It is not the monster you must fear, but the monster it makes of men…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Our Hideous Progeny by C.E. McGill, out from Harper on May 9th.
Mary is the great-niece of Victor Frankenstein. She knows her great uncle disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the Arctic, but she doesn’t know why or how…
The 1850s are a time of discovery, and London is ablaze with the latest scientific theories and debates, especially when a spectacular new exhibition of dinosaur sculptures opens at the Crystal Palace. Mary is keen to make her name in this world of science alongside her geologist husband, Henry—but despite her sharp mind and sharper tongue, without wealth and connections their options are limited.
When Mary discovers some old family papers that allude to the shocking truth behind her great-uncle’s past, she thinks she may have found the key to securing her and Henry’s professional and financial future. Their quest takes them to the wilds of Scotland; to Henry’s intriguing but reclusive sister, Maisie; and to a deadly chase with a rival who is out to steal their secret.
‘Could you,’ said the inspector, ‘run it all by me one more time, Mrs Sutherland?’
I took my time in answering. I paused to smooth out my skirts and steady my breathing, to survey the room—its single grimy window, the awful narrow wood-panelled walls that gave one the impression of being trapped inside a cabinet. I do not consider myself an expert in lying by any means, but if there is one thing I have learned on the subject over the course of my life, it is this: lies cannot be rushed. They must be spun evenly and carefully. Too fast, and you risk tangling up the details; too slow, and it sounds like a stage performance, scripted from the start.
And so, despite my racing heart, I paused.
‘I have already laid it all out before the magistrate this afternoon,’ I said, ‘and the constable before that, not to mention Mr Wilkinson and—’
‘Yes, well.’ The inspector squinted at me rather reproachfully through his pince-nez. ‘A man is dead, Mrs Sutherland. We must make sure we record every detail. I’m sure you can spare just a few more moments of your time.’
I looked down at my hands, at the bandages wound around my palms and up my wrists. Four small red crescents bled through the fabric on each hand where my nails had dug in.
‘Of course. Although—’
This part I could not bear to take my time over, though I supposed that was all right, as it was not a lie.
‘Would you make a note, sir, that I plan to go by my maiden name in future? In case you need to find me in London?’
The inspector paused, his pen poised above his notebook, and raised an eyebrow. ‘…And what would that be?’
‘Frankenstein,’ I replied. ‘Mary Elizabeth Frankenstein.’
It was a grey and foggy March day when we brought it to life at last.
I had expected there to be thunder, or at the very least some rain; I had expected that, on such a momentous occasion, nature would have been obliged to provide us with a fitting backdrop. But evidently nature felt that She owed us no favours, as the morning dawned dull as always, wreathed in a thick mist that dampened clothes and sound alike as it crept over the hills.
I took a measure of grim satisfaction in Clarke’s bedraggled appearance as he let us into the boathouse. He had come to us bright-eyed and brimming with confidence; now, in his rumpled shirtsleeves, with grey shadowing his jaw and the skin beneath his eyes, he seemed but a dim reflection of his former self. Henry, meanwhile, outshone us all in his morning coat, the same he had worn on our honeymoon in Lyme, and which had shown the dust of the chalk cliffs so badly. Perhaps he was hoping to make a good first impression.
We examined our instruments one final time: the bellows, to provide the breath of life; the stove in the corner, to drive the spring chill from the room and make its cold flesh warm again; the beakers of elixir upon the worktable, bubbling merrily on their burners. I measured out a vial and handed it to Clarke to administer. Then, having nothing else to do, I leaned in close to the Creature and laid a hand gently upon its neck.
‘Is it warm enough, Mary?’ Henry asked. I nodded, startled to hear his voice; the room had been so silent before, as still as a church mid-prayer. We had built here, in this half-ruined boathouse on the edge of the Moray Firth, a temple to our own strange gods—to Chemistry and Anatomy and Electricity.
There was an acrid smell in the room as the procedure began. The air felt prickly and sharp, bursting with potential, like the moment before lightning strikes. But there was no bang, no flash, no grand transformation—only something dead one minute, and alive the next. Its flippers twitched; its great curved back began to rise and fall of its own accord. And its eyes! I will always hold dear to my heart the fact that I was the first to see those golden eyes open, to see its reptilian pupils narrow and focus on my own—for in those eyes I saw, for the first time, proof that we had created something truly alive.
But that isn’t right. No; I’m getting ahead of myself. That isn’t really how it all began.
NOVEMBER 1853 – JUNE 1854
Ours was the house of mourning… She no longer took delight in her ordinary occupations; all pleasure seemed to her sacrilege toward the dead.
— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
It began, rather, with a black-edged envelope.
