Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was first published in 1818. But the birth of the story occurred two years earlier when the 18-year-old writer; her soon to be husband, poet Percy Shelley, 23; the legendary poet Lord Byron, 28; writer and physician John Polidori, 20; and Byron’s lover (and Mary’s step sister) Claire Clairmont, 18, spent the summer together.
As Mary Shelley recalls in the introduction of the 1831 edition of her novel, excerpted here, the story came to her like a ghost in a dream:
It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands.
“We will each write a ghost story,” said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to.
I busied myself to think of a story — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.
One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.
I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.
Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.
Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener.
During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.
They talked of the experiments … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endowed with vital warmth.
Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest.
When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think.
My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.
I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision — 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 would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handy work, horror-stricken.
He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.
He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
I opened mine in terror.
On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, “It was on a dreary night of November . . .”