Friday Fiction Feature

FictionReboot2Hello & welcome back to the Friday Fiction Feature! Tabatha here again, and this time I have a secret to share. Are you ready? Bet you’ll never guess. No really, don’t even try, you’ll never guess it. Ready? I love Halloween! I know. Shocking. Never would have guessed but it’s true. I love the decorations, I love the bats & pumpkins everywhere,I love the socially sanctioned month of gothitude, but most of all, I love to dress up! Since we are now firmly into Halloween month (otherwise known as October), it’s time to start thinking about finding the right costume. Now, you could follow the trends & just go out in lingerie & some cat ears (a tradition which has sadly been limited to women), but that’s the lazy option. A real costume should be much more involved (for instance: by my rules, a costume should rely on more than a headband to distinguish a pirate from a cat from Batgirl) so to help you get started on your costume selection early, this week we’re offering some interesting folks to emulate this year as you go out on your merry trek to scare the pants off the candy-hoarders.

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Transylvania 90210 (Elvira #1) by Elvira

Transylvania 90210 (Elvira, #1)

Our first option is a one-and-only for the list and it comes with a requirement. The costume: Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. The one-and-only: cleavage-dependent costumes. As a rule, we at the Friday Fiction Feature do not condone “Slutty __(Noun)__” costumes. A Halloween costume should let you jump into your personal nerdom & be your own conversation starter, starting conversations on something cool. (So let us be clear here: dress up as Captain Mal, you get to talk to other Firefly fans about Firefly. Dress up as “slutty (noun)” you get to pointedly not talk about your boobs with people who are there to talk about your boobs. Just sayin’).

Elvira does make the list because despite her rather noticeable…assets…she is a the figurehead for so many cool things! Awful horror movies, picking on awful horror movies, the awfulness of the 80’s…the list goes on and on! (It is an awfully good costume you know). Heck, she’s even an author! And this literary-inspired costume even comes with a group option: some vampire pals from Transylvania 90210 to slay or…make friends with.

In her first hairdo-raising adventure, Elvira meets the weirdos next door–a pasty-faced group of coffin-carrying bloodsuckers! Elvira likes vampires as much as the next ghoul. But when they start chomping on her friends, the new creeps on the block receive a little visit–from ELvira’s unwelcome wagon. This book begins a new series starring America’s favorite glamour ghoul.

Necessary Equipment: Attitude, puns, black dress w/ knife, cleavage (your own or manufactured because really, only 5 people in the world can wear it on their own), long hair w/ 80’s poof. *Caveat: Only counts if all equipment is present: a black dress with cleavage doesn’t make you Elvira, it just makes you cold!

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

FrankensteinThis costume is an old favorite with a twist. Everyone knows the typical costume: dress up as Frankenstein’s monster, put some bolts in your neck, paint yourself green & call yourself Frankenstein. But that’s old hat…or old bolt..whatever. I think a much more fun way to go (and keep your freinds guessing) is to dress up as Frankenstein. (Frankenstein. Not Frankenstein’s monster. I cannot be clear enough on that distinction. Please stop calling the monster Frankenstein!)

To do this one well, eschew the bolts & dress like a fop! Dress like a 19th c. doctor (that means frilly sleeves not lab coats folks) and walk around being generally annoying (In your best Percy Shelley style). Remember to always look morose, ignore your date, wax romantic about the nature of life & death, refer vaguely to your ‘sins’ and ‘responsibilities’ and then wander away from the party early without telling the host why. Bonus option: if you have a kid, run out of the room screaming every time he/she walks into the room!

Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Necessary Equipment: Frilly shirt, humorously tight/frilly pants/tights, ability to sound whiney for at least the length of the event, a basic knowledge of monster v. mad scientist.

