TOP 10 FANTASY – SPECIAL MENTION (PART 2)
(1) MARY SHELLEY – FRANKENSTEIN (1819)
Frankenstein is one of the most iconic figures in horror, fantasy and SF. And yes, literary purists, I know that Frankenstein was Dr. Victor Frankenstein (perhaps the most famous doctor in literature), not his nameless monster – but the latter has also been named Frankenstein by popular culture and they’re a matched pair in any event.
Of course, their iconic stature owes more to their cinematic adaptations rather than the original novel by Mary Shelley, in which they are mutual tragic figures. Brian Aldiss claimed Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, but the original novel still seems more Gothic fantasy to me, particularly without all the, you know, science that we see in the cinematic adaptations. Mary Shelley was understandably scant on the process of the monster’s creation and does not describe it in her narrative, other than vague references to chemistry – as opposed to the electricity and “it’s alive!” and the rest of the monster’s creation that is the most iconic part of the cinematic adaptations. Indeed, the strength of Shelley’s work lies in its ideas and themes (including the Promethean theme of its subtitle, The Modern Prometheus), which have lent themselves to popular culture – the work itself may seem somewhat dated (and melodramatic) to a modern audience.
Victor Frankenstein is frequently invoked as a symbol of scientific hubris, a recurring theme in SF and popular culture in general – although his true villainy was more arguably abandoning his creature, because it was so, ah, ugly.
Perhaps it would have worked out better like this?
After he is so superficially abandoned, the monster rises to his own villainy with a murderous rampage. Okay, so murderous rampage is something of an overstatement, since he kills one person, Victor’s brother, William (and an innocent servant girl is hanged for the crime). He approaches Victor in truce, seeking Victor create a female companion for him. Victor initially does so, then destroys her as he fears a race of monsters. (Really, Victor? Come on – show a little imagination, man. You could always create her without ovaries. Or make the monster a male companion). The monster renews his rampage with a vengeance, or more vengeance anyway – killing Victor’s close friend and then Victor’s bride Elizabeth. In her bed on their wedding night – admittedly a nice villainous touch. Victor’s father dies of grief, as was the fashion at that time. Victor then pursues the monster to the Arctic for his own vengeance, but fails miserably and freezes instead. The monster then mourns his creator, perhaps because he realizes he will now have nothing to do, and vows to destroy himself.
In the novel, the character of Frankenstein’s monster is somewhat different from his iconic film appearance, not least because he is sensitive and emotional – like an emo Hulk without the smashing. He is also highly articulate and literate, indeed having read Paradise Lost – clearly no good could come of that. Even so, he is as iconic as his creator – an enduring influence in theme, when not directly adapted in name or image. In his personal study of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King considered Frankenstein’s monster (along with Dracula and the Werewolf) to be an archetype of numerous horror figures in fiction, in a role he referred to as “The Thing Without a Name” – although he acknowledged that “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?”
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
(2) ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON – THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the alternative halves of the iconic character from Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, with the latter as the monstrous or villainous half (although that is arguable as Jekyll unleashed Hyde in the first place).
Hyde’s villainy is characteristic of his original Victorian melodrama, as he does not actually do much. At the outset of the novel, he tramples and injures a young girl, but pays compensation when accosted! In fairness, he does enjoy nightly forays of unidentified depravity, and ultimately does beat a man to death with a cane. The appeal of the novel lies in its now well known twist that the respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll IS the evil Mr. Edward Hyde – or more precisely, transforms, into Mr. Hyde. Initially, that is with a serum of his own creation – and somewhat surprisingly, Hyde is more diminutive than Jekyll. Over time, however, Hyde becomes stronger and more powerful than Jekyll, such that Jekyll begins to involuntarily transform into Hyde without the serum, firstly while sleeping and then in waking hours – and Jekyll has to use the serum to transform himself back. Ultimately, Jekyll commits suicide as his serum is about to be exhausted – and accordingly his ability to reverse the transformation.
Jekyll and Hyde have achieved iconic stature, which has been a source of adaptation or influence ever since (with perhaps my personal favorite being Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde), perhaps reinforced by Jack the Ripper shortly after its publication. It is in turn an enduring modern adaptation of werewolf legend. Hyde is symbolic of the Dark Side of each of us, the inner struggle between good and evil within each of us.
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
(3) BRAM STOKER – DRACULA (1897)
Count Dracula is THE vampire – in the words of TV Tropes, as Sherlock Holmes is to detectives, James Bond is to secret agents and Superman is to superheroes, so Dracula is to vampires. The eponymous villain of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel is the archetypal vampire, such that his name is synonymous with vampire – again in the words of TV Tropes, the vampire known even by people not familiar with the book or even the genre, particularly through countless (heh) adaptations in popular culture.
