Saturday, March 03, 2018

A Scientific Look Behind a Thriller, in MAKING THE MONSTER, from Kathryn Harkup

Kathryn Harkup calls herself a "science communicator," and her book A is for Arsenic: The Pisons of Agatha Christie made quite a hit a few years ago. Now she's tackled the work of another woman author -- or should we say teenager in this case, since Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was just 18, and saw it published at age 20!

Somewhat to my disappointment, MAKING THE MONSTER: THE SCIENCE BEHIND MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN rarely looks at the author of this classic thriller and sci-fi progenitor. But that's my own curiosity going in the wrong direction -- Harkup is clear from the start that what she's gathered are the scientific backgrounds to the many fresh creative efforts that Shelley drew together into the novel of Dr. Vincent Frankenstein and his animated cadaver, the monster himself. After a brief opening laying out Mary's personal troubles (ouch!), Harkup swiftly moves to the medical, chemical, and electrical amazements that were rocking the European world 200 years ago. I particularly enjoyed her assessments of alchemists and their theories as they played into the eventual novel Mary would craft:
The three alchemists that Mary chose as influences for Victor Frankenstein's early life -- Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus -- were three of the more dominant names in the history of alchemy as it was viewed in the early nineteenth century. However, the interests of these three historical figures demonstrate the huge range of philosophies held by so-called alchemists. Interestingly, none of the three would have called themselves alchemists and all of them wrote dismissively about those who tried to turn base metals into gold.
That's a fair sample of the writing that Harkup packs into this densely typeset, 300-page book. She moves quickly from one thorough assessment of scientific revelations to the next, including aspects of lack of refrigeration at the time, issues of anatomy, and even embalming:
Egyptian practices of mummification were for empowering the soul after death. The ancient Egyptians therefor saw no need to preserve everything in the body. Most of the internal organs were thus removed with only the heart being returned to the body. The bain was probably allowed to liquefy so it could be drained out of the skull. ... Bodies were dessicated using salts, left exposed to the elements, or dried out in ovens. Such techniques would not have been appropriate for Victor's requirements.
If you're able to overlook the slight queasiness of that liquefied brain part, and find you'd like to know more, MAKING THE MONSTER is meant for you! But it's also a great background text for those appreciating (or writing for!) TV shows like Criminal Minds, as well as grasping more of the background to Thomas Harris's grotesqueries. In other words, even if you can only digest a chapter or two now and then, there can be good reason to have this comprehensive reference on your shelf.

The book is published by Bloomsbury, and retains its British-isms. Great timing, for the 200th anniversary of Shelley's book. And if you're hungry for more about the author of Frankenstein herself, check out Fiona Sampson's book In Search of Mary Shelley -- Sampson is even appearing at times with Harkup in the United Kingdom, in this brave new era of appreciating the women who crafted potent thrillers and gothic horror at a time when they were better known as victims of Jack the Ripper and others.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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