By E.M. Lark
When I first saw him, he sat across from me at a tea table far too small. His crooked shoulders hunched over, his fearsome brows pulled tight with frustration, he met my eyes and asked me what I thought I was doing. I, assuming the role of his creator, shrugged my shoulders and said I wasn’t sure yet.
But how could I ever stand in her shoes? Mary, only nineteen: she who created the living breathing tale of caution in creation, science fiction, the horrors of playing God from the scale of a girl who had already lost a child. I was twenty-three with a chip on my shoulder, no children to be heard of, and far too much to prove. Twenty-four soon, and more lost than I’d ever been, trying to get my MFA in the middle of a pandemic lockdown state that I still didn’t understand what it was doing to me.
I tried anyway. I grew intimately familiar with the origins of her story, of how she moved through her grief with a triumphant hurricane of literature, of what she would leave behind for her son and for the world. Miss Godwin and the Monster Within would become the name of my project, my near two-hour love letter and final proper attempt to tell the story I had been trying to tell for years. This was it – this story would know the stage, and it would know me.
And then there was the Monster. Childlike as he was grown, afraid as he was frightening, uncertain of the body that people would scorn and would later fear. Coming into the world as a weapon when he wanted to be held and cradled, there is no such love for rotted flesh that may as well have been shaped into a gun. Every time I reread Frankenstein and poured over analyses, I understood him better and better. But there was still something missing and I could not figure out what it was.
Every time I sit down to work on the play, I see the pictures move through my mind. I hear their voices, conducting themselves through a story that I string together at the end of my own tether. I have to do this, I have to, I keep insisting. I have already given up so many times and I can’t keep letting go – I keep remembering what she endured. What she lost so young to arrive at this tale: a child, a relationship with her father, a sense of assurance as she moved through the world in her husband’s shadow. She loved and she loved, and people loved her back but it almost never was enough. The grief threatened to swallow her whole.
So she wrote over a dark and stormy night in Geneva, tempted by a rousing game with the Romantics, and began her venture into the great unknown with a dream. A monster. A man who assumes the role of mother, father, unholy creator.
At the time I am working on this, really digging into it with nails and teeth, I am secluded in an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Living with people I talk to less and less as the times wear on, as I grow more weary of our circumstances and how much more I start to feel like the monster. Misshapen and weak, broken down and afraid, would I tip over the edge too into a rage if I had the chance? I don’t know.
(Mania isn’t too far off, I remind myself, shuddering from memory, you know what you’re like when you’re angry. When you’re hurt. “If we cannot be loved then we will be feared–”)
And then I remember the other monster – the story of a werewolf boy, wrought down by the force of his own grief, a bad full moon leading into worse tidings. The self-loathing that comes with seeing the wreckage left behind, blood on the carpet and self-hate in his heart as his sister tries to talk him down – this is a story I already know. A pattern connects that I had not seen before. I keep going.
I later find myself at that same tea table. Different room. It was darker, the curtains were drawn and candles were lit. We were both dressed in black, attending a funeral that neither of us could speak of whom we had lost. He seemed more forlorn, more beragged and grotesque. The rotted flesh of Victor’s unholy design showed itself in full form here – peeled skin and cavernous, lesioned wounds with maggots caught just above his brow. Blood trickled down from his teeth and nose and I scarcely knew whose it was. I didn’t know he could bleed.
“Does it hurt?” I ask him carefully. I gesture to the blood on his mouth, and he draws his hand upward, swiping two crooked fingers over it.
“Not when I don’t think about it,” he admits, words left hoarse with a voice far too unused. “Do I look as if I am in pain?”
My hands stay in my lap, trembling but assured by the weight of my own touch. “Sort of, yeah.”
His vantage point, far above my own, can see how I shift. How I sit with the same unease. His brows draw in tight again, and his cracked lips frown. “Does it hurt?” he asks me back, and I glance up again.
“Does what hurt?”
“To be human.”
My fingers dig into the fabric of my trousers. “The doctor never told you?”
It isn’t an answer he likes, averting his gaze. But he speaks again anyway: “He has. But I do not regard his idea of humanity as truth. We both suffered when I trusted him.”
I nod, and finally put my hands on the table. I lean forward and do my best to keep my voice at an even keel. “It hurts. Sometimes almost too much.” And this Monster has spent so much time with me now, scraping through my own memories to meet in the creative middle. Does he know what I know? Seen what I have seen?
“Then how do you keep going?” he asks, perhaps just as afraid as I am.
Before I snap out of it – tears flowing from my eyes and staining my cheeks, threatening my keyboard – I tell him in an impossible whisper that blows out the candle: “I still don’t know.”
The play goes up in February of 2021, an online staged reading that pales in comparison to being in the room, but we make it work. My director breathes life into it that threatens to reach through screens and demand attention. It’s the proudest I could be of it all, especially given how little we have to work with. And although it is not the triumphant call to arms I once hoped for in person, it is one of my greatest joys. It makes the pain worth it. It almost answers the Monster’s question, one that still haunts my waking days –
Maybe being human – the whole point is to keep going.
I think of him often, the Monster. Sometimes when my body is too small to hold all the hurt, I can see the bones cracking and the flesh rotting, and he is there in my place. He reaches out a hand through the mirror and seeks to comfort me. Our smiles are crooked. Our eyes are sunken. Our body does not fit us when we would like it to, but it is ours nonetheless. We did not ask to be here nor did we ask to get hurt; we did not seek to harm others in the same capacity but it is an inevitable of being alive, that no one will come out unscathed.
Mary and her Monster, her doctor and her demons, and the family that trails along with them – I know them better than I know myself. And perhaps I will catch up someday.
E.M. Lark (they/them) is a writer wearing many hats and a couple names, currently based in NY. Their work can be found in Penumbra Online, Roi Faineant Press, RENESME LITERARY, and oranges journal, among others. Otherwise, they can be found writing book reviews for Defunkt Magazine and prose reading for Cobra Milk Magazine, and trying to get a fancy theatre job.