4x4th Estate: Monstrous Heroes

4x4October is here, we’re all getting chillier (yet somehow the tube stays just as hot?) and everywhere we go, Halloween paraphernalia seems to be creeping out of various stockrooms… Although our month on the site isn’t dedicated to the scariest night of the year per se, it wouldn’t be October on the 4th Estate blog without something gothic/monstrous…

To kick things off, four of the most chilling tales written from 1818 to 2015, complete with gothic elements, blood and gore, and of course, monstrous heroes. Like the creator of science fiction herself, Mary Shelley, who aimed to ‘curdle the blood’ and ‘chill the spine’ with her novel Frankenstein, we are confident that this mixture of classic and modern novels will make you shudder and writhe.

If nothing else, the monstrous characters in these books will certainly give you inspiration for costume ideas for the party on 31th October.

Frankenstein-Mary-ShelleyFrankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)

An obvious choice perhaps, but not for obvious reasons. This is a book whose creation is spooky and ghostly in itself. Mary Shelley, aged 18, and other Romantic poets of the time amused themselves with German ghost stories, whilst shut in a villa in a stormy Switzerland. It was there that Shelley dreamt of a fearsome being that would become the inspiration for arguably the first example of science fiction.

When one hears the word ‘Frankenstein’ you may think of the zombie-like, grunting one-dimensional characters from a loosely based film adaption of Shelley’s masterpiece. But never could the sentence ‘the book was better than the film’ be more appropriate. The films often deny the Creature a voice, yet in the novel it is clear that Shelley saves her most beautiful, poetic language for him that perfectly encapsulates human emotion. The title, Frankenstein, actually refers to his creator, the lone melodramatic scientist Victor Frankenstein. Shelley leaves it up to the reader to decide who then, is the real monster of this gothic tale.

Frankenstein is monstrous in its challenges to society, a novel that contemplates the insignificance of humans against the sublimity of nature. Shelley’s language, infused with gothic and Romantic elements, transports you to terrifyingly brutal and vast landscapes in Europe.

While the idea of reanimating life is unsettling to us, it is Shelley’s other more chilling themes of warning against dangerous scientific and human transgressions that will really make 21st Century readers shudder.

(If you really wish to watch a version, the theatre adaption of Frankenstein in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate roles as Victor and the Creature is spectacularly good in bringing you closer to understanding the complex master-slave relationship between the two famous characters.)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)87801

The narrator of the Tartt’s first of her three bestseller novels is the outsider Richard Papen who is comparable to the isolated hero of Shelley’s masterpiece, Victor Frankenstein. The novel could be described as somewhat as an inverted detective story as we learn that Richard’s friend and classmate, Bunny, has been killed. The question then becomes not who, but why? Set in an elite university in Vermont, the story follows Richard’s interactions with five other privileged Classics students and an eccentric professor. There are dark times ahead for these students whose enthusiasm for a university subject leads to what today’s society would consider grotesque events, including a bacchanal and murder. Upon my first reading of The Secret History before moving to university I was hooked immediately and vowed to read it several years later when I would become nostalgic for the thrill of campus life that is full of its secrets and mysteries. Tartt’s clever and chilling writing does this superbly, and leaves the reader with an eerie feeling that we can never truly trust anyone.

Black Run by Antonio Manzini (2015)

Black RunAn international hit and the first of a sensational new crime series, Black Run is making the press crazy with its ‘corrupt’, ‘ingenious’ and ‘potentially violent’ protagonist, Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone. He has been called a ‘corrosive antidote to Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano; he is a far tougher and less companionable Italian copper’. The novel opens with a harsh and brutal setting of ‘an expanse of ice and snow with no end in sight’ which is enough to send a shiver down your spine. ‘A stain of red blood, churned into the white blanket of snow’ reveals a ‘mess’ of a mangled corpse that the notorious Schiavone has to deal with. A new release here at Fourth Estate, this thrilling mystery set in the Italian Alps is one that certainly set our teeth on edge and has a protagonist as dark and notorious as the crime that he is trying to solve itself.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)orange

Nothing says monstrous like a book banned for its obscene language. The monstrous hero of this novel is fifteen-year-old Alex, a sociopath and lover of classical music. By way of avoiding boredom, he and his bunch of ‘droogs’ (friends) ‘do the ultra-violent’ and commit a series of monstrous crimes. The graphic descriptions of these are disturbing but it is Alex’s apathy towards the victims that we find particularly chilling.

Scarily, this novel is often placed under the category of ‘children’s books’ or a ‘coming of age novel’. I find this difficult to come to terms with this as, although the group of boys Burgess focuses on are youthful, his novel has extremely dark and unsettling thematic concerns. Burgess uses an invented language derived from Russia called ‘nadsat’ which is unique in its effect on the reader and your experience of the book.

Written in a time when England was concerned over juvenile delinquency, A Clockwork Orange is graphic, discomforting, gripping, and introduces the sinister prospect of a government that meddles with the mental health of the individual: definitely a must read.

Words by Amy Preston

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