Reading Around: Mary Shelley Meets Grave Robbers, Movie Stars, and Other Monsters


Chief among the dark oddities of life in 18th- and 19th-century London is that the city, which produced so many dead, was itself forever in want of corpses. Grave robbers found stocking the labs of scientists and students such profitable work that they eventually ruled over their own pub, the Fortune of War, not far from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and Medical College. They even seized upon a lofty name for their trade: resurrectionists. This crew survived long after Parliament chose to furnish to the city’s anatomists with the cadavers generated at the Old Bailey hanging grounds, a public abattoir so busy it would make Texas governors blanch. In the 1810s, body-theft got bad enough that entrepreneurial souls began peddling “coffin collars”—”cagelike iron structures that straddled the coffins and could be unlocked by thick iron keys held by the mourners.” The Fortune of War crowd kept at it, undeterred.

So it goes in Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and the Monsters (William Morrow, $26.99), a survey of the cultural and literary brine in which Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein so wonderfully pickled. Part intellectual history and part biography, the book makes grave robbing and pseudo-scientific dissections the gloomy thrill you would hope for. Like Shelley, Montillo relishes affronts to God and all that delicious corpse-on-the-slab labwork. She also dishes through familiar scandals, especially the one about the Shelleys (Mary and Percy, the poet), Lord Byron, and company buggering off to Lake Geneva for the gothic sex farce and creative-writing workshop that yielded Frankenstein and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, the first English tale of a sexy, undead count. (Polidori’s aristocratic vampire is Byron, of course.)

But the revelations are in Montillo’s accounts of the lives of the real-life scientists whose bloody work inspired Mary Shelley’s fiction. There are Shelley’s contemporaries Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini, who, brains afire with Benjamin Franklin’s kite-and-lightning stunt, attempted to electro-shock life back into the corpses of frogs, bulls, and the decapitated heads of criminals. Or, 250 years earlier, the alchemist Paracelsus, whose recipe for a homunculus—a teensy, lab-manufactured helper creature—called for skin, hair, bones, and sperm, all stuffed for 40 days into the womb of a horse. And Johann Konrad Dippel, creator of a mad oil of healing, who had this to say about the difference between urine and blood: “The former will not cure the Epilepsy, but the latter will.”

Against such capital ick Montillo’s literary gossip seems quaint, save perhaps the rash of suicides that later afflicted the Lake Geneva coterie, and Percy Shelley’s famous vision, after he had worked himself up declaiming from Coleridge’s “Christabel,” of a woman whose breasts had eyes rather than nipples. Still, unlike the flesh that obsessed its subjects, Montillo’s book is fully alive, and not just thanks to all its grisly shocks. It lays bare nothing the less than the reason-minded madness of the age that gave us Mary Shelley, the inventor of our most enduring warning against science run amuck. Never cold nor clinical, Montillo’s anatomizing does what the grave robbers only claimed: It resurrects.

A different kind of Frankensteining shapes the beast at the heart of Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury, $25), Christine Sneed’s strong first novel. Here, the perceptions of the villagers—if Hollywood can be called a village—are stitched together to give us that most beautiful monster of all: a movie star, one who in this case is totally George Clooney. A Clooney with kids, that is, and a phalanx of exes, and who in 1985 starred in some alt-historical Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than The Facts of Life. (Maybe you’ll think it’s Harrison Ford. The book could be a blind item.)

As with Shelley, Sneed is concerned here with the soul itself, specifically whether a star given access to every sexual temptation can possibly remain what we might call a good person. Evidence pro, con, and ambivalent comes from the novel’s multiple narrators and POVs: the star’s pill of a son, a listless twentysomething after the same woman as dad; the med student daughter who can’t avoid an impressive older man who shares her father’s fool-around ethos; a pair of ex-wives; and the starlet he’s currently involved with (and directing, in the hilariously titled Oscar-bait drama Bourbon at Dusk).

Sneed’s funny, insightful novel is admirably uncommitted to teaching any lesson. It’s also written more for gulpability than lingering over. Don’t be surprised if you knock it out in a handful of sittings—and on occasion find yourself impatient during the passages not featuring Sneed’s ersatz Clooney. (Such is the power of star charisma, even when the star’s made up.) To her credit, Sneed flouts the bookclub/Amazon reviewer rule that the characters we’re supposed to care about must be inherently likable. The star’s son, in particular, flirts with being a li’l shit, one afflicted by that peculiar mix of guilt and entitlement that only the offspring of the fabulously wealthy can know. Fame is neither a prison nor a heaven, here. For the unfamous folks in the orbit of the star, access to it is a means of escape from everyday life: Want to talk to that girl who’s ignoring you in your French class? Just mention that your dad is George Clooney. (Or whoever.)

There’s no escape for the everyday sods with the misfortune to be cast in the short stories of Laura Kasischke’s bracing, fascinating If a Stranger Approaches You (Sarabrande Books, $15.95). The first story, a tight jab to the guts, should convince you whether you have the will for what follows: “They’d all warned her not to snoop,” it begins, and from there a teenager’s mother does just what she knows she shouldn’t: pick through her daughter’s bedroom for a diary or a gun or something. That’s what she finds—something—and to say anything more would be to deny you one of the most pungent, curious, not-quite-pleasures readers will hit upon this month.

In story after story, Kasischke’s characters do the things that they wish they were strong enough not to. She often couches extraordinary disasters in the most ordinary language, stating flatly the terrible (at times impossible) doings that might make us flinch from the book. One long tale, in which a man wants to talk to a woman who wants nothing to do with him, turns on the line “It wasn’t a tackle, exactly.” The feigned offhandedness—as if it’s the classification that matters rather than the act itself!—only heightens the horror. There is horror here, and a direct connection to Percy and Mary Shelley: A young girl whose dolly has been chucked off a bridge imagines the nipples of a nude woman to be that doll’s button eyes. There’s also the poet’s full command of the language: “That night,” Kasischke writes, “an enormous hairless zoo animal made of silence slipped into my dream, lay down on top of me, and stayed there, like a warm snowpile, until morning.” Such beauty salves the heartache.