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or, The Modern Prometheus
Volume I, first edition
|Genre(s)||Horror, Gothic, Romance, science fiction|
|Publisher||Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones|
|Publication date||1 January 1818|
or, The Modern Prometheus
Volume I, first edition
|Genre(s)||Horror, Gothic, Romance, science fiction|
|Publisher||Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones|
|Publication date||1 January 1818|
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a novel written by Mary Shelley about a creature produced by an unorthodox scientific experiment. Shelley started writing the story when she was nineteen, and the novel was published when she was twenty-one. The first edition was published anonymously in London in 1818. Shelley's name appears on the second edition, published in France in 1823.
Shelley had travelled in the region of Geneva, where much of the story takes place, and the topics of galvanism and other similar occult ideas were themes of conversation among her companions, particularly her future husband, Percy Shelley. The storyline emerged from a dream. Mary, Percy, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to have a competition to see who could write the best horror story. After thinking for weeks about what her possible storyline could be, Shelley dreamt about a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he had made. She then wrote Frankenstein.
Frankenstein is infused with some elements of the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement and is also considered to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction. Brian Aldiss has argued that it should be considered the first true science fiction story, because unlike in previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character "makes a deliberate decision" and "turns to modern experiments in the laboratory" to achieve fantastic results. It has had a considerable influence across literature and popular culture and spawned a complete genre of horror stories, films, and plays.
Since publication of the novel, the name "Frankenstein" is often used to refer to the monster itself, as is done in the stage adaptation by Peggy Webling. This usage is sometimes considered erroneous, but usage commentators regard the monster sense of "Frankenstein" as well-established and an acceptable usage. In the novel, the monster is identified via words such as "creature", "monster", "fiend", "wretch", "vile insect", "daemon", "being", and "it". Speaking to Victor Frankenstein, the monster refers to himself as "the Adam of your labors", and elsewhere as someone who "would have" been "your Adam", but is instead "your fallen angel."
|This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (May 2012)|
Frankenstein is written in the form of a frame story that starts with Captain Robert Walton writing letters to his sister.
The novel Frankenstein is written in epistolary form, documenting a correspondence between Captain Robert Walton and his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. Walton is a failed writer who sets out to explore the North Pole and expand his scientific knowledge in hopes of achieving fame. During the voyage the crew spots a dog sled mastered by a gigantic figure. A few hours later, the crew rescues a nearly frozen and emaciated man named Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein has been in pursuit of the gigantic man observed by Walton's crew. Frankenstein starts to recover from his exertion; he sees in Walton the same over-ambitiousness and recounts a story of his life's miseries to Walton as a warning.
Victor begins by telling of his childhood. Born into a wealthy family in Geneva, he is encouraged to seek a greater understanding of the world around him through science. He grows up in a safe environment, surrounded by loving family and friends. When he is around four years old, his parents adopt Elizabeth Lavenza, an orphan whose mother has just died (she is Victor's biological cousin in the first edition, but an adopted child with no blood relation in the 1831 edition). Victor has a possessive infatuation with Elizabeth. He has two younger brothers: Ernest and William.
As a young boy, Victor is obsessed with studying outdated theories of science that focus on achieving natural wonders. He plans to attend the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. Weeks before his planned departure, his mother dies of scarlet fever. At university, he excels at chemistry and other sciences, and develops a secret technique to imbue inanimate bodies with life.
He has the idea to bring to life a human-like creature using parts of the dead and some animal pieces such as bone and possibly the eyes. However, Victor Frankenstein is a doctor who seems discontent and achieves satisfaction by exploring the supernatural realm. The creation of his monster comes about because of his unchecked intellectual ambition: he had been striving for something beyond his control. Consequently, his ambition is misled and his life becomes a hollow existence. Victor learns one of his most valuable lessons upon giving life, and that is that the gift of life is precious, not disposable. His own creation sets out to teach him this lesson by taking the life of his own loved ones.
The details of the monster's construction are left ambiguous, but Frankenstein finds himself forced to make the creature roughly eight feet tall because of the difficulty in replicating the minute parts of the human body. His creation, which he has hoped would be beautiful, is instead hideous, with watery yellow eyes, and a withered, translucent, yellowish skin that barely conceals the muscular system and blood vessels. Oddly the creature has perfect, white teeth, black lips and long black hair. After bringing his creation to life, Victor is repulsed by his work: he flees the room, leaving the monster. Hopeless and saddened from rejection, the monster disappears.