Indeed, Bram Stoker’s novel codified the definitive vampire tropes in fiction, although Dracula still manages walking around in sunlight without bursting into flame (albeit depowered) and certainly without sparkling. The novel itself can be somewhat surprising to those more familiar with cinematic adaptations, since it is told in an epistolary format through letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, ships’ logs and so on. However, most of the plot elements have been adapted into popular culture – Jonathan Harker as Dracula’s guest in Transylvania, (unknowingly helping the latter ‘invade’ England), Harker’s ill-fated predecessor Renfield (now eating his way up the food chain from insects in an asylum in an attempt to emulate Dracula), the Brides of Dracula (soon to extend to the unfortunate Lucy Westenra and Harker’s fiancee Mina Murray), Lucy Westenra’s band of suitors, Abraham Van Helsing. The novel “has been assigned to many literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, the gothic novel, and invasion literature”. Arguably also, Dracula is amongst the first supervillains in popular culture, and potentially a Dark Lord to rival Sauron in the genre of fantasy. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too hard to recast Dracula as The Lord of the Rings, substituting Transylvania for Mordor and the Brides for the Black Riders (only much sexier). Kim Newman did something of the sort with his Anno Dracula series, where Dracula bests Van Helsing and vampirizes Queen Victoria to rule the British Empire. Or at least, Dracula might have done if he’d had any sort of plan in Stoker’s book beyond picking up British chicks – but then that’s just how he swings, baby.
Essentially, if a work of fiction in any medium involves vampires, chances are it will at least involve a reference to Dracula at some point, if not an adaptation (or subversion) of him, directly or indirectly. He has apparently appeared in more films than any other character, fictional or otherwise, except for Sherlock Holmes, including films where they have appeared together and which would be utterly awesome. (Apparently, Godzilla, James Bond and Mickey Mouse rank next). Dracula is also an iconic villain in fantasy or horror who was adapted from a figure almost as iconic and villainous from some perspectives (but heroic from others, notably his native Romania or Transylvania) – Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, named after his favorite hobby. Or Vlad Dracula – Son of the Dragon, which sounds just as badass as the fictional character (but perhaps not so much for his estimated 40,000 – 100,000 victims).
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****
(4) EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS – ADVENTURES OF TARZAN (1912-1947 AND BEYOND!)
Tarzan is perhaps the most iconic hero of fantasy and science fiction – the archetypal jungle hero (or perhaps modern barbarian hero), in the series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from the first novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1912 to Tarzan and the Foreign Legion in 1947 (not including posthumous publications), as well as all the adaptations in popular culture.
Born John Clayton and heir to English aristocracy as Lord Greystoke (or more precisely Viscount Greystoke), he was marooned with his aristocrat parents and ‘adopted’ after their deaths by a maternal female ape within a ‘tribe’ of great apes – indeed, Tarzan is his name in the ape language.
Philip Jose Farmer has helpfully condensed Tarzan’s fictional ‘biography’ from the series by Edgar Rice Burroughs into his book Tarzan Alive, an entertaining read and worthy substitute for reading the series. Farmer was an enduring fan of the character and wrote of Tarzan (or his world) in a number of books – most infamously in A Feast Unknown, featuring a thinly veiled erotic pastiche of Tarzan and Doc Savage (where they fight each other with their erections – I bet THAT got your attention), or most famously, in his so-called Wold Newton Universe, where he linked together a number of fictional superheroes to the effect of a meteorite.
And I say superheroes as Tarzan is a fantasy hero with virtually superhuman powers – after all, we’re talking someone who has wrestled virtually every animal.
Indeed, Tarzan’s workout seems to be to wrestle a different animal each day – sometimes he skips shark day
In short, he easily out-Batmans Batman and is the Superman of the jungle.
He is also of superhuman intelligence – a feature not readily discerned from the unfortunate monosyllabic and broken English of his screen adaptations. In the books – indeed, the first book – he could read English before he could speak it, having taught himself to read from the children’s picture books left in his parents log cabin and deducing the symbols as a language, in complete isolation from humans. He also spoke French before he spoke English, learning it from the first European he encountered. He readily learns to speak English – as well as thirty or so languages after that. So much for “Me Tarzan, you Jane”.
Despite a certain lack of plausibility, he remains an enduring hero – a “daydream figure” who obviously appeals to our continuing fascination for an animal or nature hero (and perhaps less fortunately to a ‘white god’ figure)
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
(5) ROBERT E. HOWARD – CHRONICLES OF CONAN (1929 – 1936 AND BEYOND!)
Robert E. Howard’s Conan, often styled as Conan the Barbarian or Conan the Cimmerian (after his proto-Celtic homeland Cimmeria), is one of fantasy’s greatest and most iconic heroes, roaming the Hyborian Age punching out eldritch abominations and wizards. You know, the Hyborian Age – prehistoric Earth, “after the oceans drank Atlantis” and before recorded history. (Howard’s way of evoking historic cultures without any of that pesky research – he was writing quick magazine stories after all).”Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian; black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feat”.
