This episode I’m joined by Meg from the fabulous pop-culture podcast Indoorswomen. We talked about the 2014 vampire spoof What we do in the Shadows. I love this movie and Meg took part in the Kickstarter to get a US theatrical release of this distinctly New Zealand gothic parody. We completely spoil this movie so if you haven’t seen it before and you plan on watching it, watch it before you listen.
The first English dictionary is commonly thought to be compiled in 1755 by Dr Samuel Johnson of Blackadder fame. But that’s not really true. There were plenty of dictionaries before him. The most accurate guess at the earliest English language dictionary was one written by Robert Cawdrey in 1604 which was the first to include definitions albeit of only 2 thousand four hundred and 99 words. Put in contrast the Oxford English dictionary today has over 170 thousand words. The key difference between Dr Johnson’s dictionaries and the ones who came before him was the number of definitions and the level organisation.
Johnson dedicated his life to lexicography and died in 1784. 83 years later Ambrose Bierce, a writer of excellent gothic and supernatural short stories embarked on the serialised satirical exploration of the dictionary. Some of these definitions popped up in his weekly columns in ‘Town Crier’ and ‘Prattle’ and also in his personal letters. He wasn’t the first to take on the idea of a satirical dictionary, but Bierce certainly was dedicated to building and collating his own glossary of irreverent definitions.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24th 1842, in an Ohio settlement called Horsecave. One of 13, all beginning with the letter A. Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799–1876) and Laura Sherwood Bierce Had 13 kids named Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, and Ambrose… and that’s how you make sure one of your kids is going to write some kind of dictionary. It just so happened that this particular kid was a bit of a smart arse as he grew up.
As a kid, he was a printer’s devil, which is a little guy who mixes ink and generally getting things to the printer as quickly as possible because of those printing presses and typesetting dealies technical term, are massive and complex. He was 15 at this point and the printing operation he worked at was for an abolitionist paper called the Northern Indian
I’m terrified of delving into military history as always so here are the bare bones facts that we need from Bierce’s military service:
He fought in the Union army from the age of 18 until 24
He sustained a pretty serious head injury and some serious psychological damage
He saw some shit and it definitely had an impact on his writing. The horror of war was something he would come back to multiple times during his time as a writer.
He got married and had 3 kids. The marriage came to an end when he discovered letters to his wife Molly from an admirer, the separated in 1888, but did not divorce until 1904, 16 years later. She died the next year. His 3 kids were 2 boys, Day and Leigh and a daughter named Helen. Day and Leigh both died as young men, Day duel a romantic rejection and Leigh’s alcoholism and a nasty bout of pneumonia got the better of him in 1901. So by 1905 it Helen was Ambrose’s only surviving child.
Ambrose is typically framed as a Soldier, Journalist, writer and hardened cynic.
We will be revisiting Bierce’s amazing short stories at some point and there is an earlier episode of the Frankenpod which is just me reading A Vine on a House which is one of Bierce’s shorter stories. He is one of the wittiest, creepy and concise writers of American gothic fiction. He had a misadventure in Mining getting involved as a manager without experience and at the end of the mining boom so that didn’t go well.
Bierce at the age of 71 went to Mexico while it was in the middle of a revolution. He joined one of the armies as an observer, the army of Pancho Villa. The last known correspondence was from Chihuahua in Mexico and then poof! He vanished!
And that, in very broad strokes is the life of Ambrose Bierce, and if anyone knows a lot more about Mr Bierce and would like to come on the podcast I’d love to talk to you!
Three things you need to know about The Devil’s Dictionary
It is intensely self-indulgent
It is quite misogynist
It is incredibly racist.
Particularly when it comes to Native Americans and Aboriginal people.
Thanks to the U.S. Army Jazz by for making the song Kelli’s no. available in the public domain.
So this week’s episode of The FrankenPod, features an interview that I (Morgan) recorded with Alix Roberts who has written an amazing thesis on Vampiric women, which I had not read at the time of recording but that I have since read and it is goddamn amazing. Unfortunately, the audio is pretty shoddy. Totally my fault and I’m going to extend the invitation to Alix for her to come on the show again so you can hear how wonderful she is without the clicks and hisses of an angry National Broadband Network.
