Danel Griffin on The Implications of Vlad the Impaler and the Alchemist Dippel’s Fictional Metamorphosis

If you’ve read the About page of Bill Ectric’s Place, you know I’m interested in academic pursuits, and if you’ve read more than a couple of my blog entries, you know my interests include the mysterious, the esoteric, and the Gothic. Imagine my delight at finding this article by Danel Griffin on his Film as Art website.

He begins:

“This thesis proposal initially found its roots in an afterthought, a few years after I read a set of books by one Radu Florescu titled In Search of Dracula and its follow-up In Search of Frankenstein, two fascinating travel books speculating on the actual historical personalities who probably inspired Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley to write their Gothic masterpieces.

Allow me a brief set-up, and then we’ll get to the afterthought that planted the seed: Stoker is widely known (although few people probably know that it was Florescu who first suggested the connection—Clerici, 3) to have based his bloodthirsty Count on the sixteenth-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” dubbed “Dracula” (meaning “Dragon,” or “Devil”) by his enemies . . . Less widely known but equally fascinating is Florescu’s research on the historical Dr. Frankenstein, one Johann Konrad Dippel, an eighteenth-century alchemist born in Castle Frankenstein whose diabolical experiments included grave-robbing, and grinding up bones and human flesh for life-lengthening potions (Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein, 65-94) (which were never successful). Both of these men were quite notorious in their own times . . .”

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Less Electricity, More Elixir of Life!

A screen capture from the 1910 Edison film Frankenstein, with a cropped picture of the creature from an illustration in the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's classic; framed pictures of Agrippa, Magnus, and Paracelsus; and a Thomas Edison light bulb

All the many Frankenstein movies had left me with the bogus memory that lightning and electrical equipment figured prominently in Mary Shelley’s book. When I recently read Frankenstein again after many years, it surprised me to discover that Shelley barely mentions electricity at all. Victor Frankenstein is vague about the procedure, telling the sea captain who rescued him, “I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret (of creating life); that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. “

While a student, Frankenstein finds fault with his university instructor’s emphasis on modern science, preferring the more ancient works of Heinrich Agrippa (1486 – 1535), Paracelsus (1493 – 1541), and Albertus Magnus (1193/1206 – 1280). Agrippa was a magician, occultist, theologian, and astrologer. While Paracelsus contributed to modern medicine and science, young Frankenstein shows more interest in his writings on alchemy and growing miniature people in jars (more on that later). I really like Magnus for his efforts to reconcile religion and science, to show that one need not contradict the other, and his study of Arab philosophers. He also had an interest in alchemy, especially the Philosopher’s Stone, which could supposedly turn common metals into gold. So all-in-all, Victor Frankenstein was leaning toward some arcane influences.

An IEEE article called Galvani and the Frankenstein Story tells us that, “Rather than dabble in science, Mary Shelley wisely leaves it to the reader to imagine the laboratory in which Frankenstein brings his creature to life. In fact, only two sentences in the entire book allude to lightning and the Galvanism theory.”

Some documentaries theorize that Mary Shelley was influenced by a scientist named Johann Konrad Dippel (1673-1734). Born in Germany in an actual Castle Frankenstein, Dippel  is credited with electrical experiments that lead to the modern day heart defibrillator.  But historians point out that Mary Shelley never mentions Castle Frankenstein in the extensive journal she kept of her travels through Germany, nor do any of her traveling companions refer to it in their letters or other writings.

On the other hand, Dipple was famous during his lifetime, and even though he died before Shelley was born, one must ask: Is easier to believe that Mary Shelley decided to name her fictional scientist “Frankenstein” by coincidence, or because she had heard of Dippel and his connection to Castle Frankenstein?

A brief word about Paracelsus: In the 16th Century, he was a radical hero to young medical students because he called the old, outdated doctors “asses” and scoffed at their practices like bleeding,  which often resulted in death. He pioneered the use of chemical medicines, but he angered the academic world by saying things like, “The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.” The bizarre thing is that, despite his rational outlook, Paracelsus also mixed some highly dubious claims into his writing. He had a recipe for creating a tiny living person, which he called a homunculus. In his 1572 book De Natura Rerum (The Nature of Things), he wrote:

“Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbit . . . for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated . . . at this time it will be in some degree like a human being, but, nevertheless, transparent and without a body. . . if now, after this, it be every day nourished and fed cautiously with the arcanum of human blood, and kept for forty weeks. . .in perpetual heat . . . it becomes thencefold a true living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller. . . should be afterwards educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and starts to display intelligence.”

