say the vampires had bad parents, they had Father Time and Mother Nature, and these parents spoiled them and gave them all these amazing gifts, speed, strength, agility, the ability to heal rapidly, immortality. So they never had to work, they never had to struggle, they never had to strive, they never felt fear and loss and helplessness, and they were always at the top, and then suddenly comes this existential crisis, the zombie horde that is eating away their food source, can they adapt when they have no history of adapting, can they organize, prioritize when they have no history of doing any of that. I want to tell a story of what happens when a group which has always believed itself to be invincible is suddenly confronted with crisis because my vampires are arrogant and they are entitled and they are completely coddled and as apex predators at the top of the food chain they've never known fear and that's very important. I was speaking at Pitzer College where I graduated from and I said to these kids, "You have this expression 'epic fail.' What you don't know or what most of you might not know is that failing epically is a really good thing because if you don't fail epically you'll never learn from your mistakes and you'll never grow and you'll never know what needs to be worked on, and clearly my vampires have never had that until the zombie plague, and is it too late? I don't know. because it's a journey of self-discovery. Every time these vampires come up against a new challenge they realize something about themselves, they realize a new flaw that they didn't even know they had.
Jo Reed: That was Max Brooks talking about a trio of his works: The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z and The Extinction Parade….It’s the Halloween show from Art Works. Well, we’ve talked about werewolves, zombies, and vampires….we can’t leave out the granddaddy of them all--one of the lynchpins of horror….the creature created by Dr. Frankenstein.
Kiersten White: It’s funny, because a lot of people think that they know the Frankenstein story and they have this idea of it in their head, whether from the movies or from reading it when they were younger and then when they re-read it, a, yeah, they realize that Victor’s a weasel. And, b, a lot of people are surprised at how eloquent and tragic the monster is, because they get sort of the lumbering almost mute, groaning, green Frankenstein monster in their heads. But in the book, he speaks like a poet. He speaks like he’s straight out of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. And he’s very heartbreaking, because he so eloquently expresses how he has become a monster and it’s not because he was made that way. It’s because he never found anyone to love him and he was rejected from the moment he gained awareness and that turned him into a monster. That is the reason why we still talk about Frankenstein, why we still re-make Frankenstein, why it’s still part of the public consciousness.
Jo Reed: That was writer Kiersten White. She’s the author of The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein in which Kiersten retells Mary Shelley’s classic. In White’s book, we get the story from Elizabeth Lavenza—the childhood companion and then wife of scientist Victor Frankenstein. Kiersten White closely follows the outline of Shelley’s Frankenstein, but by changing the point of view to Elizabeth, we get another story entirely about Victor Frankenstein, the creature, and Elizabeth herself. When I spoke with Kiersten in 2018, I began by asking her why retell Mary Shelley’s classic tale
Kiersten White: Because I’ve loved Frankenstein for so long and I really, really love Mary Shelley and I find her so fascinating. So, I knew immediately that I wanted to do it and I wanted to do very direct re-telling. I didn’t want to do a modern re-imagining or anything like that. I wanted to do an actual direct re-telling that was very much a conversation with the original. And, whenever I engage with media, with films, or with books, particularly with the older texts, I generally go in looking like, “Where are the women?” because women aren’t usually there and if they are there, they’re not interesting. And Mary Shelly herself was so dynamic and so fascinating that it’s always almost hurt me a little bit that the women in her book are so uninteresting. They’re very, very one note. And they really exist just to be these beautiful, angelic victims of the hubris and arrogance of the men around them. And, so, I very quickly settled on re-telling the book from Elizabeth Lavenza’s point of view.
Jo Reed: Until I re-read your book, and I’m embarrassed to say, I had a hard time remembering who Elizabeth was.
Kiersten White: Yes!
Jo Reed: Other than Mrs. Frankenstein.
Kiersten White: Yes! No, that is such a common reaction, which when you realize that she’s the bride in Frankenstein. She’s murdered dramatically on their wedding night, which is a spoiler but is a 200-year-old spoiler, so, I don’t feel that bad. It’s fascinating to me how people don’t remember her and I think that’s testimony to the fact that she’s a very unmemorable character, which is really odd, because in the book she has this really bizarre backstory. And, so, the fact that she is so one note and such sort of the stock character that people don’t remember her is really fascinating and really sad to me.
Jo Reed: Let’s go through it a little bit. Elizabeth Lavenza is Victor Frankenstein’s bride.
Kiersten White: Yes.
Jo Reed: Tell us a little bit about the backstory that Mary Shelley presents about Elizabeth.
