Fantasmagoriana; or, The Ghost Stories that Galvanized Frankenstein

(Originally appeared in Birthing Monsters: Frankenstein’s Cabinet of Curiosities and Cruelties, 2018, Firbolg Publishing)

“It was not then a dream, a chimera, the fruit of an over-heated imagination! but a mysterious and infallible messenger, which, dispatched from the world of spirits, had passed close to him, had placed itself by his couch, and by its fatal kiss had dropt the germ of death in the bosom of the two children.”

Imagine being an 18-year-old woman, visiting a country far from your homeland, trapped inside a country villa by endless rains, and hearing that line (or, rather, its French equivalent) spoken in the mellifluous voice of one of the most famous poets of your day.

It’s not hard to understand how that scene – from a story called “The Family Portraits” – might have worked strange alchemy on Mary Shelley, especially after the famed poet, Lord Byron, suggested that the group of friends present in that villa by the side of Lake Geneva each try their hand at creating their own ghostly tales.

It was the summer of 1816, and the poet Percy Shelley, his 18-year-old mistress Mary Godwin (who he would marry later, after the suicide of his first wife), their infant son William, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Claremont had recently arrived at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, to meet up with Byron, whom Claire was infatuated with and, in fact, pregnant by. Byron had recently fled England, barely staying ahead of multiple scandals (including an incestuous affair with his half-sister and – even more ruinous in early-nineteenth-century Britain – whispers of homosexual liaisons). Even though Claire had begun an affair with Byron before he’d left England, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley had never met. However, after meeting on the shores of Lake Geneva, they soon became fast friends. When Byron leased the Villa Diodati on the shores of the lake (the house had once been home to yet another poet, John Milton), the Shelleys had rented another property nearby.

What none of the friends knew was that the 1815 explosion of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora had plunged Europe into a season of dark skies and rainstorms, and led to 1816 sometimes being called “The Year Without a Summer”. The extraordinary violence of the weather soon had Percy, Mary, William, and Claire moving into the villa, where Byron was staying with his personal physician, John Polidori (who would produce that summer’s other horror classic, The Vampyre).

Unable to venture outside much (the lake was far too choppy for boating), the friends sought other entertainments. Byron and Shelley often engaged in long philosophical talks, during which Mary was a silent listener. They spoke of the animating principles of life, including theories of galvanism (only thirteen years earlier, a famed public demonstration on the corpse of an executed criminal in London had shown how dead muscles could be made to react when electricity was applied), and the intersection of science and religion.

And then there were the ghost stories.

Fifteen years later, in the preface to a new edition of her novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, Mary would recall those evenings in the Villa Diodati: “Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History of the Inconstant Lover, who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his race, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of promise. His gigantic, shadowy form, clothed like the ghost in Hamlet, in complete armour, but with the beaver up, was seen at midnight, by the moon’s fitful beams, to advance slowly along the gloomy avenue. The shape was lost beneath the shadow of the castle walls; but soon a gate swung back, a step was heard, the door of the chamber opened, and he advanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep. Eternal sorrow sat upon his face as he bent down and kissed the forehead of the boys, who from that hour withered like flowers snapt upon the stalk. I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.”

The book containing the stories that so affected the youthful author was Fantasmagoriana. It was a two-volume anthology of eight ghost and horror stories, culled from a number of sources, and translated from the original German into French by Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès. The book’s title was a play on the popularity at the time of phantasmagoria, live shows in which audiences experienced “ghosts” via magic lantern effects. Five of the eight stories in Fantasmagoriana came from a five-volume German set called Gespensterbuch (literally, “Ghost Book”), which had been compiled from 1811 to 1815 by two well-known German authors, Johann August Apel and Friedrich Laun.

Apel, in particular, has an interesting place in the history of the horror genre: in addition to his work on Gespensterbuch, he authored dozens of short stories, many of which – like “The Boarwolf”, an early werewolf story – were horror fiction. In a curious twist of coincidence, Apel died in the summer of 1816…probably about the time that Mary Godwin (later Shelley) was hearing the French translation of “The Family Portraits” as read by Byron.

However, “The Family Portraits”, while authored by Apel, was not from Gespensterbuch but had instead originally appeared in Apel’s own collection Cicaden Volume 1. The remaining two stories in Fantasmagoriana were taken from a collection of folktales and a newspaper.