Conan is the definitive barbarian hero, playing a large part in creating the fantasy sub-genre of sword and sorcery (being the protagonist sword against the antagonist sorcery). Alternatively, he is the Hyborian Bond, with the requisite episodic Bond girl or two each tale – mostly classic damsels in distress of course, to be slung over his shoulder or hanging off his leg in fantasy art poses. In fairness, most characters, male or female, are damsels in distress compared to Conan himself. In his youth, he was thief, outlaw, mercenary and pirate – in middle age, he becomes warlord and king of Aquilonia, the greatest Hyborian kingdom.
Conan is described as “sullen” and “smoldering”, with volcanic” blue eyes and a black “square-cut mane”. His size is never made clear, although it is clearly, uh, big. And strong. Strong enough to pull himself off a crucifix, which would make for an interesting gospel according to Conan. The literary character sensibly wears armor or clothing typical to his location – his comics or fantasy art counterparts usually wears the more visible option of loincloths and similar outfits suitable to body oil. He may be all muscle but he’s not dumb muscle – his rippling appearance belies a shrew intellect: skilled as a warrior and in other trades, talented as a military and political leader, versed and literate in a number of languages.
In short, Conan is the sort of hero for which they coined the phrase mighty thews and it is fortunate that he is limited to his own heroic fantasy, because he’d make short work of any other – as George R. R. Martin observed of The Lord of the Rings, coming to it as he did from Conan
“Robert E. Howard’s stories usually opened with a giant serpent slithering by or an axe cleaving someone’s head in two. Tolkien opened his with a birthday party…Conan would hack a bloody path right through the Shire, end to end, I remembered thinking.”
On the other hand, Conan would have made quick work of the Quest, while making off with an elf girl or two…
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
OSCAR WILDE – THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1891)
Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is of somewhat similar symbolism to Jekyll and Hyde, with his Hyde in a portrait rather than a serum – Dorian remains young while his magical portrait ages and shows all the signs of his corruption and depravity. And we all know what that ‘corruption and depravity’ was, don’t we, Oscar? Which makes it all seem somewhat coy and not so depraved today – so that the modern reader might want to imagine something more evil than gallivanting around gay old London. In fairness, Dorian does murder his friend and the painter of the portrait, before blackmailing another friend into destroying the body. (He is also responsible for other deaths, but more through callousness and melodrama). Ultimately, he stabs the portrait, fatally transposing the wound to himself while swapping their appearances (so that the portrait is now young and innocent while he is aged and corrupt).
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
W.W. JACOBS – THE MONKEY’S PAW (1902)
This supernatural short story, penned by W.W. Jacobs (who mostly wrote sailing stories and other non-fantasy fiction) in 1902, has since achieved iconic status – not least for the near infinite variations and adaptations of its story.
The titular paw (removed from the dead titular monkey) is something of a cursed magical item, akin to the worst genies – it does indeed grant three wishes, but in the worst possible way, such that you wish you hadn’t wished in the first place (CENTURY OLD SPOILER ALERT…)
The protagonist couple, Mr. and Mrs. White, obtain it from Sergeant-Major Morris, who obtained it while with the British Army in India (although he does attempt to destroy it first by throwing it in the fire, but Mr. White recovers it). In a spirit of trivial levity and skepticism, Mr. White wishes for 200 pounds for the final payment on his house (although he doesn’t really need it). He does indeed get it – when his son dies in a work accident and the employer, although denying responsibility, pays the Whites a goodwill payment of…200 pounds. About a week or so after the funeral and maddened by grief, Mrs. White urges Mr. White for their son to return to life. Against his better judgement, he does so – and what follows is effective mounting suspense, building to the knocking at the door. His wife rushes to the door and fumbles with the locks, while he desperately retrieves the paw to make his third and final wish – which is revealed as Mrs. White opens the door to find nothing there. (I guess the monkey’s paw couldn’t find a way to subvert taking back a former wish, as opposed to every child who has cried no take backsies!)
It has been directly parodied, not least by The Simpsons in one of their Halloween episodes, perhaps the highest accolade to which a literary short story can aspire (although how could wishing for world peace go so awry?)
Its story has been endlessly adapted in other works. One of the most notable is in Stephen King’s monkey’s paw of a novel, Pet Sematary, which even follows the original story’s rule of three as the protagonist just keeps burying things in that damned revenant Indian burying ground – his cat, his infant son and finally his wife. It also follows the effective suspense and final lack of reveal, which best leaves things to the audience’s imagination (“Darling!”) – the cinematic adaptation not so much, as the film fumbled the final reveal by actually showing it. However, another notable television adaptation of the original story also followed the final lack of reveal – the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Forever” (in which Dawn and Spike wish for Buffy’s mother, died of cancer, to return – although it is Buffy herself who rushes to the door).
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****