Vault of Frankenstein: 200 Years of the World's Most Famous Monster

Vault of Frankenstein: 200 Years of the World's Most Famous Monster

by Paul Ruditis


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The Vault of Frankenstein traces the incredible history of how the nameless abomination in Shelley's classic novel became a pop culture icon. Removable replica memorabilia—Shelley's manuscript pages, movie posters, a playbill, and a photograph of Boris Karloff on set for the iconic 1931 portrayal of the character—add an interactive element to this amazing retrospective.

Beginning with the story of how Mary Shelley first conceived of the novel (on a stormy night on the shores of Lake Geneva), The Vault of Frankensteintraces the Creature’s evolution from nameless literary character to international superstar, appearing in films, TV shows, comic books, and commercial merchandise.

Frankenstein’s monster has been a hero and a villain, in both comedies and dramas. He hastap danced with Gene Wilder, held a daisy by a stream, and even appeared on cereal boxes. With special attention placed on the 1931 film that lifted Frankenstein’s monster to a new level of stardom, this book explores the many facets of this enduring—and often tragically misunderstood—character.

Fantastic replica memorabiliaenclosed in an elegantly designed envelope inside the back cover—bring the history to even more vivid life as you hold it in your hands:
  • The Bride of Frankenstein movie poster
  • Pages from Mary Shelley's original manuscript of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
  • Photo of Boris Karloff on the set of Universal's Frankenstein
  • Playbill for Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, the first stage adaptation of 
  • Frankenstein movie poster

Relive the Creature's greatest pop culture moments in this new retrospective that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's masterpiece.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760363171
Publisher: becker&mayer! Books
Publication date: 09/25/2018
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 11.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paul Ruditis is a New York Times best-selling author and pop culture addict who has written companion books for TV shows, including The Walking Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Star Trek, and The West Wing. His diverse resume also includes original young adult novels, comic books, and novelty books for all ages. 

Read an Excerpt



ON A DREARY NIGHT IN JUNE OF 1816, at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, a group of friends and writers came up with an intriguing way to pass the time. The weather in Switzerland was miserable, as it had been for months. They'd been holed up together for several days in the rented villa, passing the time by sharing ghost stories, when the de facto leader of the group, a dreamy poet, came up with a game. It was a simple challenge, a bet among friends, to craft a haunted tale of their own. That game would lead to the birth of one of the most recognized — and most misunderstood — fictional characters in history.

The dreamy poet was Lord George Gordon Byron, acclaimed writer and politician, and a leading voice in the Romantic movement in literature. Lord Byron had already authored numerous works of note, including the narrative poem that catapulted him to literary stardom, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He'd also achieved infamy by earning a reputation as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," from a former lover. Byron had rented the villa along with his close friend, confidant, and current lover, Dr. John William Polidori. Their guests were renting another home in the nearby village. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was effectively on the run, hiding out from creditors in Switzerland along with his love and her sister. His future sister-in-law, Claire Clairmont, would later bear Byron's child. But it was Shelley's paramour, Mary, who would come out of their game with a story that earned her literary acclaim.

The group was already scandalizing the locals by spending so much time shuttered away in the villa in what many felt was an orgiastic display of hedonism. Reportedly, one of the townsfolk was renting out makeshift telescopes to those hoping to catch a glimpse of the illicit happenings inside the mansion. On this night, if those watchful eyes could have seen through walls, they would have borne witness to the conception of a monster, one that is still being enjoyed and studied two hundred years later: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's creation, Frankenstein.


Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was the child of two writers and famous nonconformists. Her father, William Godwin, had achieved notoriety through the publication of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, which was considered the first publication on the subject of anarchism. Written near the outset of the French Revolution, Godwin argued that government institutions were corrupt and that the future would belong to individuals providing for their own needs rather than being subjected to their leaders' whims. Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, a treatise that argued women's rights should be equal to men's. It was one of the earliest works to cover a topic that would eventually give rise to feminism.

Both authors found inspiration in rebutting Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, but William and Mary did not connect romantically during their first meeting at the home of radical publisher Joseph Johnson. As William noted in a diary entry dated November 13, 1791, he had come to meet Thomas Paine, the author of The Rights of Man, but spent most of the evening listening to Mary speak on the subjects of virtue and religion. He summed up the encounter by noting that they left the gathering "mutually displeased with each another." It was only when they reconnected five years later that they developed a deeper affection for one another. Though neither believed in the institution of marriage, the pair wed when Mary became pregnant with what would become their only child together. The reasoning behind this move was largely pragmatic: they wanted their offspring to enjoy a legal acknowledgment that Mary's first child, Fanny, from an earlier affair with Gilbert Imlay, had lacked. Their union, however, would be forever tinged with sadness. Mrs. Wollstonecraft Godwin developed a postpartum infection upon the birth of their daughter and died of septicaemia (blood poisoning) ten days later.