Kiersten White: Yeah, so, it’s really fascinating. Elizabeth’s backstory is that the Frankenstein’s are on vacation at Lake Como and they’re touring the forest and they find a hovel with all these starving dirty children, but one of the kids is really beautiful. So, they take her! And Madam Frankenstein presents Elizabeth Lavenza to Victor as a gift! Elizabeth is four or five years old and she’s presented as a gift to another child to be his companion and his friend and his future bride. And, first of all, that’s messed up. But it’s really fascinating, because they never adopt her. She has no legal claim on the family. So, she’s really just sort of there, because they want her to be; and that to me as a women was terrifying. As I was reading that I thought, “Oh, man!” First of all, being given as a gift to another child would mess you up, but then also having known poverty and having known extreme want and then being put into a position where you have enough to eat and you have beautiful clothes and you have an education, but none of it belongs to you and it could all be gone in a heartbeat, if they decided they didn’t like you. Like, what kind of person would that turn you into? And I think for me was the key to unlocking who I felt Elizabeth Lavenza was, because, yes, she presents to the world this beautiful, angelic, kind persona, but she does that as a matter of survival, which I think a lot of women can really relate to.
Jo Reed: Remind us who Victor Frankenstein is in Mary Shelley’s novel other than the scientist who created the monster.
Kiersten White: So, Victor Frankenstein in the novel is this young, brilliant scientist and he from a very young age is very motivated and very anxious to sort of defy the bounds of nature and humanity. He feels very sort of bound in by the people around him and by society and he wants to defy everything and everyone, including God. And, so, he goes to university and he begins his own course of study and over the course of several years through very hand-wavy science that he says he’s not going to tell us about, because he doesn’t want anybody to re-create it, he creates a monster. He creates life, brings it to life, and then is like, “Oh, dang, shouldn’t have done that.” And, so, Victor--
Jo Reed: He “Oh, dang, shouldn’t have done that,” very early on.
Kiersten White: Yes!
Kiersten White: Very early on.
Jo Reed: I’m just saying. Like, the creature opened his eyes and Victor was “Uh-oh.”
Kiersten White: Yeah, yeah. That’s very typical of Victor. Like, he gets very obsessive about things, and then as soon as they go wrong he’s like, “Well, I’m going to fall into a fever for a few weeks and forget everything that happened and when I wake up hopefully everything’s just okay.” He’s arrogant, he wants to do something just to see whether or not he can do it, but as soon as things get hard or scary or not what he thought they were going to be, he cuts loose and he runs. And the book basically is exploring the consequences of what happens when creators fail to care for the things that they have created.
Jo Reed: And that’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it’s not like you don’t think about that as well. Your Victor is very similar, but a bit different at the same time.
Kiersten White: Yes. Yeah. So, my Victor is the version that other people would see. He would definitely tell you that version of himself, that he’s a misunderstood genius and was really just doing it all for the good of mankind. But we know people like that and the way that they present themselves and the way they mythologize themselves is not necessarily the way that people in their lives are going to know about them or have seen them. I feel like Mary Shelley’s theme of Frankenstein is what makes a monster? And my question that I was exploring was “who makes a monster?” And, so, I focused much more on Victor than on the creature itself.
Jo Reed: Well, why don’t we hear a little bit of it? I know you have your book with you. What are you going to read?
Kiersten White: Yes, okay, so I’m going to read a portion from Chapter 8. What has happened is Elizabeth has gone to Ingolstadt to find Victor. He’s been gone and not communicating with them for a couple of years now and she’s very concerned that his father is going to decide that she no longer has a use in their family. So, Elizabeth has found Victor, who conveniently is in the midst of a fever, and bundled him off to the doctor, but she stayed behind because she’s really worried that Victor has lost his mind and that if people know that he’s insane he’ll be committed and she won’t have her protector. So, this is Elizabeth searching his lab.
Excerpt from The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein:
The sound of rain hitting an ever-deepening puddle competed with the wild pounding of my heart to make music of discord and chaos. In place of a symphony to accompany me there was a stench.
A stench of things rotten.
A stench of things dead.
And above and around it all, burning fumes that made me couch and gag.
I pulled out a handkerchief and covered my nose and mouth, wishing I could cover my stinging eyes, as well. But I needed them.
The dripping noises were different up here, though. Now that I was in the room, they had a faint metallic quality, hitting something other than the warped and blackened wood floors. In the center of the room, illuminated by the cloud-choked day, a pool of water rippled and shifted, gathering in the center of a table before dripping off the sides to meet with the water on the floor. The table was situated directly beneath the open roof panels.