The Addams Family: An Evilution by Charles Addams & Kevin Miserocchi 

The Addams Family: An EvilutionThe next selection is a very versatile idea: The Addams Family! In deciding to emulate the Addams family, you can either dress up as your favorite character: Wednesday, Morticia, Lurch, Gomez, Uncle Fester, Pugsley, Cousin It, Thing, etc. (P.S. if someone manages to dress up as Thing- please let me know how!) Or you can have a family costume with everyone joining in as one family member. You can even include friends as terrified neighbors  & your new baby as Pubert! If these options aren’t enough (or you have a sullen teenager who refuses to join in the morbid fun) just remember Wednesday’s costume when she shows up in her normal clothes: “I’m a homicidal maniac. They look just like everyone else.” The easiest costume possible, provided you’re willing to repeat that line over and over and over and over…

If that’s not easy enough, we’ll even help out with the costume design! The Addams Family: An Evilution shows you comics of the Addams family over the years so you can get a good chuckle while you double-check your Wednesday-braids against the original.

The Addams Family: An Evilution is the first book to trace The Addams Family history, presenting more than 200 cartoons created by Charles Addams (American, 1912-1988) throughout his prolific career; many have never been published before. Text by H. Kevin Miserocchi, director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, offers a revealing chronology of each character’s evolution, while Addams’s own incisive character descriptions, originally penned for the benefit of the television show producers, introduce each chapter. As the presence of the Family continues to permeate generation after generation, and in celebration of the Broadway musical debuting in 2010, this book reminds us where these oddly lovable characters came from and, in doing so, offers a lasting tribute to one of America’s greatest humorists. Includes more than 200 cartoons (approximately 50 are published here for the first time), many in color.

Necessary Equipment: Really, just black clothes, attitude & puns (and probably some temporary hair dye).

Let’s Panic About Babies!: How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain, and Finally Turn You into a Worthwhile Human Being by Alice Bradley & Eden M. Kennedy

Let's Panic About Babies!: How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain, and Finally Turn You into a Worthwhile Human BeingI was once told that I wore the scariest costume in the room when I showed up to a Halloween party still in my Walmart uniform. While I’ll definitely call that a terrifying one, the last few years have shown me an even more frightening figure: crazy person with baby. Think about it; what’s more terrifying than a person who has not slept in 6 months, who doesn’t remember a time when he/she didn’t have mysterious food/bodily fluids/who knows spots on every article of clothing, and worse, a person who willingly supports and feeds their tormentor, maintaining it from it’s beginning as a parasite through its development into a practiced poo-throwing machine. You’ve even got a handy how-to guide for your appearance & appropriate level of crazy in Let’s Panic About Babies! Your friends can’t possibly compete with this level of insanity: even mad scientists keep their apocalyptic horror beasts in cages.

Warning: The humor of this costume may depend on your audience. Probably not recommended for your brother’s “my baby & me” class get-together.

BABIES. Maybe you’re thinking of having one. There might even be one inside you right now, draining nutrients from your system via a tube growing from its midsection. Or maybe you’ve already got one around the house, somewhere, and you’re responsible for its continued survival. You’re saddled with a helpless being whom you’ve agreed to house and feed and love with all your heart for the rest of your life, more or less.
Either way, you’re confused, you’re frightened, and 911 won’t take your calls anymore. But don’t despair! Let’s Panic About Babies! is here to hold your hand and answer some important, age-old baby-related questions, including:
– How can I be sure I’m pregnant? (Torso swells gradually until baby falls into underpants.)
– Did I just pee myself? (Yes.)
– What happens if I have sex during my pregnancy? (Your baby will be born with a full, lush beard.)
– How can I tell if I’ve chosen the wrong pediatrician? (He/she can’t pronounce “stethoscope.”)
– How do I make sure my baby loves me back? (Voodoo.)
From the moment they’re created until the day they steal our cars, our babies demand center stage in our lives. So join Alice and Eden as they tell you (and your lucky partner!) exactly what to think and feel and do, from morning sickness to baby’s first steps. They know everything!

Necessary Equipment: Plastic baby, hair frazzled until it stands straight up at the back of your head, stain-covered sweat shirt & sweat pants, a wild I-haven’t-slept-in-years look in your eyes, & belief that poop stories are funny & good dinner conversation.

