Shudder’s first of the weekly premiers in February dropped today with the gorgeous period piece A Nightmare Wakes by Nora Unkel. It is a sumptuous costume film rich in grief and inspiration. Unkel’s film is a liberal retelling of the famous cohabitation between writers that resulted in one of the most enduring horror stories of all time. Shelley’s story formed the basis for so many different stories. Everything from zombies to mad scientists found its origin in Frankenstein. Cloying and indulgent, A Nightmare Wakes feels like something directly from the mind of the fabled writer herself. The ambiguous ending and profound tragedies witnessed throughout have some basis. Here is the real truth of Mary Shelley, her children, and at fateful vacation.
When did Mary Shelley write Frankenstein?
In A Nightmare Wakes, a very pregnant Mary arrives in Lake Geneva with her stepsister but before giving birth. Very early into the vacation, she had a terrible miscarriage. Over a series of years, she lost an additional child and wrote the Modern Prometheus or Frankenstein. Seduced by the monster from her mind, Mary lost herself in grief and madness while her husband neglected to see or care about the toll it was all taking on her. Did the monster in Mary’s head manifest itself as madness, or was it protecting her from a vicious gaslighter with a track record of being selfish? In the end, it doesn’t matter because before Percy died, he had given her another child. She lived the rest of her life happily with Percy and the intrepid spirit of Dr. Frankenstein.
In real life, the classic novel was written when Mary was just 19 years old during a summer vacation at Lord Byron’s house in Lake Geneva. It was written during the three dark years following the massive volcano explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia that caused environmental problems, including famine and disease. Most of Asia and Europe were impacted by the volcanic eruption widely considered the deadliest in history. She arrived at Lord Byron’s estate looking for a vacation with her love, poet Percy Shelley, her four-month-old child, and step-sister Claire Clairmont. Joining the group was Dr. John Polidori. Unfortunately, the weather was so terrible they were all forced to stay indoors, and tensions mounted.
Claire and Byron broke up, Percy became depressed, and Dr. Polidori made countless unwanted advances towards Mary. In the midst of all of this turmoil, some of the greatest works of horror were written. Polidori’s novella the Vampyre is the first work of fiction to feature a bloodsucker, and many believe Polidori used Byron to model the title character. Mary’s novel Frankenstein was published in 1818 and remains one of the single most influential horror works to date. All but Mary and Claire died early in life.
How many children did Mary Shelley have?
In the fictional, A Nightmare Wakes, Mary has only one child who lived any amount of time. In reality, Shelley had five pregnancies. Two children died as babies, and a third died as a toddler. She had one miscarriage, three children who died very early in life, and Percy Florence. Percy and Mary’s first child, Clara, was born prematurely and lived only eight days. Just two weeks after her death, Mary wrote in her journal the first inklings of the story that would become Frankenstein.
Next, Mary gave birth to William, and one year later, Clara Everina. For the next two years, the family lived happily in the English countryside. Unfortunately, their happiness was short-lived as Percy convinced Mary to travel to Italy, and both children became ill and died. The two children died nine months apart, and the grief nearly destroyed Mary. Only Percy Florence survived to outlive his mother and marry.
How did Percy Shelley die?
Percy Shelley died at age 29 when his boat capsized during a sudden storm off the Gulf of Spezia. Ironically Percy was invigorated by the wildness of the location and had begun writing a new poem titled The Triumph of Life. The couples time at the Gulf was not a pleasant one. Mary suffered a severe miscarriage so serious Percey was forced to place her in an ice bath and tend to her for hours lest she bleeds to death. The couple was under tremendous strain as they had lost several children already. Claire’s daughter Allegra by Lord Byron had just died, and both Percy and Mary were suffering from depression, and he had Night Terrors. In those dreams, his doppelganger was trying to kill Mary.
In the days leading up to his death, it is rumored Percy attempted to purchase poison and outfitted his boat in a hazardous manner. He chose to sail that morning despite not needing to travel, and another boat captain tried to rescue Percy and his companion Williams, but Percy refused to be saved. The bodies were found ten days later, heavily decomposed and missing his face. They were able to identify Percy by his clothing and book in his pocket. There is one final weird twist. Mary, Lord Byron, and Shelley’s friends dug the bodies up one month later and burned them on the beach. Percy’s heart did not burn, and Mary kept it wrapped in silk until the day she died.
In A Nightmare Wakes, Percy walks into the water and is never seen before. More than likely, Percy did commit suicide, leaving Mary with an unborn child and her real love Dr. Frankenstein born from the darkest regions of a troubled and brilliant mind.
You can catch A Nightmare Wakes on Shudder right now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.