Fantasmagoriana: the German book of ghost stories that inspired Frankenstein

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Frontispiece from the original German version of Fantasmagoriana.
Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Fabio Camilletti, University of Warwick

The story of how Frankenstein was born is well known, and largely relies on the account given by Mary Shelley in her preface to the 1831 edition to her novel. She and her (soon-to-be) husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were summering on the shores of Lake Geneva and close by Lord Byron and his personal physician John Polidori. It was 1816 – the so-called “year without a summer” and the inclement weather kept the party indoors, reading ghost stories as a pastime.

In one of the most famous propositions in literary history, Lord Byron suggested that each of them should try their hand at writing a supernatural tale. Ironically, it was the two novice writers, Mary Shelley and Polidori, whose works have endured. Almost out of nothing, the pair invented modern horror. Polidori’s story, The Vampyre, would inspire Bram Stoker 80 years later to write Dracula, while the 18-year-old Shelley wrote Frankenstein – which also has a good claim to be the first science fiction novel.

Read more:
Older than Dracula: in search of the English vampire

The book the Shelleys, Byron, and Polidori were reading during their trip was called Fantasmagoriana. It was an anthology of eight stories of the supernatural published in Paris in 1812 but translated from the German. No indication of authors or of original sources was given and readers were invited to think of stories as of embellished versions of real supernatural cases. The title joyfully played with this ambiguity, evoking the kind of shows, popular at the time, which were known as phantasmagorias.

A Victorian depiction of a phantasmagoria, or magic lantern show.
William Heath (1794–1840)

Based on the magic lantern (an ancestor of cinema), these shows enabled audiences to see ghosts floating in the air, devils appearing and disappearing, young girls transforming into skeletons. In the end, the impresario came upon the stage, explaining it was all a trick. But in Paris, around 1798-99, such shows had been briefly shut down by the police, when rumours had spread that the phantasmagoria could bring the king, Louis XVI, back from the dead. The book read by our holidaying writers proposed a similar gallery of horrors. As Mary Shelley recalled:

There was the History of the Inconstant Lover, who […] found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his race, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house […] he advanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep.

It’s worth looking into the influence of such stories on Frankenstein. At some point in Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein dreams to hold in his arms the “pale ghost” of his bride to be, which may remind us of the story Shelley referred to as History of the Inconstant Lover (in truth, La Morte Fiancée or The Corpse Bride, by Friedrich August Schulze).

Frankenstein’s “Creature” is a gigantic being who causes the extermination of an entire family – a plot device that may have been inspired by what she calls “tale of the sinful founder of his race” who “bestows the kiss of death” on his descendants (actually a story called Le Portraits de Famille – or The Family Portraits, by Johann August Apel).

But if we read Frankenstein with Fantasmagoriana in mind, we see that the influence of those stories is definitely more profound than a simple inspiration.

Illustration from the 1922 edition of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
Cornhill Publishing Company

While trying to describe in the preface to the book: “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea,” Shelley describes her mental processes as a phantasmagorical show. Imagination, in her words, is a screen onto which stories project impressions. At night, in her bed, Shelley sees “with shut eyes, but acute mental vision” the central scene of her novel to be – the idea of the novel comes first as an image, not as a plot.

It is an image she knows perfectly not to be true – but which is nonetheless frightening: like the ghosts of phantasmagoria shows or of Fantasmagoriana, which were explained to be tricks of the mind, but still left the imperceptible feeling of the uncanny. In Les Portrais de Famille, Shelley read of a ghost “advanc(ing) to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep” – half asleep she imagines a man in bed, beholding “the horrid thing” he created “stand(ing) at his bedside, opening his curtains”. The story read, in other words, mirrors and anticipates the story to be written.

At her bedside, Shelley too is visited by a ghost – in this case, the ghost of the novel:

On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.The Conversation

Fabio Camilletti, Head of Italian Studies, University of Warwick

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Famous Book Hoarders

The link below is to an article that takes a look at 10 famous book hoarders. According to the article I qualify as a book hoarder, which to be honest, I already knew. How about you? Are you officially a book hoarder?

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DM Thomas’s The White Hotel and why some novels are ‘unfilmable’

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Babi Yar: the World War II atrocity is one of the themes of The White Hotel.