Victor becomes ill from the experience. He is nursed back to health by his childhood friend, Henry Clerval. After a four-month recovery, he determines that he should return home when his brother William is found murdered. Upon arriving in Geneva, he sees the monster near the site of the murder, and becomes certain the creature is the killer. William's nanny, Justine, is hanged for the murder based on the discovery of William's locket in her pocket. Victor, though certain the monster is responsible, doubts anyone would believe him and is unable to stop the hanging.
Ravaged by his grief and self-reproach, Victor retreats into the mountains to find peace. The monster approaches him, ignoring his threats and pleading with Victor to hear his own tale. Intelligent and articulate, The Creature tells Victor of his own encounters with people, and how he had become afraid of them and spent a year living near a cottage, observing the DeLacey family living there and growing fond of them. Through observing the De Lacey family, the monster became educated and self-conscious. He also discovered a lost satchel of books and learned to read. Seeing his reflection in a pool, he believes that his physical appearance is hideous compared to the humans he watches. Though he eventually approached the family with hope of becoming their friend, they were frightened by his appearance and drove him away, and then left the residence permanently. The creature, in a fit of rage, burned the cottage and left.
In his travels some time later, the monster saw a young girl tumble into a stream and rescued her from drowning. A man, seeing him with the child in his arms, pursued him and fired a gun, wounding him. Traveling to Geneva, he met a little boy — Victor's brother William - in the woods outside the town of Plainpalais. The monster hoped the boy was too young to fear deformity, but upon his approach, William cried out, threatening the monster with the weight of his family - the Frankensteins. The creature grabbed the boy by the throat to silence him, and strangled him. The monster took this as his first act of vengeance against his creator. He removed a locket from the boy's body and placed it in the folds of the dress of a young woman — William's nanny, Justine — who had been sleeping in a barn nearby, assuming she would be accused of the murder.
The monster concludes his story with a demand that Frankenstein create for him a female companion like himself. He argues that as a living thing, he has a right to happiness. He promises that if Victor grants his request, he and his mate will vanish into the wilderness of South America uninhabited by man, never to reappear.
Fearing for his family, Victor reluctantly agrees and travels to England to do his work. He is accompanied by Clerval, but they separate in Scotland. Through their travels, Victor suspects that the monster is following him. Working on a second being on the Orkney Islands, he is plagued by premonitions of what his work might wreak, particularly the idea that creating a mate for the creature might lead to the breeding of an entire race of creatures that could plague mankind. He destroys the unfinished female creature after he sees his first creation looking through the window. The monster witnesses this and, confronting Victor, vows to be with Victor on his upcoming wedding night. The monster murders Clerval and leaves the corpse on an Irish beach, where Victor lands upon leaving the island. Victor is imprisoned for the murder of Clerval, and becomes seriously ill, suffering another mental breakdown in prison. After being acquitted, and with his health renewed, he returns home with his father.
Once home, Victor marries Elizabeth and prepares for a fight with the monster. Wrongly believing the monster's vowed revenge was for his own life, Victor asks Elizabeth to retire to her room for the night while he goes looking for "the fiend". He searches the house and grounds, but the creature murders Elizabeth instead. Victor sees the monster at the window, and the monster taunts Victor by pointing at Elizabeth's corpse. Grief-stricken by the deaths of William, Justine, Clerval, and now Elizabeth, Victor's father dies. Victor vows to pursue the monster. The two meet and the Monster tells him, in more or less words, to catch him if he can. After months of pursuit, the two end up in the Arctic Circle, near the North Pole, but he does not kill him. Instead, Victor tells his friend Robert “Hear him not; call on the memories of William, Justine, Clerval, Elizabeth, my father, and of the wretched Victor, and thrust your sword into his heart. I will hover near and direct the steel aright." (Shelley, Frankenstein) He then promises to help him kill the monster even when he is dead as a ghost.
At the end of Victor's narrative, Captain Walton resumes the telling of the story. A few days after the vanishing of the creature, the ship becomes entombed in ice and Walton's crew insists on returning south once they are freed. In spite of a passionate speech from Frankenstein, encouraging the crew to push further north, Walton realizes that he must relent to his men's demands and agrees to head for home. Frankenstein dies shortly thereafter.
Walton discovers the creature on his ship, mourning over Frankenstein's body. Walton hears the creature's misguided reasons for his vengeance as well as expressions of remorse. Frankenstein's death has not brought him peace. Rather, his crimes have increased his misery and alienation; he has found only his own emotional ruin in the destruction of his creator. He vows to kill himself on his own funeral pyre so that no others will ever know of his existence. Walton watches as he drifts away on an ice raft that is soon lost in darkness.
How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?
During the rainy summer of 1816, the "Year Without a Summer", the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Mary Shelley, aged 18, and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group retired indoors until dawn.
Among other subjects, the conversation turned to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life, and to the experiments of the 18th-century natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter. Sitting around a log fire at Byron's villa, the company also amused themselves by reading German ghost stories translated into French from the book Fantasmagoriana, prompting Byron to suggest they each write their own supernatural tale. Shortly afterward, in a waking dream, Mary Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein:
I saw 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. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
She began writing what she assumed would be a short story. With Percy Shelley's encouragement, she expanded this tale into a full-fledged novel. She later described that summer in Switzerland as the moment "when I first stepped out from childhood into life". Shelley wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister Fanny. Byron managed to write just a fragment based on the vampire legends he heard while travelling the Balkans, and from this John Polidori created The Vampyre (1819), the progenitor of the romantic vampire literary genre. Thus, two legendary horror tales originated from this one circumstance.
The group talked about Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment ideas as well. Shelley believed the Enlightenment idea that society could progress and grow if political leaders used their powers responsibly; however, she also believed the Romantic ideal that misused power could destroy society (Bennett 36-42).
Mary's and Percy Bysshe Shelley's manuscripts for the first three-volume edition in 1818 (written 1816–1817), as well as Mary Shelley's fair copy for her publisher, are now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Bodleian acquired the papers in 2004, and they belong now to the Abinger Collection. On 1 October 2008, the Bodleian published a new edition of Frankenstein which contains comparisons of Mary Shelley's original text with Percy Shelley's additions and interventions alongside. The new edition is edited by Charles E. Robinson: The Original Frankenstein (ISBN 978-1851243969).
In September 2011 the astronomer Donald Olson, inspecting data about the motion of the moon and stars, concluded that the original conversation, and the waking dream, took place on the night of 16 June 1816.
Shelley completed her writing in May 1817, and Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published on 1 January 1818 by the small London publishing house of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones. It was issued anonymously, with a preface written for Mary by Percy Bysshe Shelley and with a dedication to philosopher William Godwin, her father. It was published in an edition of just 500 copies in three volumes, the standard "triple-decker" format for 19th-century first editions. The novel had been previously rejected by Percy Bysshe Shelley's publisher, Charles Ollier, and by Byron's publisher, John Murray.
The second edition of Frankenstein was published on 11 August 1822 in two volumes (by G. and W. B. Whittaker) following the success of the stage play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake; this edition credited Mary Shelley as the author.
On 31 October 1831, the first "popular" edition in one volume appeared, published by Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley. This edition was heavily revised by Mary Shelley, partially because of pressure to make the story more conservative, and included a new, longer preface by her, presenting a somewhat embellished version of the genesis of the story. This edition tends to be the one most widely read now, although editions containing the original 1818 text are still published. Many scholars prefer the 1818 text, arguing that it preserves the spirit of Shelley's original publication (see Anne K. Mellor's "Choosing a Text of Frankenstein to Teach" in the W.W. Norton Critical edition).
Part of Frankenstein's rejection of his creation is the fact that he does not give it a name, which gives it a lack of identity. Instead it is referred to by words such as "monster", "creature", "demon", "devil", "fiend", "wretch" and "it". When Frankenstein converses with the monster in Chapter 10, he addresses it as "vile insect", "abhorred monster", "fiend", "wretched devil" and "abhorred devil".
The creature has often been mistakenly called "Frankenstein". In 1908 one author said "It is strange to note how well-nigh universally the term "Frankenstein" is misused, even by intelligent people, as describing some hideous monster...". Edith Wharton's The Reef (1916) describes an unruly child as an "infant Frankenstein." David Lindsay's "The Bridal Ornament", published in The Rover, 12 June 1844, mentioned "the maker of poor Frankenstein." After the release of James Whale's popular 1931 film Frankenstein, the public at large began speaking of the monster itself as "Frankenstein". A reference to this occurs in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in several subsequent films in the series, as well as in film titles such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley maintained that she derived the name "Frankenstein" from a dream-vision. Despite her public claims of originality, the significance of the name has been a source of speculation. Literally, in German, the name Frankenstein means "Stone of the Franks". The name is associated with various places in Germany, such as Castle Frankenstein (Burg Frankenstein) in Mühltal, Hesse, or Castle Frankenstein in Frankenstein, Palatinate. There is also a castle called Frankenstein in Bad Salzungen, Thuringia. Furthermore, there is a municipality called Frankenstein in Saxony, and before 1946, Ząbkowice Śląskie, a city in Silesia, Poland, was known as Frankenstein in Schlesien. Furthermore the the name is carried by the noble House of Franckenstein from Franconia.
More recently, Radu Florescu, in his book In Search of Frankenstein, argued that Mary and Percy Shelley visited Castle Frankenstein[which?] on their way to Switzerland, near Darmstadt along the Rhine, where a notorious alchemist named Konrad Dippel had experimented with human bodies, but that Mary suppressed mentioning this visit, to maintain her public claim of originality. A recent literary essay by A.J. Day supports Florescu's position that Mary Shelley knew of, and visited Castle Frankenstein before writing her debut novel. Day includes details of an alleged description of the Frankenstein castle that exists in Mary Shelley's 'lost' journals. However, this theory is not without critics; Frankenstein expert Leonard Wolf calls it an "unconvincing...conspiracy theory." According to Jörg Heléne, the 'lost journals' as well as Florescu's claims could not be verified.
A possible interpretation of the name Victor derives from Paradise Lost by John Milton, a great influence on Shelley (a quotation from Paradise Lost is on the opening page of Frankenstein and Shelley even allows the monster himself to read it). Milton frequently refers to God as "the Victor" in Paradise Lost, and Shelley sees Victor as playing God by creating life. In addition to this, Shelley's portrayal of the monster owes much to the character of Satan in Paradise Lost; indeed, the monster says, after reading the epic poem, that he empathises with Satan's role in the story.
There are many similarities between Victor and Percy Shelley, Mary's husband. Victor was a pen name of Percy Shelley's, as in the collection of poetry he wrote with his sister Elizabeth, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. There is speculation that one of Mary Shelley's models for Victor Frankenstein was Percy, who at Eton had "experimented with electricity and magnetism as well as with gunpowder and numerous chemical reactions", and whose rooms at Oxford were filled with scientific equipment. Percy Shelley was the first-born son of a wealthy country squire with strong political connections and a descendant of Sir Bysshe Shelley, 1st Baronet of Castle Goring, and Richard Fitzalan, 10th Earl of Arundel. Victor's family is one of the most distinguished of that republic and his ancestors were counsellors and syndics. Percy had a sister named Elizabeth. Victor had an adopted sister, named Elizabeth. On 22 February 1815, Mary Shelley delivered a two-month premature baby and the baby died two weeks later. Percy did not care about the condition of this premature infant and left with Claire, Mary's stepsister, for a lurid affair. When Victor saw the creature come to life he fled the apartment, though the newborn creature approached him, as a child would a parent. The question of Victor's responsibility to the creature is one of the main themes of the book.
The Modern Prometheus is the novel's subtitle (though some modern editions now drop the subtitle, mentioning it only in an introduction). Prometheus, in later versions of Greek mythology, was the Titan who created mankind at the behest of Zeus. He made a being in the image of the gods that could have a spirit breathed into it. Prometheus taught man to hunt, read, and heal their sick, but after he tricked Zeus into accepting poor-quality offerings from humans, Zeus kept fire from mankind. Prometheus being the creator, took back the fire from Zeus to give to man. When Zeus discovered this, he sentenced Prometheus to be eternally punished by fixing him to a rock of Caucasus, where each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for the liver to regrow the next day because of his immortality as a god. He was intended to suffer alone for eternity, but eventually Heracles (Hercules) released him.
Prometheus was also a myth told in Latin but was a very different story. In this version Prometheus makes man from clay and water, again a very relevant theme to Frankenstein, as Victor rebels against the laws of nature (how life is naturally made) and as a result is punished by his creation. Prometheus, a Greek Titan who sculpted man from clay and then stole the light of fire from the gods to give to man, these acts can be attributed to the enabling of civilization and the gift of knowledge man acquired from him. Zeus punished Prometheus; bound to stone while an eagle each day would eat away Prometheus’s liver. Suffering this agonizing torment Prometheus would face his punishment for eternity. “Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In particular, he was regarded in the Romantic era as embodying the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence could also result in tragedy: Mary Shelley, for instance, gave The Modern Prometheus as the subtitle to her novel Frankenstein.”  Mary Shelley seemingly titled the book after the conflicted principles of knowledge in the story symbolizing Victor as the Modern Prometheus. Victors thirst quest for scientific knowledge and the tragedy that became of him for overreaching in his endeavors.
The Titan in the Greek mythology of Prometheus parallels Victor Frankenstein. Victor's work by creating man by new means reflects the same innovative work of the Titan in creating humans.
Some have claimed that for Mary Shelley, Prometheus was not a hero but rather something of a devil, whom she blamed for bringing fire to man and thereby seducing the human race to the vice of eating meat (fire brought cooking which brought hunting and killing).
