Dr. Frankenstein May Be on to Something

By Sylvain, Chad | The Christian Science Monitor, September 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

Dr. Frankenstein May Be on to Something


Sylvain, Chad, The Christian Science Monitor


SCREAMS OF REASON: MAD SCIENCE AND MODERN CULTURE

By David Skal

W.W. Norton

368 pp., $29.95

'It's alive!" is the theme shriek of "Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture." David Skal surveys the mad scientist from the 19th century to the present and shows that the creation of a "new life" is a preoccupation of these stories.

Skal's inventory begins with the gothic birth of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." His choice pinpoints where Old World terrors of magic gave way to New World worries about science run amok. The doctor (not the monster) is the base of a family tree whose roots include Faust and Greek mythology's Prometheus. Frankenstein's descendants are an ever-widening array of scientists, pseudoscientists, and crackpots. Their aims are hubristic, and the results of their "work" almost always provoke fear.

Is "Frankenstein" a horror-movie buff's classic or a novel taught in college classrooms? Skal navigates this lowbrow/highbrow schism well. He shows that science's "shadow self" runs from silly to deadly serious.

Film occupies much of Skal's attention, but he also draws from novels, essays, manifestoes, television, theater, and criticism to flesh out the Frankensteinian tradition.

The early 20th-century electronic wizardry of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison was matched by the visions of Paris's Grand Guignol theater, Karel Capek, and Fritz Lang.

In 1931, James Whale's classic film "Frankenstein" inspired 20 years of monsters and their mad creators in Hollywood. …

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