December 1967, A Christmas Gift Of Mary Shelley's Novel *Frankenstein*

Watching MeTv's broadcast, tonight, of Frankenstein Meets THe Wolfman (Universal, 1942), I was reminded of some incidents from my own personal history.

   My first knowledge of the Frankenstein Monster came on Christmas, 1963, with the gift from my father of two Aurora plastic model kits, Frankenstein and The Wolfman.  He gave me these despite my mother's fierce objections to them, although I doubt that they expected me to become so interested in them.  (The Four Seasons' song, December, 63, has always been, for me, a song about my first encounter with Mary Shelley's creature.  We acquired the Dracula model on the weekend following New Year's Day of 1964.  In late January, 1964, on the Friday night closest to my father's birthday, January, 1964, my parents---who had been playing cards with relatives---woke me after midnight to watch a late Shock Theater broadcast of Karloff's performance in The Bride Of Frankenstein (Universal, 1935).  I watched about ten minutes of it, the scene of the imprisonment in the dungeon, and the scene with the blind hermit, and then fell asleep.

   One of our local television stations broadcast a Shock Theater on Saturday afternoons.  I was not permitted to watch the films, but I was allowed to watch the opening montage---consisting of brief clips from the great Universal Horrors.

   Then, one Saturday in June of 1964, I was allowed to watch the entire full length broadcast of Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman.  I can still almost feel the adrenaline rush that I experienced starting early that morning.  I knew nothing of the background of the film, or that Lugosi's performance as the monster is considered by many to be the weakest of the four actors who performed the part in seven films in the series.  I also noticed, but could not explain, that the Monster's face changed in different scenes, due to the use of stuntmen to perform scenes in which Lugosi was too old and crippled to enact.  I did not know the irony of Lugosi's presence in the film:  he had been offered the part in 1931, and had turned it down as being fit only for a "stupid extra."  The stupid extra who was hired to play the part was the superlative, the incomparable, former truck driver, Bill Pratt, who performed under the professional name Boris Karloff.  

    In 1966, our area's second VHF station began to broadcast its own Shock Theater, preceded each Saturday afternoon by several Three Stooges shorts.  To this day, I think the proper way to view a Universal horror film is with at least one episode of the Stooges.  In 1967, my birthday fell on a Saturday, and Shock Theater broadcast Son Of Frankenstein (Universal, 1939), which was Karloff's last performance as the Monster.
     At Christmastime, my mother's family gathered for a party on the Sunday closest to, but prior to, Christmas.  The adults had a gift exchange, and the underage children had their own exchange as well.  At the time, that considered of me, at nine years old, and my cousin Jeannie, at sixteen.  Jeannie contributed much more than she ever knew to the formation of my interests:  during summers, she was always barefoot, and in the cooler weather she always wore nylons---sheer, tan, with reinforced toes, and never shoes.  Just seeing her over the holidays was gift in and of itself (and, I assure you, she did not disappoint me in that year).  But when asked, by my mother, what I wanted Jeannie to get me for our gift exchange, I asked for a copy of Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein.  I knew the name of Mary Shelley from the acknowledgement in the credits of Son Of Frankenstein.  I looked her up in the encyclopedia.  I knew she was for real.  I wanted my very own copy of her novel.
    And Jeannie privided that for me, a very fine paperback edition with a scholarly introduction.  My eyes, that afternoon, were constantly darting between the book and those beautiful reinforced toes that my cousin almost seemed to flaunt in front of me.  Did she, I wonder, know that I was already an apreciator of that form of beauty?
     But I was also incredibly naive, and I believed that the stories presented by all seven of the Universal Frankensteins were contained in the novel.  Imagine my shock, when I first began to read it, that it was extremely different than the scripts in the four films I had already viewed in the last couple of years.   Although that particular copy fell to pieces some years later, due to my overuse of it, I still have an image of its front cover on my laptop, and every time I see it, I think not only of my shock at what it contained, and what it did not contain, but also of my cousin's exquisitely beautiful stockinged feet.  (And less anyone suggests this was an inappropriate interest, I should point out that, being adopted, I was not related to Jeannie, or anyone else in that family, by blood; therefore, no one can accuse my interest as being incestuous.)  
   Mary Shelley inspired me to want to be a writer; during my senior year in high school, that inspiration shifted a bit, and my ambition was to be a poet, not a science fiction/mystery writer.  But she still stands at the beginning of that process.  Through the epigraph to her novel, I learned of John Milton, who became the first poet I ever studied ardently.  And as I read and re-read the novel, and about the novel, Jeannie's stockinged feet were all over it---at least in my imagination.  
    At the University I attended, most of the major required both a senior thesis and a sophomore practicum project.  In my major, History, the sophomore project was the collection of at least one hundred index cards (in those days before the internet) properly formatted, with citations to assorted monographs, journal articles, and periodical articles about the chosen subject.  Despite departmental discouragement from the highest level, I insisted that my the subject matter of my research would be the historical response to Mary Shelley's first novel.  I gathered well over a hundred cards---and looked at articles that had been written shortly after the novel's first edition was published in 1818.  At a private luncheon for certain members of the department, given by the then chairman, and to which I was invited, my faculty advisor who had been long retired, and who had not seen me for almost twenty years, greeted me with the question, "Is Mary Shelley still your girl?"  And said, "Yep, and always shall be."  I thought it perhaps indiscrete to mention my cousin's stockinged feet as well, so that remained unspoken.  
    But, I think, forever, the thrill of my first reading of the novel, of holding it in my hands, and of my cousin's reinforced toe nylons (and, no, I never got to hold her feet in my hands) will always be mingled.  And I will always be forever grateful to the nineteen year old girl, Mary Godwin, who, on the night of June 16th, 1816, woke from a nightmare and decided to turn it into a short story, which then grew into a novel.


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