Frankenstein: A Cultural History — Susan Tyler Hitchcock 

W.W. Norton

Fire, bad! "Frankenstein: A Cultural History" book, good!

Susan Tyler Hitchcock traces the creature's history from its conception on a dark and stormy night in 1816 to its omnipresent, multimedia existence today. So powerful and primal is the character, she notes, that he's instantly recognizable by those who've never even read Mary Shelley's original novel.

Hitchcock begins obviously with Shelley, who first published "Frankenstein" anonymously. But her book really comes alive when the monster makes the leap to the movies. Universal Pictures' 1931 classic adaptation made Boris Karloff a star and Frankenstein a household name, but the success and sequels that followed proved to be a double-edged sword, eventually "transform(ing him) from an evil monster without a soul into a laughable dimwit" — far from Shelley's intention to terrify.

Comics and costumes followed suit, endearing Frankenstein's monster to a generation too young to read the book, and ensuring its placement in the pantheon of popular culture.

Hitchcock also ties the creation to religion and science, noting how blasphemous the idea of a man-made man once was and how prescient Shelley may turn out to be, given recent advances in cloning and genetic manipulation.

Generously illustrated, this book proves an insightful, entertaining and thorough tracing of the lineage of one of literature's superstars. Resting comfortably between the scholarly and the surface, Hitchcock's history will appeal to anyone who identifies with the monster. "To know him," she writes, "is to know ourselves." —Rod Lott

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Rod Lott

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