In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology and the Culture of Riffing by Robert G. Weiner, Shelley E. Barba

In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology and the Culture of RiffingNow this last costume was not as novel-inspired as I would have liked, but I think it warrants inclusion on the basis of how fun it could be. Just think: you & 2-4 friends dress up as JoelorMike & the bots, sit down wherever you want with folding chairs & just start heckling. Everything. Narrate conversations from afar, concoct implausible B-movie plot-lines for the people next to you based on their costumes, start singing bad background music when it’s quite for too long. And when people ask who you are, or why an academic/all-around-smart-person (as I know you all are) would want to dress up as a line of heckling robots, you can assure them that you are simply referencing a known academic work integrating culture phenomenon and its critical & social interpretation into the broader framework of pervasive media as proven in thier text In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology and the Culture of Riffing. 
The award-winning television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999) has been described as “the smartest, funniest show in America,” and forever changed the way we watch movies. The series featured a human host and a pair of robotic puppets who, while being subjected to some of the worst films ever made, provided ongoing hilarious and insightful commentary in a style popularly known as “riffing.” These essays represent the first full-length scholarly analysis of Mystery Science Theater 3000–MST3K–which blossomed from humble beginnings as a Minnesota public-access television show into a cultural phenomenon on two major cable networks. The book includes interviews with series creator Joel Hodgson and cast members Kevin Murphy and Trace Beaulieu.

Necessary Equipment: Jumpsuit, gumball machine, various articles of kitchen equipment, paint, and probably some cardboard boxes & scissors.

*Alternate costume choice: do the same things, but instead dress up as Statler & Waldorf

 

Monstrous History: The Abiding Influence of Ambroise Paré

The whole of that part of the cranium or brain case, with its usual contents, which is naturally covered with hairy scalp, was absolutely wanting, and the foramen magnum occipitis covered with a blood exerescence […] I feared it would survive.[i]

—Dr. Stryker, Letter to the Editor, Feb 28, 1809

Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath […] his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set […] were fixed on me.

—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Chapter 5, Frankenstein 1818

Frankenstein_engravedBy the time Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Prometheus Unbound was published, the Gothic tradition was well established, though still evolving. The early romances that shaped Radcliffian Gothic were both revisited and reshaped by the sublime imagination of Romantic writers (a group to whom Shelley herself belonged.) However, increasing interest in and access to scientific discourse provided additional material; widespread debate about electrical stimulation and reflex, William Cullen and Robert Whytt’s work on the nervous system, and Charles Bell’s theories on the anatomy of the brain were fertile ground for imaginative speculation and certainly part of the cultural context near the time of Frankenstein’s publication. The monstrosity of the man-made man nonetheless has its predecessor in the monstrosity of “woman-made man,” the deformed and monstrous child of the equally horrific and mysterious womb. By the end of the 17th century, scientific societies has begun to question “wonderful” and monstrous accounts, but though wonders “had lost their aura,”[ii] the monstrous continued to interest and enthrall (and sell newspapers and side-show tickets). This paper explores the medicalization of birth in the eighteenth century and its representation not only in scientific debate but also in sensationalized news accounts which—like early versions of the “penny dreadful,” circulated tales of terror. London papers, magazines and popular miscellanies published records of horrific births, even as the “orphaned” child and “monstrous” mother became a trope for Gothic fiction.

There are records of unusual, malformed or “monstrous” births in every culture, from early renderings on cave walls to the detailed astrological tables of the Chaldeans and the myths of the Greeks.[iii] The first formal collected account of these births is probably that of Julius Obsequens (fourth century), who listed the “miraculous” births from Caesar to his present.[iv] However, by the 15th century, miraculous and monstrous accounts had become a genre unto themselves; The Marvels of the East and the 1493 “Nuremberg Chronicle” (based on The Travels of Sir John Mandeville) collected supposed monsters from distant lands[v]—most of which were entirely fictitious, a few of which were likely based upon malformations and physical deformity.[vi]  However, arguably the most Image2famous of collected “monster” accounts is that of Ambroise Paré, surgeon and humanist of the mid-sixteenth century. His Des Monstres et prodigies (1573) was reprinted (as a full text) for more than 300 years, appearing in English translation as late as 1840 (and, in fact, again in 1982). More interestingly, the work appeared piecemeal throughout the eighteenth century, reprinted in miscellanies, magazines and popular accounts, the anomalous births passed off as current events.

