Month: June 2010

Reading Frankenstein 2

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time. Having written three novels about someone who began as a “mad scientist,” I felt obligated to read what may be the original mad scientist novel.

As I wrote earlier, I did not find many similarities between Frankenstein and the contemporary horror genre. On the other hand, my novel The Friendship of Mortals, although rooted in H. P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,”does not belong in that genre either.

However, I did see something in Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein that I recognized immediately. This element seemed inevitable to me as I was writing my novel, and probably steered me away from casting it into the horror genre:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter.

That is exactly how I envisioned my character Herbert West reacting to a successful reanimation of a corpse. Of course, the Creator of the world did not play a role in West’s reaction, because he did not acknowledge such a being. West prided himself on being a pure scientific rationalist. But “imperfect animation” was a key element in HPL’s story. His Herbert West persisted in reanimating in the hopes that he would eventually achieve perfection. He never did, and eventually all his botched experiments got together and destroyed him.

My Herbert West undergoes a more subtle transformation. The mainspring of The Friendship of Mortals is the question of what sort of person would be drawn to reanimating the dead, and what sort of person would be drawn to the reanimator. How would such a friendship play out and what would be the ultimate fate of the scientific rationalist?

The Friendship of Mortals is available at:



The thing about a garden is that it changes, whether the gardener is involved with it or not. On a Sunday evening the garden is enchanting. Everything is orderly and peaceful. Weeds are eliminated, or at least not evident. Tall plants are staked, lawns are trim. It’s hard to leave it all and go in the house.

Over the course of the working week, visits to the garden may be hurried — quick sessions of watering, picking a lettuce or two or some herbs. Then comes Saturday. The gardener anticipates a return to enchantment.

The garden is fuzzy around the edges. Plants flop and lean; some have collapsed. Twigs and other debris from the midweek windstorm litter the grass. Bloom have become a mass of ugly deadheads. Everything looks like hell. And maybe the sun is hot and glaring or it’s one of those cold, windy days (so common here on the West Coast in summer). Suddenly a trip to the mall seems like the best option.

But you can’t just put a garden aside like a piece of knitting, to be picked up someday when you have more time or interest. There comes a moment when you have to decide to keep going or give up rip out all those plants and sod it over. Even giving up requires action.

The gardener needs re-enchantment. The only way to get it is to go out and start doing something, anything, however small. Pull that weed, set that stake and tie up the sagging plant. Get the watering can and go to the aid of the wilting. Clip that edge. Strangely, clipping the verges of the lawn next to perennial beds makes an astonishing difference. The garden becomes a garden again, instead of just a mess. Suddenly you want to be out there, working in it.  (Of course, it helps if it’s early evening, with the light coming in at the flattering angle, if the wind has dropped and coolness wells up around plants revived by dew or the attentions of the hose and sprinkler).

It comes down to this — a garden must be gardened in. That’s its real purpose — to be a place in which to garden. Have you ever tried just sitting in your garden, doing nothing? How long is it before you notice something — deadheads to snip, a leaner to prop up, or something that simply must be admired at close range? You get up and do it, and then the next thing and the next. By that time, it’s getting hard to see because it’s almost dark and you have to tear yourself away from your little Paradise.

Tough Plants for Dry Shade

I garden in a tough place.  OK, it is in Zone 8, so I can’t complain about cold winters or unfair frosts.  It’s a tough place because it’s dry.  Victoria B.C. has a Mediterranean climate, which means wet winters (but not as wet as some people think) and dry summers.  Not too hot, but dry.  Beth Chatto’s book The Dry Garden has a permanent spot on my bedside table.

In addition, on my 50′ x 120′ piece of paradise, there are four large maples (probably Norway), a big weeping birch and a tree of heaven (Ailanthus), which some may consider a tree from hell for its habit of sending up suckers and seeding profusely.  The soil is a sandy loam, emphasis on sandy.  Drainage is excellent, but much of the space available for growing plants is infested with tree roots, the fibrous feeding roots of maples, which suck up most of the available moisture and nutrients.

There are plants that will put up with these onerous conditions.  Some of them have weedy tendencies, but who’s perfect?  Gardeners with big, greedy trees to contend with can’t afford to be too fussy.

Lychnis coronaria (Rose campion). Grey-green foliage. Surprisingly shade tolerant. Magenta or white flowers in high summer. The white form is elegant. Seeds profusely.

Linaria purpurea (Toadflax). Tall skinny spikes with (mostly) dark purple flowers like tiny snapdragons, in summer. Also pink and even purple/white variegated types (rare). Another terrifically prolific seeder that does well in sun or shade.

Campanula persicifolia (Peach-leaved bellflower). Purple-blue or white cup-shaped flowers in summer — quite showy.  This one seeds vigorously and spreads by offshoots as well. Can be sneaky — once you have it, you have it everywhere.

Digitalis purpurea (Common foxglove). The white form is incredibly elegant, rising out of surrounding foliage in late spring/early summer. Even the ordinary magenta-pink kind looks better than nothing. It has “presence,” if nothing else. Another keen seeder. It’s a biennial, so the first year there is a rosette of leaves, the second year it blooms. With a certain amount of “management” you can have the white form only.

Stachys lanata (Lamb’s ears). A woolly grey plant with tiny pink flowers, usually recommended for sun, but does fairly well in shade. Looks elegant just as it is coming into bloom, especially against a background of darker foliage. Also seeds heartily. (Do you see a pattern here?  With all of these plants, you have to be vigilant about deadheading and pulling up unwanted seedlings, but you will always have some of them around).

Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s mantle). Interestingly shaped leaves that display water droplets beautifully. Clouds of tiny yellow-green flowers in late spring. Only moderately pushy.

Helleborus argutifolius (Corsican hellebore). In good conditions, this can be a big, fat shrub-like plant, 3 feet either way.  When competing with tree roots in shade, it’s sparser but still a presence. It blooms in winter — big clusters of icy green flowers which last well into spring, when they should be cut down to leave room for the new shoots.  This one seeds as well, but not as recklessly as the previously mentioned subjects.

Helleborus orientalis (Oriental hellebore). I have been really impressed by how well this one performs here.  It blooms prolifically, right under the maples (which have not leafed out yet, in March and April).  I cut the bloom stalks down in May, at the same time removing the rattiest leaf-stalks.  The dark green leathery five-lobed leaves maintain a solid presence in the beds throughout the summer.  Colours range from white (pure or spotted pink and purple) through a range of pinks to purples that can be almost black.

Anemone huphensis (Japanese anemone). The single white form is very reliable. It blooms late in the summer and into the fall, not as profusely as it would in better conditions, but…  The downside of this one is that it spreads by running roots, which can be a good thing, but usually isn’t.

Ferns, especially the genus Dryopteris (notice it has “dry” in its name), as well as the native species Polystichum munitum (Western sword fern) and Blechnum spicant (deer fern).  Ferns are solid, reliable and the opposite of weedy.

You can count on these plants to provide a solid foundation, even in dry shade. Then you introduce more refined subjects (lilies, hostas, daylilies, etc.) and try to keep them going.  Between the tree roots and the rowdy, self-seeding, colonizing tough guys, it can be a struggle!

More (relatively) tough plants in a future posting.

Reading Frankenstein

Since I have written three novels featuring a character who originated in H.P. Lovecraft’s mad scientist, Herbert West, I thought I should finally read the quintessential mad scientist novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Less than halfway into the book, it became clear to me that it is not in any sense a ‘horror story.’  Mary Shelley’s intention was not to produce thrills and shudders in her readers (unlike M. G. Lewis, whose novel The Monk, published a couple of decades earlier, was dedicated primarily to the production of such emotions).  Shelley was intent on showing the consequences of scientific hubris and exploring what it means to be human. The Monster’s tale of his early days, his attempts to learn speech, his attraction to the family near whose home he lived are touching, especially given the tragic consequences of his rejection by humanity.

H.P.L.’s story, “Herbert West, Reanimator”, touches on the theme of hubris as well, although this aspect is a sideline to its main purpose, which is the production of thrills and shudders. Unlike Shelley, Lovecraft revels in the description of corpses and West’s secret laboratory procedures. But West’s creations bring about his undoing in the end, just like Frankenstein’s. As a horror story, “Herbert West” beats Frankenstein, in my opinion, even though I am the first to admit that it is not Literature, and Frankenstein is.

So where does my own take on the mad scientist, my novel The Friendship of Mortals, fall in the thrills vs. social commentary issue? I believe it strikes a balance between the two, but leans more toward thrills and enjoyment while subtly inserting other themes. Readers will no doubt have their own opinions.