Fiction: Godwin, or The Modern Prometheus

An essay by Captain Jack Passerday, as told to Dave D’Alessio
Art by Luke Spooner


11 Nov 1824

My dear Wilhelm:

I am writing to you as my solicitor in order that I may place into your hands certain information that may someday have value to the public at large. I ask you to retain this privately in the event that I meet with some form of malicious misadventure, at which time you may place it into the hands of the authorities as you see fit.

You are certainly aware, Wilhelm, that I, and my ship and crew have recently returned from our unsuccessful attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage. This failure, and the hardships it entailed, has been described at length in the Annals of the Explorers Society and so I will not bore you with it. Instead, I wish to describe for you an unusual event that we met with at the outset of our voyage.

As you know, we put forth from Dover in June of 1821. At the time, the prevailing winds were such that I decided to take the ship into the North Sea, up the Scandinavian coastline. It was while we were in easy view of Tromso that we spied a single boat, quite small and inappropriate to the rigors of the open sea, and apparently empty. As we closed on it, however, we saw a man lying insensible in the bottom who, by dress, was clearly no Norwegian fisherman, as he wore a black cutaway jacket and top hat rather than the usual heavy sweater and knit cap.

He was brought aboard, where our ship’s doctor, the estimable Surgeon Kaye, pronounced his condition the result of starvation and exposure. The unfortunate man found a large and powerful hot toddy more than stimulating, and after he had consumed it in its entirety, along with a good handful of ship’s biscuit, he felt sufficiently revived as to tell us why we had found him as we had.

After introducing himself as a physician from London, one John Polidori, he explained that his intention had been to row north until he was lost at sea and perished. I asked what might drive a reasonable and sane man, for he seemed both reasonable and sane at the moment, to such an act, and his exact response was, “I can no longer bear the secret that I hold within my breast.” Thus he began, and from there went on with a story so unlikely that if my Lieutenant and Surgeon had not also heard very much the same, I would have doubted my own sanity.

As a fellow medical man, it was Dr. Kaye who bore the brunt of intercourse with Dr. Polidori. I requested that Dr. Kaye transcribe the man’s strange story, so at this point, I will allow him to continue in his own words.

~

Doctor Polidori said:

It was in June of 1816 that I was installed in the household of George Gordon Noel Byron, that is, Lord Byron, the preeminent poet of our age. He was currently summering at the Villa Diodati overlooking Lake Geneva, a large and open building with a broad veranda well sited and designed for enjoying the vista of the lake as surrounded by the Alps.

Alas for all of us, you recall the summer of 1816 was particularly dreadful in terms of weather. Rain accompanied by thunderstorms was general, and when there was no rain, skies were none-the-less overcast for the largest part. At times the precipitation was so precipitous that we were confined entirely to the Villa and left to our own devices in terms of entertainment.

In that latter regard, we were in great and good company. A former paramour of Lord Byron’s, the aspiring actress and singer Claire Clairmont, joined us, and had brought with her her step-sister and, for lack of a more delicate term, her step-sister’s lover. He was Percy Bysshe Shelley, known as the author of Queen Mab, and Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, and a rising literary light. As for the step-sister herself, she was perhaps even more formidable. At the time, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was of but eighteen years of age, but like her name, she was clearly the product of two formidable parents, her father, William Godwin, the radical philosopher, and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the noted essayist on the rights and abilities of women.

It was, of course, I who filled our party out to five.

If there are four people to be stranded with inside a deluged mansion, unquestionably three of them would be Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and most especially Mary Godwin. All of them were well read and sharp of intellect, and Mary in particular well-versed in natural philosophy and acquainted with all the recent theories of life and nature. Her particular interest was the conjectures of Professor Galvani, late of the University of Bologna. “I believe it cannot be questioned that the basis of life is, as Galvani has shown, natural animal electricity,” she averred, and we were loath to gainsay her given the strength of her arguments. “So it seems reasonable that life might be prolonged or restored by the transfer of same.”