Kamilla Elliott, Lancaster University

There have been several attempts over the years to make a movie out of DM Thomas’s critically acclaimed 1981 novel, The White Hotel. But despite the involvement of such giants of the screen as David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Terrence Malik and David Cronenberg – who made a name for himself as a director who can adapt so-called “unfilmable books” – the novel has this far proved resistant to film adaptation.

In the absence of a film version, the book was recently adapted for radio by the BBC, directed by Jon Amiel and based on a screenplay written by the late Dennis Potter in the 1980s.

DM Thomas himself wrote in 2004 about the tortuous and sometimes tortured battle over screen rights for his novel, but apart from the saga over rights – so familiar to any novelist whose work has pricked the attention of film-makers – what was it about the book itself that meant a radio adaptation succeeded when film adaptations have failed?

There are a number of media, cultural and economic conventions that can explain this. But, in general, books that have been called “unfilmable” are books that are hard to read: weighty, ponderous, abstract, complex, convoluted, labyrinthine, densely allusive and excessively long. Or books that treat terrifying, horrifying, revolting or repulsive subjects.

One of the greatest books never filmed: The White Hotel.

The White Hotel is a difficult read – for a start there’s the unreliable, psychologically disturbed, potentially hallucinating narrator, whose obscene and surreal narratives are followed by representations of horrific historical events and natural disasters. The book’s sections shift jarringly across textual forms and styles – rational, psychoanalytic case notes melt into mythological explorations of psychological symbols. Stories of strange mental states jolt into collective, realist histories. It’s a challenging read.

By contrast, mainstream film conventions require a clear narrative structure and a degree of temporo-spatial logic and continuity. They tend not to favour excessively “talky” screenplays, preferring to tell their stories through visuals and structure them via editing.

These and other reasons that books have been considered unfilmable have been widely discussed. They include historical sprawl (Gabriel Garciá Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude), multiple worlds (Stephen King’s Dark Tower series), too many characters (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest), and multiple unreliable narrators who confuse the story (Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves).

Some novels are written with a stream of consciousness that keeps the story inside a character’s head (James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters); there may be lack of clear plot and dynamic action (Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), fantasies too elusive for film’s special effects (H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness), or a book may be too distressing or obscene to visualise realistically (Art Spiegelman’s Maus and The White Hotel).

Satisfying the censors

Censorship has also limited the number and scope of books that are allowed to be filmed – as films are more tightly controlled and censored than books. The reasons for this tighter control of visual images have ancient roots in Judaic, Islamic and Protestant Christian religions which represent the word as divine and the visual image as profane.

Babi Yar memorial in Kiev, Ukraine.
Roland Geider

Their legacy persists in secular censorship practices. The US Motion Picture Production Code (MPCC) of 1930 ruled that: “The latitude given to film material cannot … be as wide as the latitude given to book material,” because “a book reaches the mind through words merely; a film reaches the eyes and ears through the reproduction of actual events”. It concluded that:

The mobility, popularity, accessibility, emotional appeal, vividness, straightforward presentation of fact in the films makes for intimate contact on a larger audience and greater emotional appeal. Hence the larger moral responsibilities of the motion pictures.

The MPCC advocated censoring films more stringently than books because film “reaches every class of society”, while other arts have their “grades for different classes”.

Even following the relaxation of the MPPC and similar censorship laws in other nations in the late 20th century, these considerations persist. When James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was made into a film by Joseph Strick in 1967, it remained banned in Ireland until 2000, whereas the book was never officially banned in Ireland.

Million dollar question

When David Cronenberg filmed William S. Burroughs’s so-called unfilmable Naked Lunch (1959) in 1991, and was criticised for not being faithful to the book, he retorted that a “straightforward adaptation”, featuring all of the book’s far-flung locations and representing its most shocking scatological and sexual passages would “cost US$100m and be banned in every country in the world”. So the book could be filmed, but it could not be financed or pass film censorship laws.

Financing and censorship are interconnected: films have to reach a much larger audience than novels or radio plays to turn a profit, and must therefore appeal to the mainstream. BBC Radio 4 has a much smaller audience and can appeal to other demographics on other radio channels.

For all of these reasons, a word-only adaptation for the niche audience of BBC Radio 4, aired on a Saturday afternoon – a time when listener numbers are close to being the lowest of the week – clearly offered an economically viable and socially acceptable venue for transmitting this brilliant and challenging novel in another media form. For this, at least, we must be grateful.The Conversation

Kamilla Elliott, Professor of Literature and Media, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Length of Books/Ebooks

The link below is to an article that takes a look at the length of books/ebooks – are books/ebooks getting longer?

