Expecting Gatsby, bathtub gin and flappers.
Expecting Gatsby, bathtub gin and flappers.
We all know that Mary Shelley is the author of Frankenstein, a phenomenal work of Gothic horror. But did you know that the gory details of Mary Shelley’s life itself read better than any novel? Perhaps the strangest fact of all is that she kept her dead husband’s heart as a keepsake, carrying it with her and storing it in her drawer until her own death in 1851!
In honor of Valentine’s Day and my February Women in Horror Series, I would be remiss if I did not include the strange, romantic and horrific life of Mary Shelley.
In her short lifetime, Mary Godwin Shelley saw a great deal of death: her mother, three of her own children, her half sister Fanny Imlay, her husband Percy Shelley, her step-mother, her father and father-in-law. It comes as no surprise that the woman who experienced a cavalcade of grim reapers became obsessed with resurrecting and recreating life. Her character, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, was the embodiment of this obsession.
Mary Godwin’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist and free thinker. She is best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft argued that women, given the proper education, were “intellectually equivalent” to men – a “radical” idea for the times.
Mary Wollstonecraft died of a post partum infection when daughter Mary was less than a month old. Little Mary’s father, William Godwin, a political activist and publisher, raised her along with her half sister Fanny Imlay – a child from another of Mary Wollstonecraft’s relationships. Godwin took a new wife – one Mary Jane Clairmont – who had two children of her own, Claire and Charles. The family set up housekeeping in London where William opened a publishing company that eventually went bankrupt.
Young Mary was given a somewhat radical education by her free-thinking father. When she was just seventeen, she became acquainted with the poet Percy Bysse Shelley – a friend and “political disciple” of William Godwin. Percy was twenty-two.
Percy and Mary fell deeply in love. The only problem was, Percy was already married. His wife was a woman named Harriet Westbrook – with whom he had eloped when she was just sixteen and he nineteen – much to the dismay of Percy’s aristocratic family. They subsequently cut him off from his inheritance, although Percy loved to flaunt his wealthy roots and often claimed that large sums of money would eventually be his. Percy and Harriet had one child, and to make matters worse, Harriet was once again pregnant.
Cemetery Trysts and Love Triangles
Nonetheless, Mary and Percy began having secret meetings in – of all great Gothic places — Saint Pancras Cemetery where Mary’s mother was buried!
Percy said he could not hide his “ardent passion” for her. Mary wrote she was attracted to Percy’s “wild, intellectual, unearthly look.”
The two made love for the first time in the cemetery, Mary losing her virginity to Percy. After that, forget it. Mary was ruined. RUINED, I tell you!!!! A social pariah!! A leper among women!! (I am only being slightly sarcastic here. Remember, in Victorian times, virginity was sacrosanct, an indication of breeding and virtue. No way in hell could Mary get away with this!) Even the so-called liberal thinking and politically radical William Godwin disapproved of their relationship.
The only sensible thing to do was run away. And so, Mary and Percy ran away to France. They took Mary’s step-sister Claire (daughter of her step-mother Mary Jane Clairmont) along with them. According to Percy, this was because Claire was “the only one among them who could speak French.” However, Claire and Percy reportedly had many “excursions” together, and historians believe the two were lovers as well.
Furthermore, older sister Fanny Imlay who was left behind, also expressed having feelings for Percy. He may have been three-timing the sisters. Of course, Percy’s pregnant wife Harriet also got left behind.
Mary, Claire and Percy traveled together throughout France and Switzerland until, broke and destitute, they could no longer survive. They then returned to England. Mary was pregnant. Mary’s father – apparently growing more traditional by the minute – still disapproved of their relationship and refused to take them in. The baby was born premature and died shortly after. Mary became pregnant again and in 1816 gave birth to a son, named William.
That same year, Mary, Percy, little William and Claire all traveled back to Switzerland. Soon after they were joined by Percy’s friends, the poet Lord Byron and physician John William Polidori. It was a meeting of the minds.
There, in Geneva, the group passed one of the coldest summers ever by telling ghost stories around the fire and challenging each other to write horror. It was one of these challenges that led 18 year old Mary to write her masterpiece Frankenstein.
Mary became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter – but both children would be dead within two years. In the meantime, Mary completed Frankenstein and had it first published anonymously in 1818.
The couple returned to England in September, 1816. They settled in Bath with Claire Clairmont – who was now (ironically) pregnant with Lord Byron’s child. Mary then received a letter from her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, who alluded to her unhappy life. The letter was apparently so alarming that, on October 9, Percy took it upon himself to go looking for Fanny, worried about her state of mind. He never found her. On the morning of October 10, Fanny Imlay was found dead in a room at an inn in Swansea, Wales. She left a suicide note and an empty bottle of laudanum.