The utility of Paré’s text comes, in part, from its structure. Using knowledge of books on natural history, Paré wrote a 519-page work on reproduction in two parts—the first dealt with surgical concerns, the second with monster births. Though early records also include miracle births under the “monstrous” (the Greek myths of Athena and Dionysus may be thought of in this fashion) the lexicon was ever-changing. The origins of the word “monster” are debatable; the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a Latin derivation, monstrum, “a warning or potent,” and Paré was clearly concerned with why the “natural” or normalized birth did not occur.[vii] The monster is, at best unnatural, at worst, a demonized creature and punishment from God: “Monsters are things that appear outside the course of Nature (and are usually signs of forthcoming misfortune).[viii] Marvels, too, are “against nature,” and may—along with monstrosity—reveal the “judgment of God, who permits fathers and mothers to produce such abominations from the disorder that they make in copulation, like brutish beasts, in which their appetite guides them.”[ix]

Interestingly, Paré’s sixteenth-century sensibility about the cause of monstrous birth was still present and highly debated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Joseph Duverney, professor of anatomy (1648-1730), considered monstrosity a problem of divine origin—and divine wrath. Physician Nicholas Lemery (1645-1715), by contrast, believed in accidental origins and Jacques Winslow (1669-1760) suggested “accidental causes could mask metaphysical [that is, divine] forces.”[x] Other major thinkers of the period—from Nicolas Malebranche to Denis Diderot—returned to this question in philosophical works. Malebranche (member of the Académie Royale des Sciences) published Tractatus de inquisitione veritatis in 1753. The text, which was translated into English and reprinted throughout the 18th century, was critical to popularizing the idea that mother imagination could cause birth defects—a devastating assumption also present in Paré, who claimed “monsters should not live among us,” as they could imprint upon the “fruit” of pregnant women because of the “ideas which might remain in their imaginative faulty, over the form of so monstrous a creature.”[xi] Two devastating consequences arise from this philosophy. The first is the estrangement and banishment of the malformed individual (and Paré includes among these those who have been marred by accident or illness as well). Such points continue to be made into the eighteenth century; a letter published in The Political State, February 1731, suggests the banishment of beggars, who must surely affect the developing fetus—and delicate feelings—of pregnant women.[xii] The second consequence, however, is of longer standing: that is, the culpability of mothers in the malformation of their children (which I will return to in the second half of this paper). Strangely escaping comment in this teratology is the fact that monsters, by virtue of their monstrosity alone, beget monsters. Enlightenment medicine did much to elucidate the complexities of generation and birth, particularly as to anatomy, but it did little to dispel the lingering horror of the monster birth—or to curb its enthusiastic reception among a reading public curious for marvels.

Statistics for actual birth in the eighteenth century do exist, and a number of them have been collected by Ruth Perry for her 1982 “Veil of Chastity.” Her point is to reveal the dangers of pregnancy and birth to the mother—it was “ten times as dangerous as venereal disease” (in an era where that is no small matter).[xiii] Perry also reports on a number of “monster” birth cases, from the famous Mary Tofts case, who feigned giving birth to rabbits, to one about a dead infant being half-consumed by live snakes. The latter of these was printed in The Weekly Journal or British Gazatteer on October 20th, 1722.[xiv] However, it is in fact a re-telling (with embellishment) from Paré’s Monsters and Marvels. In Paré’s account, the child “had a live snake attached to its back, who was gnawing on this little dead creature.”[xv] But Paré was citing Lycosthenes from 1494, and for all we know, Lycosthenes was reporting a marvel earlier still. The same may be said of the 365 children of Countess of Hennebrg, 1276; whether fabrication or the result of hydatidiform mole, the story of her miraculous brood was still being circulated well into later centuries—even appearing in broadsheet ballad form as “The Lamenting Lady.”[xvi] The eighteenth century account of the dead-baby-live-snakes improvises as well, not in form so much as character. The account in the British Gazatteer introduces new agents—a frightened female midwife, and a valiant husband who kills the snakes. These stories may speak of speak of “helplessness and fear in the face of women’s unpredictable and powerful reproductive capacities,”[xvii]  but they also reflect (as I have noted elsewhere) an increasing desire to control female fecundity, shake off the horror of childbirth, and make the entire birthing process a workman-like affair.[xviii] The unpredictable nature of the woman in labor and the mysteries of the womb led medical professionals to develop increasingly complex “birthing” phantoms or dolls on which to practice and teach delivery.

