ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI, PART 5: GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON

If such a thing as a “rock star” had existed in 19th century Britain, George Gordon, the 6th Baron Byron, would surely have been that individual. Born in 1788 to Catherine Gordon and Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron (who sounds like a supporting character from Pirates of the Caribbean), Lord Byron inherited his ancestral title, yet managed to earn wealth and eternal fame on his own merits as a best-selling poet (back before that expression became an oxymoron). He remains best-known for epic narrative poems of machismo such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, and Byron’s own love life rivaled that of his legendary fictional libertine. His notorious sexual exploits and the sheer number of lovers—both female and male—he had during his short life would have put even Mick Jagger to shame.

No mere armchair adventurer, Byron lived as large as any of his heroes. Despite being born with a club foot, he became an outstanding swimmer. He even swam the one-mile breadth of the Hellespont, the narrow strait that leads from Turkey into the Aegean Sea, then composed a poem to brag about the exploit. (It’s a pity he didn’t teach Percy Shelley at least to dog-paddle.) He traveled extensively, partook of many and variegated cultures, and indulged in epic hedonism.

Eventually, his desire for real-life swashbuckling led to his downfall. Byron joined with Greek forces to fight for independence from the Turks. Before he could die heroically in battle, however, he contracted a terrible illness that was treated with an even more terrible remedy, a careless bloodletting that resulted in a lethal infection. He died in Missolonghi, Greece, in 1824, at the age of 36, which may not seem very old but is longer than Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain lasted, so for a rock star, he did pretty well.

On that tempestuous night at the Villa Diodati, Byron was the first to propose the ghost-story competition to the Shelleys and Dr. Polidori, yet his Lordship failed his own challenge. His own entry for the competition was a tantalizing “Fragment of a Novel,” which introduces the mysterious yet charismatic character of Augustus Darvell. Some readers believe Darvell may have been a prototype for Polidori’s “Vampyre,” although Byron’s sadly incomplete narrative leaves it open to question whether or not Darvell is a member of the undead.

But let us now imagine what might have been if, instead of a “Fragment of a Novel,” Byron had left us “The Novel of the Fragments.”

Hermit Tarot

 

The Novel of the Fragments

by

Lord Byron

 (as channeled by Peter Atkins)

 

I am to tell you, or so the muse instructs me, of the curious adventure that befell me during my wanderings in that mist-shrouded region of hills and caverns—nestled between two neighboring kingdoms and long the source of their centuries-old enmity—which our unimaginative guidebooks call merely The Taviani Pass (after the Venetian botanist who first mapped it) but which is known to one of its reclusive mountain tribes in their strangely beautiful mongrel tongue as Draumestauch, or The Place of Gentle Misfortune.

I was descending a south-facing slope, aware already of how low the sun was to my right, when I grew conscious of a whistled air, high and lilting and tantalizingly faint. At first convinced it was naught but the wind itself, transmuted into accidental melody by its passage through crevice and crevasse, I was forced to revise my opinion when a sudden sour note in a trilling climb within the tune prefaced a pause and then a renewed attempt at the melodic ascent. Neither wind nor accident then, I realized, and was at once—distance and nightfall be damned—determined to find the mysterious whistler. For you see, the air was not unknown to me; it was in fact one of those ‘Hebrew Melodies’ composed by Mr. Nathan some years earlier as settings for lyrics of my own invention.

A turn or two within the rocky bypaths brought me ere long to the narrow mouth of a cave hidden from the casual glances of most who would brave the mountain, and a walk of but a hundred feet or so within its shadowed reaches brought me to the source of the whistled refrain:

Illuminated by the dancing flame of a torch mounted on the cave-wall, a solitary Hermit in monk-like robes and cowl sat beneath a primitive looking glass of polished obsidian fastened to the rocky surface behind him. As I stepped into the pool of light cast by the torch, the fellow stopped his whistling.

“Welcome, my Lord,” he said, and beckoned me forward.

“You have the advantage of me, Sir,” I said. “In whose company do I find myself?”

“I am the Guardian of the Fragments,” he said, with a certain haughtiness not generally associated with—nor, to my understanding, encouraged in—those of the monkish persuasion.

“Fragments?” said I. For, I confess, curiosity had triumphed over my disdain for his cheap Mummers’ Show theatrics.

“Fragments of Time, my Lord,” he said. “Glimpses of worlds that were, worlds that will be, and even worlds that are.”

Well, the damned fellow had my attention. I had to give him that.

“Do we see them in the glass?” I said, nodding at the obsidian pane behind him.

There was a pause before his reply—“Alas, no,” he eventually said—and I realized I’d inadvertently knocked a chip out of his self-importance. Missed a trick there, he was probably thinking, while no doubt planning a quick bit of redecoration before the next punter wandered in.

Making the best of it, however, he reached within the copious folds of his robe and removed a document.

“From the distant past,” he said, and held the thing out for me to take, which I did.

It was a single sheet of a fine antique parchment and it was folded in half. On the outside of the fold, as one addressing an envelope, someone had written a three-word title in a decent copperplate while the inside, once unfolded, contained a prose passage of some two or three hundred words:

ONLY DEATH, SIR

           When the King of all the lands that were fair asked for berries, berries were brought. When his thirst sought sweet water, sweet water was found. So when he asked for wisdom, it was not long before his courtiers brought to him a man of whom no question had been asked for which he had not found an answer.

          And the King made the man his servant and bade him walk with him all his days so that wisdom was ever at hand.

          And the Servant showed him all the pleasures of the world and how to partake wisely thereof.

          And many years passed and the King, grown old with wandering, spoke again to his servant.

          “And after this, what then? After flesh and fruit and song, what more remains?”

          And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was kind.

          And the King, who by now was not himself unwise, accepted the answer but, seeking consolation, went to his window and looked out at his people below.

          “That sweet girl who runs eagerly, summer on her cheek, to find a faithful lover: Who will receive her embrace?”

          And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.

          “And that young man whose heart seeks glory, be he poet or soldier: What will he find?”

          And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.

          “And those trees, those flowers: To what end do they blossom? Those birds: To what end do they sing?”

          And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.

          And the King looked at his Servant and saw him for the first time and his heart was heavy in his chest and all his joys were ash. And he gave to his Servant one more question.

          “And who are you, o most faithful servant, who has shown me all these wonders, who has walked always beside me, thy footsteps planted next to mine down all my days e’en like those of my own shadow?”

          The Servant smiled. And he made him an answer and the answer was the same.

 

I refolded the paper, handed it back to the hermit, and watched it disappear into the hollows of his monkish robe.

“A lesson the learning of which is hardly the exclusive prerogative of the past,” I said. “Nor one reserved solely for Kings.”

“I know nothing of lessons, my Lord,” he said. “I am merely the Guardian.”

His routine could plainly benefit from better dialogue and I felt a moment’s temptation to offer my services in that regard, but I feared it might bruise his feelings. He was, in any case, getting on with the show.

“From the distant future,” he said, producing the second fragment for my perusal:

 

THE LAST TIME I ALMOST WENT HOME

         The guy we’d actually been hired by, the guy who rounded us up from the club, was just some flunky in a tough-guy suit, spending government money. Nicer than he needed to be, though. “Ladies,” he’d said, as he held the limo door and waved the three of us into the back seat. Not a trace of spin on it. You learn to appreciate the little things, believe me.

          The guy we’ve been hired for is quiet, naked, and not great on eye-contact. It’s hardly surprising that he doesn’t understand the subtleties, that his hand is limp and unresponsive when we shake, that he answers honestly when Brigid asks if he likes her hair. It’s hardly surprising at all. I mean, how far has he come?

           The guy with the clipboard and the ugly machine had tried to explain, but I couldn’t even. I’m like, “Wait, what?” Mind blown.

            “C’mon, Caitlin,” Jeannie says to me, like she hears this sort of shit every day. “Like David Bowie. You know, in that movie.”

            And Brigid’s like, “Right, the one where his eyes are weird.”

            And Jeannie, very offended, is all, “Those are Bowie’s actual eyes, Brigid.”

            But she’s forgetting the scene with the tweezers, I think, and besides, that was a metaphor. This is a man.

            The ugly machine can’t make up its mind about its numbers.