Fanny was not the only suicide that year. On December 10, Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet, was discovered drowned in the Serpentine, a lake in Hyde Park, London. It seems the two women who got left behind decided to leave forever.
Both suicides were hushed up, as suicide in Victorian times was illegal, considered disgraceful, and brought great shame to the families.
Percy, for his part, tried to gain custody of his two children by Harriet. His lawyers told him it would be a good idea for him to take a wife, so he finally married Mary on December 30, 1816 at St Mildred’s Church in London. Although Harriet’s family gained custody of their children, the couple remained in London and attempted their new married life.
It was not long before Percy’s debt collectors came calling. The couple left England again, this time bound for Italy, with Claire and her new born daughter Allegra (the child of Lord Byron) in tow.
In Italy, Mary’s two children developed malaria and died. On November 12, 1819, Mary gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence, the only one who would survive to adulthood. Mary became pregnant again in 1822. She suffered a miscarriage and almost bled to death. Percy, too distraught to call a doctor, put Mary in a tub of ice water to staunch the bleeding. It was later agreed that he had saved his wife’s life.
That same year, Percy Shelly set out on a sailing adventure from which he would never return.
The Heart That Would Not Die
On July 1, 1822, Percy Shelley, Edward Ellerker Williams, and Captain Daniel Roberts sailed south down the coast to Livorno. On July 8, he and Edward Williams set out on the return journey to Lerici — minus the captain — but with an eighteen-year-old boatboy, Charles Vivian. They were detained by a storm and lost at sea. Ten days later, three bodies washed up on the coast near Viareggio, midway between Livorno and Lerici.
Percy Shelley’s body was so mangled it was only identifiable by his clothing and a book of John Keats’ poetry that he had stashed away in his pocket. It was decided that Percy’s body would be cremated on the beach at Viareggio. However, something bizarre happened.
His heart would not burn.
Before we get too carried away with supernatural implications, it is only fair to say that modern-day physicians believe the heart may have calcified due to Percy’s earlier bout with tuberculosis – thus rendering it inflammable. Whatever the reason, Mary Shelley decided to save and preserve her husband’s heart.
Mary kept the heart as a prized possession, wrapping it a silken shroud. She is said to have carried it with her everywhere.
In 1852, a year after she died, Percy’s heart was found in Mary’s desk. It was wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais – a tribute to John Keats.
Interesting aside — when Rolling Stones musician Brian Jones died in 1969 by drowning in his own swimming pool, it was the poem Adonais that Mick Jagger chose to read at his memorial service.
“Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife…”
Another interesting aside: Brian Jones died of drowning. Harriet Shelley died of drowning. Percy Shelley died of drowning. Harriet died in a lake in Hyde Park. Brian Jones’ Memorial Service was held in Hyde Park.
See how that works? I suspect Mick saw some significance in this.
The entire poem can be read HERE.
Although Mary is most remembered for Frankenstein, it was by no means the full extent of her writing career. After the death of Percy, Mary was active as a writer and editor. She wrote the novels The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). She contributed five volumes of Lives of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French authors to Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. She wrote short stories, including sixteen for The Keepsake. She also championed Percy Shelley’s poetry, promoting its publication and quoting it in her writing. By 1837, Percy’s works were well-known and increasingly admired.
Believe it or not, in 1830, financially strapped, Mary sold the copyright for a new edition of Frankenstein for only £60!
In the summer of 1838 Edward Moxon (the publisher of Tennyson and the son-in-law of Charles Lamb) proposed publishing the collected works of Percy Shelley. Mary was paid £500 to edit the collection, called Poetical Works (1838).
Mary Shelley’s last years were blighted by illness. From 1839, she suffered from headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body. On February 1, 1851, at Chester Square, she died at the young age of fifty-three from a brain tumor. Her son and daughter in law had her buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, although Mary’s request was to be buried at Saint Pancras near her mother. (She obviously had fond memories of the place.) However, Mary’s daughter in law, Jane Shelley, had decided that by then Saint Pancras was simply “too dreadful” a place to bury her.
On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, Percy Florence and Jane decided to open Mary’s box-desk. Inside they found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, of course, the tell-tale heart!
This February, 2019, kicks off the tenth annual Women in Horror Month, a celebration of all things feminine and horrific. The two go together perfectly 🙂
Women in Horror Month is the brainchild of one Hannah Neurotica, creator of the Ax Wound website, and winner of a Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award. According to the website:
“Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.”
