Clearance Tale

The Gothic history of Scotland in literature goes back a long way, before the recent Gray Friar Press publication Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands, and even Fontana’s Scottish Tales of Terror from the early Seventies, which featured classics like James Hogg’s ‘Brownie of the Black Hags’ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Body Snatcher’. Even before the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott with their supernatural interludes and Robert Burns’s poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter’, no less a horror icon than Victor Frankenstein himself found himself washed up on the Orkney Islands in his flight from the creature he’d made and brought to life. The hovel he holes up in to create a female companion for his creation is a far cry from the cavernous laboratories of Universal monster movies and the bubbling retorts and glass tanks of Peter Cushing’s Hammer Horror mansions. I did wonder why he’d picked such a desolate Orcadian islet to create the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’. It even stretched credibility a little, until I remembered the background. Frankenstein is on the run from his man-made Nemesis. Plus Victor has a taste for melodrama: he’s closer to the feverish Colin Clive than the sang froid of Peter Cushing. The travelogue narrative taking in the Arctic, Switzerland, Scotland, even washing its anti-hero up in Ireland at one point, chimes in with Mary Shelley’s life story, one that saw her similarly fugitive from the scandal around her liaison with Percy Shelley and her traumatic experiences of childbirth. It’s no accident that Frankenstein’s main domestic tragedy takes place in Switzerland, where she and her husband participated in the famous ghost story competition with Byron and Dr Polidori that helped to midwife Frankenstein.

A barren rock with only sheep, and a handful of people ground down by the poverty of scratching a living from this place, for company is perfect for Victor’s purposes. Its desolation brings us back to Scotland and the Clearances, one form of the ‘agrarian revolution’ that laid the foundations for capitalism by turning a relatively autonomous rural population into a class of landless labourers. Marx suggested that capital had created its own negation in the proletariat. I’ve often thought Frankenstein and his rejected, vengeful creation were a good metaphor for what was happening in the wider society, the upheavals shaking Europe in the wake of the French revolution. It’s no accident that Victor Frankenstein is from a background of money and power; his creation is the dispossessed, an Adam who never even gets a sniff of Eden.

In my contribution to Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands, ‘Face Down in the Earth’. I look at the practice of burying Gaelic Bards face-down as punishment for their support for tenants’ resistance and land struggles against the Clearances, returning to the theme of bizarre, punitive burial practices I used in my Ninth Black Book of Horror story ‘Bit on the Side’, again with a Celtic flavour:

If there’s another subtext to ‘Face Down in the Earth’, it’s that there’s a big historical reason for all that grand emptiness. There’s a dark, terrible background to that glorious back-drop!

Apologies for taking the names of Mary and her eponymous filthy creation in vein, but if you’re interested in reading more, Marilyn Butler’s introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the 1818 text of the Frankenstein makes interesting reading (apparently MWS rewrote it to make it more compatible with conservative, religious sentiment on science for the 1831 reprint, after some criticism of the original from such quarters)

Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands edited by Paul Finch is available here:

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