1879. Professor Marchbanks arrives at Charing Cross station having just travelled from Europe. He is very afraid. He is accompanied by two children, incongruously named Victoria and Albert. There is something strange about them. They have pale, waxy, unnatural-seeming skin, piercing, needle-sharp eyes, strange fissures and what looks like stitching on their heads and necks. They are alarmingly intelligent but remember nothing which happened more than a few days before. They also extremely strong: Albert even rescues some children from drowning with extraordinary presence of mind and daring within a few minutes of leaving the train.
Yes, Victor Frankenstein’s spirit has passed on to his descendants and they are carrying on the good work. In this parallel universe, they have bought up every extant copy of Mary Shelley’s unfortunate account and had them burnt. Professor Marchbanks has been called out to the Frankenstein castle, remote and terrifying, to give advice about the latest developments in the programme. He is appalled by what he sees and escapes with the two children. But their creator Wolfgang von Frankenstein is determined to have them back.
Thus starts a gothic thriller, full of the special darkness which only Victorian London can give, involving horror, some particularly nasty deaths, a chase across the stews and teeming streets of the East End as it once was – Jack the Ripper country. The pace is breakneck, the tension taut like a bowstring. A terrific read in its own right. I devoured it at a sitting.
But there’s more. Underneath its pastiche (though I don’t like using that word because it seems to cheapen the whole) is a serious debate. Simon Cheshire is well aware of the literary tradition, the way the central image of Mary Shelley’s novel galvanised a whole genre as well as raising just about the most serious possibility which could ever face the human race. Many writers and, of course, film directors have revelled in the story’s horror and sensationalism (after all, it took the gothic and romantic to a new level) and are oblivious to its ethical and societal implications. Cheshire understands how a later generation could realise what power Victor’s discovery can lead to in an industrial, capitalist society. Technology and money meet in an unholy alliance which adumbrates the modern age: Wolfgang’s ambitions, which forecast contemporary debates about the ethics of medicine in prolonging and even perfecting life, are suddenly given shape by his realisation of the power of money and the tentacles of Victorian finance. They have emerged from Romantic fantasy, entered the real world and become inestimably more dangerous.
Simon Cheshire has made his writing reputation through humour. But there’s not much to laugh about here. Nevertheless, cheerfulness does keep breaking through. The climax of the novel, Wolfgang’s demonstration of his discovery to the most select members of Victorian society, takes place on the premises of a rather shady pharmaceutical firm on the brink of bankruptcy and desperate for the one blinding transformative success – Phage and Blight Ltd. Cheshire has a Dickensian talent for surnames. These, especially the second, help to suggest that, though the consequences of this occasion are horrific and serious, a thread of black humour runs through it.
Perhaps, however, the most impressive feature of the novel is the very one over which Mary Shelley agonised most. What can the place of Victoria and Albert be in human society? In Cheshire’s story, they perform wonders. They are fiercely loyal, especially to Professor Marchbanks. They are instrumental in destroying their maker. It would be easy for them to die in the attempt: we could feel sad for a while and then forget about them. But Cheshire presents no such easy solution. Victoria and Albert inconveniently stay alive. They have special and entirely benign powers. The solution involves a character with another Dickensian name: Inspector Goodley, who shares with Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff the distinction of being one of the very few policemen in the Victorian fictional world who is both intelligent and a force for good. Once again, the implications of a moral difficulty are not shirked.
So – a page-turner which can be read as merely terrific entertainment and also a narrative which deals seriously with issues still current today. But there’s more. Earlier, I used the word ‘pastiche.’ Well, it is: a modern presentation of the language and conventions of a particular sort of nineteenth-century literature.
To work at all, pastiche must be done well. This demands a deep literary understanding. Just to check my instincts about this book, I reread the opening pages of, next to Mary Shelley, the other great peak of nineteenth century gothic writing, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that bewildering mixture of genius and prejudice. Jonathan Harker’s account of his journey to and escape from Dracula’s castle, with its peculiar first-person tension between paranoid dread and detached exactitude of observation, is echoed with great force in Professor Marchbanks’s opening account. And more: Stoker’s novel is a complex construction of multiple viewpoints: letters, articles, newspaper reports, reminiscent accounts, all maintaining the hectic pace without sacrificing his eye for detail. Cheshire’s method, though on a much smaller scale, is very similar and has the same effect.
And this led me to another musing. The Victorian horror/crime/supernatural novel lives on. The Quickening by Mari Biella, which I reviewed here recently, is a fine example, as are Susan Hill’s ghost stories, Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency novels and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series. These are all very fine writers; in their hands, pastiche is more than imitation, more even than homage. It’s a living tradition with a lot more mileage left in it. The Frankenstein Inheritance is a great addition.
Available in Kindle format
Find out more about Simon Cheshire