Drawn To The Dark

I was drawn to dark and frightening books — much to my parents’ dismay.   I loved to be scared. And my parents never sought to censor what I read; if I could reach a book on their shelf, and decipher the words within, it was mine.  So I read (avidly, voraciously) books wildly inappropriate for my age – Stephen King’s Carrie, Christine, Cujo. V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. Peter Straub. Dean Koontz. The more depraved and twisted, the better.  I think my parents hoped a lot of it was going over my head.  It wasn’t.

Because of my fascination with all things bleak and mysterious, I was pretty sure there was something wrong with me. My parents supported my belief by often wondering aloud:  “What’s wrong with you?”

Monsters, ghouls, any creatures not of this world were terribly exciting for me, transporting. They lifted me out of my dull, gray suburban New Jersey life.  I had big dreams – I wanted to live in New York City (fabulously). I wanted to be a writer (famously).  I drifted around in a fantasy world about what my life would be when I was gone and grown, creating my own destiny – when I wasn’t the freak being taunted and bullied at school, when I was anywhere but where I was.

I came to Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN expecting – and wanting — to be scared silly by a monster story.  In books like this I was searching for reasons to feel the big feelings I had inside.  Fear is a big feeling; it also anesthetized by adolescent ennui.  The more horrifying the scenario on the page, the further away I was from the mundane nightmare of middle school.

But instead of a monster story, in FRANKENSTEIN I found a sad, beautiful novel about the nature of the human heart. The gripping narrative and its large themes — ambition, alienation, science, the origins of life, fear of technology – hooked me. I had hoped to be frightened, thrilled, white-knuckled – and I certainly got what I came for.  But I hadn’t expected to think, or to feel so deeply for the tortured creature and his wretched creator.

My imaginings of Frankenstein’s monster were warped by film adaptations of the classic. I held an image of a square-headed, neck-bolted monstrosity, his body patch-worked from corpses, his brain belonging to an executed criminal.  He was hell-bent on destruction. The perfect villain, already dehumanized, there was no need for complicated feelings like empathy or pity.

But Shelley’s monster is a soul in pain.  He didn’t ask for life; he’s brutalized by rejection, desperate for love and companionship.  Victor Frankenstein, his “father” has given him the brain of an abused and neglected child.  Turned away by society and his creator, the monster’s psychic pain and loneliness turns to rage.  He seeks to destroy the man who created him. Then, having laid waste to all Victor loves, the monster begs his forgiveness.

In most children’s literature, and in most popular fiction, the heroes and the villains are fairly easy to tell apart.  From all my many hours of reading and television viewing, I was accustomed to the good guy vs. bad guy scenario. It’s a simple formula: You hate one person, cheer for the other.  But with Shelley’s compelling, nuanced portraits of man and monster, it was impossible for me to judge either of them.  I never saw a villain the same way again.

But what thrilled me most of all, was that the author of this dark and terrifying book was a young woman.  Shelley was just nineteen at the writing of this classic.  She wrote, in the preface of the 1831 edition, “How I, then a young girl, came to think of and then dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”  How indeed?

I realized that maybe there wasn’t anything wrong with me after all.  Or at least I wasn’t the only girl who wanted to walk on the dark side, who wanted to feel big feelings, and understand the secrets of the blackest motivations of human nature, who wanted to escape my current situation, and who looked for all of that on the page.  Maybe, after all, I was just what I always imagined myself to be: a writer.

Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN came as a big surprise and changed the way I thought about writing, and also how I thought about myself.  I learned that it’s often in the darkest scenarios in which a writer can delve most deeply and empathetically into the heart of man and monster.  And I understood, finally, that I wasn’t the first girl less intrigued by roses than by thorns.


  1. iola reneau on May 3, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Ironic that I bought your book “Black Out” and “Frankenstein” today and than came here and read your blog. Too cool. I have read all the same soul twisting, mind altering, emotion jarring books that you mentioned, with only a couple of exceptions. Oh, and I am writer too.