Mostly the thing by Peter Ackroyd that I love the most is London, his exhaustively descriptive “biography” of the city. You can feel his passion for the city in that book and actually in all of his fiction; much of it is set in mid-1800s London, and the world feels very realized. So too does his tone: it is pitch-perfect 1800s writing, but in The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein I was unsure whether I was reading a parody of the Gothic or an earnest pastiche.
The book is based on a simple premise: what if Victor Frankenstein was a real doctor, a real contemporary of the Shelleys? What if he, under the influence of “Bysshe” (as he calls him) decided to attempt to resurrect the dead? And what if it, of course, went horribly wrong? It was a premise that intrigued me, as I’d been about to just dismiss the book as Frankenstein fanfiction. It’s a conceit that doesn’t quite work… The Shelleys themselves are window dressing; the real matter of concern is Victor, his more than slightly homoerotic obsession with Shelley and his increasing instability, which is hinted at throughout the novel until reaching the end, which I won’t spoil if you’re so inclined to read it, but the end is just slightly ridiculous. I KNOW Ackroyd knows his history so I wasn’t sure whether the misrepresentations and errors were Victor’s unreliable narrating, or whether they had been changed to better suit the plot, or what. This was slightly annoying after a while.
Mostly, though, it is an entertaining book and Ackroyd is a talented writer who creates enjoyable fiction, but at the end I was left wondering: why? In the end it seemed so unnecessary. From the concept itself to some of its more unsavory moments (the Creature’s first act upon being resurrected is to masturbate itself; there is a long account of Frankenstein himself jerking off partially reanimated corpses… yeah). Frankenstein , the original, was so effective in its horror because of its essential moral underpinnings: everyone is capable of good and evil, but are shaped by the society around them. It’s a book that, reading it today, can still chill, shock, and sadden. The Casebook is entertaining, but at the end, seems somewhat superfluous.