Review: “The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein” by Peter Ackroyd

I really wanted to like this book.

My fiction reading has slowed to a snail’s pace, and I thought this book might get me back into it in a big way. I am a fan of Mary Shelley’s excellent “Frankenstein,” a fabulous blend of Gothic horror, science fiction and weighty themes. I thought a new take on this classic would be entertaining, if done well, and I thought there was enough meat on that particular story’s bones for an author to carve out new territory and still be faithful to the original.

Indeed, Ackroyd has done that, in a sensible and somewhat clever way. I also enjoyed his glimpses of literary figures of the time, especially Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, both of whom were involved in that famed night of ghost-tale spinning that led Mary Shelley to write her novel.

The problem, though, is that Ackroyd’s clever plot trick and those voyeuristic portraits of the people behind the poems are about all this book has to offer. Ackroyd certainly doesn’t explore the weighty themes tackled by Shelley — what does the Creator owe the created? Should we do things just because science gives us the power? Are there places rational investigation should not go?  Nor does he replace those themes with deeply etched themes of his own. He just sort of races through the tale, in a hurry to get to his big “surprise ending.” I won’t toss out a spoiler here, but I figured out the mystery less than a third of the way through the book, and not even a fairly well placed red herring threw me off course.

The book did not work for me on a suspense or horror level, either. Although there are one or two fairly disturbing scenes, they are disturbing more in a “why did he write THAT?” way, rather than in an “organic to the plot” way. Also, because there is a rather longish stretch of the book in which Victor seems almost to have forgotten the flesh golem  pursuing him, those moments sort of stick out all the more. Once somone has seen what Victor has seen, he ought to remain disturbed throughout the rest of the book, in my not-so-humble opinion.

If you are a real Frankenstein fan or a true horror tale geek, you probably ought to read this one just so you can discuss it intelligently at parties. It won’t take you long, either; Ackroyd’s prose is breezy enough. If you have only a passing interest in mad scientists who animate the dead, pass this up.

I welcome thoughts, rebuttals, book suggestions, etc.

— Steve

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