Frankenstein’s Monster Volcano

Mary Shelley might not be the first name encountered when considering women in science and nature, but she led an extraordinary life and has an intriguing connection to one of the largest events in geologic history. Additionally, many literary critics dubbed one of her novels as the first science-fiction piece ever written. Her masterwork is, of course, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. If this tale, often attributed to Gothic horror, is the first work of science fiction, then Shelley’s influence on science should be celebrated, as the influence of the genre on tangible science is undisputed.

I can think of nearly no other human being who faced more potential overshadowing than Shelley. All women, even today, deal with unequal recognition or higher hurdles to jump to reach equity with men, but Mary Shelley could have written the handbook on the subject. The parents of the girl born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin were both monumental writers and philosophers. William Godwin was a notable thinker and author of his time, amassing disciples to his political philosophies. Mary Wollstonecraft was a seminal feminist, most famous for her work  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her husband was Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the most illustrious poets of the English language.  As we’ll see in a bit, she was also surrounded by other, possibly more famous, writers and thinkers.

Yet, today, none of the authors in her realm can boast a work that maintains the modern zeitgeist as Frankenstein does. Films, spinoffs, Halloween costumes, satires, crossovers: the story of a human creating life where life was not is a story that endures 200 years later. As great as the novel is, the story of its creation is fascinating and intersects perfectly with this newsletter, especially at Halloween!

A portrait of Mary Shelley, created by Richard Rothwell in 1840

In addition to her brushes with learned royalty, Shelley’s life was also tinged with tragedy. Her mother died shortly after she was born. She and Percy lost multiple children. Often, the pair lived in poverty. So, when they arrived at Lake Geneva in 1816 to meet friend and literary legend Lord Byron, Mary Shelley’s young life had provided her with ample fodder for a horror story.

1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer or Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death. Why? The world was plunged into darkness and coldness thanks to a beast of a stratovolcano known as Mount Tambora. On 10 April 1815, the year before, Tambora exploded in a big way. When I say a big way, I mean a BIG WAY. It was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. Earlier in the year, we spent a week studying Mt. St. Helens (article 123). As enormous as that event was, the eruption of Tambora produced 30 to 80 times more ash than St. Helens. Before blowing its top, Tambora was 14,100 feet high; afterward, it stood just 9,354 feet. Some estimates list 100,000 deaths in the immediate vicinity. 

Particulate encircled the globe for more than a year. The global temperature dropped by a degree Celsius, an enormous shift for a system so large in such a short period. Food shortages were rampant. Europe was particularly hard hit. Summer temperatures on the continent were the lowest recorded between the years of 1766 and 2000. It almost feels like 2020, if there were a visible force behind the gloom. The Shelleys and Byron visited Lake Geneva, typically a summer haven of outdoor activity, in 1816 in the midst of perhaps the greyest season of discontent.

1816 summer temperature anomaly in Europe (°C) with respect to 1971-2000 climatology - graphic by Giorgiogp2

Instead of spending time in the water or the mountains, the party spent most of the cold, rainy summer indoors, communing around fires. At some point, they discovered a set of German ghost stories and reveled in the chilling tales. One evening, Lord Byron challenged the group to concoct their own geist stories, better than the ones they read. For several days, the group asked Mary if she had thought of any ideas; each day she replied she had not.

One night, amidst the dreary landscape, during a thunderstorm, she had a “waking dream.” Mary wrote: “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.”

The next morning she announced to the group that, indeed, she had an idea for an adventure. That notion, originally intended to be a short story, became the novel we still read in modern times. Mary Shelley was 19 years old when she penned the tome, fleshing out a story born during the aftermath of one of earth’s great explosions.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster in a 1931 film adaptation

Years later, Mary queried, “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”

Without Tambora and its worldwide pall, would Mary have envisaged the novel? Full of sunshine and frivolity, would 1816 have been able to shape Frankenstein’s Monster? Obviously, it’s a thought experiment we can never sufficiently solve, but the ideas prevalent in the work were prescient and are relevant. We might view the dread of Frankenstein as tepid compared to modern, pointed horror films and books, but the driving forces are just as impactful today. Galvanism and its electrical ramifications; human experiments on genetics; wrestling with the morality of unforeseen consequences in the pursuit of scientific progress. These insights pointed to what was to come and what we continue to confront. Viewed through this lens, it is easy to see how the novel might be considered a work of science fiction.

The full biography of Mary Shelley is obviously beyond the scope of one newsletter article. The eruption of Tambora might consume a week, just like St. Helens. Perhaps we’ll dive into the subject again in the future. I urge you to give an in-depth look at the life of Mary Shelley and to give Frankenstein a (re)read. These types of intersections are the things that pique my curiosity. The real-world ghastliness, consciously or not, sparked (sorry) an all-time horror novel. It took a great woman to weave it all together. I love that!

“By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull, yellow eye of the creature open.”

BONUS FACT: The boys in Lake Geneva slacked off. Byron did manage to write a poetic fragment based on legends he heard while traveling in the Balkans. Three years later, in 1819, John Polidori, Byron’s traveling physician, took the idea in the fragment and penned a work of fiction called The Vampyre. That work launched another genre of romantic fiction, based around the blood-sucking denizens of the night. Arguably, today, the two most famous horror stories are Frankenstein and Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Thus, two classic literary masterpieces owe a debt to a volcano in Indonesia. Thanks, Tambora!

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