Frankenstein’s Thousand Exquisite Corpses


It begins with space. There is space to draw. That’s the most important feature.

The margin opens up into white space whenever you call on it. You can fill that space however you want. Sketches, scribblings, notes, doodles.

The book collects them, tags them to the places in the text that inspired them, and keeps them. Every time someone reads it, the collection grows deeper and broader.

For example, this passage has been illustrated five thousand times:

I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man.

This one has been illustrated only three times, but still:

I was partly urged by curiosity, and compassion confirmed my resolution.

It is possible to walk from sentence to sentence, from one end of Frankenstein to the other, stepping only on the images the text has inspired, without touching a single word. There are actually many such paths.

With each new reader, the text is growing and changing. Over time, these small additions—a stick-figure sketch here, a note there—accrue into a living record of the audience and their shifting perceptions of the story, the themes, the characters. You can view these illuminations alongside the text, or inline, or alone. You can plot them chronologically, or by subject. You can look at one scene a thousand ways. You can add to any image, recombine them in different sequences, create something wholly new from them.

This has led to all kinds of unexpected permutations of reading. Conversations are taking place in the margins. A phrase becomes an image, that image begets a new caption, and that caption leads to yet another image. All of these connections are preserved.

For many people, reading Frankenstein has become a game. There are no set rules, or rather, there is no single set of them. There are thousands of rules, thousands of variations. Some are written down, but many more are not. Folk games bubble up for a season, then disappear. A hundred pictures, each drawn in a different hand, showing only the monster’s nose, inexplicably appear on a single day, all originating from a town in southern England. Closer investigation reveals that the tenth graders of the local secondary school were reading Frankenstein at the time, but no one remembers exactly why all the noses got drawn.

There are many such exquisite corpses strewn across the landscape of the book.

Phrases from the text are starting to crop up in unexpected places in popular culture. When they do, they are tagged and added back into the text. The document becomes a magnet that attracts its derivations back to it, and re-enfolds them. A character in a popular television show quotes the first line of Chapter Five. A Top 40 song references Henry Clerval. Mary Shelley herself becomes a sort of cult heroine. Her face appears on t-shirts, tattoos. She and her creation are macro’d and memed in ways that make some Romantic scholars cringe. But the truth of this spreading, viral text is undeniable, and even the most stoic of academics celebrate it with a smirk: the text is alive. It’s alive.

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