It’s a little over a month until Mackenzi Lee’s debut novel This Monstrous Thing hits shelves. Some might describe the time leading up to their first publication as stressful or exciting, but Lee has other things in mind.
“It’s not a word so much as a high-pitched keening sound of happiness,” said Lee.
This Monstrous Thing takes place in 1818 Geneva, a simultaneous homage to and retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. In it, Alasdair Finch has lost everything – his brother, his sweetheart, his chance to escape Geneva. But then Oliver returns to life, more monster than man – and Frankenstein hits shelves, leading people to start hunting for the real doctor and his monster.
There are some twists – unlike Victor Frankenstein, who created his monster in an egotistical burst of science, Alasdair is bringing back his brother, which gives him an emotional stake in the story that Victor never had. “He isn’t just bringing a random person back form the dead, he’s bringing the person he loves most in the world. That adds a whole new set of emotional complications to already complicated work, and brings up questions like if you bring a body back to life, can you also bring the soul to go with it? Did his brother actually come back?”
The cover hints to what’s hiding inside This Monstrous Thing – an ominous figure standing against Geneva, a lightning bolt flashing towards a tower, a callback to the 1931 black-and-white Boris Karloff Frankenstein film.
Add to the list of Coolest Things Ever: A THIS MONSTROUS THING cosplay from teens in Seattle! pic.twitter.com/VSP3mxlskB
— Mackenzi Lee (@themackenzilee) August 7, 2015
“There’s so much to love in Frankenstein,” said Lee, who hadn’t read the novel until the idea for a steampunk retelling sprung upon her. “[I] was surprised that the novel is very different from our modern pop culture interpretations. For starters, and most striking to me when I read it, the Creature is not a green skinned, shambling giant with an abnormal brain and pegs in his neck—he’s agile and fast and whip smart. He reads Milton for crying out loud! And Victor isn’t an old, white-haired mad scientist—he’s a medical student probably somewhere in his twenties for a large part of the novel. I was immediately drawn to the idea of these two very young men, each monstrous in their own way, pushing the boundaries of life and death and humanity in a changing world.”
As Lee did research on Frankenstein for This Monstrous Thing – which originally sold under the title “The Shadow Boys are Breaking” – Lee discovered a tidbit that fed her steampunk story: that Shelley wrote it as a creation myth for her Enlightenment-era society.
“As her Enlightenment-era society moved away from God and towards science, everyone had to reevaluate what that meant for their own basic perspectives on the universe and role of an individual in it. How did we define human when the previously black and white lines between human and God were being blurred by scientific progress? I decided I wanted to write a story of the same fashion, except steampunk, so I took the time period Mary Shelley was living in, created an alternate, hyper-industrialized version of it, and then wrote my own creation myth for it. But instead of man and God, This Monstrous Thing explores the blurred lines between man and machine.”
“I think the world has kept telling this story—even in our horrifically appropriate pop culture version—because it asks so many important questions about humanity and nature and nurture and without giving easy answers,” said Lee. “The most interesting to me, and one of the main ones I look at in my reinterpretation, is what makes us monstrous?”