In a world in which Abraham Lincoln fights vampires and the March sisters are vampires, nothing seems especially outrageous about the Shelleys taking vacations with Victor Frankenstein. Peter Ackroyd's neo-Romantic The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is not as unclassifiable as Laurie Sheck's own reworking of Frankenstein, A Monster's Notes; instead, it layers elements from Mary Shelley's novel onto the real-life entanglements of P. B. Shelley and company. Our narrator Victor Frankenstein, a solitary and apparently sexless soul, is a native of Geneva who journeys to Oxford in order to study the sciences. Unlike the original Frankenstein, though, Victor admits that his young self had "a wild and enthusiastic imagination" (2) accompanying his more scholarly side, and he dwells on his home landscape in the terms of the romantic sublime. Moreover, he never divorces his scientific pursuits from the imagination: when a more religious friend asks him if he really intends to "test your wildest fantasies" (87), Frankenstein responds that "The imagination is the strongest possible power. Do you not recall that Adam dreamed, and that when he awoke he found it truth?" (88) In the original novel, Frankenstein disclaims any connection between his work and poetic creation (he assigns the imagination, after all, to Elizabeth Lavenza); here, science turns into the means of rendering "fantasies" concrete, trumping the poets at their own game. Poets may play with language, but Frankenstein will rework the world. Or so it seems, at any rate.
He receives further inspiration from his friendship with P. B. Shelley, who encourages Frankenstein's interest in electricity (linked, as in M. Shelley's novel, to lightning imagery). But P. B. turns out to be a bad angel of sorts: his radicalism often seems opportunistic and his treatment of women, questionable. In that sense, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein aligns itself with the original Frankenstein's critique of creativity gone haywire. Both P. B. Shelley and Frankenstein cloak their essentially self-centered projects in a veneer of utopian social benevolence; both follow their desires without any thought of later consequences. (Frankenstein, at least, registers that Shelley's behavior--seducing Harriet, then rapidly forgetting her after her death and, for all intents and purposes, abandoning their child--isn't exactly cause for celebration.) In any event, Frankenstein begins with dissecting and vivisecting animals ("without, I hope, inflicting unnecessary or excessive pain" ), then moves on to corpses (shades of Burke and Hare). Once we reach corpses, Frankenstein's observations start to become a little...odd. He ascribes intentionality to the electrified corpses' movements; he experiments on his own hand, and apparently turns into Superman, or perhaps the Incredible Hulk. He starts perambulating about London at late hours, and often "hear[s] footsteps behind me echoing on the cobbles" (141). And finally, he successfully reanimates the corpse of a just-deceased acquaintance, Jack Keat (John Keats?), who, after a less-successful autoerotic moment (Mary Shelley must have forgotten to include that detail...), dives into the putrid river and swims off.
Not long afterward, P. B. Shelley's first wife, Harriet, is found murdered. (The real Harriet committed suicide.)
To talk more about how the novel works, I'll have to give away the plot twists. Head below the fold.
The primary "trick" in this novel is its genre. This is not Mary Shelley's Gothic, in which alchemy-inspired scientific experiments really can breathe life into a Creature patched together out of corpses. Instead, this is neo-Gothic, of the kind practiced by Patrick McGrath, and everything bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike emerges from the unreliable narrator's tormented psyche. Once the reader realizes that, genre-wise, the novel is itself a sort of Frankenstein's monster, the second trick can be anticipated easily enough: there is no Creature. The reanimated Jack Keat, whom Frankenstein perceives (as in the novel) as his ominous double, is Frankenstein's own subconscious--and the murders are committed by none other than Frankenstein himself. But why?
Terrence Rafferty suggests that perhaps Frankenstein's repressed desire for P. B. is at fault. The novel is certainly homoerotic at times, what with Frankenstein's interest in phallic tissues, his admiration for Keat's exquisite corpse, and the Creature's aforementioned behavior on awakening; then again, there's the "secret wound" that Frankenstein experiences when he first meets Harriet (18), although I suppose that moment is ambiguous enough to cover jealousy of P. B.'s own reaction. Unlike Frankenstein, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein features no female love interest for Frankenstein, as Elizabeth actually is his sister. Frankenstein's most powerful emotional investment is in his Creature, who certainly fantasizes about a lovely female love interest of his own (which, of course, never comes into being); if anything, this is self-love (and self-hate) on a traumatically grand scale. But considered from the POV of narrative logic, thwarted desire might explain Harriet's death, but not the next two murders, at least not as far as I can see.
In fact, the final murder--if it actually happens--of Dr. Polidori (we're in an alternate universe here, remember) suggests something more prosaic, if also more in line with the original novel's plot:
Now, this conclusion falls squarely in line with the original's critique of the scientific imagination gone haywire, albeit with a slightly different result. If we believe Dr. Polidori, Frankenstein suffers from poet envy. Instead of competing with God, as in Frankenstein, he competes with the Romantic poets. His desire to exceed the power of language, to materially alter the world, traps him in a mental prison of his own making (think Milton's Satan and Lord Byron's Manfred). His language, his fantastic projections, are inadequate to the task of poetic work; his attempt to act out Coleridge's theory of the imagination in the Biographia Literaria by reviving a corpse ("vital" imagination vs. "fixed and dead" object) merely produces an unacknowledged split in his own consciousness. P. B. and Byron are split as well, in the sense that their personalities and their imaginative powers do not coincide. Frankenstein wishes to outdo them by remaining, in effect, an organic whole, but in his failure he only manages to exceed them in active evil. And unaware of his failure, he cannot aspire even to the state of Byronic hero.
"You have lived in your imagination, Victor. You have dreamed all this. Invented it."
"Perhaps you wished to rival Bysshe. Or Byron. You had longings for sublimity and power." (352)