It must have been late afternoon when it arrived, for I remember the slivers of sunlight that cut the room, casting each mote of dust in gold. Most of the time the study was caught in the looming shadow of the opposing tenements, but for one glorious hour each day the sun shone in and turned the air to honey. It caught upon every gilded title on the bookshelves, lighting up my polished ammonite like a mirror. It was a subject of constant debate between the two of us, whether the curtains ought to be left open or shut to prevent the books from fading. Evidently, however, I had won that day—for it was through a haze of that rare London sunshine that I watched through the doorway as the envelope in question slid from the letterbox and landed, with a gentleness that did not match the gravity of its contents, on the chequered hallway floor.
At first, I simply stared. It was my grandmother, most likely; her nurse had written the previous month to say that she had developed pneumonia and was not faring well. I wondered for a moment whether I could simply pretend I hadn’t seen the letter—if I could sit and continue my work in peace for another hour or two, until James brought us the post before supper. But then I remembered (as I had been remembering in jarring stops and starts all week) that we had given James his notice, as we could not afford to pay his wages until Henry found steady work again; and I remembered, too, that Mrs Jamsetjee had been ill earlier that month, with a persistent cold that would not cure. I looked down at the half-finished illustration upon my drawing desk: the stem of a fossil fern, Equisetum columnare, the specimen itself resting in my open palm. I had been holding it up to the light, trying to catch every detail of its petrified surface. Now I was gripping it so tightly my knuckles were white.
With a heavy heart, I set it down and rose to my feet.
‘Mary? What is it?’ Henry called after me as I went to the hall.
‘It’s not Forsythe again, is it? I swear, if that man writes another word to me about the joys of the Swedish countryside, I shall burn everything he’s ever written and send him back the ashes.’
I paid him no mind. The letter’s black wax seal glared at me from the floor. Unable to bear the suspense any longer, I snatched it up with trembling fingers and turned it over. There, in a small, neat hand, were the words:
Mr Henry Sutherland
10 Maddox Street
After taking a moment to collect myself—it wouldn’t do, to let Henry see how relieved I was—I went and laid the envelope gently on the corner of his desk.
‘It’s for you.’
For barely a second, he blinked down at it, face going pale. But then, as I watched, he drew himself together and picked up the letter, turning it over to stare at the seal.
‘Well! I wonder who it is,’ he murmured. It was a largely rhetorical question, I knew; the envelope bore an Inverness postmark, and that left only two possibilities.
‘Your father?’ I asked.
‘Possibly. Though he is more likely to ferment than die, I think; and my sister’s primary ambition seems to be to catch every sickness known to man, so one can never be sure. Care to vote?’
‘Don’t be horrid,’ I replied, returning to my seat and the tray of tea which Agnes had left us, now long since cold.
‘Come now, dear. You know you’ll be the same when your toad of a grandmother finally expires. Now, who do you vote for?’
I glared at him over my teacup, but it seemed that he would not open the envelope until I cast my vote. Finally, I relented.
‘Your father. I’ve never met your sister, so I have no reason to dislike her.’ Besides the petty tales Henry had told me over the years.
‘Oh, you would if you had met her. I, for one, hope it’s her. More of the inheritance for me.’ With a flourish, he broke the seal.
‘ “Mr Sutherland,” ’ he read, getting up to pace about the room. ‘ “We regret to inform you that on this past Saturday, the twenty-sixth of November 1853, your father”—there you go, Mary, it looks as though you will have a chance to meet the dreaded Margaret after all—“Mr John R. Sutherland of Inverness, Scotland, died in the night, due to a sudden bout of palsy which struck him earlier in the day. I am writing on behalf of your sister, as she is altogether too distressed to write. She has assured me, however, that your father did not suffer unduly, and that the very evening before, he was in high spirits and engaged in his usual activities…”—oh, he does go on.’ He put down the first page of the letter and surveyed the second. ‘ “If at all possible, your presence is requested… reading of the last will and testament… sort through his affairs, et cetera… Arthur S. Whitton, solicitor.” ’
He set down the letter upon his desk. ‘Well, my dear. I hear that Inverness is lovely at this time of year.’
‘You do not. You have always said that it is terrible at every time of year.’
He chuckled, though it sounded rather hollow. For a moment, we sat in silent consideration. I cast my eyes back to the fossil fern, and to the draft on Henry’s desk, a column on Devonian fossil trees he was writing for Chambers’s. My illustration was meant to accompany it.
‘We shall have to give Mr Roberts the Equisetum back before we leave,’ I said, for of course the fossil was not ours, but a loan from one of Henry’s university acquaintances. We had, to my eternal dismay, no collection to speak of ourselves.
‘Yes, yes. I’ll write to him this evening,’ Henry said absently. He looked down at the solicitor’s letter again, staring at the signature at the foot of the page, though his gaze seemed to reach much further than that. ‘Will you… need new mourning wear before we leave?’
‘No.’ I found myself looking away as well, watching through the window as the sun slipped out of view. ‘My old ones will do. I shouldn’t think they’ll even have gathered dust.’
Excerpted from Our Hideous Progeny, copyright © 2023 by C.E. McGill.