The newborn, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was motherless. She would be raised by a father who was not prepared to bring up both her and her half sister, Fanny. To his credit, William recognized his deficiencies quickly and set about to deal with them. In an arrangement that seems to have come more out of convenience than affection, he remarried four years later to the former Mrs. Jane Clairmont, a woman with two children of her own. Mary would never grow close to her new stepmother. Few people did, as many of William's acquaintances found Jane unpleasant, to say the least. But the union did provide Mary with a particularly beloved stepsister and a future partner in crime. Clara Mary Jane Clairmont, better known as Claire, would be a close companion of Mary's into their adulthood.

Mary's father may not have been demonstrative in his love, but his bewilderment in raising children, particularly daughters, had at least one benefit: Mary received the kind of education that was more akin to that of boys of the age than that of her female peers. Beyond the teachings of her anarchist father, Mary was exposed to a host of writers and poets while growing up. The family home was something of a gathering spot for the literati of the early nineteenth century. Though Jane forbade the children from attending the grown-ups' events at the house, Mary and Claire once famously hid beneath the couches of their living room to listen to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge read passages from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was little surprise that Mary herself began to write stories and poems as a child. She was ten when her first poem was published by a press owned by her father. Years later, she referred to writing as a favorite pastime in her childhood, and the primary way she chose to fill her hours allotted for recreation. At fifteen, Mary was sent away to Scotland to stay with the family of noted radical William Baxter. Her visit was supposed to allow her to recuperate from an ailment credited to a nervous condition, while also partially intended to continue her philosophical education. Though perhaps it was to get away from her stepmother, as several scholars have suggested. While away, Mary developed a relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet and philosopher five years her senior.

Percy was something of a nonconformist, having published a pamphlet passionately extolling the virtues of atheism while studying at University College in Oxford. Percy idolized William Godwin and first met Mary after seeking an audience with her father. Though Percy was married at the time, his relationship with Mary grew while she was in Scotland, and he considered her both a romantic partner and an intellectual peer. Her father frowned upon the relationship at first, which — along with Percy's status as a married man — initially forced the pair to meet in secret. They chose the grave of Mary's mother as the spot for their rendezvous.

In 1814, Mary and Percy spent part of their summer exploring Europe, with Claire as their travel companion. Their trip would be recounted in the aptly titled History of a Six Weeks' Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, published in 1817. What they saw on the trip would inspire much of the setting of Mary's future creation, the work that would make her famous.

Six months after their trip, Mary prematurely gave birth to their daughter. The child lived for only two weeks. The death reportedly drove her into a deep depression.

It was just one of many tragedies Mary faced that would impact her body of work. Her own mother's death shortly after she gave birth to Mary weighed heavily on Mary throughout her life, as did her first child's death. Scholars have long discussed the influence both losses had on Mary and what it might have inspired in her story in which a man plays the role of god by creating life, then abandons that life, which goes on to haunt him for the rest of his days.

Mary gave birth to another child, William, early in 1816, and soon after, the little family began a second tour of Europe, with an extended stay in Switzerland. Again, Claire was their traveling companion, and they rented a small house near the Villa Diodati. Percy was still legally married to Harriet Westbrook, though it was rumored that his estranged wife was in a relationship with another man. Either way, Percy's closest friends — including Byron and Polidori, at Villa Diodati — had already started referring to Mary as Mrs. Shelley.


At their villa in the Alps, when the friends weren't busy scandalizing the locals, they were taking turns reading tales from Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German horror tales. Byron proposed that the group have a friendly competition: everyone would create their own stories of the macabre. The challenge was accepted, though with varied interest and accomplishment. Claire seemingly bowed out from the start. Byron was already at work on the third canto of his narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and likely was distracted by his larger project. His contribution to the contest resulted in a "fragment" of a poem eventually published as an addendum to a larger piece. Only Polidori and Mary produced fully fleshed-out stories that would prove to be significant entries in the Gothic Horror movement, with Mary's having the larger impact by far.

The challenge couldn't have been more aptly timed, as Mary Shelley recounted in her introduction to the third edition of Frankenstein, released in 1831. The passage has been reproduced many times since its first printing and has been reviewed and studied by students and professors, alongside with Mary's and Percy's journals and her early drafts of the book. These companion documents to the original manuscript and its follow-up versions have also been dissected by academics for almost two centuries.

The contest was initiated during what has become known as the "Year Without a Summer," following the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia on April 10, 1815. The volcanic event was the largest eruption in modern history, killing over seventy thousand people. It sent so much ash into the air that it impacted global weather patterns, causing a "volcanic winter" by blocking out the sun, which led to dropping temperatures worldwide. Over the next year, crops failed, causing animals and people to suffer and die. It was also during this time that Frankenstein's monster was born.

The volcanic winter of 1815 stretched into summer of the next year. While Mary wrote of spending time on Lake Geneva, she also acknowledged in her preface that it was a "wet, ungenial summer" trapping them at home for days at a time. It was a suitable setting not only for telling ghost stories but for drawing one up as well. Certainly, the dreariness of that summer can be seen in the tale. Much of Frankenstein is set during conditions in which a "noble war in the sky elevated [Frankenstein's] spirits" until the creature's form is revealed to its creator through a flash of lightning.

Mary set to work on Byron's challenge with determination, hoping to "make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart." In her introduction to the third edition, she reports that she struggled for days to come up with something. During that time, she also listened to long conversations between her male companions on such topics as the possibility of discovering "the nature of the principle of life," Dr. Charles Darwin's work, and the possibility of reanimating the dead. These conversations stayed with her. As she lay down to sleep one night, she could not find rest; there was a waking nightmare lurching through her mind, thoughts that would give form to arguably the most famous manmade monster in history. As she recalls in her introduction:

I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show some signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handy-work, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

Victor Frankenstein emerged from Mary's waking dream, and from that fictional creation came the monster that would eventually adopt his creator's name and become the pop culture phenomenon.

Creation Tales

Frankenstein has become so enmeshed in pop culture that even the story of its initial creation has inspired tales both romantic and horrific. The challenge between the writer friends has been recounted numerous times over the years. It's a perfectly wonderful anecdote about the genesis of one of history's most recognized characters. That dreary night has been re-created in several supposedly autobiographical films based on the lives of the characters in that scene, but it has also inspired new stories that bear not even a passing resemblance to reality.

The scene was memorably rewritten for the opening to the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, where it serves as an introduction to the movie. Mary Shelley, as played by Elsa Lanchester, basks in the compliments of her two male companions — Percy and Byron. The men are applauding her for the tale of Frankenstein, which she has already written in this revised telling of the historical event. The setup serves to introduce the sequel to the 1931 Frankenstein as if it is simply an unpublished continuation of Mary's original novel. In truth, the movie does include scenes clearly inspired by her existing novel, but this bride for the monster never actually appears in Mary's work, even though the idea of a female companion occupies a good portion of the text.

The 1986 film Gothic takes a deeper, and even more fictional, look at the events of that night. In the horror movie, with Natasha Richardson in the role of Mary Shelley and Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron, the players reveal their darkest secrets. A séance is performed, awakening a malevolent spirit that haunts the villa, torturing them with their deepest fears. The tragedies that would befall the members of the party — with the premature deaths of Percy, Byron, and Polidori, as well as the future deaths of Claire's and Mary's children — are implied to be the result of this haunting.

Based a bit more in reality, but still fictional, are two films released in 1988. Both are centered on that night in 1816. Haunted Summer — with Alice Krige in the role of Mary and Eric Stoltz as Percy — is a psychological thriller, with the characters engaged in the kind of behavior the local villagers would have loved to witness through their makeshift telescopes. And Rowing with the Wind, starring Hugh Grant as Lord Byron, expands beyond the competition to follow Lizzy McInnerny's Mary Shelley through the next six years of the author's life as Frankenstein is published and tragedy befalls those she loves.


Mary Shelley's waking nightmare grew into Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In it, she created a pair of characters who would impact the literary world in a profound way and who would live on and influence pop culture for centuries. Only Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Dracula have appeared more often in media than Frankenstein's monster. Shelley's creation was no small feat for a nineteen-year-old in an era when women did not receive much respect for their work. As it happens with legends, Mary's original story grew to take on new and different forms. Like any game of telephone, some of these incarnations bear no resemblance to the source material. But the novel itself continues to be studied two hundred years later.

Mary spent the rest of that dismal summer piecing together her story. The tale grew to incorporate themes personal to her. A man plays god by creating life in his own image. It's a story, effectively, about a relationship between parent and child, and it is infused with her own experiences having lost a child and never knowing her own mother. She introduced this very subject into her narrative with the character of Elizabeth, Victor's cousin, who comes to live with the Frankenstein family after her own mother dies.


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