the birth of the Modern Prometheus

Those who have read it know that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a creepy story. Scientist creates a monster who then goes on to kill all his master holds dear… Not something I’d read to my children to get them to go to sleep.

Why did this story happen? Have you guessed it?

A volcanic eruption.

Well, more or less.

From April 5-15, 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia went on a rampage of violent eruptions, the worst occurring on the 15th. It was estimated that there were over 82,000 deaths from Tambora. According to National Public Radio (and this website), “Mount Tambora launched 100 cubic kilometers of rock into the air – 10 times more than Italy’s Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii in 79 A.D., and 150 times more than Mount Saint Helens.”

Mount Tambora

The volcanic cloud filled up the atmosphere and dropped global temperatures by three degrees Celsius. One year later, the cloud made its way into the Northern Hemisphere and caused cooler temperature and crop failures. 1816 became known as ‘the year without a summer.’ Many areas had snow in June, and frosty nights in July, August, and September.

During this volcanic winter, 18-year-old Mary Shelley and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley were visiting their friend Lord Byron in Switzerland, near Geneva Lake. The unfortunate weather conditions, thanks to Mount Tambora, were too dreary to allow for their planned summer holiday activities, so they retired to the indoors.

One stormy night, they were talking about the feasibility of turning a corpse or body parts to life (normal dinner conversation at my get-togethers, too). They were seated around a log fire in Byron’s villa, and along with discussing raising the dead, exchanged ghost stories to pass the cold night. This inspired the inspirational Lord Byron to suggest that they each write their own supernatural tale, as a sort of competition.

Later, in a waking dream, Mary Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

What started out as a short story became, with her husband’s encouragement, a full-fledged novel, which we – at least I – now enjoy.

Frankenstein's Monster. Sort of.

On a side note, Lord Byron wrote a fragment based on legends he had heard while he traveled in the Balkans, and from this author John Polidori wrote The Vampyre (1819), the progenitor of the romantic (not Twilight romantic, mind you) vampire literary genre. The image of a vampire as a aristocratic gentleman first appeared in this book, and then adapted in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Thus, two legendary horror tales blossomed from the cold shadow of Mount Tambora’s eruption.


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