I have changed the way I do interviews now so hopefully, this will
“But in our family, if you cannot write an epic or novel, that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging”
Claire Clairmont to Jane Williams
Claire was born Clara, was nicknamed Jane as a child, and then adopted Claire in her teenage years. She was a wild teenager, and it sounds like she would have been a lot of fun until she got bogged down by Byron and all his drama.
It is quite possible she had some kind of affair with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to Harriet and already having an affair with Mary. Some of his poems are thought to be about her and their affair may have resulted in a baby called Elena. A baby by that name was registered as being born to Shelley and “Maria” but Mary could not have been the mother. If Claire was the mother she went up Mount Vesuvius just before she gave birth which is a weird call.
Whoever Elena was, she had a short life in foster care and died age one.
This brings us to Byron.
See Villa Diodati for more details on that mess. After her affair with Byron, she realized she was pregnant with his child. She wrote lengthy letters to the poet beseeching him to help her, financially and emotionally. But we’ve discussed how awful Byron was so you can probably guess how that went.
She had a daughter Allegra with no support whatsoever from Byron. Then in an effort to provide the best possible opportunities for her daughter, she sent Allegra to him in Italy.
I get it, a single mother, in Regency England, she didn’t have many options. She also had no way of knowing how little the poet would have to do with little Allegra once she arrived in Italy. Allegra was placed in a convent, alone. Byron never visited her.
Claire was furious! Byron had promised her that Allegra would at least be able to see him, not directly under his care, but at least in his house. Byron was unresponsive to her letters and requests to get Allegra back. So she formed a cunning plan.
The Kidnap Plot
Claire was intensely unhappy and worried about her daughter’s wellbeing in the convent. Her living conditions were unknown to Claire, but she did not hold out much hope for the suitability and safety of her accommodations. She was just a little kid, and if her father was going to neglect her she should be with her mother. Claire began to plan to get her daughter back. She tried to convince Percy Bysshe Shelley to forge a letter from Byron allowing Claire to remove Allegra from the convent. But before she could put her plan into action little Allegra died of typhus or a malarial like fever aged just 5. The only person to visit Allegra during her time in the Italian convent was Percy. Claire blamed Byron, understandably so, and ferociously hated the poet beyond his death saying that he had ‘given her only a few minutes of pleasure but a lifetime of trouble’.
After Allegra, then Shelley’s death, Claire’s desire in life seemed to be finding some semblance of peace and normalcy. It seems a though the rollercoaster of Claire’s early adult years had quenched whatever desire for turbulent romantic entanglements she had had. She spent time as a music teacher, a governess and a few other respectable and consistent jobs. She kept in touch with her stepsister Mary, and while their old rivalry and competitiveness occasionally caused a ripple, they stayed in correspondence until Mary’s death. Mary for her part said that she thought that is was impossible that Percy and Claire had a physical relationship. No matter what the truth is in regard to the nature of their relationship, it is clear they cared a great deal for each other.
Claire never married, an unusual choice at the time, but when taken in the context of what she endured at the hands of Lord Byron, it is not surprising. She had her fair share of suitors, including Trelawny who was part of the Shelley circle towards the end of Shelley and Byron’s lives. But Claire was fine without the drama.
She outlived all of her companions who were there at the Villa Diodati on the fateful night of the ghost story challenge. I find Claire the most relatable out of the bunch. Her life didn’t go exactly how she planned and she was not some inaccessible gothic romantic heroine.
When I was little I thought Igor came from the story of Frankenstein.
When I was a teenager I thought they created Igor for the film.
Now that I’m an adult I have no goddamn idea. The “Igor” of the 1931 Frankenstein… was not called Igor, his name was Fritz. So where did this rambling, pivotal, yet utterly disposable character come from? Is he really a 20th century Universal Studios creation or is there something more to this embodiment of the strange, the gatekeeper to monstrosity and unnerving manservant that we call “Igor”.
