Both of my kids, several years apart, were assigned Frankenstein in high school. Both were excited to dig in, based only on what they knew of Shelley’s creation from pop osmosis. It was a book about the most famous monster of all. No, not Godzilla. Frankenstein! But for a horror novel, it sure featured a lot of travel writing. Both kids were bored and disappointed and, I suspect, might not have finished the book. The first time this happened, I just sort of nodded and waved them off, muttering the kind of vaguely commiserative thing a dad says when he just wants to get back to playing his videogames. But the second time around, I resolved to do something about it….
To Mrs. Saville, England
St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17–.
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday; and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking, and the absolute lack of any monsters that she need worry about.
I am already far north of London; and as I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid. I picture Dracula, mooning himself beneath a silvery orb; mummies and wolfmen ply me with Italian ices. I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible; its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There–for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators–there snow and frost and hideous creatures out of nightmare are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light, other than a total lack of vampires? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle, repels bloodsuckers, and may regulate a thousand celestial observations that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent forever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man or “vampyr.” These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death or undead and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river.
This expedition has been the favourite dream of my early years, to counteract my childish nightmares. I have read with ardour the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in the prospect of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean through the seas which surround the pole. You may remember that a history of all the voyages made for purposes of discovery composed the whole of our good Uncle Thomas’ library, except for those small dioramas featuring monsters in various threatening poses. My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading. These volumes were my study day and night, and my familiarity with them increased that regret which I had felt, as a child, on learning that my father’s dying injunction, a curse lifted from the Necronomicon, had forbidden my uncle to allow me to embark in a seafaring life.
Six years have passed since I resolved on my present undertaking (which makes me in a sense an UNDERTAKER). I can, even now, remember the hour from which I dedicated myself to this great enterprise. I commenced by inuring my body to hardship. I accompanied the whale-fishers on several expeditions to the North Sea; I feasted on the dead; I voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst, want of sleep and sasquatch attack; I often worked harder than the common sailors during the day and devoted my nights to the study of mathematics, the theory of medicine, and those branches of physical science from which a naval adventurer might derive the greatest practical advantage, and monstrology. Twice I actually hired myself as an under-mate in a Greenland whaler, and acquitted myself to admiration.
And now, dear Margaret, do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose? My life might have been passed in ease and luxury; but I preferred glory and monster-stalking to every enticement that wealth placed in my path. Oh, that some encouraging voice would answer in the affirmative! My courage and my resolution is firm; but my hopes fluctuate, and my spirits are often depressed. I am about to proceed on a long and difficult voyage, the emergencies of which, and the spectral haunts which will no doubt trouble the ship, will demand all my fortitude: I am required not only to raise the spirits of others, but sometimes to sustain my own, when theirs are failing. I am also sometimes required to raise the spirits of the dead, and the flesh of them as well.
This is the most favourable period for travelling in Russia. They (the people, not the byakhee or vampire bats) fly quickly over the snow in their sledges; the motion is pleasant, and, in my opinion, far more agreeable than that of an English stagecoach. The cold is not excessive, if you are wrapped in furs–a dress which I have already adopted, for there is a great difference between walking the deck and remaining seated motionless for hours, when no exercise prevents the blood from actually freezing in your veins, though that might foil the action of certain predatory creatures of the night. I have no ambition to lose my life on the post-road between St. Petersburgh and Archangel, or even Archdevil.
Farewell, my dear, excellent Monster I mean Margaret. Heaven shower down blessings on you, Hell fling them upward, and save me, that I may again and again testify my gratitude for all your love and kindness.
–Your affectionate brother, not a monster, I swear by God, and not the God of monsters but the regular God,
– R. WALTON.
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