Horror is traditionally male dominated — as it is thought men are naturally more “violent” than women. But au contraire! A closer look reveals that women are the true mothers of invention when it comes to the sinister, the supernatural, the occult and the ominous.
Women are vessels of the blood, keepers of intuition, soldiers of psychic activity and warriors of witchery. We are the breeders, the birthers, the shadow dwellers and the invisible observers. Nothing gets past our perceptive eyes and so, in creating horror, women are the deft and delving masters!
Consider for a moment all that women have contributed. Without women, the macabre would be missing out on some of its finest moments.
There would be no Frankenstein — creator Mary Shelley — who wondered what it might be like to give birth to a monster.
There would be no Mysteries of Udolpho. This novel by Ann Radcliffe (arguably the ‘grandmother of Goth’) was first published in 1794. It is considered to be the prototype of Gothic romance, complete with sudden death, creepy castles, unprecedented misfortune, cruel strangers and forbidden love.
Jane Austen even used The Mysteries of Udolpho in her novel Northranger Abbey, to illustrate the idea of horror-loving women reading one too many Gothic novels and letting their imaginations take over their lives.
Let’s not forget vampires! Without women, there would be no Count Saint Germain (creator Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) no Dark Cathedral (creator Freda Warrington) and no Trueblood (creator Charlaine Harris.)
There would also be no infamous and notorious Vampire Lestat (creator Anne Rice.) Ms. Rice took it upon herself to explore these blood thirsty outsiders as they drifted through hundreds of years of history and struggled to survive. The result was The Vampire Chronicles, a compilation of over twenty novels, delving into everything from ancient Egyptian deities to modern day rock stars.
Bring on the haunted houses! Without women, there would be no Hill House (creator Shirley Jackson.) Shirley wanted to explore poltergeists and paranormal activity in an eerie mansion. The result was overnight guests, foreboding dread and one of the best ghost stories in 20th century literature.
Let’s not forget the heart stopping Agatha Christie mysteries, the dark moor encounters of Emily Bronte, the real world creepiness of Daphne Du Maurier and Joyce Carol Oates. And of course, the horrific dystopia created by Margaret Atwood in A Handmaid’s Tale, where fertile women are kidnapped and then forced to serve as baby making ‘handmaids’ to the powers that be. If you have not yet seen it, check out the series on Hulu, starring Elizabeth Moss.
According to Atwood, everything in A Handmaid’s Tale had occurred at some point in history, somewhere in the real world, so it was not as fantastical as most people think…
Without women in horror, there would also be no Hitchcock Blondes — the whipped cream cool females that broke under the pressure of psychopaths, thanks to the acting expertise of Tippi Hedron, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, to name a few.
There would be no Birds (writer Daphne Du Maurier) no Creature From the Black Lagoon (costume design by Milicent Patrick) and of course, no Halloween franchise (thanks to co-writer Debra Hill and the incomparable Jamie Lee Curtis!)
On a lighter note, plenty of women have taken horror and combined it with comedy. Consider Elvia, Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson), Lilly Munster (Yvonne De Carlo) and the fabulous Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones.)
Morticia served as the general matriarch to the iconic Addams Family, complete with “Lurch” the butler, “Thing” (a severed hand with a mind of its own) her Gothic children Pugsly and Wednesday, her husband Gomez, weird Uncle Fester and crone Grandmama. Morticia had her hands full but she ruled with a funeral parlor cool, far removed from the average sitcom.
Who is your favorite woman in horror?
And finally, if you find yourself craving more tales of the terrible, please check out my very own horror stories in The Box Under The Bed and Dark Visions. Here, you’ll find Jack the Ripper, scary fairies, Charon the death messenger and Lucifer himself 🙂
Happy February frights!
Our anthology, DARK VISIONS, made Amazon’s list for Hot New Releases and bestsellers!
It features thirty-four spine-tingling tales from twenty-seven authors. (Three by me 🙂 )
Kindle downloads are only 99 cents, or FREE with Kindle Unlimited. With only thirteen days till Halloween, now would be the perfect time to order yours! Get your copy HERE.
Read ’em if you dare.
He was a weaver of tales who brought us The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Emperor’s New Clothes and the Ugly Duckling. In the course of his lifetime he wrote novels, travelogues, and over three thousand fairy tales which have been translated into 125 languages. His stories have universal appeal, transcending age and nationality. He created a unique mythology which continues to haunt us and remains part of our collective consciousness.
Hans Christian Andersen was born on this day, April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark. His own life story is a classic rags to riches that could have been one of his fairy tales.