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Crime of culture: American Animals and the history of rare book heists

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STX Entertainment

Leah Henrickson, Loughborough University

American Animals, a film recounting the true story of a 2004 rare book theft, was recently released in cinemas across the UK. The film is a dramatic retelling of events based on director Bart Layton’s interviews and written correspondence with the convicted book thieves – interactions which began while the thieves were serving seven-year prison sentences following their guilty pleas.

In 2004, four friends in their early 20s – Charles Allen, Eric Borsuk, Warren Lipka, and Spencer Reinhard – attempted to execute an elaborate plan to steal more than US$12m worth of textual treasures from Lexington, Kentucky’s Transylvania University (Transy) Special Collections.

After a year in the planning, the heist involved the men disguising themselves as elderly, shooting librarian Betty Jean Gooch with a stun gun and simply shoving valuables into backpacks. When the day came, the men managed to escape with approximately US$750,000 worth of books in their backpacks, including a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, an illuminated medieval manuscript, and a copy of John James Audubon’s A Synopsis of Birds of North America.

Rushing from Lexington to New York, the men attempted to appraise their loot at Christie’s, but never managed to sell their ill-gotten gains. They returned home with the books and were tracked down by the FBI within a matter of months. The entire ordeal was so poorly organised that Vanity Fair deemed it “one part Oceans 11, one part Harold & Kumar”.

Light fingers

But this was by no means the only notable rare book heist in living memory. Earlier in 2018, an audit of the special collections of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh uncovered a series of thefts of rare books and book pages with a total value of around US$8m over a period of more than 20 years. It turned out that the former manager of the Carnegie Library’s rare book room, Gregory Priore, and bookseller John Schulman had been working together to sell the stolen goods through the rare book trade and auction houses.

The books stolen from Carnegie included Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a first edition of The Journal of Major George Washington, and a first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Unaware of where these books came from, booksellers from across the globe bought and sold them on to their own private and institutional customers.

Sir Isaac Newton’s own first edition copy of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with his handwritten corrections for the 20th edition.
Andrew Dunn via Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, CC BY-SA

These sales can be difficult to track on such a large scale and, while some works have been recovered (often at the booksellers’ own expense), hundreds of the stolen items remain missing. An up-to-date list of those items believed to have been stolen is provided by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.

Library thefts are nothing new. Throughout the 1840s, Italian count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja stole approximately 30,000 items in his job as chief inspector of French Libraries (he later made a comfortable living selling this loot in England).

More recently, in 1990, American bibiomaniac Stephen Blumberg was arrested for stealing more than 20,000 books valued at more than US$5m from more than 200 universities and museums across North America.

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 19th century.
Wikimedia commons, CC BY-NC

He served four years in prison and became known as the “Book Bandit”.

But on a more systemic and institutional level one could go as far back as the ancient Library of Alexandria, which supposedly seized any books found on ships arriving at the port. These books were copied by professional scribes who then deposited the original works into the library and gave the copies to the books’ owners.

Book ‘em

While library thefts are commonplace, the release of American Animals and the news of the recent Carnegie Library thefts have made this crime front page news. After all, the sheer value of some of these books makes them a very attractive proposition for thieves. But it’s not always just about money – the young men in American Animals fantasise about getting their hands on culturally revered items, while Guglielmo Libri and Blumberg were bibliomaniacs with a recognised condition. And the Library of Alexandria had a larcenous ambition to become a “universal library”, gathering all of the known world’s knowledge under a single roof.

The rare book trade is lucrative, certainly. Individuals and institutions are willing to spend healthy amounts to enhance their collections. But books represent more than just profit. They are cultural artefacts that span space and time to carry the voices of those who have meaningfully contributed to the world’s knowledge. As the primary means of communication for thousands of years, books reflect and perpetuate cultural heritage and – ultimately – help us understand what it means to be human.

Whether someone is stealing books for financial gain, the thrill of the game, or the overwhelming love of these objects, library theft is always underpinned by an understanding of books as valuable cultural artefacts. The young men in the American Animals heists are animals because they tried to plunder these relics of human development.The Conversation

Leah Henrickson, PhD Candidate, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.