Read Frankenstein's origin story—as told by Mary Shelley

Contributed by
Jan 14, 2013, 1:38 PM EST

It's almost as famous as Frankenstein itself: the story of how Mary Shelley dreamed up her classic horror tale after a dark and stormy night of ghost stories with her husband Percy Shelley and the poet Lord Byron. It's a long-cherished literary legend, but have you ever read Shelley's own words on how that night inspired her tale?

It was the summer of 1816, and the Shelleys (who were not yet married) were visiting Byron at his villa on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Because the summer was unusually dreary and rainy (thanks to a climate-altering volcanic eruption the year before), the trio stayed largely indoors and took to reading ghost stories aloud and talking about the work of natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, who claimed to have reanimated dead matter. This was the seed of Mary Shelley's tale, as she wrote in an introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

"When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bound of reverie. I saw - with shut eyes, but acute mental vision - 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."

As these visions refused to leave her, Shelley began to think about what she might write for a ghost story competition Byron had proposed that evening. She realized that her monstrous little vision might be just the thing.

"I returned to my ghost story - my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night! Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. 'I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.'"

And so Frankenstein began, first as a short story and then, with Percy Shelley's encouragement, as a novel-length tale of terror that would go on to become one of the most famous horror stories ever written.

To read Shelley's full account of her inspiration, head over to The Guardian.

(Via The Guardian)

Make Your Inbox Important

Like Comic-Con. Except every week in your inbox.

Sign-up breaker