Sunday, June 16, 2019

Our June Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: Grimdark tales -- THE FRANKENSTEIN CHRONICLES

Grimdark describes a particularly grizzled and surreal dystopian fiction. It features doom, gloom, and pessimism; stuff creaks, groans, clanks, is clouded in mist. Rulers are useless, heroes flawed, doing good is futile, might trumps right. The grimdark category is reportedly inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war’ (grimdark imagery below).

George RR Martin gave us A Song of Ice and Fire which has spun out into the avidly obsessed-over grimdark Game of Thrones (GoT). Dickens favorites are more literary, while recent grimdarks include Peaky Blinders, Taboo, Ripper Street, Walking Dead and THE FRANKENSTEIN CHRONICLES, which lean to naked horror. Playing now on Netflix, it has been described as ‘brilliantly grim’ (The Guardian) and is well-enough reviewed on Rotten Tomatoes (80% season 1, 72% season 2). The series stars Sean Bean as a grungy policeman, a shambling contrast to his turn as lord of Westeros’ North.

Bean is himself a memorable character, with dozens of film, tv credits, and awards including a multi-year series based on novels by Bernard Cornwell about a rogue Napoleonic-era soldier named Sharpe. Bean resembles him too much, putting him on the outs in the Me Too era — he has recently married his fifth wife with domestic fray on the record. His character, John Marlott, is fated to live out a variation of Mary Shelley’s monster in her novel Frankenstein (art getting even with Bean, as it were).

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) is a character in the series, played by Anna Maxwell Martin (above l, with Marlott and Ed Stoppard, r, as Lord Hervey). The actual teenage Mary, daughter of two writers and wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote ‘Frankenstein’ anonymously in 1816, revising it for publication under her own name in 1831, having suffered years of pregnancy and loss. (Her story is very well told in last year's bio-pic, Mary Shelley.) For so young a woman at the time of its creation, it is extraordinary psychological drama, seminal science fiction, and a cautionary tale for modern technologists. The main character is science student, Victor Frankenstein, a young man absorbed by the challenge of creating life, who uses electrical current in lab experiments to animate a man-monster that has been stitched together of human parts. The unhappy creature brings tragedy to Victor, his family, and to the monster himself, in which one’s sympathies toward creator, Victor, slowly shift to his creation. Shelley observes: “People are rendered ferocious by misery and misanthropy is ever the offspring of discontent.”

Mary (above) constructed her morbid fiction on the dangers inherent in scientific manipulation of human life and her own losses—her mother died following her birth, invoking loss of love and guidance and Mary buried three of her own infants. In a 2018 The New Yorker review of the novel on its bicentennial, Jill Lepore describes it as “an allegory, a fable, an epistolary novel, and an autobiography, a chaos of literary fertility….”). Shelley was uniquely a mother as well as writer, (in contrast to Jane Austen, the Bronte’s, and George Eliot). Also, her incorporation of the intellectual hot topics of the day such as the work of Darwin and Galvani (the ‘father’ of electrophysiology) have made the novel a touchstone to this day for scientists, inventors of robotics and artificial intelligence, behavioral sciences, genetics. And Shelley’s work itself has more intellectual gravitas than any of its succeeding tellings.

The creators of Frankenstein Chronicles, Benjamin Ross (director, writer, above) and Barry Langford (writer), made crime procedurals about the underworld of Regency London, seeding its two series with real people and situations that allude to the Frankenstein tale but go their own way, using crime, prostitution, drug smuggling, poverty, illness, politics, “tweedy styling, plentiful hats, bursts of viscerally gory violence” (Telegraph). Some have described ‘Chronicles’ as a reimagining of ‘Frankenstein’ — really not so, rather they use Frankenstein memes. There are two freaky lords intent on human animation. An intrepid journalist, Boz, deemed to be Dickens, collaborates with Marlott — serializing the mystery in the paper. Add Sir Thomas Peel, a real British Home Secretary and Prime Minister; poet William Blake; and Ada Byron (Lily Lesser), daughter of poet Byron, raised on science by her mother to counter Byron’s anti-social ways. Ada says: ‘There will be a time when everything you see and do will be influenced by machines …and we must embrace it chewed up in its cogs.’ Mathematician Ada (below) was known for her work on the mechanical computer, presaging the computer age by a century and influencing Alan Turing’s computer code-breaking at Bletchley Park during WWII.

The main protagonists, in addition to Marlott, however, are Lord Daniel Hervey, a private hospital owner played by the excellent Ed Stoppard, his sister, Lady Jemima, played by Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in The Crown), Thames River policeman, Joseph Nightingale, played by Richie Campbell, also a small turn by Kate Dickie (Lysa Arryn in GoT). Season 2 introduces the devious and secretive Lord Frederick Dipple (Laurence Fox of ‘Inspector Lewis’, charismatic and delicious to watch, below, r) and for pathos, widowed seamstress Esther Rose (Maeve Dermody, l).

Season 1 begins with policeman Marlott on his rounds finding a dead child on the river who has been sewn together from bodies of others (like Frankenstein’s creature). Marlott is charged to find out about it by Sir Robert Peel (Tom Ward), who is trying to pass laws that will professionalize medicine and medical analysis. Marlott finds a war raging among factions with assorted nefarious stakes, which I leave for you to discover. The plot drags in parts, despite the intense charisma of characters, themes, and irresistable Dickensian atmosphere. The story arc does not measure up to, say, ‘Ripper Street’. Still if you are a horror fan, you may think it well worth the effort. A third season seems likely but has not yet been announced.

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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