Behind the Book
THIS DARK ENDEAVOR: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
By Kenneth Oppel
Story Behind the Story
Frankenstein is one of my favorite novels, and I wish I’d written it. Unfortunately, it was written two hundred years ago by a nineteen-year-old genius called Mary Shelley. Arguably, Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel, the first monster novel, the first horror novel. Not only is it an incredibly gripping read but, like all the best literature, it tackles weighty themes: reckless human ambition, the ethical implications of scientific pursuit, the creator’s responsibilities to his creations, and the perils of really, really bad parenting.
A couple of years ago, while rereading the novel, I was struck by how quickly Victor Frankenstein’s youth is described—and one line in particular stuck out: ÒNo youth could have passed more happily than mine.Ó Now, remember that this is a kid who goes on to dig up corpses, chop them up, sew the body parts back together, jolt them with electricity in the hopes of revivifying them, and creating life from death. Doesn’t sound like a very happy youth to me. What might have happened to Victor to lead him to become the Òmad scientistÓ we all know? That, I thought, would make an interesting story.
A few pages later Shelley goes on to give a helpful clue: ÒI entered with the greatest diligence into the search for...the elixir of life...What glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!Ó
Right away I had an image of a teenager who was curious, ambitious, possibly arrogant, but also adventurous and brave. The search for an elixir of life, while perhaps not the activity of a perfectly well-adjusted kid, would make for an excellent quest. But it seemed to me there had to be something more behind it. What if Victor needed the elixir for a personal purpose? Was he himself ill? Or maybe a friend, parent—or a beloved sibling?
And so, in my alternative Frankenstein mythology, I decided that Victor Frankenstein had a twin brother, Konrad. And when Konrad becomes ill, no doctor can heal him. It’s Victor’s feelings of desperation and love—and his egotistical ambition—that set him on his perilous course to find the legendary elixir of life, contained only in a series of forbidden alchemical texts.
His chief accomplice in this is the spirited Elizabeth Lavenza who, in Shelley’s original, was Victor’s orphaned first cousin, raised in the Frankenstein household. I decided to make the relationship rather vaguer in my version, so she is a very distant relation indeed! And, having grown up with four Frankenstein boys since the age of seven, it’s not surprising that Elizabeth is a fiery and capable companion—or that she has fallen in love with the sensible and charming Konrad. Nor is it particularly surprising when Victor decides he too is in love with her...
Like all legendary elixirs, of course, gathering the ingredients proves to be devilishly difficult—and I loved concocting the recipe, and playing with the fine lines between alchemy and modern science, faith and reason, fantasy and reality.
Best of all, I got to imagine what one of my favorite literary characters was like as a sixteen-year-old. I found him to be a fascinating mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly—and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about him as much as I enjoyed writing him.