Saturday, September 12, 2009

Frankenstein and Dracula

Did you ever wonder how the novels Frankenstein and Dracula were originally received by the critics? The question crossed my mind the other day and here are the answers...
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) in response to a challenge by Lord Byron (1778-1824) that he and each of his guests - who included Mary and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) - write a supernatural tale during a dreary summer at his Swiss villa. Mary expanded her story into a novel, the 1st edition of which was published anonymously in 1818. The reviews were on the whole unfavorable, with the Quarterly Review calling it "a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity," though it conceded that the writer "has the power of both conception and language." There was much speculation about the identity of the author, who was assumed to be a man. While questioning part of the plot, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) acknowledged the writer's "original genius and happy power of expression." Once Mary's identity became known with publication of the 2nd edition, Frankenstein was largely dismissed by the critics, with the notable exception of her husband: "The interest gradually accumulates, and advances toward the conclusion with the accelerated rapidity of a rock rolled down a mountain. We are held breathless by suspense and sympathy..." But despite the many negative reviews, it was an almost immediate popular success. We now know it as a classic of popular culture and - since the mid-20th c. - critical acclaim.
The opposite is true of Dracula, published in 1897 by Bram Stoker (1847-1912). Most contemporary critics raved, but it did not become a bestseller until later. They found it to be the best of Stoker's books and superior to Frankenstein. The Pall Mall Gazette declared it "horrid and creepy to the last degree" and the Glasgow Herald reported, "Henceforth we shall wreathe ourselves in garlic when opportunity offers, and firmly decline all invitations to visit out-of-the-way clients in castles in the South-East of Europe." And the Observer felt that although the subject of vampires was unworthy of Stoker's talent, "Not only is the subject gruesome, but the author's undoubted descriptive powers make the various ghastly experiences startingly realistic, and engender a fascination which forces one to read on to the end." The popularity of the book did not reach its iconic status until film adaptations began to appear in the early 20th c. Stoker did not invent the vampire, of course, but his interpretation of the legend has been the most influential. One earlier story, "The Vampyre," had been published in 1819 after it was written by John Polidori (1795-1821) during that gloomy summer with Lord Byron and the Shelleys...

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