I stepped closer. Broken glass crunched beneath my boots. The table had held my attention, but now that I looked down, I saw that the entire room was littered with shattered glass containers. Someone had gone to a tremendous amount of trouble to break everything in here.
Most of the larger glass pieces were sticky and wet with whatever had been held inside. It smelled to me like some death-tainted form of vinegar. Chemicals that preserve yet corrupt in equal measure.
Some of the glass remains bore... other substances. Gelatinous mounds on the floor. Poor, sad pieces of--
I pulled my gaze away. Something about the nearest spill made my eyes refuse to focus on it. It had no recognizable form, and yet I knew-- I knew-- I did not want to look at it.
My boots crunched and scraped as shards of glass embedded in their soles. I crept toward the table. Whether because it was the center of the room or because it was the best-illuminated feature, I was drawn toward it, pulled on a current.
The table itself was metal, as large as a family dining table. Around it were various apparatuses I did not know the meaning or use of. They looked complicated, all gears and wires and delicate tubing. And every one, like the glass containers, had been smashed beyond repair.
A pole, also metal, wrapped around in some sort of copper wiring, extended from the head of the table to the windows in the roof. But it, too, had been warped. It was bent, the wires dislodged and hanging from it like hair ripped from a doll’s head.
The water pooling on the table was thicker and darker along the edges, as if rust had been pushed outward. It smelled sharp and metallic, but with something organic beneath it all. Something like--
I pulled my finger back from where I was about to touch the near-black stains.
It smelled almost like blood. But whether the water dilution or the chemicals in the room had affected it, I did not know. Because I knew the scent of blood. And this was so close, yet different in a way that repulsed me more than anything else here.
‘What were you doing, Victor?’ I whispered.”
Jo Reed: That is Kiersten White reading from her book, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, a re-telling of Frankenstein, told from the point of view of Mrs. Frankenstein, Mrs. Elizabeth Frankenstein.
Remind us of how the original Frankenstein came together. I am sure many people know it, but it’s such a wonderful story, it always bears re-telling.
Kiersten White: Yes, oh, it is such a great story. Okay, hHer husband was the poet Percy Shelley. She had lost their first baby and they had another baby. And they were in Europe and they were at Lake Geneva and they were staying in a hotel and into the hotel walks another poet, Lord Byron, complete with his menagerie that he travelled with, with like animals and a monkey and a doctor. We do not travel in style like Lord Byron did. And they kind of hit it off. And they all got together in a villa and were going to do boating and hiking, but it was raining. And, so, the two poets, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, were like, “Hey, let’s have a writing contest: Who can write the best scary story?” And Mary took if very seriously. She felt a tremendous amount of pressure, given her own literary heritage and her husband, and she really wanted to be a writer. And she wanted to prove herself worthy of her mother’s legacy and her husband’s expectations. And another thing you should know about Mary Shelley is she read very widely. She read novels, she read poetry, she read politics, and she also read science. And there was a popular theory at the time called galvanism. And it was the idea that electric currents could bring dead tissue back to life. And they had some false success with it. And she had read those articles with great interest.
So, keeping in mind that and then the fact that she’d very recently lost a baby and was tormented by nightmares of holding this baby and realizing that it was still alive, only to wake up and remember that her infant was dead and would always be dead. So she thought and she thought and she could not come up with an idea. So she went to bed. And while she was sleeping she had this sort of nightmare of this monstrous life this monstrous cadaver that was very obviously a dead thing, opening its eyes and coming to life and sitting up. And she woke up in a panic, certain that she could feel it watching her. And immediately she knew what she was going to write about. And she stared writing that day. And she continued writing this whole time they were at Geneva and then for several months after until she had finished the book. And, together with Percy, she edited it. And it was actually published anonymously within a very short time period. So, it was just this idea that just grasped her and would not let her go till she finished it.
Jo Reed: And it’s an idea continues to inflame our imaginations…That was Kiersten White. She wrote the The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. This has been Halloween with Art Works—a look at the ways different authors have used the iconography of monsters to tackle current issues. We also heard from Ben Percy and Max Brooks…you can find the full interviews with all three authors at arts.gov.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.
In this podcast, we’re marking Halloween by revisiting interviews with authors who have created work that focus on monsters. We hit all the major horror figures with NEA literature fellow Ben Percy (werewolves), Max Brooks (zombies and vampires) and Kiersten White (the Frankenstein monster). All of the writers are entranced by the creatures they explore—but they also find them oddly safe, non-polemical images that inflame the imagination and lend themselves to explorations of anxiety, stratification, privilege, sexism and yes, pandemics.