In any case, these stories of monster births are perhaps most marvelous for their ability to fire the imagination of successive generations of readers—each adding to it that which was appropriate to their particular historical moment.


[i] From a letter to the editor. Coxe, John Redman. The Philadelphia medical museum, Volume 6. (Philadelphia, 1809), 145.

[ii] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground for Scientific and Philosophical Debates,” A Telling of Wonders, Exhibit of the New York Academic of Medicine Rare Book Room. Jul 7, 2012. < http://www.nyam.org/library/rare-book-room/exhibits/telling-of-wonders/ter9.html.>

[iii] Speert, Harold. Obstetrics and Gynecology: A History and Iconography, 3rd Ed. (New York: Parthenon Publishing Ltd.), 361-362.

[iv] Ibid., 362.

[v] Ibid, 374.

[vi] The lengthy history of such accounts has been traced by Jean Céard’s La Nature et les prodiges and Stephen Asma’s On Monsters: An Unnatural History

[vii] Pallister, Janis, introduction to On Monsters and Marvels, by Ambroise Paré (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), xxvii.

[viii] Paré, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels. Ed. Janis Pallister. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), 3.

[ix] Ibid., 3, 5.

[x] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground”

[xi] Paré, 9.

[xii] “A Further Account of Advises from Foreign Parts.” The Political State, Vol 41. (London: Jan-June, 1731), 161.

[xiii] Perry, Ruth. “The Veil of Chastity.” Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), 147.

[xiv] As cited by Perry.

[xv] Paré, 58.

[xvi] Speert, 393-394

[xvii] Qtd. in Ibid.

[xviii] From my work, “Mechanical Habits and Female Machines” NP. To appear in Feminist Formations, spring 2013.

Special Feature: “The Obscure Part of My Own Nature”–a guest post by Lynn Shepherd

DailyDose1Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot and Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose!

Today I am proud to host Lynn Shepherd, author of literary mysteries Murder at Mansfield Park, The Solitary House and the newly released A Treacherous Likeness (Fatal Likeness in the US). Lynn joined us last year as a featured author, and this year, in the spirit of guest posts by DB Jackson and Tessa Harris, she offers us a historical reflection on inspirations for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this post, she explores the hidden nature (and possibly ‘disordered mind’) of Mary Shelley’s unpredictable and intense husband, Percy.

A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness, US title)

a-fatal-likeness-usa-coverWith The Solitary House, Lynn Shepherd introduced readers to Charles Maddox, a brilliant private detective plying his trade on the gaslit streets of Dickensian London. Now, in this mesmerizing new novel of historical suspense, a mystery strikes disturbingly close to home—and draws Maddox into a world of literary legends, tormented souls, and a legacy of terrible secrets. Today, she enlightens us about the real histories that lie behind the fictional world of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“The obscure parts of my own nature”:
Did Percy Bysshe Shelley suffer from a personality disorder?
by Lynn Shepherd

You don’t need to know very much about the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley to be aware that he was not just a poetic genius but a dark, tormented and turbulent young man. He left wreckage in his wake and (knowingly or not) caused immense pain to those around him, especially the women who loved him. But was there something more to this than mere self-centredness? Could his erratic behaviour be evidence, in fact, not just of a disordered personality but an actual personality disorder?

I spent a year in Shelley’s company, researching the material for my novel A Fatal Likeness (A Treacherous Likeness in the UK), and the more I read about him, and by him, the more I became convinced that he may have suffered from some sort of clinical mental condition. Of course, the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders is immensely complex and sensitive, even for a trained practitioner (which I’m not), and even when the individual in question is actually present. How much more so, then, when the ‘patient’ has been dead for nearly 200 years.  And there’s an extremely pertinent reminder of the dangers of taking such retrospective analysis too far in Richard Holmes’ biography of Shelley, which quotes a 1960s psychoanalytical study as concluding that the poet was “an introspective schizoid type with arrested sexual development at an undifferentiated stage, showing itself in elements of narcissism, homosexuality, and immature heterosexuality”. And all that based only on a reading of a very bad novel Shelley wrote when he was only 18 years old.

