Thursday, July 29, 2010

Prehistory of Geekdom, Part 2

19th Century literature was the real gestation period for modern nerdiness, contributing stories and themes in a number of important genres. The century’s most important contribution to geekdom, though, is perhaps the development of gothic horror.

Mary Shelley, for instance, gave us Frankenstein. The origin of the novel is a classic tale in of itself—one dark and stormy night in 1816, Mary, along with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori, challenged one another to write a ghost story. Percy never really got started. Polidori turned out something that has been lost to the ages (which Mary later remembered as terrible), while Byron started a story but never finished it.

Mary, on the other hand, literally dreamed up her tale of a scientist who creates new life out of sewn-together corpses. Boy, did she start something! Full of themes and characters that strike to the heart of human nature (despite the novel’s often awkward plot construction), Frankenstein has become a part of our cultural consciousness.

In 1897, Bram Stoker gave us Dracula—the vampire who stands shoulder to shoulder with Frankenstein’s creation as one of the horror genre’s greatest creation.

Dracula is a great novel. A few of the heroes are marred by wooden characterizations, but Abraham Van Helsing is one of the coolest guys ever. And Stoker  literally creates the modern view of vampires (a view later cemented in our culture by a gazillion or so movies), coming up with a villain who is ever so slightly sympathetic, but still obviously evil.

And in between Shelley and Stoker we had Edgar Allan Poe. Gee whiz, Poe was a master of the English language, writing short stories in vivid, feverish prose that begs to be read aloud.

Try it. Grab a copy of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado” and read it aloud. Even if you don’t have a real talent for reading aloud, it’s going to sound great.

A large part of the identity of us nerds come from the horror genre, which (when done right) tells a great story AND comments on the identifiable difference between good and evil. It’s a genre that has been nearly ruined over the last few decades by gross-out imagery and the absence of moral direction. But Shelley, Stoker and Poe knew how to do horror right. They knew how to scare you rather than just nauseate you.

Oh, yeah, Poe also pretty much invented the detective story—more on that in a later chapter.

Other writers—Hawthorne, Sheridan LeFanu, Guy De Mauppassant and others—also made important contributions to gothic horror. But without Shelley, Stoker and Poe, it’s quite possible that the modern comic book/SF nerd wouldn’t exist.

A world without me in it? Unthinkable.

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