             Jeannie’s tongue is at the corner of her mouth and none of us are sure what to do now.

             “Perhaps you could dance,” Clipboard says. “Perhaps he’d like that.”

 

Fragment, indeed. Somewhat shorter, even, than the first. And certainly more perplexing; full of words which one could understand singly but which, woven together, produced a tapestry so baffling as to court madness. I would not, however, have this fellow—of whom I had come to think, for all his affectation of a monkish spiritual rigour, as being too pleased with himself by half—believe me to be without opinion or insight.

“A machine that works with numbers,” I said. “A sophistication, I assume, of Herr Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner?”

“Were Herr Leibniz to fall asleep and dream himself into a world of mechanical wonders unguessed-at in our present day and then, within that dreaming world of splendours, to fall asleep and dream of a world whose inventions put those of the first to shame, he would still be some distance from comprehending the …”

Good God. I know that I’ve been accused of as much myself, but it seemed to me that my monastic friend was making his point with an inordinate amount of excessive elaboration. I pretended to stifle a yawn but hints, it appeared, were not to be taken.

“… enormous strides in computational capabilities that await us in—”

“That’s as may be,” I said, finally cutting him off. “But I suspect two and two will probably still make four. In any case, there’s a far more important lesson to be learned from this little curiosity of yours.”

“Indeed?” said the Hermit, raising an eyebrow.

“Indeed,” said I. “It appears that, in the future, ladies shall still dance?”

“It appears so,” he admitted.

“Then the world shall not entirely have gone to Hell,” I said, and held out my hand for the third fragment.

“Past. Future,” I mused. “This next will, I take it, enlighten me regarding the present?”

A solemn nod was his only reply as he placed the document in my hand.

As with its companions, it was a single sheet of paper folded in half. As before, a title was on the outer fold:

HOW LONG DOES THE MAYFLY LIVE?

But the paper, once unfolded, was completely blank.

For a brief moment, I felt a chill of fear, its source unclear to me and its strength disturbingly disproportionate to the circumstance.

My second thought was that this was merely some ill-judged whimsy of the Guardian and that, upon renewed demand, he would provide the real document.

And then I understood. Or thought so, at least.

“The present is not ordained,” I said confidently, as one who has understood a clever puzzle. “It is ours for the writing.”

I looked to my cowled companion for what I fully expected to be an approving nod. But neither word nor gesture escaped him. How could it?

The Guardian was a statue. Man and robe alike hewn by some masterful ancient hand from the very walls of the cavern that appeared to be its home.

I snatched up the flaming torch from its niche in the wall and held it near my former companion. With every second, the thing seemed to be less well wrought until I began to wonder how I could ever have thought it the semblance of a man. A series of natural folds in the rock, and nothing more.

The flicker of the flame’s reflection in the obsidian panel above drew my attention to the looking glass. Holding the torch aloft and close to my own face, I stared into the glass’s darkling surface.

There was absolutely nothing to be seen within.

 THE END

© Peter Atkins 2016

 

For those unfortunates who have been living under rocks for the past few decades and may not be familiar with him, PETER ATKINS is the author of the novels Morningstar, Big Thunder, and Moontown and the screenplays Hellraiser II, Hellraiser III, Hellraiser IV, and Wishmaster. His short fiction has appeared in such anthologies as The Museum of Horrors, Ghosts, Hellbound Hearts, and Cemetery Riots, and has been selected eight times for one or more of the various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies. His recent book, Rumours of the Marvellous, a collection of his short fiction, was a finalist for the British Fantasy Award. He blogs at peteratkins.blogspot.com.

The author of this blog wishes to offer his obsequious thanks to Mr. Atkins for embodying the immortal Byron for this Villa Diodati recreation.

If you enjoyed this story (and the stories within the story!), please LIKE and SHARE this post with all your fellow Gothic aficionados. And, while you’re at it, don’t forget to mention that, for a limited time, they can get the Kindle ebook of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN for the pittance of ONLY 99 CENTS! That’s less than a convenience-store king-sized pack of M&M’s! And it’s way better for you–a fraction of the fat and calories. But this SPECIAL OFFER won’t last long. Order yours today! Here’s the link:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Amazon Order Page

Thank you all for joining our party at the Villa Diodati! In the spirit of that fateful evening in June of 1816, I hope we have given you a few memorable shivers for a stormy night. I would love to hear what you think and whether you have suggestions for future features you would like to see in this blog. Until next we meet…HAVE A VERY GOTHIC HOLIDAY SEASON!

