Though any book can be released, or read, at any time of year, October always seems to bring an extra helping of reading in the eerie/spooky vein. One of this October’s most deliciously Gothic new releases is Kris Waldherr’s inventive retelling of Frankenstein from the perspective of three women in Victor Frankenstein’s life, Unnatural Creatures: A Novel of the Frankenstein Women. I had the opportunity to connect with the author to discuss comparisons to classics of the genre, Waldherr’s initial inspiration, and Frankenstein “as a parable of bad parenting.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Congratulations on the great critical reception this novel has been getting! The rave review for Unnatural Creatures in Historical Novels Review, which named the book an Editors’ Choice, calls it “Worthy of comparison to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” a wonderful compliment. Bookstore shelves are packed these days with retellings and re-interpretations of well-known stories, but Wide Sargasso Sea was a real trail-blazer, primarily by giving us insight into a character whose perspective had been completely overlooked. How does Unnatural Creatures open doors within the story that Shelley’s original Frankenstein narrative kept closed?
First off, I can’t tell you how honored I was to have Unnatural Creatures compared to Wide Sargasso—I was floored when I read that review. As for the comparison itself, I think there are several reasons, one being that Unnatural Creatures is a parallel retelling of Frankenstein, just as Wide Sargasso Sea is a parallel retelling of Jane Eyre—novels that tell the female side of the story. In the case of Unnatural Creatures, I’ve focused on the three women in Victor Frankenstein’s life: his mother Caroline, bride-to-be Elizabeth Lavenza, and servant Justine Moritz. For the most part, everything that occurs in Unnatural Creatures either supports the timeline of events offered in Frankenstein, or takes place during periods that are “off stage” from Victor’s first person narrative, or subject to his unreliable perspective.
Secondly, I incorporated the historical events that coincided with Shelley’s novel, which takes place in the latter part of the 18th century—an era of great political and social upheaval in Geneva, where much of Frankenstein takes place, and France. To make sure I didn’t miss anything, I made detailed timelines. These soon grew so elaborate that they spread across the floor of my studio!
Your previous novel, The Lost History of Dreams, had such a quintessential Gothic sensibility: all haunted, shadowy corners, and dark, romantic elegance. Do you feel that fans of that vibe will find it in these pages too, or does it represent a tonal shift from your earlier work?
Readers of The Lost History of Dreams will definitely find a connection between that novel and Unnatural Creatures: both are gothic tales of families with dark secrets and forbidden love. Plus there’s a definite similarity between Hugh de Bonne, my self-destructive Byronesque poet in The Lost History of Dreams, and my portrayal of Victor Frankenstein. That said, I did my best to weave in Shelley’s original language when possible into Unnatural Creatures, incorporating quotes and snippets of dialogue and description, sometimes even retrofitting these inside alternate scenes and characters. I think readers familiar with Frankenstein will especially appreciate these Easter eggs and call backs to the original.
Can you talk a little bit about the initial spark of inspiration that led to this book? There are three points of view represented here, three women in Victor Frankenstein’s life—did one arrive before the others, or was it always going to be the tale of all three?
Frankenstein is one of my very favorite books, so a novel based on the Frankenstein women has been bubbling in the back of my mind for quite some time. When I first pitched Unnatural Creatures to my agent, I was primarily interested in Justine Moritz, who witnesses so much as a servant in the Frankenstein household. I’d never seen a book written from her point of view, and thought it would be interesting to have her involved in some way with Victor’s creature. But Elizabeth’s story also called to me, as did Caroline’s. Eventually I decided to write a parallel retelling of Frankenstein, where each woman would hand off their part of the narrative to the next one, like runners with a baton.
How easy or hard was the process of settling on that title, Unnatural Creatures: A Novel of the Frankenstein Women? “Unnatural” can be read as a bit of a wink to the labels put on women of the time who failed to conform to society’s expectations—was that part of how that word ended up in the title, or is it there for a different reason?
The title was one of the last things I settled on—it was so hard to finalize! Early on, the title was going to be The Monster’s Bride though it didn’t really work once the book expanded to include Caroline and Elizabeth. Later, I titled it Presumption because Caroline, Elizabeth, and Justine all were raised in fortune through their connections to the Frankensteins; the title was also a nod to “Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein,” which was the first play based on Frankenstein. However, that didn’t feel right either. Finally, my agent said, “Let’s make a list of possible titles and we’ll take a vote.” As you can tell, Unnatural Creatures won—and yes, “unnatural” definitely refers to nonconformist women as well as to Victor’s monster.
Frankenstein is such an interesting choice to retell through a feminist lens, given that the original 1818 novel was written by a woman, Mary Shelley, but entirely from a male perspective. I imagine that Shelley would approve of having women’s stories told, as would her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, a leading feminist philosopher of her day. Were you conscious of juxtaposing what Shelley wrote with what she might have written in an era that welcomed women’s perspectives more openly?
To be honest, I didn’t think about what Mary Shelley might have written in a later era as much as wanting to honor her legacy. I felt very intimidated to walk in her shadow—after all, Frankenstein is one of the greatest novels ever written. I also knew I wanted to focus on Frankenstein as a parable of bad parenting: in addition to Victor’s abandonment of his creature, all three women are orphaned, abused, or abandoned in some way by their parents. I can’t help but wonder whether this theme running through Frankenstein is a reflection of Shelley’s personal experiences. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever eleven days after giving birth to her. In addition, there’s Shelley’s complicated history with her difficult stepmother, whom she didn’t get along with, and her father, William Godwin, who essentially disowned her when she ran off with Percy Shelley, though they later reconciled. Though Frankenstein was initially published anonymously, Shelley made sure to dedicate it to her father—an ironic gesture when you consider it.
Unnatural Creatures: A Novel of the Frankenstein Women
by Kris Waldherr
Muse Publications LLC
Published October 4th, 2022
Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).