The following is Part One of a five-part series of Jesse Teller’s reviews for the modern classic, Penny Dreadfuls. Each Monday we will spotlight a new installment of the series.
Sometimes it is not what you learn, but where you learn it that has the greatest effect. Learn to paint from a friend, you can make a picture. Learn to paint from a master, you can make a work of art.
Well, a lot of my friends are masters. A lot of the people in my life are fantastic writers. But I am trying, with my work, to create something different, so I have chosen a different teacher. I most often do not read my contemporaries. Most times I do not read modern fantasy because I do not wish to sound like others you will read. I could reach into so many modern novels and pull out quality, but I choose to seek knowledge in another place. I read classics, attempt to improve my work by reading the old masters. And this has brought me to the book Penny Dreadfuls.
There are five installments in this review series. This book is filled with so many great works of art that to try to fit the full picture in one review cannot really be done. So here I will look at the collection and focus on the first story of these installments, a story called Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly, which of course I will rate five stars.
The problem with classics is that everyone thinks they know all about them. We have seen so many shows or movies or skits. So many times these works have been referenced that we mark ourselves as experts even before we read them. Most often they are not at all what we think. And for a writer, they often hold valuable lessons I can use in my own work. In this story, I found myself truly for the first time understanding The Turn.
There is a point in some stories when the tale becomes about a different thing entirely. I have used this device in my own writing many times. You think you are reading one kind of novel, when suddenly you see everything you should have seen before. And now you realize you have been reading a different kind of story altogether. Well, Mary Shelly pulls this off so well. I find it truly inspiring.
A brilliant mind has lost his mother to an early death and he makes a vow against death itself. Says he will render death obsolete and find a way to solve death by creating life. He throws himself into the endeavor, and you begin to wonder, can he pull this off? Can this character really make life?
A few odd pieces of science are discovered and you begin to believe it might be possible. You run down this path with him, because he is at a dead sprint as he devours books and argues with other doctors. He works tirelessly and performs bold experiments as he throws himself into his war on death.
And all the while, you are slowly beginning to believe that maybe, just maybe, he can pull it off. You bend your mind to it, trying to figure out how he will do it. How he will find a way. Your main question becomes, can he do it? Can Frankenstein create life?
What everyone knows is that he does in fact create life, and the rub is that he never should have. But what I wanted to know is how she does it. How does she get us rooting for him? Or does she want us outside of it all, waiting and watching, and all the while shaking our heads?
But I found myself right where she put me. Even though I knew the doctor was moving toward disaster, I still rooted for him to do it. That right there is the work of a master storyteller. But where is The Turn? Where do I, as a reader, switch focus from can to should? Where does can he do it, turn into, should he have done it?
I was completely lost in the can, consumed by it, until the monster opened its eyes. There and right then, I realized what the doctor had done. The opening of the eyes. The moment she describes those eyes opening up and that raw look, the wild look, I felt it in my bones.
This man never should have done this.
She was able to boil it all down into one action. All of our understandings melt with the description of the opening of the eyes. Shelly has brought us to our moment of victory only to slap us into a new understanding. We knew where she was going, but we got caught up in it anyway. Even though I knew this was a bad idea, the writing had me hoping he could do it, hoping the doctor could indeed create life. I was right where she wanted me to be.
I fit it in my books after that. The Turn. I worked to shave that moment down into the smallest description, hone it all into two sentences, maybe half of one. How quickly and how easily can I show the reader that all the things they are thinking are wrong, and they should have been looking at it a different way altogether?
Another thing Shelly does is she plays with our compassion. First, we feel for the doctor, then the monster. Then back to the doctor, then back to the monster. She has us swinging our loyalty from one character to the next so many times. The monster will do something unforgiveable, and in that moment, we have settled on him as our villain. Then with a scrap of dialogue and a bit of a description, we hurt for the monster and hate the doctor. Not many masters of story have been able to do that. Not many novelists can make you hate a character and then flip your loyalty on a dime.
And because of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, I can, too.
This is in my opinion one of the greatest stories ever written. And as a writer, I learned so much from it.
Jesse Teller fell in love with fantasy when he was five years old and played his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game gave him the ability to create stories and characters from a young age. He started consuming fantasy in every form and, by nine, was obsessed with the genre. As a young adult, he knew he wanted to make his life about fantasy. From exploring the relationship between man and woman, to understanding the qualities of a leader or a tyrant, Jesse Teller uses his stories and settings to study real-world themes and issues.
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