In Theodora Goss’ debut novel, the daughter of Doctor Jekyll discovers that her father was part of a secret society of mad scientists. This being a gothic fantasy novel, she naturally befriends their dangerous and beautiful creations. In a world where cinematic universes have struggled to reimagine some of literature’s classic icons, including this summer’s abysmal The Mummy, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is the monster mashup that we really need.
Goss has made a name for herself as an outstanding short fiction author and academic: she’s examined classic fantasy tropes in short stories such as Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology and Estella Saves the Village, and is a senior lecturer at Boston University, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on 19th century Gothic literature. In the afterword of her new novel, Goss explains that the roots of the story stem from a question she posed while working toward her PhD: “Why did so many of the mad scientists in 19th century narratives create, or start creating but then destroy, female monsters?”
Why did the mad scientists of the 19th centuries create and destroy female monsters?
Goss first approached the question with her short story The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, which was originally published in Strange Horizons and has now expanded it into a full novel. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter grows from that original critical query, and in the process brings together characters inspired by the famous (and not so famous) monsters from the likes of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Goss introduces us to Mary Jekyll, whose well-regarded scientist father died when she was a child. While cleaning up her recently deceased mother’s affairs, she learns of an account in her name supporting someone named Hyde. With the death of her mother, her first priority is to get her household back in order, and to figure out how to pay off old debts. She enlists the services of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to investigate, believing the person to be a notorious and brutal associate of her father’s, Edward Hyde, who is wanted for murder. Mary hopes the money from a long-offered reward would help set her house in order. Instead of the wanted criminal, she discovers that the money is supporting a feisty young woman named Diana Hyde, left in the care of a charitable organization.
Intrigued, she discovers that her late father was part of a secretive organization known as the Société des Alchimistes, whose members include scientists such as Victor Frankenstein, Doctor Moreau, Abraham Van Helsing, and Giacomo Rappaccini, all of whom seem to be working toward the goal of transforming humanity. As she searches, she meets and befriends the daughters of these male scientists, all of whom have been subjected to experiments that have transformed them. There’s Catherine “Cat” Moreau, who was a puma transformed through a series of experiments into a human; Beatrice Rappaccini, a woman who breathes poison; and Justine Frankenstein, a woman reanimated as a lover for Frankenstein’s original monster.
As this unlikely group comes together, someone is lurking around London, killing women and stealing body parts — a brain from one woman, hands from another. The women discover that these crimes are connected to the society that created many of them, and they race to try and stop the perpetrators from conducting more horrific experiments.
swashbuckling adventure crossed with literary criticism
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is an interesting literary mishmash, half Victorian / Gothic fantasy, and half critical examination of the monster canon. The novel is an eminently readable and brisk adventure story, but it often confronts the reader with its heavy and powerful questions and criticisms. Goss focuses on the the brutal treatment that created these female monsters, questioning why women were frequently the targets of these scientists. In all cases, Goss presents characters who were transformed as a means to propagate changes into humanity, mothers who could pass down abilities to a new generation that would inherit a rapidly changing world. Goss’ women aren’t willing to play ball, and unlike their often solitary creators (who occupy labs, remote islands, and castles), they work together to take control of their own destinies, and stop the brutal murders.
Monster mashups are plentiful: just look at graphic novels such as Hellboy or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or even film franchises like Universal’s planned Dark Universe. Who doesn’t want to see various folklore and creatures come together for a romp? What makes Goss’ novel exceptional is how it goes beyond the mere fascination of seeing Frankenstein spend a day with Edward Hyde. She questions the very motivations that links these characters together. Goss upends fantasy tropes to bring to life characters who would have been ignored in the period works that inspired them, and the result is a fantastic, gripping read that feels true to the spirit of the original works, but updated with a modern spin for the 21st century reader.
Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge