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The Doomed Holiday That Inspired More than One Classic Novel
Opium, Ghost Stories and Volcanos
The windows rattled in their frame as the wind blew. The five friends argued about politics and writing as the candlelight flickered.
They had been kept in the house for a couple of days. Since the volcanic eruption last year, the weather had been very unpredictable.
The gathering host tried to entertain his guests by reading ghost stories and poetry. He challenged the guests to write a ghost story better than those he read.
Even he could not have foreseen what would be produced: two published novels, one that became a classic and the number one horror book in many polls.
In 1918, Mount Tambora in Indonesia showed the world its power with a gigantic eruption. It choked the air with ash and dust and killed roughly 100,000 people.
The death toll would be much higher as the consequences continued for years. It is now considered one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in history.
The following summer in Europe, the inhabitants were treated to fog, frost and failing crops instead of glorious sunshine. Famines, epidemics and political revolts were everyday news.
It is estimated that at least a million people would eventually die due to the eruptions' aftereffects, such as starvation and disease.
The Guests Assemble
Choosing to take a break in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in 1816, was a seventeen-year-old called Mary and her lover, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
At the time, Percy was married, and the pair had eloped, causing Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's family to disown her. Percy was also on the run from his wife, whose body was found in the Serpentine in Hyde Park six months later.
Claire Clairmont, Mary's stepsister, shortly joined them. Who had other reasons to travel to Geneva other than supporting her sister.
Lord Byron and his doctor, Polidori, were in another location at the Lake. Just out of his teens, the doctor had, unknown to Byron, accepted a £500 advance to keep a diary of Byron's activities over the holiday.
This became very interesting when it was found that Claire was carrying Lord Byron's child. Byron had exiled himself to Europe after it was rumoured he had divorced his wife to continue an affair with his half-sister.
It wasn't long before Percy and Byron, who admired each other's work, formed an intense friendship. Mary, Percy and Claire spent much of their time at Byron's villa.
One of Those Nights
Polidori joined the four, and they would spend many evenings reading poetry, arguing and smoking opium. To a backdrop of thunder and lightning due to the intense weather, the conversation soon turned to more ghostly conversations.
During one evening, Percy and Byron started an interesting conversation about whether human corpses could be galvanised and reanimated after death. Mary sat intrigued by the talk, adding little but listening intently.
The next evening, as they sat in the candlelit room, Byron challenged the group to write a better ghost story than they had shared.
Mary took to her room and started to write, later known as Mary Shelley; she would publish Frankenstein, and everyone would get their answer about whether corpses could come back to life.
Mary, however, was not the only person who took to the challenge. Polidori was also inspired to write a novella called The Vampyre, primarily considered part of the inspiration for Dracula.
Polidori based the character Lord Ruthven on Byron, but this was not where the controversy over the book ended. He initially wrote the story for the Countess of Breuss, who sent the manuscript to a publisher.
It was first published in April 1819 in a New Monthly Magazine called The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron. Byron immediately disclaimed the authorship, and the second edition had removed his name. The book's initial success was down to his name, which caused a rift between him and the young doctor.
Frankenstein was originally published without an author assigned as a mixture of ingrained sexism and envy meant that most people were unwilling to admit an eighteen-year-old girl could have written such a story.
The Horror Twist
Despite the controversy with both books, it has to be said that the Lake Geneva holiday was one of the most productive in literary history.
In addition to the two written novels, Shelley wrote two of her best poems: Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc.
Byron wrote the third canto of Childe Harold, the poem that made him a star.
However, in a strange gothic horror twist, all the men died within the first half of the 1820s. Polidori committed suicide with a self-inflicted cyanide overdose in 1821.
Percy Shelley drowned in a freak storm in 1822; he was twenty-nine. Mary suffered the loss of her children in two consecutive summers in 1818.
Lord Byron, who asked, 'Is this brat mine?' when Claire gave birth, took their daughter Allegra away from her mother, sending her to a convent school to be educated, where she died at age five. Byron himself would die after contracting a fever in 1824.
Frankenstein continues to enthral readers. Although initially condemned by some critics, readers devoured it and made the legacy of Mary Shelley. It is primarily considered the birth of science fiction, a genre going from strength to strength.
It remains, to this day, one of my favourite books to read for Halloween.
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