 

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Your Halloween VAMPIRE Playlist!

It’s our favorite time of year here at The Journals of Dr. Franken-Steve, and to get us in the mood for All Hallow’s Eve, we’re queuing up a hit parade of monster music. Since we’ve previously listed our fave Frankenstein tunes in honor of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN, this time we’re going to do some bloodsucking bootie-shakin’ with those beloved members of the undead…VAMPIRES. So sink your fangs into these Top Vamp Tracks!

  1. “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” by Concrete Blonde: If you have the “ways and means to New Orleans,” then tune in to this ultimate vamp anthem that would make Ann Rice proud.
  2. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus: My own vampire bride Kelly Dunn debates whether this track really “counts” as a vampire song since it concerns the eponymous deceased actor and not the celebrated Count he played. I say any tune whose chorus is “Undead, undead, undead” belongs on this list. This brooding eulogy to Bela, the greatest Dracula of all time, is arguably the greatest Goth song of all time.
  3. “Love Song for a Vampire” by Annie Lennox: This beautiful, elegiac ballad was by far the most memorable thing about the Francis Ford Coppola film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And someone should get Lennox to play a vampire—she’d be great!
  4. “Flesh and Bone” by Burning Brides: A wonderfully eerie and seductive song from the soundtrack to the criminally underrated vampire comedy rock musical film Suck. Burning Brides lead singer Dmitri Coats also played the goofy yet somehow still creepy vampire villain “Queenie” in the movie.
  5. “Moon Over Bourbon Street” by Sting: Speaking of New Orleans…the Big Easy seems to be Vampire Central for North America, and one could easily see Louis or Lestat nodding in agreement with this nameless narrator’s lament.
  6. “Vampires in Love” by The Misfits: A rocking punk ode to love between bloodsuckers.
  7. “Vampire Blues” by Neil Young: A deep cut from Mr. Young that indicts the real-life corporate leeches that are bleeding our planet dry. The rock legend played this rarity live for the first time ever this past year, suggesting how scarily relevant this cautionary lyric has become.
  8. “Drac’s Back” by The Bollock Brothers: A hilarious disco/rap cover version of a novelty song by singer and actor Andy Forray. Wait ’til you hear the backup singers squeal as Drac says, “I want to suck your…”!
  9. “Suck” by The Winners: Did somebody say “Suck”? This is the catchy title track to the aforementioned film of the same title. The movie’s ironically-named fictional rock band, the Winners are anything but. The comedy musical was written and directed by the multitalented Rob Stefaniuk, who also plays the Winners’ hapless lead singer and guitarist, and it features hysterical cameos from such rock luminaries as Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Alex Lifeson, and Henry Rollins. A must-see for all rock and vamp fans!
  10. “Lost Boys” by The 69 Eyes: This great Goth metal band from Finland sings in English and draws inspiration from many favorite Hollywood horror movies—in this case, the beloved vamp vehicle for Kiefer Sutherland and Corey Feldman. Another cool undead record by the band: “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn”
  11. “Nosferatu” by The Scared Stiffs: A splendidly moody instrumental by one of the best Halloween rock bands to haunt the night.
  12. “Vampires” by Godsmack: Spoken-word narration speculates on the psychological allure of vampirism while fuzzy, alt-rock guitars jam in the background in another Goth classic.
  13. “Vampire Girl” by Jonathan Richman: An infectious and funny paean to the vampire girl of your dreams.
  14. “Dracula’s Wedding” by OutKast: The ultimate love-’em-and-leave-’em bachelor confronts his own greatest fear: commitment. And you gotta love any disco-funk track that features a sinister harpsichord, right? 

Whew! That’s a lot of bats! And there’s plenty of other prime vamp tracks out there—we’d love to hear any of your pet tunes that we might have missed.

And to make your Halloween season complete, why not grab a copy of the ultimate monster read, FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN? The handsome Shadowridge Press paperback edition is available at the special discounted price of ONLY $9.99 for the holiday season, and you can get free shipping on qualifying orders. See the order page below for details:

 

Kindle readers can currently grab a copy of the FRAULEIN ebook for only $1.99 here:

 

Happy reading, and stay tuned for more “monster hits”!

Get your FRAULEIN on for Halloween! Only 99 Cents!

Fall is in the air, ghosts are in the graveyard, bats are in the belfry, and the Things That Go Bump In the Night are starting to boogie, which can mean only one thing: Halloween is just around the corner! And what better way to celebrate your Season of Monster than spending it with the Queen of Monsters–FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN! Just in time for Halloween, the Kindle ebook of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN is on sale for ONLY 99 CENTS. If you’ve been looking for the perfect book to put you in the monster mood, this is your chance! Here’s the link to order:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Kindle Ebook Order Page

And for those of you who prefer paper books, don’t forget about the beautiful Shadowridge Press edition, also available through Amazon:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Paperback Order Page

Let all your freaky friends know where to get their best monster fix for the Pumpkin Time! Thanks for reading, and Happy pre-Halloween!

Slow to get your FRAULEIN? You can STILL get a discount!

Fear not, Franken-freaks! If you didn’t manage to get your copy of the FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Kindle ebook during the recent 99 cent promotion, you can STILL get it at Amazon’s “straggler’s discount” price of $1.99–not 99 cents, but still cheaper than a cup of Starbucks! But this offer will most likely only last a day or two before it jumps back up to the usual $2.99, so get yours today! Here’s the link to the FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN order page on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Fraulein-Frankenstein-Stephen-Woodworth-ebook/dp/B01HIU3PUG/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1499882905&sr=8-1&keywords=fraulein+frankenstein

And please let all your Franken-friends know they, too, still have a chance to snag a copy on the cheap.

Thank you all for your support, and STAY GOTHIC!

Come Get Your *Signed* Copy of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN!

The day you’ve all been waiting for is at hand, Friends of FRAULEIN! I wanted to remind you that I will be signing copies of the fabulous Shadowridge Press paperback edition of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN at the venerable Dark Delicacies horror bookstore in Burbank, California, tomorrow, Saturday, July 8th, at 4pm.

You’ll also have the opportunity to get signed copies of books by other wonderful Shadowridge Press authors, including Dennis Etchison (The Death Artist, Red Dreams, The Blood Kiss), Tracy Carbone (The Proteus Cave, The Rainbox), and my ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI co-authors Kelly Dunn (Beloved of the Fallen, editor of Mutation Nation) and the irrepressible Peter Atkins (screenwriter of Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Wishmaster and author of Morningstar, Big Thunder, and Rumours of the Marvellous). We’ll have copies of the DIODATI chapbook available for purchase and signing, as well. Here’s a link to the Dark Delicacies website for more info, including directions to the store:

Dark Delicacies Bookstore Website

For those who can’t make it to Burbank on July 8th, you’ll be happy to hear that Dark Delicacies will take your pre-orders over the phone, and will ship your order for an extra charge. All of us at Shadowridge Press would like to express our sincere gratitude to Del and Sue Howison of Dark Delicacies for hosting the event.

Hope to see you all there!

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN for Only 99 Cents!

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN, the thrilling Gothic novel by Stephen Woodworth, New York Times best-selling author of Through Violet Eyes, is on special for ONLY 99 CENTS!

Her fate has become lost in legends. Some say her creator destroyed her; others believe fearful villagers burned her alive. Now, the mate that Victor Frankenstein created for his monster reveals her true story, from her awakening on the slab in the scientist’s laboratory, through her tortured initiation into human society, to her desperate quest for a love of her own…even if she has to manufacture the lover she wants. Get the Kindle ebook of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN  for ONLY 99 CENTS on this page at Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Fraulein-Frankenstein-Stephen-Woodworth-ebook/dp/B01HIU3PUG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1499292201&sr=1-1&keywords=fraulein+frankenstein

But hurry! This offer is only good until July 11, 2017. Get your copy TODAY!