The stories in Fantasmagoriana draw liberally on German folklore, stories which – like the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm – were collected from oral sources. A quick perusal of the titles (“The Revenant”, “The Death-Bride”) suggests that these pieces are drenched in eerie, supernatural happenings. They are, in fact, often classified not as Gothic tales (since in many Gothic stories like those by the great Ann Radcliffe, the ghostly happenings are usually revealed to have earthly causes by the end), but as schauerroman, which literally translates to “shudder novel”. Although schauerroman is often defined as the German name for Gothic novels, other scholars draw a distinct line between the two, with schauerroman more closely resembling tales of terror than the romantic suspense of the true Gothic novels. The lineage of the schauerroman can be traced back to medieval ghost legends, which were often surprisingly gruesome; in one, for example, a priest who went to investigate a haunted church was burned alive on the altar by the furious spirits. One of the best examples of a schauerroman is the 1794 book The Necromancer: or The Tale of the Black Forest, written under a pseudonym by Carl Friedrich Kahlert, and referenced by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey.

The Necromancer is essentially a collection of ghost and horror stories, presented as first person accounts, and is often more lurid and exotic than the Gothic novels of the period. Take, for example, this description of a ritual in which the title character summons a spirit: “After we had pulled off our shoes and stockings, he burned perfumes in a chaffing-dish, and began the conjuration, mumbling many mysterious words, and brandishing his sword as if fighting with an invisible enemy; at once the combat seemed to cease, he grew quiet, and turning towards us who had been standing around him, exclaimed, ‘I have succeeded, he is coming!’”

There are certainly hints of Frankenstein in all of these earlier works, especially “The Family Portraits”. The convoluted plot does not, on the surface, seem similar: a series of interconnected tales reveals the history of a family curse going back 1,000 years, and that manifests whenever an ancient and terrifying ghost appears to claim the lives of children with a lethal kiss. Intertwined with this is a second story of a young woman who is killed when the massive portrait of an ancestor falls on her, and a third story thread concerns the painting of a noble knight that is repeatedly turned into an image of a grotesque spectre by the ghost of a young boy. If those plots hardly seem to pair up with Mary’s story of a scientist and his terrible, undead creation, other elements – like the family dynamics, the sense of inescapable doom, the wedding that may go horribly wrong – that were familiar to many of the schauerroman were readily familiar to Mary and can be found in Frankenstein.

One of the most startling similarities lurks in the preface to Fantasmagoriana, in which translator Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès juxtaposes science and the fantastic: “The wonderful ever excites a degree of interest, and gains an attentive ear; consequently, all recitals relative to supernatural appearances please us. It was probably from this cause that the study of the sciences which was in former times intermixed with the marvellous, is now reduced to the simple observation of facts. This wise revolution will undoubtedly assist the progress of truth; but it has displeased many men of genius, who maintain that by so doing, the sciences are robbed of their greatest attractions…” While we can’t know, of course, if Byron read this preface aloud in the Villa Diodati, it seems likely…as does its possible impact on Mary.

The curious history of Fantasmagoriana didn’t end with the French translation by Eyriès. A year later, an amateur English author and translator named Sarah Utterson took five of the stories from Fantasmagoriana – “The Family Portraits”, “The Fated Hour”, “The Death’s Head”, “The Death-Bride”, and “The Spectre-Barber” – added one new piece called “The Storm”, and released the stories under the title Tales of the Dead. Utterson didn’t merely translate, but added to the texts (mainly in the form of opening quotes, which are actually well-chosen and appropriate), and deleted a romantic subplot from “The Spectre-Barber”. Tales of the Dead was published anonymously in 1813, just as Frankenstein would be five years later (publishers often felt that the public wouldn’t accept female authors).

Neither Fantasmagoriana nor Tales of the Dead had subsequent printings, so although individual stories were occasionally reprinted in other anthologies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the collection of stories that Byron, Shelley, Claire, Polidori, and Mary would have shared was out of print for nearly 200 years. In 1992, the Gothic Society put out a new edition of Tales of the Dead (with the subtitle Ghost Stories of the Villa Diodati), and in 2005 an author named A. J. Day self-published an edition of Fantasmagoriana with all eight stories in English. To date, however, there’s been no truly authoritative new edition of Fantasmagoriana. Here’s hoping that someday a fresh, vivid translation will allow new readers to experience these tales for themselves, and discover the source of some of the inspiration behind the writing of the greatest horror novel of all time.


Additional notes: You can read Tales of the Dead online here.

The Huntington Library owns Sarah Utterson’s own copy of Tales of the Dead, which is bound in dark blue morocco and includes six original watercolor paintings.