With this being the spooky time of the year, and with two Hollywood Frankenstein adaptations in the works, what better time could there be to publish a new gothic novel that features the real Mary Shelley, madness, sexual obsession and murderous impulses? Unfashioned Creatures is the new novel by Lesley McDowell, and will be out on November 7.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been thrilling audiences for nearly 200 years, and the author herself has also long been a subject of fascination – the teenage girl who wrote a classic horror story and scandalously ran away with her own stepsister and the notorious Percy Shelley. It is fitting, then, that Mary Shelley plays a key role in another complicated triangle of characters as part of Unfashioned Creatures, which explores madness and infatuation; themes pertinent to Mary’s own life and, of course, Frankenstein.
The novel is set in 1823, just a year after Percy Shelley’s death, when Mary visited her real-life friend Isabella Baxter Booth. The meeting obviously perturbed Mary as she wrote afterwards: “I have now renewed my acquaintance with the friend of my girlish days – she has been ill a long time, even disturbed in her reason…”
Inspired by this line of Mary’s, Lesley McDowell has created a dark, Gothic tale that encompasses lunatic asylums, sexual compulsion and destructive desires. In it, we find Isabella to be indeed "disturbed in her reason" – seeing ghosts and dependent on narcotics to escape her hellish life with an increasingly violent, deranged husband. Fearful of her own murderous impulses towards him, Isabella flees for her childhood home in Scotland, where she meets an ambitious young doctor, Alexander Balfour. He will stop at nothing to establish a reputation as a genius in the emerging science of psychiatry and he believes that Isabella could be the key to his greatness. But as his own torments threaten to overwhelm Alexander, is he really the best judge of which way madness lies?
Unfashioned Creatures was launched at an event as part of the Dundee Literary Festival last weekend, which saw Lesley discussing some of the book’s themes (such as the ménage à trois featuring Mary Shelley, and the birth of psychiatry in the 19thC) and the two actors who narrated the audiobook – the brilliant Nick Cheales and Helen Cuinn – treating the audience to recreations of scenes from the psycho-sexual thriller.
More gothic goings-on will be taking place tonight at a special Halloween event in the Glasgow Sauchiehall Street branch of Waterstones. Lesley will be joined by author Louise Welsh and Dr Emily Alder of Edinburgh Napier University to discuss the gothic literature of the past and present.
Lesley will also be appearing at Blackwells South Bridge in Edinburgh on Wednesday 6 November – the eve of the book’s publication. Tickets are still available: call 0131 622 8222.