Making Frankenstein Personal: An Interview with ‘Called Into Being’ Frankenstein Zine Contributors

Frankenstein's monster ponders his own reflection

The Called Into Being zine Kickstarter (which has been fully funded!) describes itself as a celebration of the personal connection people feel with Mary Shelley’s landmark science fiction novel Frankenstein. We reached out to the zine contributors to talk more about their personal histories to the Frankenstein novel and adaptations of the story.

Our thanks and appreciation to Allison O’Toole (zine co-editor), Christine Prevas, (author, “Becoming Dr. Frankenstein”), Billy Seguire, (author, “Frankenstein’s Snowman”), and K. M. Claude, (comic author, “Chip On My Shoulder”) for their in-depth and thoughtful responses.

Disclaimer: Called Into Being is edited by Megan Purdy, WWAC’s founder and former publisher. WWAC Reviews Editor is a contributor to this zine.

I first read Frankenstein in college and did not really enjoy it. It wasn’t until later that I really appreciated what Shelley had created, and I went back to Frankenstein to experience it again in new eyes. Have you ever read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Was reading it an important experience?

Christine Prevas: I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the end of high school first, then again halfway through college, and then more times than I can count over the past year and a half. The first time I read it was incredibly eye-opening for me — I’d had so little interest in traditional monster movies and their clean-cut morals, so to discover that the works they’d been based on were more complex and more ambivalent than that was a rush of fascination. And Frankenstein is a novel that’s aged alongside me as I have: what I thought was the point when I was 17 isn’t what I get out of it now, and its malleability and interpretability is part of what makes it such an astounding piece of work — there’s always more to dig into, always another way to look into things, another mirror through which to refract the core story and reflect new aspects of it.

Billy Seguire: I read Frankenstein in high school for a reading assignment. It was the first time I had ever encountered anything in that genre, and it sparked a brief but pretentious love affair with gothic horror. I was probably a bit basic in that first reading, to be honest, interpreting the Creature as a victim and all that textbook stuff. Man was the monster all along! Transformative, I know. I had only been familiar with the pop version of Frankenstein before that, and was mostly just shocked by how sad the whole book turned out to be. It’s more of a tragedy than a horror for everyone involved.

I really enjoyed re-reading it recently, imagining Mary Shelley revelling in that aspect, writing Victor as her idiot sad-boy protagonist who learns nothing, just making the worst decisions at every turn. Thinking of it that way caused me to relate to her more as a person who wrote stories, rather than this grand celebrated author, and it gave me a whole new perspective on this story I had thought was set in stone. I guess you could say my interpretation continues to evolve, and that speaks to the breadth of the story and how many varied themes and perspectives it has to offer.

Allison O’Toole: Like Christine and Billy, I read Frankenstein in school first, but it was really my second reading of it in my first year at university that cemented it as one of my favourites. I’ve read it several times since, and I find something new and interesting in it every time I read it. Recently I’ve been reading more about 19th century science, and what Mary Shelley could have known (or not known) about it, and how that might have informed her story. It’s such a dense novel that there are so many different ways to find new meaning and interest in it!

M. Claude: Unlike Christine, Billy, or Allison, I never read Frankenstein, despite having seen the old Universal movies and countless pop culture adaptations, parodies, and references. I know the book differs greatly from its iterative adaptations, as often happens, but to be truthful, it’s that adaptational piecing together a new creation all its own from the source material — the Frankensteining of Frankenstein — that interests me. What insights, images, or morals do creators conclude from the source? And which of those do we culturally propagate?

"Bones," by Sara Julia Campbell, Called Into Being Zine
“Bones,” by Sara Julia Campbell, which accompanies Christine Prevas’ essay, “Becoming Dr. Frankenstein.”

Mary Shelley is, famously, the teenage girl who invented science fiction. What does that mean to you in the context of this project?

Billy: My favourite thing about Mary Shelley is how undeniable she is. The women who defined these art forms are so often either buried under male names or forgotten entirely, but everybody knows Mary Shelley. She’s important as a symbol because she proves we’ve always needed a multitude of voices to make this whole genre thing work. Genre storytelling is, at its core, about worlds that aren’t like our own. I want to explore perspectives that aren’t my own just as much! It’s that mode of thinking that got me excited about participating in Called Into Being, since I knew it was going to be an inclusive effort by design. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Shelley’s story has been interpreted by the different perspectives of the artists and writers in this anthology and I’m just happy I get to be one of them.

Allison: Mary Shelley was a complicated and fascinating person, surrounded by other influential and fascinating people. There’s a tendency, perhaps not entirely fair, to read all of her work biographically, to try to find the things in her personal life that influenced her writing. But I think the fact that Frankenstein is so heavily a product of its time is one of the things that makes it so interesting! You can see the artistic, philosophical, and scientific beliefs of the early 19th century in this one novel, and one that’s continued to reflect contemporary beliefs over 200 years. I doubt Mary Shelley realized that this would be the case when she was writing it!

Claude: As much as Mary Shelley the historical person is complex and nuanced, there’s something to be said for how powerful the icon, however simplified, of Mary Shelley The Parent of SciFi can be! For myself personally, being a transgender man and living all my life so far as a woman, even attending all-girls secondary school, there was something very empowering, you could say, in the knowledge that science fiction is thanks to a teenage girl—especially when you yourself are sitting in a classroom surrounded by teenage girls some many decades later trying to leave your own mark on this world. Mary Shelley the Icon did it, you can too! And it’s true: now here we have so many creators from so many backgrounds, experiences, and walks of life all doing it, all leaving their marks on the page, on Shelley’s work, and on the world.

Excerpt from K. M. Claude's comics essay "Chip On Your Shoulder."
Excerpt from K. M. Claude’s comics essay “Chip On Your Shoulder.”

