Friday, January 19, 2024

Novella Project: Eynhallow by Tim McGregor

The rare sidequel that finds the right question to answer

It's very hard to come up with a derivative work that adds something valuable to the original. No one asked for Han Solo's backstory, for example. To craft an expansion of an existing narrative, you need a good nose for the questions the text left hanging in the air. And even then, not every question will matter to readers or be able to make a sufficient case for itself.

Author Tim McGregor has found a worthy void to fill and created a great story of his own to put in that space. As you may recall, in chapters 19 and 20 of Frankenstein, the terrified doctor takes refuge in the Orkney islands to build a female mate for his lonely creation. For some reason, Mary Shelley included very little details about the location and the rhythm of its everyday life. But it would have been interesting to know more. How did the inhabitants of the islands feel about that mysterious stranger who took residence among them? Did Victor make any friends there? Any enemies? McGregor's new novella Eynhallow offers a gradually enrapturing answer to these questions Shelley didn't see fit to explore.

By giving a true-sounding voice to the unwitting neighbors whom Victor put in danger without a second thought, Eynhallow sets itself up not so much as a reimagining of the original novel and more as a missing chapter, one that makes the reader reevaluate Victor's evidently more self-serving account of the events. Life in the Orkneys is portrayed as harsh and precarious, and McGregor uses the arrival of a rich visitor as an opportunity to pry deeper into Victor's personality. The version of the doctor we get in Eynhallow is an oblivious manipulator who doesn't pause to recognize the exploitative dynamic he establishes with the locals. Far from the lonely genius of Romantic lore, he's a parasite who consumes people's time, possessions, and dignity. And that's before we even address his gravedigging habit.

Narrated with impressive believability in the voice of a housewife exhausted by the daily demands of subsistence work, the secret creation of an artificial person is filtered through the referents of Orcadian culture, equal halves influenced by tales of Celtic fair folk and Norse giants. We know what Frankenstein's creature is, but here the reader learns what the creature strikes common people as. Let's recall that the doctor never shared the steps of his method with the world; for the rest of humankind, his creature would exist at the other end of an insalvable epistemic gap, describable only in the vocabulary of myth.

Moreover, Eynhallow gives a bone-chilling answer to an urgent question that wasn't even spoken in the original text: if the doctor was trying to build a reanimated woman from dead parts, whose parts did he take? Who was that woman in her community, and how does her loss affect the people who knew her? By making intimate acquaintance with the victim of such macabre arts, we get a deeper glimpse into the corrupted soul of the man capable of using them on her.

Here the book boasts another advantage of not having Victor as the narrator: freed from clinical jargon, the process of being transformed into a walking corpse is described with sincere panic by an unforewarned lay observer. If you think it's scary to watch Bride of Frankenstein, imagine being her.

This short but memorable book goes beyond finding a hole in the story and inventing what could fit in there: it grows into its own rotten limbs and increases the tension until it escapes in a howl of fury, despair and confusion. Long after Victor has left the Orkneys and forgotten about their people, the consequences of his scientific profanation continue to haunt the place. For powerful men, their irreparable depredation of a defenseless community may be a minor episode beneath mention, but for those who have to endure it, it's the defining event of their history. Eynhallow not only provides an entertaining addition to a classic of literature, but also honors the lives ruined by progress pursued irresponsibly.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

Reference: McGregor, Tim. Eynhallow [Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2024].

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.