What Mary Shelley birthed in her classic tale of man-made monster unleashed on an unwitting world, Susan Heyboer O’Keefe infuses with humanity and compassion, a creature of opposites, a curious mind, an impulsive, powerful body and the instincts of a violent criminal. This nature versus nurture allegory plays out against a bloody landscape from a decaying Venice to the wild Orkney Islands and a Northumbrian coal mine, as Robert Walton honors a deathbed promise to annihilate what Frankenstein has created: “Swear to me that you will hunt down the creature and destroy it.”
Blinded to all but his mission, Walton is as dogged as the hounds of hell, tracking his quarry over ten years, destroying any semblance of comfort the creature has found, exposing his deformities to the taunts of local villagers, striking at the very heart of a beast Walton is convinced is the devil’s spawn. Complicit in his isolation and avoidance of human contact, the creature suffers for the future he will never have as a man among men: “My father robbed me of more than he knew, orphaning each part of me of its past.”
The monster’s journals say otherwise. A rude assemblage of random body parts bedeviled by a thirst for knowledge and intimacy, the creature is repulsed by his own ugliness, driven not only by an instinct for survival but a soul on the threshold of awakening. Having experienced the kind touch of a mute woman in Venice, the ragged monster is thrust once more into a cold world thanks to Walton’s endeavors, the object of fear, scorn and ridicule. Grief-stricken, the not-man turns to England and Walton’s family - his sister, Margaret Winterbourne, her husband, and daughter Lily.
Flouting convention, Lily befriends the frightening creature who spies on her from afar, spontaneously christening him “Victor Hartmann.” Lily introduces Victor to society at a costume ball where guests are fascinated by the authenticity of his disguise. He becomes Lily’s victim and weapon, succumbing to a vague promise of affection from a woman who does not shy away from his deformities yet bludgeons him with cruel jibes, toying with her new plaything like a lazy cat: “At best you are only a freakish animal.” A bit mad, Lily drives the next phase of Victor’s quest for acceptance, first to the desolate Orkney Islands, then a Northumbrian coal mine, where he is confronted by the devious actions of the young woman he has sworn to protect and the reappearance of his nemesis.
With a surgeon’s precision, the author strikes at the hypocrisy of the righteous. Walton becomes more monster than his prey, a man fueled by hatred as powerful as the mismatched body of Frankenstein’s creature. Yet nothing is so bitter as Lily’s betrayal. Her twisted sentiments deliver a series of devastating blows on a creature striving to thwart his atavistic impulses in favor of emotional moderation. Lily delights in leading Victor on a merry chase - sometimes kind, usually vicious.
It is impossible not to fall in love with this incarnation of Shelley’s monster (or despise Walton’s cruel machinations), a being who desires only to belong, to know the miracle of small kindnesses. A creature born of man’s hubris, Victor earns his place in the world: “I have been a monster of my own making. I will be a man of my own making instead.”