Its an iconic image, the obsessed mad scientist connecting the wires to his creature and the machinery that presumably has something to do with the whole process. He might cackle, he might yell to the heavens, he might even wear steampunk goggles. But in this equation of the isolated man and his dangerous obsession, there is often a third party, someone to flick the switch. Enter Igor.
His character generally fills at least one of these three roles:
The other that acts as a buffer between the doctor and his creation, such as in the 1931 brain mix up, we can blame almost anything on Fritz in his role as the assistant.
The humanity to the Doctor’s crazed monstrous mania. He is in on the project, and tries to stop the Doctor or appeal to his better nature, in vain.
A human exposition facilitator. In the novel of Frankenstein which features no assistant, the primary story telling of the creation process occurs over a large passage of time and through Victor’s narration. So without an overarching voice narration, an assistant can ask the questions that will allow the Doctor to fill the audience in on what is happening.
Presumption; Or the Fate of Frankenstein (1823)
Richard Brinsley Peake’s stage adaptation would set up some the more outlandish and comedic elements of the modern Frankenstein myth. In this play Victor’s friend Henry Clerval from the novel and the new character invented for the play, Fritz, assist him in his experiments. This allows for a broad distribution of blame for the subsequent events rather than all the responsibility lying at the feet of Doctor Frankenstein. Fritz also functions as an audience surrogate or even narrator in many parts.
Fritz (Dwight Frye) is definitely a scapegoat and entirely expendable. The criminal brain mix up is a game changer, it takes the blame away from Frankenstein, and places the emphasis on nature rather than nurture. He is a low stakes victim and by virtue of his cruelty towards the Creature and unfortunately due to his appearance. The ablist judgements at play in portrayal of Fritz and his successors give the audience an excuse to dislike the assistant right from the outset, which I think we can all agree is an issue and deeply problematic.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
We are introduced to Bela Lugosi’s Ygor. Ygor also has a physical impairment which was the result of an attempt to hang him for grave robbing. The former blacksmith can control the “Monster” making him a formidable opponent for Frankenstein’s son. The cultural othering of Ygor or the assistant as being a different nationality and therefore strange.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
This time played by Marty Feldman, and named Igor, this comedy portrayal of the assistant would shape our understanding of the character forever. His exaggerated and unnerving appearance combined with Feldman’s incomparable and unsettling performance has buried the “Igor” deep into our collective cultural understanding of the Frankenstein myth.
We will be watching Victor Frankenstein soon. I’m excited to see how Daniel Radcliffe deals with the somewhat intangible legacy of Igor.
The Canterville Ghostis a very silly Victorian Ghost story that Oscar Wilde released in two parts, in 1887. It was the prolific author’s first published story. It sets the tone for a huge swathe of horror comedies that feature a very ineffectual haunting. The humorous ghost story is a strange literary creature that subverts expectations and has become somewhat of a cliche. But in a time when the supernatural was given more mainstream credence this disarming use of humour would have had a very different effect on the reader.
Not only did Oscar Wilde release his first story during the final gasps of the romantic movement and at the birth of modernity, but he released the story during the rapid spread of the spiritualism movement. Ghostly spectres and powerful intangible phantoms were actively sought out by interested parties, and it was terribly fashionable to hold seances and be informed of the symbolism of the spiritual realm. It is a story that perfectly encapsulates the way in which Wilde’s work is transitional between the romantic and modern literary movements.
Who is the Canterville Ghost?
The American Otis family are told upon buying Canterville Chase in England, that the estate is haunted. The ghost has terrified the Canterville family for decades and is often an omen that appears before the death of a member of the family. The Otis family refuse to believe that there is anything supernatural about their new home.
They are of course wrong.
Sir Simon, the former occupant of the house who killed his wife then disappeared makes his presence felt through a blood stain that will not fade and physical apparitions. He has a huge variety of haunting tools and visages at his disposal, such as representing himself as a headless spectre, he has also been previously known to physically injure his victims. Even scaring some to death.
