Science Fantasy Friday: Frank vs. the Volcano

This was originally posted as an entry for the LJ community History Time and is reposted here for simplicity’s sake. Other than posts from obsolete websites (like Kick-Ass Robots) or personal blogs, very few entries for this site will be reposted from elsewhere.

Also, before it comes up, I know “science fantasy” is a term for a specific genre of speculative fiction, but the terms “sci fi” and “fantasy” are better known by the general public and “Speculative Fiction Friday” reminded me too much of Jim Cramer.

Before we begin, a few facts should be established.

First, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley all but invented science fiction. Others had used science in stories before, and fantasy, at some level, had been around for centuries, but Shelley successfully turned science – hard science of the time – into the driving force behind the plot of her novel.

Second, vampires are not the century’s old romantic bloodsucking monsters they are commonly thought to be. Vampires were originally a series of rural legends about unhallowed dead causing trouble for the living. By “unhallowed” I mean “not properly buried” and by “trouble” I mean “causing bad luck” (crops failing or grandma falling sick, that kind of thing). They weren’t the vampires we think of today until John William Polidori wrote his penny dreadful about a “Vampyre” that stalked the elite of Europe by seducing women and promising power before causing pain and suffering in his victims.

That out of the way, I want to bring add a layer to these horror stories not often discussed: the birth of science fiction and the modern vampire might not have happened if a volcano didn’t explode on the other side of the planet.

A world away from these two revolutionary writers, on the island of Tambora in remote Indonesia, pent up geothermic pressure decided to make its presence known. This wasn’t just any old volcanic explosion either, it was one of the biggest eruptions in history. It destroyed the nascent civilization of the island, it startled soldiers marching thousands of miles away, it caused nearly unprecedented flooding in the Yangtze Valley, it caused the sun to burn red in Britain, it caused blood-colored snow to fall in Hungary, it caused summer snows on the American east coast and killed nearly 100,000 people by most estimates.

It was the Year Without a Summer. Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.

And for a group of writers invited to spend the summer on the lake with Lord Byron, it was an ugly, frightening, dark and wet vacation from hell.

In Shelley’s own words…

It is a subject also of additional interest to the author that this story was begun in the majestic region where the scene is principally laid, and in society which cannot cease to be regretted. I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than anything I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.

The weather, however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is the only one which has been completed.

Legend has it, the writers decided to have a writing competition to see who could tell the scariest story. Shelley’s entry was based on a nightmare she had (possibly inspired by a recent failed pregnancy) about a man who created life but feared his own creation. Polidori wrote a forgettable ghost story that gave rise to his interesting but not groundbreaking serial horror: The Vampyre.

Now, admittedly, these writers were already headed down dark paths and might have written these stories anyway, but it was that competition that got them started and it was the weather that caused the competition and it was the volcano that caused the weather.

If Tambora hadn’t exploded, what would’ve become of vampire fiction, or more importantly, science fiction as a whole?

All art in this entry created by Kevin Garcia.

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