 

Learn the Mysteries of “THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK”!

Hark, monster mavens! You have a new creature of the night to fear–THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK!

For years, your humble author has been a rabid fan of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s wonderful audio adaptations of the classic stories by the Gentleman from Providence. Dark Adventure Radio Theatre performs full-cast dramatizations of the horror master’s works in the style of ’30s radio shows, complete with sound effects. (Except way better sound–it’s in stereo!)

It was a bucket-list ambition of mine to work with these incredibly talented folks on one of these productions, and HPLHS masterminds Sean Branney and Andrew Leman were generous enough to allow me to collaborate with them on the script for Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark.” This story has long been a sentimental favorite of mine, for it was not only Lovecraft’s last major work, it was dedicated to my hero Robert Bloch, a Lovecraft correspondent and the celebrated author of Psycho and other great works of horror. The tale even features a hapless young writer named “Robert Blake” who falls under the sinister influence of an entity in an abandoned Providence church with an evil history. I urge everyone to check out the just-released “THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK” compact disc at the HPLHS website here:

Dark Adventure Radio Theatre: HAUNTER OF THE DARK

As always, HPLHS has stuffed their CD packaging with ultra-cool free bonus keepsakes, including authentic-looking newspaper articles, letters, and other documents from the world of the story. I speak from experience: once you try one, you’ll want to collect them all!

Hope you enjoy the show! I’d love to hear what you think.

Before Fraulein…before Frankenstein…there was the GOLEM!

A scholar with arcane knowledge utilizes forbidden forces to bring a manufactured being to blasphemous life. When the hulking, misbegotten monster goes berserk, the horrified creator takes desperate action to destroy his wayward creation.

Does this story sound familiar, Franken-freaks? Any monster maven will recognize the concept as the basis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the many works that have since emulated it. But the tale I’ve just described predates Shelley’s great Gothic novel, its mythological roots extending back centuries. The creature is the golem of Jewish folklore, arguably the first “man-made” monster in Western culture and a possible progenitor of Victor Frankenstein’s creation.

The Hebrew word golem originally referred to a “shapeless mass,” and, indeed, the golem of legend began as a formless lump of clay, which a Jewish Kabbalist sculpted into a hulking humanoid form. The sorcerer then brought the creature to life through the use of magic Hebrew words. In some cases, the word would be scrawled on a parchment and placed in the creature’s mouth; in other instances, the word was inscribed on the figure’s forehead or chest. While animated, the golem would be its creator’s slave, bound to do his bidding. By removing or altering the magic words, the magician could again reduce the monster to an inert statue.

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References to golems appear in texts as old as the Talmud, but by far the most famous tale of such a creature is that of the Golem of Prague. In the late 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel ostensibly created a powerful golem to defend the Jewish community in Prague from harassment by hostile locals. However, he made sure to deactivate the sentinel statue every Friday evening so that it would not disturb the devout Jews on the Sabbath the following day. One fateful Friday, however, the rabbi became preoccupied and forgot to incapacitate the golem. The clay being went on a rampage, and Rabbi Loew was forced to risk his own life to stop the monster. Although he stilled the golem once and for all, legend has it that he kept the dormant clay figure in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague, where it remains ready to be revivified if the Jewish people ever need its protection again.

IMG_1935

My wife and colleague Kelly Dunn and I recently had the pleasure of visiting the ancient and wonderful city of Prague, once the seat of the Kingdom of Bohemia, now the capital of the Czech Republic. The city still venerates Rabbi Loew with a statue in his honor outside the new town hall. As luck would have it, we arrived just before the Sabbath and did not have a chance to go inside the Old-New Synagogue, which was preparing for worship. (Incidentally, we never received an explanation of the apparent oxymoron of the landmark’s name. I imagine that, in the distant past, someone built the city’s first synagogue. Then, when the present building was constructed sometime in the 13th century, it became the “New Synagogue.” At some later date, an even newer synagogue opened its doors, resulting in the confusing taxonomy, like so: “Oh, no, that’s the New-New Synagogue! You want the Old-New Synagogue.”) Kelly and I cannot tell you what, if anything, lies in the attic of that holy place…but that figure behind Kelly in the photo below makes me wonder.