“Ah,” said Percy. “That is not the question. The question is: how can it be done?”

George, for he had long since enjoined us to call him George rather than Lord Byron, held up a finger. “Surely not,” he said. “Surely the question is: why should it be done?”

“To improve humanity, of course,” Mary said in a tone that brooked no disagreement. “Is that not the only worthwhile goal of life? Let us consider just ourselves. George, you would like to have sound legs, would you not?”

It should be said that George, Lord Byron, was a magnificent physical specimen, with broad shoulders and a natural athleticism not unlike that of a stallion. His physique was marred, however, by a distinct limp arising from a withered right foot and leg, the legacy of infantile paralysis. “Certainly,” he agreed.

“And Percy,” Mary continued. “Those pains you suffer, the ones for which you dose yourself with laudanum … I know you desire your freedom of them.”

“Laudanum and absinthe,” Percy corrected. He consumed both in quantities that might have stricken a lesser mortal low; as a physician, had I not known him, I would have feared for his heart.

Mary said, “Surely that suggests something to you, John,” and it seemed that at that moment I was struck with a vision of the future of humanity.

It was beyond the ability of medical science to repair George’s leg. The shock to his system would be too great, even if he were dosed into unconsciousness with heroic quantities of belladonna. And as for the pains that plagued Percy, he had been examined by the finest doctors in London, and none could find a cause for them.

But if we could move those magnificent minds into new bodies–Healthy bodies! Strong bodies!–If we could give them new lives free of their afflictions, how much more might they accomplish? I said, “It is unfortunate that such a thing can never come to pass.”

“I have a few thoughts on that matter,” Mary said. “It seems to me that Professor Galvani’s theories have shown us the way. We shall move them to new bodies.”

It was agreed that it was neither reasonable nor moral to ask another person to give their body over, and although the graveyards were full of bodies no longer in use, so to speak, as Mary pointed out, “We would have no idea what disorders might accompany a corpse.” And so it seemed that our flight of fancy would be no more than such, until George declared, “There is also the question of what one might be able to accomplish if one was possessed of intellect alone, without the casket of a corpus.”

At that Claire sighed in a manner most theatrical, as suited her aspirations as well as her intent.

“Galvani has demonstrated in public the means of keeping organs alive,” Mary said. “Certainly, for all its marvelous complexity, the brain is an organ as well.”

And so it was agreed. I would remove from Percy’s body his good right leg, and attach it in lieu of George’s withered limb, and then we would give George’s repaired body to Percy. In the meantime, Mary devised a most clever device that would allow George’s brain, and so his mind and intellect, to be maintained by the direct application of animal electricity, the animal electricity to be supplied by one of the pigeons roosting in the rafters, by means of a motive force supplied by a small galvanic pile, or “battery,” constructed from disks of copper and zinc separated by cardboard soaked in brine.

There was still a single matter that I, as a surgeon, felt obliged to bring up. “There is still the question of shock,” I reminded them. “It is difficult enough to simply amputate a limb, but to replace one? Or, in George’s case, to remove his head entirely from his body? I assure you I am not being facetious when I say that it would kill him.”

“Electricity,” Mary said. “That which is stopped can be restarted, surely. Recall that Galvani has reanimated amputated frogs’ legs using mere static electricity rather than its more, shall we say, lively counterpart.”

“And where will you find that, my dear?” Percy asked. His pains had been unusually severe that day, and so his voice was dreamy as he dosed himself with laudanum. “Perhaps I should rub myself against a hundred cats, that is, if the beastly little things did not make me sneeze so.”

The heavens chose that moment to split open, and through the windows, we could see the lightning dancing atop the Alps. “There is static electricity, all we could want and more,” Mary said. “This house is equipped with several of Doctor Franklin’s lightning rods.”

George lifted a goblet toward Percy. “I will if you will, old chap. What say you?”

Percy saluted with his bottle of laudanum. “‘Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries “Hold! enough!”‘”

At that, Claire moaned.

