I’ll explain what I mean by Frankenstein’s Centre of Gravity in a moment, first I want to talk about one of my favourite authors, Marcus Sedgwick. Although he has written books aimed at adult audiences (eg historical thriller Mister Memory, and Little Toller monograph Snow), and he’s written many books for middle grade children, he’s primarily known for his YA novels, few of which are YA in inspiration, and all (that I’ve so far read) cross over as wonderful books for adults to read too. Here are links to my reviews if you’re interested (and I’ve plenty still left to read by him on my shelves):
- The Kiss of Death – Adventures in Gothic era Venice with added vampires.
- Blood Red Snow White – The (true) story of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia falling for Trotsky’s secretary, all bound up with Russian folklore – My favourite and probably in my top ten ever books.
- Revolver – set in the Arctic North of Sweden and Alaska in the time of the 1899 goldrush. Full of suspense.
- Midwinterblood – a clever story cycle spanning the centuries telling of incarnations of Eric and Merle working backwards in time. More adult in tone, and wonderful.
- Dark Satanic Mills – a graphic novel, written with his brother and illustrators – a dystopian story based around William Blake’s Jerusalem.
- The Ghosts of Heaven – four novellas, linked by a spiral/helix theme. Shortlisted for the Costa Children’s book award and Carnegie Medal.
- Mister Memory – An adult historical thriller set in fin de siècle Paris.
- Snow – from the Little Toller monograph series – inspired by his moving to live in the Haute-Savoie – a look at sayings, art, myths and legends, literature, exploration and science of the cold white stuff.
Where to start reading Sedgwick? I recommend Midwinterblood, Blood Red Snow White if you like Russian folktales, or the book I review below…
The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick
It’s apt that Snow was the previous book I’ve read by Sedgwick, as his move from flat Fenland England to living in the French Alps also inspired his 2018 novel, The Monsters We Deserve. It’s fair to say that a lot of Sedgwick’s work is inspired by what went on at the Villa Diodati in 1816, the famous ‘year without a summer’ after the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. You don’t really need me to tell you that, but I will anyway, it was Byron’s house-party in the villa on the shores of Lake Geneva that gave us both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the first posh vampire courtesy of Byron’s doctor John Polidori. It was when Sedgwick realised that he now lived at the centre of gravity of the triangle created by three key locations in Frankenstein (Geneva, Evian and Chamonix) and the discovery of an old, abandoned house further up the mountain that the germ of this novel was born.
After the enigmatic dedication ‘For MS’, the novel begins with a quote from Nietzsche about gazing into the abyss, before the authorial voice starts talking about monsters – from Grendel to Caliban, Lady Macbeth to Vlad the Impaler…
So here I am, and yes, the maps and the lines I drew on them were not your doing, but it is because of you that I’m here, groping around with my rusting creativity, trying to think how to bring a monster back to life. And, like it or not, I settled on one particular monster, after all. Though I can’t really fathom why it’s this monster I have chosen. For that’s what you want, isn’t it? Something you can unleash on the world, in just the way Mary did.
A monster brought to life.
We are truly in the realms of meta-fiction, as the novel is narrated by an author, who is living in a mountain hut, a chalet d’alpage for shepherds to oversummer their sheep on the high pastures, at the middle of that Frankenstein triangle. Yet it’s October, not long before the snows come, the writer’s intention is to be away before then, but he can’t begin his book, he flings his notebook away from him. I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating writer’s block must be to an author, but ours is gripped by a bad case. It spills over into his dreams which are tortured, and each day he wakes up determined,
I am going to write this book.
I am going to write this book.
I am going to write this book.
It’s my daily mantra.
I am, I am, I will, I will.
Down I come from the cramped sleeping area (I am still not willing to call it a bedroom), which overlooks the space where I cook, wash up, wash, pace and ponder. And don’t write.
He begins to explore his surroundings more, going into the forest, further up the mountain and that’s when he discovers the house. This activity releases something for as he later sits in front of his stove, he sees the ghostly figure of a woman. It’s pure Gothic-ness, and I won’t say any more.
Apart from Frankenstein pervading this book from start to finish, Sedgwick builds in references to many other authors; Nietzsche we’ve seen already, but Orwell, Heinrich Heine, and Thomas Mann all make an appearance in the early stages, (The Magic Mountain is Sedgwick’s favourite book).
The novel is written in short chapters, some like his dreams are very short – just a few lines, others are longer. All these chapters are separated by black page spreads which build up an image and its message gradually. The whole book is also gorgeously illustrated in monochrome, from swirling smoke inching across the pages, to full page photos of flames, footprints and a whole forest of trees, eerie nighttime shots and blinding white snow, some of the artwork is Sedgwick’s own. Well done to Zephyr/Head of Zeus for producing such a beautiful book.
It all adds up to a truly atmospheric read with an increasing sense of fear and dread as we realise what is happening to the Frankenstein-obsessed narrator. It’s a brave author that puts so much of their own situation and chronology into a novel, yet it is clearly a novel, definitely meta rather than auto-fiction (to me at least).
I read this book having just re-watched the National Theatre’s NT Live At Home broadcast of their play of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, (wonderful, I wrote about it before here). I found the details of Shelley’s plot thus resonated more strongly throughout this book, enhancing my reading immensely. I would, however, imagine – well, at least hope – that most of those who read Sedgwick’s homage before reading Frankenstein itself will want to find out more about the novel behind this book, and those studying Frankenstein for English A-Level would particularly appreciate it.
As you can tell, I loved it. (10/10)
(If you subscribe to the Hay Player, you can see Sedgwick talk about this book and the year without summer here.)
Source: Own Copy. Marcus Sedgwick, The Monsters We Deserve (Zephyr, 2018) 272 pages, illus.