Kelly and Golem

 

Given the similarities between the two narratives, it is tempting to think that the cautionary tale of the Golem of Prague might have inspired Mary Shelley as she conceived of Frankenstein. Certainly, the image of Rabbi Loew and his misshapen figure of animate clay springs to mind when Shelley, in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the book, describes the nightmare that inspired her novel:

I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—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.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein even speaks of striving “to animate the lifeless clay,” as if his monster of flesh were a sculpted golem. Although film adaptations show Frankenstein assembling his creature from body parts harvested from cadavers, some scholars have pointed out that, in the novel, the scientist seems to fashion the raw material of his monster from scratch, so to speak. Mary Shelley cleverly uses this fact to explain the creature’s gargantuan size:

            As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.

Like any pragmatic engineer, Frankenstein modifies his prototype to make it easier to work on. Miniaturization can wait until the product is ready for mass production!

As appealing as it is to theorize that Mary Shelley had the story of the Golem of Prague in mind when conceiving of Frankenstein, she makes no explicit reference to the fable in her writings. Indeed, in his article “The Golem of Prague” (Fortean Times #238, August 2008), Czech journalist Ivan Mackerle states that he was unable to find any account of the story in historical documents from the 16th and 17th centuries and says the apocryphal narrative of Rabbi Loew may be an elaboration on a legend brought to Prague by Hassidic Jews from Poland in the early 1800s—too late for Shelley to have used it as the basis for her horror story. Still, Mary Shelley seems to have tapped into the universal archetype the golem represents and reinvented it for the modern age by making its genesis scientific rather than magical, a topic I addressed in this earlier blog post.

Wpa-marionette-theater-presents-rur

Although not, strictly speaking, science fiction, the cautionary tale of the Golem of Prague could be said to have engendered an entire subgenre of sf, for it is the primordial “Bad Robot” story. It comes as no coincidence, therefore, that in 1920, almost 400 years after Rabbi Loew, Prague also gave the world its first actual Bad Robot story, a science-fictional play entitled R.U.R. by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. The abbreviation stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, a fictional company in the play that manufactures the world’s first line of artificial humanoids. Karel, with the assistance of his brother Joseph Čapek, derived the term “robot” from the Czech word robota, which can mean either “hard work” or “slave labor.”

The robots in the drama are not mechanical, however, but rather an assemblage of fabricated biological organs and tissue—again, shades of Frankenstein. Like the Golem of Prague, Rossum’s robot servants turn on the humans they were created to serve, rising up in violent rebellion. The play ends with the new beings virtually exterminating humanity—a sobering finale to us in the 21st century, where genetic engineering and burgeoning artificial intelligence threaten to make the grim prognostications of Shelley and Čapek a reality.

Capek_RUR

Somewhere, Rabbi Loew shakes his head sadly…and a sleeping golem awaits its ultimate resurrection.

If this post whet your appetite for more monster mayhem, be sure to check out the Kindle ebook of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN at Amazon here.

And don’t forget that I will be signing copies of the fabulous Shadowridge Press paperback edition of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN at the venerable Dark Delicacies horror bookstore in Burbank, California, at 4pm on Saturday, July 8th.

You’ll also have the opportunity to get signed copies of books by other wonderful Shadowridge Press authors, including Dennis Etchison (The Death Artist, Red Dreams, The Blood Kiss), Tracy Carbone (The Proteus Cave, The Rainbox), and my ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI co-authors Kelly Dunn (Beloved of the Fallen, editor of Mutation Nation) and the irrepressible Peter Atkins (screenwriter of Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Wishmaster and author of Morningstar, Big Thunder, and Rumours of the Marvellous). We’ll have copies of the DIODATI chapbook available for purchase and signing, as well. Here’s a link to the Dark Delicacies website for more info, including directions to the store:

Dark Delicacies Bookstore Website

For those who can’t make it to Burbank on July 8th, you’ll be happy to hear that Dark Delicacies will take your pre-orders over the phone, and will ship your order for an extra charge. All of us at Shadowridge Press would like to express our sincere gratitude to Del and Sue Howison of Dark Delicacies for hosting the event.

Hope to see you all there!