We did not proceed that evening, or in the next several. Mary needed time to construct the device that would keep George’s head alive, and a number of experiments were made toward the end of controlling the currents of electricity coursing through the Villa’s lightning rods. Too much, we quickly found, removed all trace of animal electricity from our test animals, leaving them drained and burnt on the floor, and so Mary created a choke, as she called it, of glass, mica, and paper, to reduce the current to survivable levels.

But the time came that the apparatus was perfected. All we needed do was await the next thunderstorm.

It being the extraordinary summer of 1816, we needed wait only briefly.

All was ready and prepared. I had my finest scalpels honed to edges most acute and laid in fine thread of silver for the suturing to follow. I eschewed the large bone saw, since I had no desire to damage either of the bodies, and since they would be in a state that Percy sardonically referred to as “deanimation,” there would no necessity of speed, as deanimated hearts would not pump life’s blood away and deanimated nerves not scream in agony.

Mary passed to each of the men a specially prepared cup, containing a dose of belladonna I judged sufficient to stop their hearts, dissolved in a healthy lashing of laudanum.

Percy drank his off without a care. “Let thine lips touch mine,” he begged Mary, and as he drifted away she cradled him in her arms and hugged his head to her bosom.

George was somewhat more cavalier: he raised his cup and declared, “To the great experiment,” then drank it away, leaving Claire gazing at him longingly.

Once their hearts stopped, I began the procedure immediately. I will not describe the details, but I will say that it was unquestionably the finest work I have ever done.

Illustration of two men facing away from each other with lightning bolts between them. The image of the men looms over a small dark woman.

But the time came that the apparatus was perfected. All we needed do was await the next thunderstorm.

Fine it might have been, but it could not proceed too quickly for Mary. She was unwilling to disturb my concentration, but I could sense her urgency as she fluttered around her apparatus. In order to provide the proper quantity of animal electricity, she had selected a pig for the procedure, and she went over and over the unique cradle she had designed to restrain it. As for the maze of copper wires and bus bars directing the static electricity as needed, and the galvanic pile she had devised for George, they awaited their turns patiently.

Once Percy’s head was secured to George’s body, the nerves of the spinal column properly and individually spliced together, I removed the right leg from Percy’s body and replaced George’s. Now they would each have that which they desired: George the life of pure intellect, Percy a strong and healthy body … If, that was, there was any truth in the theories of Professor Galvani.

Outside the house, rain poured, sheeting down the windows, drumming on the roof. Lightning flashed through all the windows at random, followed in mere moments by the crash of thunder, louder than the fire of any gun, the contributions of the gods themselves, or so it seemed, although whether in approval or admonition was not revealed until later.

I stepped back. “Now,” I said.

“NOW!” Mary shouted, and with a violent jerk of her arm, closed the largest of many knife switches she stood amidst.

Lightning struck the house, flashing through all the windows. The choke glowed red, then white, and sparks shot from it, arcing across the furniture to disappear toward Mother Earth. There was an eerie buzz that rose in volume, as did the screams of the pig and the scent of burnt hair. “More!” Mary shouted. “I need more!” She threw another of her great knife switches.

George’s eyes fluttered open. “What?” he said. “Where–?” His eyes focused. “Success! It is success, is it not, John?”

“Not yet,” Mary said. She threw the third switch, straining with her entire weight to close it seemingly against its will. “One more should do, I hope, I pray!”

Lightning lit the room again, casting ghostly harsh shadows around the walls. The thunder rattled the very walls of the villa.

Percy blinked. “I live,” he breathed, and then he shouted, “I live! I live!” Mary fell across him, crying and kissing him.

~

For all that the gods hated us, they sent us a few short days of bliss so that we might be brought lower at the end. George set to work on the Third Canto of his brilliant work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, beginning with thoughts of his beautiful baby daughter.

“Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!

“Ada! Sole daughter of my house and heart?”