With this in mind I offer my own speculations in full knowledge of the pitfalls, but I do think we might gain a better understanding of what drove Shelley’s often erratic behaviour if we accept the possibility that he was struggling with a condition for which there was, at the time, no accurate diagnosis, little real understanding, and – needless to say – absolutely no effective medication. Worse still, the laudanum that Shelley regularly took to ease his many physical symptoms may well have exacerbated his intense mood swings.

So what evidence is there, after all this time?

As a young man, Shelley put about a story that his father had once tried to have him committed to a madhouse. Whether or not that was actually true (and Shelley’s relationship with the truth was ambivalent at the best of times), it’s easy to see why Sir Timothy Shelley might have resorted in desperation to such a drastic expedient. There was no doubting his ferocious intelligence, but even as a child he often made the lives of those around him extremely difficult. He pitched his infant brother’s baby-carriage into a strawberry bed and terrorised his younger sisters, and yet they who all adored him. He continued to take delight in terrifying both children and women throughout the rest of his life, both by telling them horror stories, or, when he was at Oxford, by attempting ‘electrify’ the son of the man who cleaned his rooms, as part of one of his many scientific experiments. As his college friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg later recalled, the boy, “by name James… roared aloud with ludicrous and stupid terror”. Shelley also had an extremely volatile temper, especially when crossed – at Eton they called him ‘Mad Shelley’ and he once seized the hand of another boy and impaled it to a desk with a fork. But that story takes on a rather different character when you realise that his fury was provoked by bullying; another reminder of how difficult it can be to draw conclusions retrospectively, and out of context.

And yet there were other episodes that do still suggest some underlying problem. Both as a child and later, Shelley was liable to periods of sleepwalking at times of stress, and prey to strange waking dreams that appeared to leave him unsure what was memory and what hallucination. He would tell elaborate stories about his exploits that would always ”vanish under the touch of investigation”, and as a result many regarded him as either a lunatic or a liar (you can read an account of one of the strangest and most inexplicable of these episodes, here).

As Shelley grew older, what might have seemed merely the quirks of childhood hardened into a pattern of erratic and unsettling behaviour. There could be evidence of bipolar disorder in his violent fluctuations of mood, which would veer unpredictably between a deep and often suicidal depression, and manic episodes in which he would play childish pranks, or succumb either to “wild… demoniacal laughter” or fits of hysteria. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred at the Villa Diodati, during the famous ‘Frankenstein summer’ of 1816.

Whatever lay behind it, Shelley certainly saw his own personality in terms of the ‘divided self’ – he wrote often of the terror of a fiendish ‘anti-type’ that lurked within “the obscure parts of my own nature”, and regularly referred to himself in the third person. This sense of dislocation became bound up in extreme feelings of fear and paranoia (though that particular word only came into the English language as late as 1811). As Richard Holmes says, “ghostly ‘following-figures’” haunted Shelley both in his life and in his writing. Or as Shelley himself put it in the poem ‘Oh! there are spirits of the air’, “this fiend, whose ghastly presence ever / beside thee like thy shadow hangs.” After the episode in Wales in 1813 that became known as ‘Shelley’s ghost’, he became convinced that he was being pursued by some person or persons unknown, and in the days before he died, during another period of extreme stress, he saw terrifying visions of his own doppelgänger, one of which was in the act of strangling his wife.

It’s fascinating, in this context, that when Mary Shelley later absorbed her long-dead husband into a novel, Lodore, she did so by splitting his personality in two: on the one hand the noble-minded and courageous Lord Lodore, champion of the downtrodden; on the other the nervous and introverted Derham, with his “wild fancies and strange inexplicable ideas”.

And this, I think, is where we come nearest to the truth about Percy Bysshe Shelley. He may indeed have suffered from bipolar disorder – as many now believe Coleridge also did – but I suspect the most likely explanation is some sort of personality disorder, or a condition with similarities to some forms of autism or Asperger’s syndrome.  Many of the symptoms often associated with  conditions like these tally closely with contemporary descriptions of Shelley – his obsessive insistence on keeping to a rigid daily schedule and his refusal to converse except at set times, his recurrent physical clumsiness, his mood swings, his discomfort in social situations, his sensitivity to discordant noises. It would also account for his apparent inability to empathise with those around him, or understand their own emotional needs.