Maybe this was a primitive idea of cloning, although Paracelsus’ method seems a bit one-sided, not giving the female egg credit for its far more patient task. This reminds one of the sexual theories in literary analysis regarding the fact that Dr. Frankenstein shut his fiancé out of his life while he was obsessed with his creating a man. I don’t know if Paracelsus had a girlfriend.

Only now have I discovered that the ratio of science to alchemy in Frankenstein may depend on which edition one reads. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published in 1818. Another edition, edited under the supervision of William Godwin, came out in 1823, and still another version was published in 1831. Crossref-it.info says that for the 1831 edition, “Shelley removed many of the references to new scientific ideas, thus detaching the novel from its original intellectual context and the issues that were being debated both publicly and in the Byron-Shelley circle.”

It is my understanding that the 1831 edition has been the one most commonly reprinted for several decades. I have just discovered that in 1999, Broadview Literary Texts released  Frankenstein: The Original 1818 Text, edited by D. L. McDonald and Kathleen Scherf, which uses the original 1818 version, with details of later revisions in an appendix. Did I read this edition years ago, or the 1831 version? Only one way to find out.

Bill’s Bookshelf: The Midnight People

The Midnight People
1968, Popular Library Edition,
Published by arrangement with Leslie Frewin Publishers Limited

Edited by Peter Haining

I bought this book, brand new off the shelf for 75 cents, in 1968 or 1969, when I was a teenager. While The Midnight People is ostensibly a vampire anthology, Editor Peter Haining chose to include a couple of stories in which the vampire tag is debatable. The book is stronger for those choices, however.

The cover features a painting by Hieronymus Bosch called Death and the Usurer, also known as Death of the Miser.

The Midnight People is an almost perfect example of the kind of books I loved to pore over when I was a kind, reading not only the stories, the introductions and front material, which usually included a list of when and where the stories first appeared (usually magazines), with copyright information and so on. The only reason this is not the perfect example of my collection is that it does not include the list of sources. Of course, that’s no problem, now that we have the internet.

After the Introduction, the collection begins with an article by Montague Summers (1880 – 1948) about real-life German serial killer Fritz Haarmann (1879 – 1925), who was known as “The Hanover Vampire” because he actually murdered his victims by biting into their throats.

Montague Summers was a strange character himself. He studied theology at Oxford, became a Deacon in the Church of England, then converted to Catholicism, and gave himself the title of Reverend, although historians have found no evidence that the Catholic Church ever officially ordained him as a priest. Summers had peculiar interests, ranging from occult (vampires, werewolves, and witches) to deviant sexual practices (the Marquis de Sade and the Greek chronicles of Antinous and Hadrian). In 1928, Summers published the first English translation of Heinrich Kramer’s 1486 treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches).

M. R. James’ An Episode of Cathedral History is one of my favorite supernatural stories, combining, as it does, James’ vague but chilling depiction of an undead thing escaping from a tomb under a church, with a storyline that literally defines the gothic horror genre. “It was in 1840 that the wave of the Gothic revival smote the Cathedral of Southminster,” says the old church caretaker, Mr. Worby, referring to the 19th Century fashion trend of restoring authentic gothic structures and by building new structures in a mock Gothic style. Worby explains that a church official, intent on having a Gothic style cathedral, ordered carpenters to remove most of the sanctuary’s beautiful handcrafted woodwork, including the podium, under which was discovered a stone slab that sealed the mysterious tomb.

Most people know the story of how John Polidori wrote The Vampyre as the result of a challenge by Lord Byron to a small circle of friends, which included Mary and Percy Shelley, to each write a ghost story. Mary Shelley eventually wrote Frankenstein (1818) as a result of that challenge, and Polidori wrote The Vampyre (1819). This was not the first vampire story ever written, but it was probably the first one written in English, and it set the now-familiar image of the vampire as aristocrat – a cloaked lord or nobleman, Byronic, decadent, and darkly romantic.

Editor Peter Haining tells us that Bat’s Belfry is one of August Derleth’s first horror stories, containing “certain elementary mistakes which can be expected from any young writer.” This is a whopping understatement. It’s a silly hodge-podge of supernatural motifs. I should add that I greatly admire Mr. Derleth for his industrious achievment, along with Donald Wandrei, of establishing Arkham House Publishers, a classic small press success story. I simply don’t know why Haining chose to include this story, unless it was for Derleth’s name recognition among the H. P. Lovecraft fans.

I’m as exciting about ebooks and their possibilities as most other modern publishers and readers, but sometimes it is still fun to consider the print book as art and artifact. I hope to make “Bill’s Bookshelf” a regular feature here at Bill Ectric’s Place.