He dictated to Claire, who sat quietly and scribbled his words into a notebook in a hand that was large and childish but for all that easily legible.

As for Percy, he reveled in George’s cast aside body. He doffed his clothing and danced in the rain as Mary laughed and clapped her hands, his only adornment the sutures circling him neck and thigh. There was no trace of the limp that afflicted George, and they each thanked me endlessly for making it so.

I prepared a set of notes for presentation to the Royal Society. I could not take credit for the discovering the technique of reanimation, for it was entirely Mary’s creation, but the work of placing one man’s head on another’s body would make my reputation in and of itself. I might be only a footnote to greats such as Galvani and now Godwin, but it would be a footnote that would live forever.

We were euphoric, all except perhaps Claire, for those few days, but few they were and soon they were gone. The evil omen arose when I passed Percy in the parlor and saw in his hand the familiar rectangular bottle of laudanum. “Your pains,” I asked him. “They are back?”

“Only a ghost,” he said. “Little more than a memory.”

But he swallowed a healthy dose from the bottle, one that gave me cause for concern. “Be careful,” I cried. “Your old body was used to such a draught, but this one is unprepared.”

He swayed and nodded. “I see,” he said. “I see that you are right.” He corked the bottle. “Some coffee will chase the cotton from my head. Come, John, let us break our fasts.”

Mary awaited us, and as we dined, Claire arrived as well, her face pale and her hands shaking. “Here,” she said in a low voice, handing the notebook she carried with her constantly to Mary. “Read what George has dictated to me today.”

“‘Ode to a breadcrumb,'” Mary read.

“‘All hail golden breadcrumb

‘Fully the size of my thumb.

‘Would that you were so sweet

‘As the finest fresh-picked plum …’ This is awful.”

“He thinks,” Claire said, “he is a pigeon. He thinks he is the pigeon he is drawing animal electricity from.”

Percy chortled, but Mary looked at me. “Surely animal electricity is animal electricity, regardless of source,” she said, but I had the sense that she was not asserting so much as asking.

For myself, I had no idea. “Certainly that is subject to empirical test, I should say,” I said.

Mary nodded. “I shall redesign the apparatus. We shall use … I think a vole would perhaps be appropriate?” A barn mouse would certainly be easy to obtain.

~

Only Percy, and perhaps George, went through the next day untroubled. The skies cleared for a few hours, a harbinger of perhaps a spell of better weather approaching, and Percy sat on the veranda, overlooking the lake and drinking his laudanum. The only moment that made him seem out of sorts came when Mary asked him to let her have his bottle for a minute. “No,” he said, speaking in a dread-filled voice. “It iss mine, my preciousss.” When she desisted, his mood righted itself, but across the day, his consumption rose from heroic to a level I would describe as self-destructive, and as his intake rose, Mary’s spirits fell equally.

The next morning over the breakfast chop, Claire, lip trembling as she held back tears, passed her notebook to Mary. Mary herself now turned white in turn.

“I say, what ish that?” Percy slurred. He was barely able to keep his eyes open against the power of the poppy juice.

“A poem,” Mary said. “It is called, ‘Mind of a Vole.'”

A tear fell from Claire’s eye.

Mary read,

“‘Shall I nibble on a leaf and

‘Call it your ear, dear one?

‘My hunger doth gnaw at me

‘And in me a desire for nuts.'”

Percy chuckled. “By gad, that’sh awful shtuff.”

Awful it was. Before our … well, our ears, at least … the finest poet in all England was churning out verses that even a hack writer of scientific romances would know to be doggerel.

I think it was at that moment I came to hate myself. I had such power in my hands, I thought, the power to heal, to make Mankind better, the world better, but I could see now that the gods had been laughing at my hubris, that they intended to punish me for daring to hope to improve on their handiwork. And so they have since that moment.

Mary, it seemed, felt much the same way. “The process worked exactly as it should have,” she said, her lips thin as she fought to keep her voice steady. “It worked as it should have, and now we learn this is not meant to be Humanity’s lot. But what is to be done?”

