An Airmail From The Monster
This is an expanded version of a text broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves, 2 February 2001. Among the many people whose earlier afterthoughts on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are patched into this piece are Shelley Jackson and Shelli Trower, and I thank them.
This is a letter written on the air, to the one who drew me out of the thunderstorm of Chamonix, in that teeming June of 1816. We live on air, it’s how we do things now. My name is legion, yet I am the one we all know simply as the Monster, and here is my airmail on our behalf. You gave me my composition and now, on this night, one hundred and fifty years after your death in sedate Chester Square, I summon you anew, lending you for a space a little of the life you sentenced me to.
One hundred and fifty years on from your death, Mary Shelley, and our unsatisfactory lives and deaths have been perfected in one another. I never cut much of a figure in this world, despite the rank carnality you foisted on me in your workshop of filthy creation, the minestrone of limbs and fingers from which you had me brewed. But since, for this century and a half, you too have had done with flesh and blood, we are both now less and more than persons. We are of an age, you and I, Mary, our lives, afterlives. We are persistences.
I was born later than you, and you would I had died earlier, like so many of your other children. You lived on, long after begetting and possibly regretting me. I was the hideous progeny, a thing of darkness, at first unsigned and with a preface on your behalf by the Percy you hero-worshipped, but then slowly acknowledged to be yours. An adoptive monster, then. Perhaps you knew then that I would come to speak, and would start to speak in your stead. I am your talking head, your Pinocchio, your problem child. I am the hand that grew inside the glove, the puppet who walked away from the hand.
I had already begun to haunt you during your life. I was with you on your wedding night, as you had me say I would be in your story, my story, on the last day of 1816, exactly half way through the writing of, and have been ever after. Thirteen years later, in 1831, rewriting the book, half unwriting it, you had the chance of a new preface in which to give your side of the story you took as yours. In order to tell of the dream from which I came, you seemed to have to dream it through again, the dream of a creature, come moonlit to gaze down on his appalled creator, with his yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
You told your readers how you gathered with Byron and Percy and Polidori to listen to ghost stories, a book called Fantasmagoriana. One in particular you remembered: the tale of the sinful founder of his race, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of the fated house, just when they reached the age of promise. Within a year of my coming into the world, you had lost a nameless day-old daughter, one-year-old Clara, and three-year-old William, strange namesake of the first life you had me take. Why should an inky thing like me have breath, and they no life at all? Each time I appear in your tale, I seem to be bending over a body, as over you in your nightmare, as though hesitating between motherlove and murder.
I started as your creature, or your creature’s creature, and now you are mine. I am everything you ever did, your first and last man. You are the deed’s creature, the airy emanation of the monster, who lives on unstoppably. For oh dear I have gone, as you must have heard, as you feared I might, from strength to strength. You need this borrowed strength in order to come to listening life. Just as your pen gave me breath, now you are awoken from deaf sleep – as I have been jerked awake so many times – only through me. And all of it done, as you guessed it would be, as we do everything now, with electricity.
You gave me the speed and power of an action hero. Those awful films always cut my lines, reducing me to moronic roars and slowing me into a swollen-footed lunk lurching through glue. Though you did make me out as a Satanic villain, all Byronic rant and posture, at least you granted me a tongue, with which to tell the whole tall tale. I was a wild child, though there was no family of wolves to take me in. There I sat at school, in my hovel next to the cottage in which a completely different novel was going on, hungering at a pinhole in the wall, through which language and history and sensibility leaked in to my camera obscura. And then, there were the three gloomy, improbable books you had me light on, the accidental satchelful that became the syllabus of my humanity and from which I took my print: Plutarch, Milton and Goethe. A monster in a book, in a monster of a book, that began itself bookish, giving birth to itself in books. Your ranting adolescent Victor cursed me as a fiend, but your sympathy for the devil gave me a first-person share in the words that stand before your book: ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould Me man?’