His father, also named Hans, was a struggling tradesman and his mother Anne Marie a washerwoman. Hans Sr. died in 1816. Two years later Anne Marie remarried. It was then decided, for some odd reason, that Hans Jr. should no longer be allowed to live in the house. At the tender age of eleven, Hans was sent away to a boarding school. (Evil stepfather, banishment. Do you see a pattern here?) Although the family was poor, Hans was somehow allowed to study and receive a good education. (Fairy godmother perhaps?)
At boarding school, the boy was expected to fend for himself and he earned money as a tailor’s apprentice. He showed a natural talent for singing and at age fourteen, he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theater. However, as luck would have it, Hans hit puberty that year, experienced the voice change, and could no longer sing the soprano part he had been assigned. But all was not lost — Jonas Colins, the theater director, saw something special in Hans and made arrangements that he could attend prestigious school in Elsinore. (Fairy godfather?)
Young Hans might have been considered privileged, but his story goes a bit dark here. He was sent to live with a school master who routinely abused and bullied him and discouraged him from writing. He went into a deep depression, and later wrote that his days at Elsinore were the darkest of his life.
The story, however, has a happy ending. Andersen graduated school in 1827 and almost immediately became successful writing short stories, plays and poetry. King Christian VIII of Denmark was so impressed with his work that he gave Andersen a grant to travel around Europe. Hans felt most comfortable on the road and later wrote, “To travel is to live.”
All these fairy godmother type favors may not have been an accident. There was a rumor that Hans Christian Andersen was actually the illegitimate son of King Christian. This rumor, however, has not been substantiated by any reliable source. (If true it would make a great story!)
It was during his travels across Europe that Andersen began writing fairy tales. In 1838 he wrote Fairy Tales Told for Children. New Collection. First Booklet. This book earned him immense popularity when, in 1845 it was translated to English and other languages. It became a world wide best seller.
Andersen’s tales were often dark and creepy. His heroes and heroines often go through enormous difficulties. Although the endings are usually happy, they pay great prices for that happiness, often undergoing physical, mental and spiritual changes. For example:
— Karen, the protagonist in The Red Shoes, loves to dance and wear her beautiful shoes. However, it gets to the point where she cannot stop dancing and eventually her feet must be cut off!
— The Little Mermaid trades her fish tail for human legs. In the process she undergoes excruciating physical pain, is betrayed by a handsome prince, and even commits suicide before she is freed to the Daughters of the Air.
— In The Wild Swans, Eliza wants to free her brothers from a terrible curse, but to do so she must knit sweaters made of poisonous nettles that cause her fingers to bleed. To make matters worse, she has taken a vow of silence! During this time she is arrested for witchcraft and thrown in the dungeon.
And the list goes on. These stories remain popular because they entertain in a way that enables problem solving — while giving kids the scare of their lives! 🙂 The message is always that virtue will be rewarded.
Andersen never married, although he courted several women and wrote a few love letters to men as well. Some historians believe he was bisexual. He seems to have harbored terribly romantic ideas about love and often chose partners that were either unavailable or inappropriate. At one point he proposed marriage to the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.
She turned him down, but this did not stop Hans from writing a fairy tale which was inspired by her. It was called The Nightingale, about (you guessed it) a precious and beautiful bird that serenades the emperor. After that, Jenny Lind was given the nickname “The Swedish Nightingale.”
Andersen had a long and prosperous life. He died in Copenhagen on August 4, 1875, His death is thought to be caused by complications of liver cancer.
Andersen’s stories are still widely read. Many have been adapted as Disney features, including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and Frozen — adapted from The Snow Queen. In the original story the Snow Queen was an evil kidnapper, nowhere near as kind as Elsa!
Tribute statues to Andersen have been built all over the world, including New York’s Central Park, California, Sydney Australia and Rosenborg Castle Gardens in Copenhagen.
And of course, if you ever happen to be at the Langelinie promenade in Copenhagen, you can say hello to The Little Mermaid herself!
Happy Birthday Hans!
Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought then to life.
His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England. Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂
Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors. In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.
In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.
It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice. Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare. And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor. Some of my favorites:
“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”
“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.
“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!”
“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.” It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.
Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.
Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!
Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.
At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation. Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.
Some Fun Facts:
Happy Birthday Lewis!
It looks like Friday the 13th brought us luck after all!
Hard to believe, I know — but I am proud to say that our horror anthology The Box Under The Bed outranked Stephen King on the Amazon bestsellers list! Who’d have expected it?
I thought I heard someone applaud,
In my distracted state of mind I could not be quite sure…
If you are seeking supernatural thrills, bloodthirsty revenge, mystical ghosts and a plethora of eerie events, please take a look. CLICK HERE to get a copy. (And if you are so inclined, please write a short review! )