Monsterpiece Theatre

Let’s consider the Big Three — in birth order, Frankenstein (1818), Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1886), and Dracula (1897). How were these literary “monsterpieces” begotten, and what allows them to keep on keepin’ on, haunting us through the centuries?

Rereading, actually rereading these works we think we know so well, is sure to yield a few surprises. First off, the quality varies widely. Frankenstein and Dracula are very good, if not great – I could argue for the greatness of Dracula — while Jekyll and Hyde can seem downright unreadable, Stevenson’s language as syrupy sweet as the eponymous doctor’s potion. We might excuse Stevenson, though, with a few words regarding form.

The novella’s full title is The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, “case” being the operative word.  Stevenson structured his story along the lines of an actual case study, hence the multiple authorial voices searching (sometimes in vain) for a story. Of course, there are wondrous chapters in the novella, specifically the last two – wondrous enough to have inspired my own Young Adult “riff” on Stevenson, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mademoiselle Odile – yet the bulk of the story plods, reminding us that while some books become classics, others simply age. Bottom line: The great Scot hung his story on a structure which, though quite innovative at the time, never caught on as a framework for fiction.

Conversely, both Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker structured their novels in accord with the Gothic tried ‘n true; and in so doing, they furthered it. Both novels are epistolary; which, in its wider definition, extends beyond letters alone to include journal entries, ships’ logs, newspaper clippings, gramophone transcriptions, telegrams, et cetera. All of which, whether in forms simple (Shelley) or more elaborate (Stoker), allows for the Gothic “must- have”: the Found Manuscript. It is this – and the concomitant sense of reading something written on the sly, under duress, in secret, reading something written to a Someone who, it turns out, thrill of thrills, is us! – that affords the great gothic novels their intimacy.

However interesting these novels may or may not be, the value inherent in their literary form is but a stilted and snobbish response to the question Why do we still read them? The louder answer, shouted, is We don’t! Not really. And sadly this seems true: Our instinct tells us, does it not, that readers turn in decreasing numbers to books, period, let alone the classics? Nearly all stats – excepting those pertaining to the YA readership – bear this out.

Still, though, we must have our monsters. Why? Because, in both whispers and shouts, they speak to us. And therein lay the genius of the great gothicists, in particular our slithery, sibilant string of scribblers: Shelley, Stevenson and Stoker.

Each of the Big Three monsters spoke for its time. Shelley’s revivified lug, her “Modern Prometheus,” warned of overreaching science whereas Stoker’s novel reeks of the dual fears best summed up as “Sex and the City (Victorian edition);” meanwhile, Stevenson tapped into the fears of the psyche, of our so often hideous inner selves, well before Freud.

And yet, and still… The more honest answer to the question Why do these monsters resonate? is that they were co-opted by other media, media that reached, then as now, far beyond books. And just as it is fair to ask Would we even know these creatures were it not for the stage and screen? it is equally fair (and troubling) to answer, Maybe not.

Though both Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde sold well when published, it is to their later incarnations on stage and screen – one hundred and twenty-three adaptations of the Stevenson alone – that we may attribute this cultural resonance. The case with Dracula, however, is more complicated: The novel fell flat when published as a “penny dreadful,” bound in the traditional bright yellow jacket.

In Stoker’s day, copyright was secured via staged readings; and while Stoker secured the British copyright in this way, he never even bothered to secure the American rights. (So it is that Dracula has always been in the public domain in the United States.) Indeed, so faint was the first reception of the Count, we might never have met him were it not for the misguided zeal of Stoker’s widow who, hearing of a filmed version of the all-but-forgotten novel, sued to have all extant copies of the film destroyed. Florence Stoker won this bitter defense of what she had long been referring to as the “Second Bathroom Book,” the sum total of all royalties earned by her late husband’s novel having only ever allowed her to tuck a new powder room beneath the hall staircase. Defeated, the German filmmaker in question consented to having his film destroyed. Sort of. He – F.W. Murnau – retained one copy of his now-classic Nosferatu. And thankfully so. Only when the film was screened, some twenty-five years after Dracula‘s initial publication, did Stoker’s Vampire King start to insinuate himself into the collective consciousness, never looking back: As of 2009, two hundred and seventeen films featuring Stoker’s bloodsucking hero have been made.

It is largely owing to their popular and repeated adaptations – their “going viral,” old-school style — that we owe the renown of these three novels and their miscreant heroes; and for this we should be grateful (the long list of schlocky adaptations notwithstanding). We ought to be even more grateful that the books, good or bad, still exist as the seeds from which these archetypes sprouted.

Read them. Reread them. For better or worse, you’ll be surprised.

[Check out Tor.com’s Monster Week to get more in-depth with classic monster novels and movies.]


James Reese is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dracula Dossier, The Book of Shadows, The Book of Spirits, and Witchery; his latest novel, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mademoiselle Odile, will be available on April 10th. Born on eastern Long Island, Reese now divides his time between Paris, France, and Tampa, Florida. Visit him at  www.jamesreesebooks.com

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