My mouth was dry. “We must put them back as they were,” I whispered.

I might have shouted it for the way Percy reacted. “No!” he exclaimed. “No! Look at me! I’m shtrong and healthy, ash I’ve never been before! I shan’t give it up! I shan’t!”

“We don’t know whether it’s possible,” Mary said. “You joined the head to the body, John. Is it possible for you to undo them?”

“There will be no undoing! Undoing will not be done!” Percy staggered to his feet, took another mighty draught from his bottle, and then pitched face forward across the table. As he lay, he wept, “No, no, Mary. Ash you love me, do not do thish.”

“You must,” Claire said. “And you must do it quickly.”

It needed to be done quickly, and in this the gods, in particular Jupiter Pluvius, had their way. The day remained, if not bright, dry and without a flash of lightning to be seen in any direction. The sky that night was crimson and purple, a sight I would have thought magnificent on any other day, but Mary and I stood on the veranda and looked at the sky, and remembered the words, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”

We also recalled the words, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning,” the next day, which dawned blue and gray, without a hint of crimson. “It cannot wait much longer,” I told Mary. Soon the sutures would heal, leaving Percy’s head affixed to George’s shoulders more strongly than his original had been, with sinews of silver instead of flesh, and as for George, well, today his animal electricity was supplied by a goose. He honked furiously at Claire until she fled in tears.

“But without the static electricity as a motive force,” she whispered in a voice so low I barely overheard. “Without it, how?”

The words, it proved, were not intended for my ears. Later that afternoon a heavily laden cart wound its way up to the villa from the town below. Two workmen started to unload basket after basket of metal disks, half bright and red, half dull and gray. Copper and zinc. “Another galvanic pile,” I breathed.

Mary stood by, counting the disks and directing the servants to the well to draw water. “The galvanic pile,” she answered. “The largest ever seen.”

“Will that be sufficient?”

She looked at the veranda, to where Percy lay splayed out, the laudanum bottle still in his unconscious fist. “It will have to be.”

And so I again administered the belladonna, to Percy via his bottle, and to George by the simple expedient of pinching his nose closed until he took it into his mouth. Again, the women held their men until life became extinct, and again I plied my trade with all the speed and skill I possessed, for it was only right that I atone for the sin I committed against them. We retrieved Percy’s body from the basement, where it had been preserved in brine and kept on ice, and I replaced his head, attaching the nerves in his spine one at a time until each was fixed and true. I took as much care in replacing George’s bad leg to his body; if I was to undo the wrong I had done, it was necessary, or so I felt, to undo it as entirely as was in my power.

And once I was satisfied, Mary threw the switch. There was the hum of electrical energy flowing through from the enormous pile, the squeal of the pig that formed the animal part of the apparatus.

Neither man so much as twitched.

“Blast!” Mary shouted. She slapped the galvanic pile. “I need more power! Where shall I–”

She stopped. She took a deep breath. “No, not more power. The right kind of power. Animal electricity! Claire, come here!”

“What? No, I’m frightened,” Claire said, but the force of Mary’s will was such that she would not be gainsaid.

Mary took Claire’s hand and placed it in George’s. “As you love him, as you wish him to love you, do not let go!” she said, and then said, “John, take Claire’s hand!”

I took Claire’s right hand into my left, and felt Mary seize my right. The pile was connected to the pig, the pig to Percy, and the two men by a copper cable, and I realized that Mary was about to take up the ground on the pile, completing the circuit through our very bodies. “No, wait,” I shouted, but she held onto me with all her might and touched the ground.

A great vibration fired through my body, and, like Galvani’s frog, my legs spasmed, launching me into the air. Beside me Claire screamed in agony, while Mary stared grimly and glassy-eyed as the full energy of the pile raced through her. She bit down on her lip and blood flowed down her chin, but she held tight, taking the force just as we did, willing the men back to life. Behind her the pile heated and overheated, steam rising from every joint as the great power surged out of it, and through it all my most vivid memory is of the pain, the constant pain, the unendurable pain coursing through my body.

Percy said, “I say,” and when he spoke, Mary released the circuit. The pile smoldered and our hair, all five of us, had burned off, but we five, all of us, had held, and we five, all of us, had survived, even though I suspect we had not been intended to. Only the pig was overcome, the scapegoat carrying our many sins on its head.

We swore each other to utter secrecy that day, knowing that we would be reviled by many and hounded for the secret by others if anyone ever came to hear. Claire returned to England carrying George’s child; George finished the Third Canto; Percy and Mary were married at the end of the year, once Percy’s first wife had died.

As for myself, I wanted to see none of them again, for the sight of any of them would remind me of the evil we had done.

I have never spoken of this before, although the memory has driven me to drink and gambling, a deadly combination. I have never heard that Claire or George said anything either, nor have Percy and Mary spoken directly of it.

But two years later, an anonymous little story, written in a voice I recognized as Mary’s but misattributed to Percy, was published, the story of a monster reanimated. The tale was promoted as a scientific romance, and many of its readers believed it could not possibly be true.

One reader, myself, knew there was truth in it. I was haunted by the thought that some day, some wily investigator would intuit from the story what had happened at Villa Diodati and come to ask me about my role in it, a role I tried desperately to put from my mind and failed. And so I have come here with the intention of ending my life, and if you are a gentleman, you will put me back in my boat and leave me to do it.

~

I am an explorer, Wilhelm, and no gentleman as you well know, so I did not put the strange doctor out in his dinghy to die. I placed him aboard a packet bound for London and resumed my voyage.

Upon my return I made inquiries. Doctor Polidari, it seems, managed to end his life without my aid, by means of prussic acid. Shelley, too, was lost from a small boat; the authorities have charitably described it as an accident. George, Lord Byron, as every school boy knows, was taken by a fever in Greece earlier this year, about the time I was admitting the failure of my voyage.

Mary Godwin Shelley had me escorted from her house when I raised the topic, and the solicitor of Claire Clairmont explained in lengthy terms just what I might expect were I to make contact with her. Each party has made veiled threats of violence should I repeat Dr. Polidori’s story; just today I received a note in a large, childish hand stating, “Discretion is the better part of vitality.”

It strikes me that there is one piece of evidence remaining that might speak to the truth of Dr. Polidori’s amazing tale. Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont will not testify; Doctor Polidori is beyond the reach of the law. Percy Shelley was cremated, and we will never see him again.

But Lord Bryon is buried in St. Mary Magdalen Churchyard, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. If it should matter, Wilhelm, if some fate befall me that causes it to matter, perhaps the body of Lord Byron might be exhumed. If it is examined carefully, the truth may be ascertained by seeing whether, around Lord Byron’s neck and thigh, there are scars.


Captain Jack Passerday, RN, Member of the Explorer’s Society, served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars, being promoted from Ensign to Commander. Following his unsuccessful voyage in search of the Northwest Passage (1821-1824), he and his crew disappeared during a search for Hawaiki, the legendary home of the Polynesian peoples (1827-?), presumably during a tropical typhoon. The attached manuscript was found among the papers of Wilhelm Cheatham, Esq., upon the dissolution of his firm Howe, Dewey, Cheatham Associates in 2018.


Dave D’Alessio is an ex-industrial chemist, ex-TV engineer, and ex-award-winning animator currently masquerading as a social scientist. His more than twenty previously published stories include “The Twenty-Year Reich,” finalist for the Sidewise Award for best alternative history short story of 2017, and “Jack the Giant-Killer: A Species Traitor?” in Mad Scientist Journal, Volume CXCVIII, August 2015.


Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.


“Godwin, or The Modern Prometheus” is © 2019 Dave D’Allessio
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Luke Spooner

Follow us online:
This entry was posted in Fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.