Shelley had an extraordinary grasp of complex theoretical concepts, but he seems to have struggled to relate those abstract ideas to everyday life. For example, he was a vociferous supporter of the “poor and opprest” and yet treated real people with what amounted to careless contempt, often leaving town without paying the bills of exactly those small tradesmen who were most in need of the money he owed them. Such behaviour might have had its roots in insufferable self-absorption, but I suspect the more likely explanation is to be found in a far more fundamental inability to “feel the motives and impulses of other[s]”. Not my words, those, but Mary Shelley’s, from her description of the character she later modelled on him.

The same questions arise in relation to his private life. I said before that Shelley left wreckage in his wake, and the tragedies that engulfed the women and children around him are truly heart-breaking: his first wife Harriet Westbrook, who married him at 16, was deserted by him at 19, and killed herself at 21 (“if you had never left me I might have lived”); Harriet’s two children, the subject of a bitter custody battle after her death, but whom Shelley never once visited thereafter; Mary Shelley’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, who committed suicide only a few weeks before Harriet, allegedly out of unrequited love for Shelley; his baby daughter Clara, whose death Mary always attributed to Shelley’s carelessness; and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister, who accompanied Shelley and Mary when they eloped, when she herself was only 16, only to find herself entangled in a poisonous and suffocating ménage à trois that prevented her ever having a normal life of her own.

Shelley was certainly conscious of his own – often unwitting – role in some of these tragedies (the poem ‘Her voice did quiver as we parted’ is a poignant testimony to his grief at Fanny Imlay’s death), but in other cases he seems to have been either utterly unaware or stridently self-exonerating, as he was after Harriet’s suicide.  Knowing how challenging such behaviour would have been for his contemporaries, who lacked the knowledge we now have, we can understand why even his friends found him unstable to a sometimes dangerous degree, as if haunted by a ‘demon’ within. And we might also find here an explanation for the peculiarly equivocal tone of the memoir Hogg wrote about Shelley after his death. In it, Hogg insists that “in no individual, perhaps, was the moral sense ever more completely developed than in Shelley”, and yet he follows this assertion with what must surely be one of the strangest passages ever to be written by any biographer, then or since:

“The biographer who takes upon himself the pleasing and instructive, but difficult and delicate task of composing a faithful history of his whole life, will frequently be compelled to discuss the important questions, whether his conduct, at certain periods, was altogether such as ought to be proposed for imitation; whether he was ever misled by an ardent imagination, a glowing temperament, something of hastiness in choice and a certain constitutional impatience; whether, like less gifted mortals, he ever shared in the common portion of mortality – repentance, and to what extent?”

The supposed link between ‘madness’ and ‘genius’ is as old as the ancient Greeks, and numerous modern studies have discerned a higher than average occurrence of mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia among poets and writers. Some have even gone so far as to say that a uniquely creative world view can be the direct result of a condition like bipolar disorder or autism.  In Shelley’s case, there is no question that his intellectual and literary faculties were developed to an astounding and unusual pitch. I believe it’s possible that those great gifts may have brought with them – or even had their origin in – a condition we can now, at such a distance, only surmise.

With special thanks, once again, to Lynn Shepherd! We look forward to your future novels with great anticipation!

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AUTHOR BIO

Lynn studied English at Oxford in the 1980s, and went back to do a doctorate in 2003. She always wanted to be a writer (and aren’t we glad she did!); going freelance in 2000 gave Lynn the time needed to make that dream into a reality. “Ten years and two and a half unpublished novels later,” says Lynn, and “it finally happened!” An inspiration to writers everywhere–and to those of us who love to see literature come alive in new ways.

A Fatal Likeness is published in the US by Random House, and as A Treacherous Likeness in the UK by Corsair. Lynn’s other ‘literary mystery’ novels are Murder at Mansfield Park and Tom-All-Alone’s (UK)/The Solitary House (US). Her website is www.lynn-shepherd.com, and her Twitter ID is @Lynn_Shepherd.