Ackroyd’s universal horror story is framed in the Victorian era, where a great dark shape broods in the distance and a malevolent presence out of sight lies in the shadows in the half-light of the fog-shrouded streets of Oxford and London. But it is the dark waters of the Thames estuary among the sad flats and wild marshes where the monster lies in wait, doomed to wander the earth: “I search of nothing that the world could give him.”
This gothic odyssey begins as twenty-something Victor Frankenstein, bolstered by the passionate throes of science, is determined to unlock the mysteries of life. Arriving in Oxford from Switzerland, a wild and enthusiastic Victor meets
sensitive, highly charged Bysshe Shelley. The two form a healthy camaraderie, Victor
immediately intrigued by Bysshe's intentions to study "the corpuscles of life."
Latching onto Shelley's ideas to harness electrical energy so that he can bring life to the dead - "to invest mere clay with the fire of life” - Victor descends deep into a London seething in a cauldron of death and misery, but
which is also a place of great possibilities. When Victor’s father and sister unexpectedly die, he becomes the heir to a large fortune and is finally in a position to create a laboratory where he can engage in experiments on the largest possible scale, perhaps his "gallery of life."
What follows is Victor's establishment of a workshop, the pottery manufactory called The Limehouse, where he stores all the electrical fluid he needs for his final great experiment,
procuring a continuous supply of new bodies from the dissolute and depraved thieves who inhabit The Smithfield Tavern.
One body in particular - a young, muscular, but tubercular-ridden Jack Keat - becomes Victor’s final subject.
Soon enough, young Frankenstein finds himself at the center of a bond between
man and monster that no human force can break and at the apex of a creature who
has the power to hurt and to kill. As “the monster” turns first into a force for
violence then begins to embody a pathetic neediness, he begs Victor for release: “Did I ask you to mold me? Did I solicit you to take me from the darkness?”
The novel's added twist is the introduction of Mary Shelley herself, along with the doctor John Polidori and Lord Byron, the great predator both spiritually and morally. Accompanying them back to his native country, Victor's opiate dreams dissolve in a moment of terror, his spirits are elevated to the utmost degree.
He must finally confront not just the enemy he has created, but also fear itself.
When Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, is brutally murdered, Victor blames himself, gravitating between disgust at having created this being conceived and shaped
at his own hands. Meanwhile, Ackroyd imbues a certain pity for this creature who seems to exist in a state of “abject desolation.” While the novel is steeped in authentic detail of the Victorian period, its grand gothic themes of revenge and betrayal play out when the monster seeks to be reclaimed.
Suddenly Victor’s vulnerabilities are exposed in an ironic and rather bittersweet collision of self-delusion and falsehood.