I was sitting in a coffee shop the other day, and I overheard a woman telling how a cosmic explosion inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel, Frankenstein.
Having been rather fond of that character and his story, I found this tidbit so fanciful to be true that I craned my neck in the most graceful way and began serious eavesdropping.
She went on to explain that a star burst in the night when Mary Shelley, her future husband – the poet Percy Shelley – and Lord Byron were vacationing one summer’s eve in Geneva. It was a cold and stormy night, and the trio of writers was trapped indoors. To stave off the gloom, they told ghost stories and goaded one another with a contest to tell the scariest.
As the anonymous narrator spun her yarn, she said that late into the night, Mary Shelly contributed Frankenstein – the tale of a monstrous creation gone awry – and won the challenge without debate. She credited Mary’s spontaneous creation to the cosmic energies that she was unaware of.
There was mention of fire in the sky, an eery illumination inside of the bruise-black clouds, a comparison to the aurora borealis. Fragments of imagery floated in and out of earshot like flotsam and jetsam . . . a searing white light, all twisted and sinewy like a light bulb’s filament. Something sizzling. An electrical connection gone haywire.
“Would you like some more hot water? Lemon slices?” The waitress was standing next to my table. Hovering with the slightest sense of urgency.
I reconvened with the moment and realized that people were waiting in line to be seated. Probably the mid-day patrons. The decibel level was rising; the lilting voice behind me was being swallowed. The enchanting tale was left hanging in my imagination.
“I’ll just take the check, thank you.” And off I went to research the details of this cosmic outburst of creativity.
As it turns out, Mary Shelley’s classic novel was sparked into being by a planet-altering event that happened 200 years ago.
Mount Tambora rose above a small island in Indonesia. It staged a powerful eruption on April 5th, 1815. It rumbled for a few days more, than blew itself to bits on April 10th — the most powerful eruption ever recorded. The mountain turned to “liquid fire,” and dozens of cubic miles of smoke and ash were blasted into the sky.
The smallest particles of ash made it all the way to the stratosphere, almost 30 miles high, where they spread around the entire planet. They reflected a lot of sunlight back into space, causing the global temperature to drop by a couple of degrees.
In America and Europe, 1816 was called the “year without a summer.” Crops failed, farmers were bankrupted, and the hungry staged food riots.*
The details proved to be not quite as beguiling as my invisible storyteller led me to believe. But, that’s the magic of storytelling . . . it’s open to invention.
And, Mary Shelley did indeed create her Frankenstein during a night of ghost tales. She and her author friends were in Geneva, and her contribution was inspired by a monstrous explosion half a planet away.
Quite cosmically alluring, I’d say. And to think that in all my years of studying literature, I never heard this charming anecdote. How dull academia can be!
*Source: Damond Benningfield, written for StarDate, April 5, 2015.