The Last Man by Mary Shelley Women In Horror Month (WIHM)
Tuesday’s Tale of Terror February 9, 2016
Mary Shelley is the first name that comes to mind when we think of women who write horror and Gothic fiction. Did you know that when her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley was cremated, his heart would not burn? Some say it was because of a health condition; others say it was because of Mary’s deep love for him. Percy’s friend Edward Trelawny snatched it from the cremation fires. Legend has it that Mary kept the dried up remains in her desk. I wrote about this in my short story Beyond Castle Frankenstein, a historical ghost story.
And while I’m fascinated by Mary Shelley as a writer and her fictional worlds, I am also still discovering her work, and this week honoring her for Woman In Horror Month. You can read three of her short stories here, free, at Tales of Terror:
One of her novels not so popular and these days overlooked if not completely forgotten is The Last Man. This is a bleak portrayal of the fall of mankind (isolation, loss, a plague); the title gives away the ending. Published in 1826 (written after her husband’s death), it received terrible reviews, but was Mary’s favorite novel (semi-autobiographical). It was republished in 1965 to far more critically acclaimed praises.
Readers who love apocalyptic stories–future time around 2100—might love it, but it is indeed a dense read (the book doesn’t get really hit until about page 200). Frankenstein is clearly the better novel.
The Introduction to the novel states that in the winter of 1818, the author visited Naples, Italy. With a friend, she toured the Elysian Fields and Avernus and entered a dark and rocky cave. “The passage, which at first scarcely admitted us, quickly grew narrower and lower; we were almost bent double; yet still we persisted in making our way through it.”
They arrived at an ascent and then another and scrambled through it until they reached an arched roof. The only sign that life had been there was a “perfect snow-white skeleton of a goat …”
Shelley says, “At length my friend, who had taken up some of the leaves strewed about, exclaimed, “This is the Sibyl’s cave; these are Sibylline leaves.”
Entrance to the cave of Sibyl.
“On examination, we found that all the leaves, bark, and other substances, were traced with written characters.” The characters were writings in various languages: ancient Chaldee, Egyptian hieroglyphics, some in modern dialects, English and Italian. “We could make out little by the dim light, but they seemed to contain ancient written prophecies.”
Shelley states that she translated, adapted, and edited these writings on the leaves into the first-person narrative of a man, Lionel Verney, living during the last years of the 21st century. Here are the opening lines:
“I AM the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole; and yet, when balanced in the scale of mental power, far outweighed countries of larger extent and more numerous population. So true it is, that man’s mind alone was the creator of all that was good or great to man, and that Nature herself was only his first minister.”
[Image by Andy Factor]
Read The Last Man at RomanticCirclesUniversityofMaryland.edu
Listen to the audio book at YouTube.com.
“What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only
describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.” –Mary Shelley
[Portrait by artist Esao Andrew. Visit Esao Andrew blog and website. ]
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