Byron was particularly attached to the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Percy Shelley would soon write his own Prometheus Unbound (1820). The term "Modern Prometheus" was actually coined by Immanuel Kant, referring to Benjamin Franklin and his then recent experiments with electricity.
Shelley incorporated a number of different sources into her work, one of which was the Promethean myth from Ovid. The influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, are also clearly evident within the novel. Also, both Shelleys had read William Thomas Beckford's Gothic novel Vathek. Frankenstein also contains multiple references to her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her major work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which discusses the lack of equal education for males and females. The inclusion of her mother's ideas in her work is also related to the theme of creation and motherhood in the novel. Mary is likely to have acquired some ideas for Frankenstein's character from Humphry Davy's book Elements of Chemical Philosophy, in which he had written that "science has ... bestowed upon man powers which may be called creative; which have enabled him to change and modify the beings around him ...". References to the French Revolution run through the novel; a possible source may lie in François-Félix Nogaret's Le Miroir des événemens actuels, ou la Belle au plus offrant (1790): a political parable about scientific progress featuring an inventor named Frankénsteïn who creates a life-sized automaton.
Within the last thirty years or so, many writers and historians have attempted to associate several then popular natural philosophers (now called physical scientists) to Shelley's work due to several notable similarities. Two of the most notable then-contemporary natural philosophers have been Giovanni Aldini and his many public attempts in London from 1801 to 1804 at human reanimation through bio-electric Galvanism (as reported by History Channel), and Johann Konrad Dippel who was supposed to have developed chemical means to extend the life span of humans. In both cases, while Shelley was obviously aware of these men and their activities, in no published or released notes written by Shelley, does Shelley herself make any mention or reference of these men or their experiments.
Initial critical reception of the book mostly was unfavourable, compounded by confused speculation as to the identity of the author. Sir Walter Scott wrote that "upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression", but the Quarterly Review described it "a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity".
Mary Shelley had contact with some of the most influential minds of her time. Shelley's father was very progressive and encouraged his daughter to participate in the conversations that took place in his home with various scientific minds, many of whom were actively engaged in the study of anatomy. She was familiar with the ideas of using dead bodies for study, the newer practice of using electricity to animate the dead, and the concerns of religion and the general public in regard to the morality of tampering with God's work.
Despite the reviews, Frankenstein achieved an almost immediate popular success. It became widely known especially through melodramatic theatrical adaptations—Mary Shelley saw a production of Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, a play by Richard Brinsley Peake, in 1823. A French translation appeared as early as 1821 (Frankenstein: ou le Prométhée Moderne, translated by Jules Saladin).
Frankenstein has been both well received and disregarded since its anonymous publication in 1818. Critical reviews of that time demonstrate these two views. The Belle Assemblee described the novel as "very bold fiction" (139). The Quarterly Review stated that "the author has the power of both conception and language" (185). Sir Walter Scott, writing in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine congratulated "the author's original genius and happy power of expression" (620), although he is less convinced about the way in which the monster gains knowledge about the world and language. The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany hoped to see "more productions from this author" (253).
In two other reviews where the author is known as the daughter of William Godwin, the criticism of the novel makes reference to the feminine nature of Mary Shelley. The British Critic attacks the novel's flaws as the fault of the author: "The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment" (438). The Literary Panorama and National Register attacks the novel as a "feeble imitation of Mr. Godwin's novels" produced by the "daughter of a celebrated living novelist" (414).
Despite these initial dismissals, critical reception has been largely positive since the mid-20th century. Major critics such as M. A. Goldberg and Harold Bloom have praised the "aesthetic and moral" relevance of the novel and in more recent years the novel has become a popular subject for psychoanalytic and feminist criticism. The novel today is generally considered to be a landmark work of romantic and gothic literature, as well as science fiction.
In his 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, author Stephen King considers Frankenstein's monster (along with Dracula and the Werewolf) to be an archetype of numerous horrific creations that followed in literature, film, and television, in a role he refers to as "The Thing Without A Name." He considers such contemporary creations as the 1951 film The Thing from Another World and The Incredible Hulk as examples of similar monstrosities that have followed in its wake. He views the book as "a Shakespearean tragedy" and argues: "its classical unity is broken only by the author's uncertainty as to where the fatal flaw lies—is it in Victor's hubris (usurping a power that belongs only to God) or in his failure to take responsibility for his creation after endowing it with the life-spark?"
Frankenstein discussed controversial topics and touched on religious ideas. Victor Frankenstein plays God when he creates a new being. Frankenstein deals with Christian and metaphysical themes. The importance of Paradise Lost and the creature's belief that it is "a true history" brings a religious tone to the novel.
There are numerous novels retelling or continuing the story of Frankenstein and his monster.
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