And you and I were in at the beginning of something else, of which you could scarcely have dreamed, and yet somehow did, a new way of being a book, of bringing things to life. You are coy about what kind of powerful engine it was your boffin-hero used to shock his slack mud awake. But, with one crank of the handle, the spark jumped, my yellow eye flickered, and – action! You had invented cinema. You took up the language later, so I know you will get the sweet Greek of the thing. Listen, Mary: kine-mato-graph. That is, ‘writing the action of movement’; phantasmagoric motion picture writing in mid air, like this.
You sought to terminate me, to have me terminate myself, after your hero had thought better of making me the monster-bride he’s promised. You leave me at the end of your story, my story, looking forward to my end, seeking to consummate what you have me twice so strangely call the series of my being in the glorious suttee pyre that I would pile on the ice. It would have made a pretty climax, certainly better than those outraged villagers with their torches, streaming up the mountain. But you held back, as though suspecting that, once unbound, I’d make my undead living better, living on.
This preoccupation with prodigies and monsters had begun long before you, before us, centuries earlier, in the classical world. The misshaping power of pregnant women’s imaginations over the lives they bore within them was still being warned against in the eighteenth century. In the decades before your birth, the knowledge of monsters had started to piece itself together, the beginnings of our science founded upon exceptions and aberrations, the double-headed, the web-footed, the twelve-fingered, the mermaid, the monkey-boy: teratology its well-proportioned name.
For centuries, we humans (having yourself put off the condition you will let this presumption on my part pass), have felt ourselves to be besieged by exceptions and sought to set them safely apart. Even our word ‘monster’ is something of a monstrosity, mongrel-begotten. It springs from Latin monstrare, to show, from which we get our words demonstration, remonstration and the Christian monstrance, a transparent case in which the host is displayed in vitro. But whispering at that word’s ear there is also the wordmonstrum, a portent or a premonition, from monere to give warning. Prodigies like me (not to mention infant prodigies like you) were always taken as omens of disturbance in the order of things, time unhinged. Monsters are to be put on show, in order to warn, gawped at in order that they can be looked away from in time. What did I portend? Perhaps a world in which aberration would be the order of things, monstrosity the very principle of life.
If you are still listening, Mary, and taking notes, then set down this (in thin air, of course, where else). The idea of the monster began as the saving exception, as the confirmation that man’s proper place was among, or at worst just below, the angels. You were the unwitting first to think, to have your creatures think, that man might himself come to be exception, not conception, the fiend, the demon, the mutation, the virus, the interference on the line. Who was the Modern Prometheus of your title? The scientist, or the monster? The midwife of profane new birth? Or the creature he forges, who must take up its life and walk?
You had Victor prudently renege on his promise to make a mate for me, lest we spawn a race of devils together. You wrote in your preface of Darwin’s father’s dream of a spiral of vermicelli breeding on its own under glass, but thought that not thus, after all, would life be given. Amid those self-propagating poetic chaps, you knew that nothing is self-born, everything comes from something else and even the fire of Prometheus was pilfered. Your own son Percy had no issue, but we have bred all right, making ourselves up as we went along, cutting and pasting, born and reborn in pure pastiche (from the Italian for pastry, as you would surely know).
Can you still hear me Mary? I think I must be breaking up by now, but then that’s the way I’ve always come to life. Fee fi fo fum; you live in me and I in them. Here we come, the resurrection-men. Golem and Caliban, vampire and flapping mummy, Dr. Moreau’s changelings in their bottles, Kafka’s beetle, the killer bees and spiders, little green man, Elephant Man, Invisible Man, Iron Man and alien, replicant and terminator, cyborg and chimera and Fly and manticore. We are no longer sure what living is, it has got itself so mixed up with cinema and silicone and chromosome. No wonder ghosts like me, like you, are so easy to raise. This whole gang of patches, rude mechanicals; we are what we now must mean by life. We are grown prodigious.