I love monsters. All sorts of monsters: Frankenstein’s monster and Cookie Monster, Dracula and Count Chocula, werewolves and mummies and creatures from the Black Lagoon, oh my! That’s probably why I wrote my PhD dissertation on classic monsters from the late nineteenth century, which brought us a renewed interest in vampires, doubles, and all sorts of mysterious, vaguely horrifying phenomena. The emblem of the era could be Dorian Gray looking at himself in the mirror, realizing he is not quite what he seems.
While I was writing my dissertation, something started bothering me: these texts focused primarily on male monsters, but there were texts about female monsters as well. They looked different from their male counterparts: they were usually beautiful, and they were dangerous specifically because they could seduce you to your own destruction. The vampire Carmilla from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Helen in Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, Queen Tera in Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars . . . You’ve heard of them, right? Probably not. The female monsters aren’t as well-known as Mr. Hyde. I also noticed that many of the texts about male monsters had female monsters in them, but they didn’t get their own stories—usually, they didn’t even get to speak. In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the mad vivisectionist creates a woman out of a puma whose sole purpose in the narrative is to kill Moreau. Female monsters: deadly but marginal. That’s what I noticed, and that’s why I wanted to write about them.
There’s a particular moment that crystalized all of the above for me, like a precipitate coming out of solution. In Frankenstein, still the most important monster text, Victor’s resurrected creature tells him to create a female monster. She can be my mate, he tells his creator. Create her, or I will kill the rest of your family. And Victor tries—he starts to create a female monster, but can’t bring himself to do it because the two monsters together would threaten mankind. So what does he do? He takes her already-assembled body apart and disassembles it, packs the parts in a basket (as though he were going on a picnic!), then throws that basket into the sea. When I read that, I thought, That’s not fair. What did she ever do to you?
That’s the why of my book The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, the reason I wrote it: I thought these female monsters deserved to speak, and I personally wanted to hear them speak. I thought they might have interesting thing to say. So I started letting them talk through me. (Honestly, it felt like that sometimes, as though they were telling me their own stories.) And what did they tell me? Things from the important to the trivial: Catherine, the Puma Woman, told me that she wasn’t destroyed on Moreau’s island. She escaped to London and later worked as a circus performer. Justine Frankenstein told me she wasn’t disassembled after all. She’s very strong, so she’s also very gentle, and she likes to paint. Beatrice Rappaccini, the poisonous girl created by Dr. Rappaccini in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” told me she is a trained botanist who can make medicines out of foxglove and deadly nightshade.
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Writing from a female point of view allowed me to see things that are often erased in the classic texts. For example, Mary Jekyll, Dr. Jekyll’s daughter, must run a household—she has to think about servants and household expenses in a way her father never did. When she solves cases with Sherlock Holmes, she has to consider whether it’s safe or proper for her to venture into a particular area of London. And unlike her male counterparts, she thinks about the plight of prostitutes, who were ubiquitous in the Victorian era but often don’t make it into canonical literature. Reconsidering these texts from a female viewpoint is particularly appropriate for the late nineteenth century, also known as the fin-de-siècle: that’s when the New Woman was agitating for the right to vote, attend university, and ride bicycles in the park. Our modern feminist movements date from that era, so it seemed the right time for a group of female monsters to gather in London and form a club.
Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein: the fun of writing this novel was hearing what they had to say about themselves and the world around them. They can be very opinionated! Hopefully what I’ve done is both paid tribute to the classic texts and shown what they might look like from the perspective of some monstrous and very talkative women who finally get to speak for themselves.
Featured illustration: Franziska Barczyk; Author Photo: Matthew Stein Photography