Transformation by Mary Shelley
Published by Alma Classics, 2019 (first published in 1831)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This collection brings together three little-known short stories by Mary Shelley, the revered author of Frankenstein. Each is a fantastic example of her writing prowess, and the ways in which she pioneered the science-fiction and horror genres.
The title story, Transformation, draws on classic fables and the work of Shakespeare to create a brilliantly timeless and evocative moral tale. In it, we follow a man, spurned by his great love and exiled from his homeland, who makes a deal with a strange, demonic creature in his pursuit of vengeance. Thematically, it explores the idea that true ugliness comes from the inside, the danger of succumbing to our own greed and entitlement, and the notion that the best lessons in life are often hard won. It also has all the hallmarks of the best gothic fiction, including rich settings, thick atmosphere, and sumptuous prose. (‘Evening was at hand when, seaward, arose, as if on the waving of a wizard’s wand, a murky web of clouds, blotting the late azure sky and darkening and disturbing the till now placid deep […] The waves raised their white crests; the thunder first muttered, then roared from across the waste of waters, which took a deep purple dye, flecked with foam.’) – 5 stars.
The Mortal Immortal is a melancholic and fascinating story that draws on Shelley’s own real-life experience of outliving those she loved, exploring the dichotomy of simultaneously hating life and fearing death. Her protagonist, an alchemist’s assistant, consumes a potion he hopes will cure him of the pain of unrequited love. Instead, it grants him immortality, dooming him to a life of loneliness as he watches those dear to him fade away. As with Frankenstein, there’s a thread about the danger of pursuing science beyond our control (‘… the more I live, the more I dread death, even while I abhor life. Such an enigma is man – born to perish – when he wars, as I do, against the established laws of nature.’) It’s another gothic gem, made all the more poignant given the context of Shelley’s own tragic life. – 4.5 stars.
The final story, The Evil Eye, has a subtle supernatural edge, but it’s considerably less gothic. A tale of piracy, betrayal, revenge, and family, it has a grand, epic scope despite its modest length. The adventurous nature of the plot means there are some exciting moments, alongside some typically gorgeous prose, but my love for the dark, gothic, and thought-provoking nature of the previous stories left me feeling underwhelmed by this one. – 2.5 stars.
In an ideal world, the third story would have been omitted in favour of something more in keeping with the tone and quality of the others, but altogether, this still makes for a solid example of Shelley’s skill, and why her catalogue of work beyond Frankenstein is well worth exploring.
If you fancy giving Transformation a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository with free shipping by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!