The Vintage Bookshelf · Vintage Entertainment

Frankenstein: A Vintage Horror Book

Image from 1840 edition of Frankenstein, a vintage horror book.
Original engraving from Frankenstein. Wikimedia Commons.

This is October, the month of darkening days, rainy skies, and spooky shadows. In honor of that, this month I’m reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a vintage horror book. If the concept of horror concerns you, be assured that this is not Stephen King. It’s not even equivalent to Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote in the 1830s and 40s.

A brooding scientist. The girl he left behind. The mother he adored. Pelting rain and icy winters. His best friend. These all come together in Frankenstein, weaving a tale of creation and a tale of regret.

Connecting with the past

Reading an antique book like this connects you with the past in a unique way. You aren’t only reading about the past, you are joining others in reading it. In the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s people picked up Frankenstein and enjoyed it for the first time. Or maybe for the second time. Or the third. You can share in their enjoyment of the book, in much the same way they enjoyed it. For they too were reading of a time long past, in a book they considered a classic.

So what would it have been like to sit in a poodle skirt at the local soda fountain, dreaming over Frankenstein –– but quickly, because the book was due by the end of the week! Thankfully, it’s not too long, and you could probably finish this next chapter in the time it takes you to slowly drain your carbonated drink. Or going back further, how thankful would you be that the local Carnegie library had a copy of Frankenstein on the shelves this very month, when you needed to read it in the 1930s, in the middle of the Depression? If the weather’s nice, you could sit on the front porch and read a chapter or two while you wait for the ice man in his wagon. He’s due on Thursday afternoons, you know.

Back to the present

If you’ve never read Frankenstein, I encourage you to give it a try. This book isn’t Victorian. It predates Victorian life by 20 years. Even though it was written in 1817, getting caught up in the action and flow of the story proves easy.

None of the chapters take too long to read, and it’s relatively short. The book opens with a series of letters from a ship, and the story unfolds from there. Mary Shelley revised the book several times between 1817 and its 1840 printing. You can see some of her revisions in the Chapter 7 manuscript page below. The version we read is usually the 1840 revision.

Image from Mary Shelley's handwritten manuscript for Frankenstein. Wikimedia commons image.
A handwritten manuscript page from Frankenstein. Wikimedia Commons.

Novel vs. reputation

Before this month I’d never read Frankenstein. I assumed that what everyone said about the novel was true. “Frankenstein was a terrible monster, named for his creator, did horrible things, yada yada yada.” Except, that’s not correct. None of it is actually true.

If I told you why the general knowledge and consensus about the novel is false, it would give away too much of the story. So I won’t. You’ll have to find out by reading the book or by Googling the answers. They’re out there in abundance.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for in Frankenstein was Shelley’s glorious descriptions of nature and the characters’ response to it. She describes mountains and lakes, snow and ice, autumn and spring in terms that drew me far into the novel. Very much a Romantic description, nature itself functions as a character in the novel. It evokes responses in the people who interact with it.

Read it yourself

Get your hands on a copy of Frankenstein and enjoy it this autumn as readers have for nearly 200 years. Although Frankenstein is a vintage horror book, its lost none of its appeal. True, the horror genre reads much differently today than it did in the nineteenth century. However, that’s one of the reasons we seek out these books, right?

You can read Frankenstein at Project Gutenberg. Or get a paperback or Kindle copy from Amazon. Really, if you want a copy with pages to turn, you should be able to find it at your favorite bookseller. It’s a classic.

Watch the movie

Versions of Frankenstein appeared in the movies several times. In 1931, Boris Karloff starred in Frankenstein. A version was released in 2011. Even Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein in 1948.

If you want to see the very first Frankenstein movie, it’s this 1910 silent by Thomas Edison Productions. The film only lasts a little over twelve minutes, so the suspense will be over quickly.

However you partake of it, enjoy your time with Frankenstein, vintage horror at its earliest.

This one not your thing?

If the idea of Frankenstein really doesn’t thrill you, perhaps you’ll enjoy this writeup on Steps in Time, an autobiography by dancer Fred Astaire.