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Culture Junkie: Mary Shelley, telling stories and one long, cold summer

David Templeton, Culture Junkie
David Templeton, Culture Junkie

NOTE: The following column originally ran on May 20, 2020, just as the pandemic lockdowns were starting to seem like they could last a while. The column received a tremendous amount of positive feedback. As it describes the event that took place on June 16, 1816, the day my family has come to think of as Mary Shelley’s Dream Day, and today being June 16, 2022, we thought it might be nice to revisit it. Happy Mary Shelley’s Dream Day to you all.

It was called The Year Without a Summer.

And without it, we would probably not have the novel “Frankenstein.”

Or even “Dracula.”

Or numerous little poems discovered and beloved by fans of the Romantic Era.

I refer to the year 1816 - 204 years ago, to you number-loving people - which also became known as The Poverty Year, and to a certain group of witty Europeans, “Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death.”

That’s really what people called it.

It seems that a large volcano in Indonesia (then called the Dutch West Indies) named Mount Tambora had erupted in April of the previous year. Believed at the time to have been the most powerful volcanic eruption in more than 1,000 years, the terrifying event spewed clouds of smoke and ash into the sky in such volume that, as winds carried the particles out and across the planet, they caused a catastrophic climatological disaster. Blocking the sun in many parts of the world, the drifting smoke led to massive agricultural collapse, a noticeable drop in temperature world-wide, rainfall in record numbers across much of Europe.

On the plus side, there are some who believe that, on days when the sun actually showed itself, and people felt bold enough to step outside, 1816 brought with it some pretty spectacular sunsets.

For the most part though, people just hid inside and did what people of the time did under such circumstances. They made babies (with the inevitable baby boom following in 1817), they worried that it was the end of the world, they tried to find ways to feed their families with less available food and they struggled between trusting their own superstitions and assumptions over those of the scientific community, which recommended that if everyone stayed calm, and avoided panicking, everything would get better in a year or so.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Except for the part about the volcano, of course?

Anyway, I mentioned this story would involve “Frankenstein.”

And “Dracula.”

That’s because, just as the majority of humans are doing in 2020, the people of 1816 spent much of the year frightened, frustrated, socially isolated and clustered together in small groups indoors, with little to do but read, talk, have sex and make up stories. Which brings us to a certain group of English writers in Switzerland, who would - all because they had nothing else to do - directly and indirectly gave birth to those two iconic novels of horror.

On May 2, 1816, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley departed from London, with his 18-year-old lover Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, their out-of-wedlock baby William, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Claremont, intending to spend the summer on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Skipping ahead, the three penniless artists ended up spending much of their dream vacation at the rented estate of the wealthy and morally outrageous poet Lord George Byron, and his personal physician John Polidori. Forced to stay indoors by what Mary would one day describe as that “wet, ungenial summer,” the quartet of English escapees found other occupations there at the edge of the towering Alps. As has been gloriously fictionalized in countless books and movies, like the outlandish 1986 Ken Russell film “Gothic” and last year’s anemic “Mary Shelley” - and my own spooky novella and subsequent stage play “Mary Shelley’s Body” - the friends agreed to concoct scary stories as a form of isolated entertainment.

Mary, still a teenager, had a dream (on June 16, 1816) that inspired her to write a novel about a student of chemistry who brings a stitched-together assemblage of cadaverous limbs to life. Two years later, it would be published as “Frankenstein.” Less well known is that Byron, whose grand, epic poems are celebrated by English Literature professors (and few others) to this day, produced a small scrap of a story he called “A Fragment,” and then abandoned it, as did Shelley with his own attempt at a story. Polidori, having been brutally shamed for suggesting a story about a keyhole-peeping voyeur cursed with a skeleton’s head, begged Byron’s permission to use “A Fragment” as the basis of a possible short novel. In 1819, less than two years before he swallowed a fatal dose of cyanide in London, Polidori published a novel called “The Vampyre,” inspired by and significantly fleshed out from Byron’s abandoned few pages. Almost 80 years later, in 1897, Bram Stoker would publish “Dracula,” openly admitting that a major influence was John Polidori’s “The Vampyre.”

There were certainly other works of writing, music and art produced around the world that long “year without a summer,” but none quite so tinged with romantic scandal and near-mythical literary appeal as those sparked into life by the so-dubbed Byron-Shelley Circle on the shores of a stormy lake.

Since discovering this story, and spending much of a similar summer studying the Shelleys and Byron while writing my gruesome little novel about Mary Shelley - told from the point of view of her ghost - I have come to view the date of June 16, when young Mary had her dream, as a bit of a personal and historical holiday. Some years, I’ve gathered friends that night to read ghost stories. This, year, when the day rolls around in a few weeks, I suspect it will take on an additional resonance, as so many of us experience a different form of forced retreat to our immediate families, whatever and whoever they may be.

Even with some of the health restrictions lifted, it seems clear that staying close to home, away from crowds, and as safe as possible from 2020’s own viral version of an erupting Mount Tambora, will be the norm for some months.

And I will be wondering what stories are being written during this time? What songs and poems and plays folks are bringing to life behind all of those closed doors? Is someone out there, maybe someone around here, working on what will be viewed hundreds of years from now as another “Frankenstein” or “Dracula”?

I have to believe it’s true.

Whatever great works spring from this singular, terrifying time - and let’s hope they are not all horror stories - I think it’s certain that someone is using these days of isolation to let their inner author or composer or painter, out of the box. Perhaps, like young Mary, someone out there is having powerful dreams, dreams so good and vivid and rich with texture, they simply can’t be ignored.

I can’t wait to see what those dreams bring to life.

“Culture Junkie” runs every month or so in the Argus-Courier. In this column, David Templeton muses on all things cultural, creative and theatrical. You can contact him at david.templeton@arguscourier.com

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