The Haunted Summer of 1816 and the Origin of Frankenstein

There’s not much I love more than haunted things and horror origin stories…well, other than puppies and iced coffee. Being that it is Women in Horror month, I started looking into the origin story of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

The history is more interesting than you think.

The Year Without a Summer

The year of 1816 was known as the year without a summer.

In April 1815, there was a volcanic eruption.  The eruption of Mount Tambora (located in present-day Indonesia) was the most powerful volcanic eruption in human recorded history. It is reported that the ash from the eruption column dispersed around the world, obscuring the sun, and lowering global temperatures in an event known as the year without a summer.

The change in weather and the fallout from the volcano (like a tsunami that occurred after, etc.) caused severe climate abnormalities, resulting in lower than normal temperatures. In fact, 1816 was the second-coldest year in the Northern Hemisphere since around 1400. This caused harvest failures, which caused food shortages across the Northern Hemispheres.

A foot of snow fell on Quebec in June of 1816, with snow also falling in Maine and New York in the same month. According to Gizmodo, “Frost covered the ground of New York, New Hampshire, and Maine well into mid-August.” Reportedly, Hungary and Italy experienced brown, yellow, and red snow.

The Villa Diodati as it may have looked in Shelley’s time (Bibliothèque de Genève)

Villa Diodati and the Ghost Story Challenge

Villa Diodati, originally known as Villa Belle Rive, is a mansion in the village of Cologny near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron (famous poet and playwright) rented Villa Diodati, and stayed there with John Polidori (Byron’s physician, and later author of The Vampyre). Byron was on the run from gossip of his separation from his wife and his alleged affair with his half-sister. He was also in a significant amount of debt. Polidori was, as I mentioned, Byron’s physician. He was also offered (and accepted) Lord Byron’s publisher John Murray’s 500 English pounds payment to keep a diary of their travels and spy on Byron.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Claire Clairmont, and Percy Bysshe Shelley rented a house nearby (Maison Chapuis) and met up with Byron and Polidori, and this. were frequently in each other’s company. Mary was troubled by memories and dreams about the loss of her daughter, who was born prematurely in February 1815 and died shortly after.

The weather in June, for reasons mentioned prior, was not suitable for sailing on the lake and enjoying the summer days outside. The dark skies, the heavy rain, and booming lightning and thunder drew crowds inside, surrendered to the indoors.

Lord Byron, John Polidori, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Claire, and Percy Shelley spent their evenings inside, discussing literary projects. In the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary wrote: “Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered communicated.”

Darkness descended on the afternoon. One needed to light candles midday to keep out of the shadows. These deep and sometimes haunting conversation by candlelight let everyone’s imaginations run wild.

As the British Library put it, “‘The year without a summer’…provided the perfect backdrop to the telling of bleak, macabre and doom-laden Gothic tales.”

One night, Lord Byron suggested that they write ghost stories, inspired by a collection of horror stories, Germanic in origin, titled Fantasmagoriana. Shelley wrote, “I busied myself to think of a story–a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror–one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”

Byron wrote a short vampire tale. Mary recalled that “Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady.”

There was a lot going on at this time. The days seemed eternally gloomy, full of storms and rain. Sexual tension inside the house was high, as Polidori allegedly became interested in Mary (Mary did not reciprocate), and Claire, a former lover of Byron in London, was enamored with Byron still. There is speculation that she became pregnant during this time, giving birth in January 1817 to a daughter.

Byron read Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ and the group was significantly affected. In ‘Christabel’, Geraldine seeks possession of a beautiful and innocent women. Byron’s reading was so hypnotic, Shelley was said to have left the room screaming, horrified by the mental image of a women who had eyes instead of nipples on her breasts.

Mary listened to them talk about ghost and vampires, life and death, and even about galvanism. And then, she suffered a night of insomnia, followed by a nightmare, which inspired Frankenstein. In her 1831 preface, Mary shared how the spooky atmosphere inspired her creativity.

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the 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 …

On the evening of June 17th or 18th, she read out the first passage of a strange fiction to her friends. It began:

“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld my man completed and with an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected instruments of life about me, and endeavoured to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet….”

(Photo: Hulton, Archive/Getty Images)

Ghost Stories Abound

It was here at Villa Diodati, that John Polidori also started The Vampyre, the novel that influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and what many know as the origin of the romantic vampire genre. Lord Byron was said to have written his famous long-form poem, The Darkness, during this time.

A year later, Mary finished her full-blown novel, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, with Gothic and Romantic elements, at only 19 years old.

As Prospect Magazine reports: We owe the two greatest horror tales of the last two centuries to a handful of troubled souls shut up together in an old house one wet summer. Within eight years, all the men who had taken part in the competition were dead: Polidori most likely of suicide; Shelley by drowning, after his yacht Ariel sank in a storm off the northwest coast of Italy; and Byron of illness contracted during his adventures in the cause of Greek freedom.

When I was fact-checking this, here is what I found:

  • John Polidori died in London 8/24/1821. The coroner ruled it death by natural causes but there is strong evidence that he committed suicide by poisoning himself with cyanide, to escape his depression and gambling debts.
  • On 7/8/1822, Percy Shelley drowned in a sudden storm on the Gulf of La Spezia. The boat Ariel, previously named Don Juan, was custom-built in Genoa. The boat sank in the storm. According to Mary Shelley’s “Note on Poems of 1822” the boat had a defect and was never seaworthy. It was reportedly overmasted and sank not just because of the storm, but because of the poor seamanship of the men on board. There is a significant number of conspiracy theories online about this, everything from “he didn’t know how to navigate” to suicide to an alleged murder plot for political reasons.
  • Lord Byron was invited to aid in support of Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. It is reported that he spent 4,000 pound of his own money to assist in repairing the Greek naval fleet. He became ill on February 15, 1824. Doctors bled him, which we know now, weakened his condition. He died on April 19, 1824 in Messolonghi. There are mixed reports on his actual cause of death. According to records, he had an onset of fevers, which many suspect to be malaria relapses. In fact, many of his records report him having a fever in Greece (1810), Malta (1811), Italy (1817-1819), etc. However, many professionals and historians point out that his autopsy, “specifically the absence of hepatosplenomegaly, does not support a hypothetical diagnosis of malaria. Nonetheless, the relapsing fevers cannot be ignored and the same applies to the possibility of malaria relapse or re-infection in line with the endemic nature of the Messolonghi area.”


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