British novelist reimagines Victor Frankenstein

By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / December 21, 2009

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For readers, the name of Victor Frankenstein is that of a mad scientist who created a monster, an undead horror unleashed on the world. But what if Frankenstein was simply a brilliant young idealist in a time of social and political upheaval and the soul-grinding Industrial Revolution? A poetic soul as well as a lover of knowledge, an experimenter who wished to unlock the secrets of nature through that greatest of discoveries, electricity? Such a tortured young man would certainly be closer to the original inventor depicted in “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus,’’ the creation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. And it is such a Frankenstein that Whitbread- and Maugham-prize winning British author Peter Ackroyd raises once again into chilling life.

Ackroyd, who turned the last days of Oscar Wilde into literary fiction and has published biographies on everyone and everything from Shakespeare to the River Thames, takes on classic horror with a vengeance in “The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein.’’

His project isn’t original; this literally wonderful novel is only the latest in a long line of pastiches as writers from Theodore Roszak (“The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein’’) to the poet Laurie Sheck (“A Monster’s Notes’’) have used the classic horror tale to reopen arguments on identity and the soul. But despite its literary precedents and Ackroyd’s own history as a scholar, this new novel is not so much a philosophical treatise as a rousing page turner. From its opening, with Victor looking back on his Swiss youth, to its last, gasp-inducing page, Ackroyd has imbued his book with enough “electrical fluid’’ to animate a corpse.

In prose rich enough to suggest the Gothic origins of the original without going overboard, this new novel tells of the young scholar as he leaves his native Geneva for Oxford to further his studies. A reserved but brilliant youth, Victor is soon caught up in the turbulent company of other daring young thinkers, interacting with such real figures as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a young Mary Wollstonecraft herself. These blossoming Romantics - atheists, poets, and outcasts - don’t lead the young Victor into a life of evil. The conventional Swiss youth is already half pagan, a believer in the “power and grandeur of nature.’’ But his exposure to Shelley’s revolutionary crowd sparks his desire for knowledge at all costs, and in rapid fashion a series of personal tragedies combines with his growing genius to create what may be either his greatest triumph or his downfall. That is, for those willing to take Victor at his own words.

And what words they are: Ackroyd fills his pages, ostensibly Victor’s journals during this wild time, with constant references to monsters and “creations,’’ the beauties of nature and the horrors of humanity, as well as questions concerning the very essence of freedom and of life. “I exulted in storms,’’ Victor tells us right at the opening of this first-person tale.

Although Ackroyd has moved much of the action from the Swiss mountains to the London waterfront, he has managed to capture the spirit of the original - including many of Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ideas about the duality of human nature. Without revealing too many of Ackroyd’s surprises, it is safe to say that when a friend introduces the young scientist to a new child, saying, “Not the first of my productions, Victor, but the finest,’’ we share his awe at the true creation of life - and, also, his despair at the distance between the baby and his own creative efforts.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of “Cries and Whiskers.’’

By Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese, pp. 368, $26.95

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