Mr. Janu's Favorite Book of 2022: Unnatural Creatures by Kris Waldherr


I first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus when I was in junior high. Like most people, I was indoctrinated first by the Hollywood iterations of the story and only knew “Frankenstein” as Boris Karloff, and was surprised by the novel and the way in which the ideas of monstrosity were not associated with the creature, but with Dr. Victor Frankenstein. In particular, I was taken by the humanity and intelligence of “the monster,” who articulately narrates a significant portion of the book. 

The novel remains one of my favorites, and I have returned to it several times in my life. But the novel is problematic, in many ways. In particular, the characters outside of Victor and the “Monster” are never fully developed and their motivations and personalities are never fully explored in the epistolary nature of Shelley’s work.

Unnatural Creatures, by Kris Waldherr, corrects this flaw and presents Frankenstein in its full human and emotional potential by focusing not on Victor, but on the women in his life. Unlike the original novel, Unnatural Creatures is presented in the third person, but from the points of view of Victor’s mother, Caroline; his childhood friend and soon-to-be-bride, Elizabeth; and his other childhood friend and his brother’s nanny, Justine.  Other characters, such as Henry Clervall, Alphonse Frankenstein and brother Ernest are more rounded, as well. 

The book follows the same basic plot as the original, but author Kris Waldherr firmly plants the narrative into the history of the time. This was an age of revolution, and the French Revolution’s influence spread beyond Paris and affected life in Geneva, where the Frankensteins were an influential family. Much of this was not present in Shelley’s work; perhaps because her contemporaries were more familiar with the politics having lived through it. Nonetheless, much of Unnatural Creatures feels like historical fiction. There are allusions to the popular scientific ideas of the time, such as “galvanism.” A great scene in the first section of the novel has Alphonse Frankenstein having a “Christmas soirĂ©e” where Dr. Galvani demonstrates the power of static electricity. Although this is mentioned in passing in the original novel, Waldherr expands this event and gives it detail, setting Victor’s path on the road to creating the monster and exploring how this change affected the people in his life. In addition, politics in Geneva are also elements of the story, especially when violence spreads to the republic, and brother Ernest is moved by the rhetoric of the revolution. Should Geneva remain a republic, or align with France or Switzerland? Daily life, in particular the ways in which women operated and managed their second-class status in the age of revolution, is, quite frankly, one of the most fascinating elements of the novel. Waldherr’s attention to detail is impressive: at one point Henry is with Elizabeth, who is angry about the results of Justine’s trial for the murder of William, and he gathers up some books including a volume by Wollstonecraft – a nod to Mary Shelley’s mother. Rousseau is mentioned often, and the fear of violent revolutions is very real throughout the novel.

Like in Shelley’s novel, the Monster here is articulate, angry, and immensely sad. He is in the shadows for most of the narrative, but forms an unexpected relationship of sorts with Justine – who becomes the true focus of the story, especially in the final third of the book. It is Justine’s arc that leads to the creature actually being given a name.

Other than a plot twist that requires some additional suspension of belief, Unnatural Creatures skillfully fills out Mary Shelley’s original story. In doing so, we see the affect Victor’s actions have on the people who cared about him the most. The trauma of Victor’s descent into madness on those women is felt, and Waldherr provides the reader with an empathetic understanding of the ways in which these woman navigate this in the reality of their world.

I struggle to define Unnatural Creatures, though. Is this a retelling of Frankenstein? Can it exist on its own without the original novel?   Indeed, each chapter begins with a quote from Shelley’s Frankenstein and firmly sets the narrative in that world and in that timeline.

Having read Frankenstein many times and feel that knowing the original story helped me fully appreciate this --- what to a call it – expansion, perhaps, of the original narrative. Unnatural Creatures exists on its own, but is also a brilliant and faithful recreation of Mary Shelley’s book, full of humanity and romance, while retaining the gothic vibe of the original. In many cases, Waldherr skillfully fills in a few plot holes, as well, without deviating at all from the point of the original novel.

Mary Shelley would most certainly approve.

Unnatural Creatures by Kris Waldherr is my favorite novel of 2022.

5/5

Mr. Bruce Janu

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Kris Waldherr’s debut novel, The Lost History of Dreams, came out in 2019. It, too, was a favorite of mine. Gothic to its core and set in a similar world as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that novel tells the story of a Bryon-like poet who died, and the mysteries surrounding his death and estate. It reminded me of Wuthering Heights. If you like Unnatural Creatures, check out this book as well. 









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