Frankenstein — A Different Kind Of 'Monster'

We’ve all heard the lecture — “Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster. Not any more. In Dave Zeltserman’s addictive “Monster: A Novel of Frankenstein” the doctor is every inch the monster; his creation a hideous hero.

Bad Doctor Frankensteins are nothing new in books or film — RIP, Peter Cushing. And most of his horrific creations have been portrayed, from the original novel onward, as more sinned against than sinning, if a tad overly homicidal in their vengefulness. Zeltserman, though, skillfully stretches the polarities. Victor Frankenstein is a Mengele-like sadist — literally as his partner in crime is known simply as the Marquis — who sold the world (including Mary Shelley) a bill of goods.

Zeltserman keeps the action moving relentlessly forward with minimal padding, either in terms of plot or prose. The action is tight and there’s no shade of purple in his style, but there’s plenty going on thematically.

Unlike most of his literary and cinematic predecessors, the creation is not a patched-together compilation of dead bodies with a damaged consciousness and limited vocabulary (“Wine good”). Friedrich Hoffmann, a chemist in the German town of Ingolstadt, was framed for the murder of his fiance, a crime punishable by the rack to be witnessed by your basic 19th century bloodthirsty crowd. When he awakes from his execution he gradually discovers that Frankenstein has created his gigantic body parts from scratch and animated him through some kind of black magic. Inevitably, Friedrich breaks his chains and off he goes into the world, like all good eight-foot grotesque-looking “monsters” before him.

Zeltserman is known primarily as a writer of tough-minded mysteries set in the Boston area where he lives. But he may be an even better horror writer — his 2010 “The Caretaker of Lorne Field” was a delightful story of a geezer who was convinced that if his family stopped weeding a field the grass would grow into Earth-destroying monsters. The native Vermonters are alternatively amused and frustrated over his obsessions.

In both genres he keeps the action moving relentlessly forward with minimal padding, either in terms of plot or prose. The action is tight and there’s no shade of purple in his style, but there’s plenty going on thematically.

As Friedrich makes his way through the countryside, Zeltserman evokes Shelley’s world and the more supernatural zeitgeist of ‘30s Universal films — he even meets up with a pack of vampires at one point. At the same time, it’s  easy to think about Jerzy Kosinkski’s “The Painted Bird” or “The Pianist,” both the book and the movie. Just as Jews or gypsies had to keep to the shadows of a world in which horrific things happen to good people, Friedrich has to hide himself from public sight, lest the evil that men do in the name of stamping out “the other” results in his capture and torture.

Dave Zeltserman, author of "Monster" (Courtesy of Overlook Press)
Dave Zeltserman, author of "Monster" (Courtesy of Overlook Press)

Zeltserman doesn’t spell any of this out, but Friedrich’s mournfulness over what he has to do to stay alive, whether killing wolves who attack him or having to kill a woman to save her from life as a vampire, makes him an utterly sympathetic character, a Candide with no hope of reuniting with his Cunegonde. Well, maybe not utterly. He, too, becomes a tad homicidal in his vengefulness.

He reserves hatred, though, only for the Marquis and his creator — perhaps for that other creator as well: “How could a merciful God allow these atrocities?” There is, of course, Friedrich’s inevitable hunt for Victor Frankenstein and the body count gets pretty high along the way.

For all that, though, Zeltserman is not a particularly gory writer. There aren’t any Stephen King attempts to gross out the reader and the view of the world isn’t irredeemably bleak. A band of monkish brothers provides Friedrich some relief from his journeys, as well as the opportunity to chew the philosophical fat over his need for vengeance.

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t pursue that vengeance and that’s where the central conundrum is. If Friedrich pursues vengeance will it make him as bad as Frankenstein? And if we cheer him on do we not prove Frankenstein right, that we, too, are as base as animals?

Frankenstein’s motivation throughout seems to be only to prove that man is corrupt. Would the book be better if there were shades of gray in the evil man’s motivations? Perhaps, though the question of Frankenstein’s motivation might have made it a more pretentious philosophical read. Besides, now when people tell you “Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster,” just tell them to read Zeltserman’s fine novel.

You can read the full excerpt of Chapter One of "Monster" directly below:

Excerpt from MONSTER © Copyright 2012 by Dave Zeltserman. Published by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc., New York, NY. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

This program aired on August 8, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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