In addition to being considered one of the first works of science fiction, Frankenstein also deals with the Monstrous, which puts it in the horror genre, as well as with postmodern narrative themes of stories within stories and unreliable narrators. There’s also themes on creation, the myth of Prometheus, birth, death, science, fatherhood (and implied referentially, motherhood). Were there any aspects of the story that were particularly inspirational in your work?

Christine: My work is very much about Victor Frankenstein, not just as creator but as absent parent, and the growing process of watching something that you’ve created grow up and away and out of your control. Most readings of Victor are, I think, unsympathetic — he’s the villain of his own story, his scientific overreach and hubris the cause of the deaths of everyone he loves — but he’s also a man who is grieving, and I think it says a lot about the responsibility of grief and the things we can’t afford to ignore, in the midst of it.

Of course, as a trans academic, I am also always reading Frankenstein and every adaptation of it through the lens of gender identity and gendered incomprehensibility. Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” which imagines the Monster as transgender and appropriates his rage thusly is a huge influence on my work both on Frankenstein and on trans issues.

Billy: My contribution to Called into Being is about as far from the Monstrous as you can get, but those themes of creation and child/parent relationships were still something I had in mind as I was writing. I really tried to look at how Victor failed as a parent, and wanted to understand what Shelley was doing when she cast him as a creator of new life. The fact that the Creature is born fully formed was interesting to me, because it meant he had to consciously come to terms with essential ideas of his own existence and the world around him. It’s telling that this process that most of us went through as toddlers breaks the Creature, and I wanted to show how terribly Victor failed at guiding the Creature’s development by comparing his path to a similar story where things ended differently.

Allison: The fact that there are so many different lenses through which we can read the novel (and its adaptations) was a large part of the inspiration for this project. Each reader brings something of themselves to the table when they read the book, and that means that different aspects of it will speak to or inspire them — the subjectivity of our individual relationships to the story is what we wanted to explore in the collection.

Claude: My piece for Called into Being revolves around being perceived as or treated as monstrous, most specifically for the art one makes, the effects of that treatment, and the healing power of art and creative expression, of creating your own fictitious monsters, of being a god of your own world. Adaptations of Frankenstein, especially the first two Universal films, often seem to focus on the desire to belong, to be accepted, to be respected rather than reviled, to be understood. I wanted to speak from that thematic thread that culturally we have been pulling from the story of Frankenstein from adaptation to adaptation.

"Frank and Frosty," by Saffron Aurora, Called Into Being zine
“Frank and Frosty,” by Saffron Aurora, which accompanies Billy Seguire’s essay, “Frankenstein’s Snowman.”

Frankenstein has been adapted so many times. Do you have a favorite Frankenstein adaptation? This could be literal or an analogue. (For example, my favorite adaptation in comics is the prologue to Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross that creates an analogue to Frankenstein with the creation of the first Human Torch as The Modern Prometheus.)

Christine: I recently read Victor LaValle’s graphic novel adaptation, Destroyer, which was an absolutely excellent read. However, my favorite Frankenstein story will always be The Rocky Horror Show. Its clever distortions of traditional narrative form make it not just a clever parody of science fiction and horror B-movies, but also just as much of a Frankenstein’s Monster as the characters within it. It’s the perfect example of form mirroring meaning — just like Shelley’s novel is stitched together from different letters and journals and stories the characters tell, The Rocky Horror Show is the rearranging of the jagged, shattered pieces of the works it parodies, put back together in a body that is incomprehensible, and nevertheless alive. Plus, I’m a sucker for anything campy, and the music is amazing.

Billy: I’m so happy you phrased this question to include analogues, because I wrote in this anthology about how Frosty the Snowman is one of the essential Frankenstein stories, and I would love to explain how that makes sense before they call me mad. Frosty and Frankenstein are both stories that describe a creature who is called into being fully formed, who is Other in their society, and whose development is shown in how they relate to other people through empathy. Obviously Frosty the Snowman is a more positive take on the subject matter, but I think it’s important to remind people that you can have an earnestly positive story that still feels dramatic and has stakes. Rankin-Bass specials in particular excel at that style of storytelling. It’s a style that I think has really come back into vogue in this generation of animation in particular with shows like Steven Universe and Adventure Time, which has really made me happy to see. Frosty the Snowman is Frankenstein with a positive role model. If that role model just happens to be en eight year old girl? I think Mary Shelley would like that.

Allison: I have a soft spot for the Universal films. They made some significant changes to Shelley’s text, but they influenced the horror genre as we know it, and they’re just fantastic films. Boris Karloff and Colin Clive were incredible as the Monster and his creator, and Elsa Lanchester leaves an impression as the Bride with only a few minutes of screen time. My love for the old movies means that I also adore Young Frankenstein, which could only be made by people who love and understand those movies as much as I do. And it’s just hysterical.

I also loved Penny Dreadful. Despite its flaws, the Creature’s (or should I say, John Clare’s) story was the strongest arc on the show, and Rory Kinnear’s performance was perfectly menacing and tragic. I adored that take on the character, and I think it’s probably the closest to Shelley’s vision for him as I’ve ever seen.

Claude: Like Allison, I also have a soft spot for the Universal films. As a kid, I remember watching Frankenstein with my mother who pointed out that Frankenstein’s line about knowing what it’s like to be God was not in the film when she was younger. To me, it was always odd that that was cut because he had a point! The censorship decision just seemed silly (then again, all censorship does), but it stuck with me all this time. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the creature in the 2004 Van Helsing film — for me, it was the first time I’d seen Frankenstein’s monster shown as eloquent.

Called Into Being: A Celebration of Frankenstein is currently on Kickstarter, so make sure to get your copy before October 18th!

Kate Tanski

Kate Tanski

Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.