It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a title from Tartarus Press, the UK-based publisher of fine limited editions and winner of three World Fantasy Awards and a Stoker. My reintroduction to the press came in the form of the novel Frankenstein’s Prescription, by Tim Lees.
Set in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, this pitch-perfect period piece chronicles the experiences of Hans Schneider, who when we first meet him is a rather arrogant medical student at Heidelberg University. Forced to abscond after he unintentionally kills another student in a duel, Hans’ forced exile leads him to a post as an assistant at a remote asylum. From the moment he arrives, things seem decidedly strange, and that includes the nature of Hans’ new boss, the enigmatic Dr. Lavenza, who manages to seem both crazed and detached at various times. To further complicate matters, there’s a murderer loose in the woods nearby.
Hans eventually discovers a series of increasingly disturbing facts:
- Lavenza is engaged in experiments to reanimate the dead;
- Lavenza’s real name is Frankenstein, and he is a descendant of the good Doctor himself, Viktor;
- the murderer in the woods is none other than the Frankenstein Monster, both immortal and immoral;
- as seen elsewhere, the monster wants a mate, and won’t cease plaguing the Frankenstein family until he gets one.
The tale is enlivened by frequent doses of subtle humor, as here:
“I wondered what I had been a party to; was it surgery or was it torture? In truth, I had often found it hard to tell the two apart.”
But then again, not all the humor used is quite so, er, subtle, as evidenced by the following exchange between Hans and Lavenza, which is joined by their servant Karl, a not-overly-bright former asylum patient.
“‘This is a problem to be solved Hans, not a crime. Not — what did you call it? Not a massacre. More the reverse. Indeed, an anti-massacre.’
‘Like on a chair,’ said Karl.”
Even though there’s a healthy dosage of such humor, comedy is certainly not the prevailing mood — there is plenty of drama and horror to be found in these pages. But what’s unfortunately missing is really any sense of mystery or suspense. Given that most of the info I disclose above is revealed, or otherwise apparent to the reader, early in the story, and given that the monster’s quest for a bride has been explored multiple times before across various media… well, there’s a lot of familiar ground being trod here. For the most part, though, Lees’ evocative writing manages to keep the reader engaged.
It’s worth noting that the author explores at length Lavenza’s role as the creator of the monster — and hence as God in the monster’s eyes — as captured in the monster’s monologue here:
“‘The life was shot into my veins…and then the light inside my skull caught fire, so fiercely I could never shut it out again, and even when I sleep, the colours dance upon my eyes and tease me with a mockery of life; and the sounds I heard still thunder in my ears… I was not born as you are, helpless maggots, squirming through your first few years of life. I was born awake, and I was born full-made. And I remember.’”
Frankenstein’s Prescription is clearly a labor of love by Lees, as it’s hard to see a story such as this appealing to a mass audience in today’s world. His appreciation for the subject shines throughout, making this an appealing read, beautifully packaged by Tartarus Press (as always).