But the new inhabitants of the chase, however, turn this terrifying phantom into a grumpy, exhausted and battered creature who no longer stalks the corridors, rather shuffles along in slippers and warm clothes to combat the chill from drafts.
I’m unsure as to whether Sir Simon is the first of his kind, in being a formerly formidable spectre who is rendered impotent by the materialism and pragmaticism of modernity.
What is different about the Otis family?
Through the oiling of noisy chains and the cleaning of ominous, reappearing “blood” stains, the Otis family undermines every artifice of haunting that the ghost has at his disposal. Even the hauntings that he manages to pull off are laughed at by the twins or entirely backfire due to the twin’s concerted efforts to torture the ghostly spectre of Sir Simon who has haunted generations of British nobility and their servants. It seems to be their dissociation from the realm of English folklore which grants them immunity from the ill effects of the spiritual realm.
Virginia is the only member of the family who comes even close to a classical gothic character of the human realm. She is vulnerable to the haunting similar to the British characters, however, her link to her modern American family seems to have kept her safe from the more horrific aspects of the haunting. Her strength of character and depth of understanding makes her the ultimate foil to Sir Simon’s legacy of terror. Sir Simon confides in the young girl, giving her the tools to stop the haunting and free the dead nobleman once and for all.
Perhaps the ghost realises that he is no longer relevant as he beholds the modern American family, which, let’s face it, Wilde portrays as grotesque in their own way. Is Wilde bemoaning the loss of gothic romanticism and folkloric tradition and the hands of the crude family? Or is he celebrating the modern thinking of the American people who are untethered to the restrictive tradition of the British Isles?
How on earth are you going to connect this one to Frankenstein?
I have had a bit of a think about this and maybe the strongest of the tangential threads that connect Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus to the Canterville Ghost is the collision between the romanticism of the 19th-century horror story and the critical thinking and scientific reasoning that was emerging before Mary Shelley put pen to paper. Shelley’s narrative is still firmly entrenched in the lore of ages past, but her Doctor is a man of science and the spectre of her novel is a being of undead science. Conversely, Wilde’s spectre Sir Simon is still firmly placed in traditional gothic ideas of the ghost, but the narrative is a distinctly modern one.
In short, I’m going to go ahead and say that both narratives deal with the juxtaposition of the romantic gothic novel and an increasingly pragmatic and modern reality.
Whilst I know that I am largely doing this for my own benefit as our listenership is far from large I want to plot our meandering, rambling and somewhat overgrown path through the gothic, mystery and noir genres.
At this stage, there will be a new book/movie comparison with both Brent and I (Morgan) on the 13th of each month. Every Saturday that I can I will release a new mini (or not so mini) episode. These extra episodes offer extra information on the texts we are discussing and other topics that relate to Frankenstein and the Gothic genre.
At the moment I’m busy writing and recording the last of our Oscar Wilde episodes for the time being. Oscar Wilde has a unique place in the Gothic canon that we will probably revisit, but I think there are about 4-5 episodes in total featuring Mr. Wilde in this chunk of releases, with our second proper episode Decorative Sex 🌺 – The Picture of Dorian Gray due for release on the 13th of February. Once those are done our major focus will turn to more bloodthirsty creatures.
Our Frankenstein episodes are far from done. They will be peppered throughout the run of the podcast through perpetuity. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say the final word on Frankenstein, but I promise I’ll try to keep the additional episodes fresh and relevant.
As for our brief foray into true crime with The Body Snatchers, there will be a couple of crime and history related podcasts, but they will usually be collaborations and they will also be linked to a Gothic, mystery of noir text.
At the moment we are firmly entrenched in the 19th century legacy in the Gothic canon. We’ll probably be in this territory for a while, however, some of this may link directly with contemporary Gothic fiction. We want to explore a few more creatures of the monstrous kind before we delve into the world of the genius detective and the hostile city.
I’m banking up readings of gothic short stories as my life is going to get very busy again as I go back to uni. Hopefully, my readings aren’t too awful.
We’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with some lovely people and podcasts. At this stage, there are 3 released collaborations: