Reviewed by Francesca Forrest
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:2 (#343) in February 2011.]
Gott’im’s Monster is part of a cycle of stories by S. Dorman. The first triad of stories (Return to God’s House, Within Without, and In Winter) sets the scene, developing a place — the small town of Gottheim, Maine — and the people who live there. The second triad (Mystery Gottheim, Gott’im’s Monster, and Balder’s Wilderness) deepens the storytelling with the addition of mythological and metaphysical themes.
These books are self-published. I bought the first, Return to God’s House, directly from the author, and enjoyed it very much. (The author has since made the entire cycle available in one book, The God’s Cycle.) The sensitivity to character and the deft portrayal of the intense, understated drama of a rural New England town made me a loyal fan, so when the author decided to make Gott’im’s Monster available to a wider reading public, I offered to review it.
Gott’im’s Monster is a very different sort of book — rich, thought provoking, dramatic … and somewhat more difficult than Return to God’s House. There’s a hook of sorts: on one level the story is a retelling of Frankenstein, set in early nineteenth-century Maine instead of early nineteenth-century Europe and the Arctic wilderness. Certain plot details correspond: Victor Besiegt, like Victor Frankenstein, is found in the wilderness, where he has fled, half in pursuit of and half to escape his creation. As in Mary Shelley’s novel, the monster, jealous of those who enjoy his creator’s affections, commits murder. The plots are not identical, however, and the author does a remarkable job of maintaining suspense right up to the very end.
But the story is much more than a retelling. At its heart, it’s a meditation on human nature. Victor reflects on being driven to create — to plumb the mystery of life itself — and how he has failed:
“We are humans, and what humans make, that is what we need understanding of … We need understanding because we cannot even know ourselves, nor (as Descartes thought), truly, know of our existence … Oh yes, like God, man is the maker, but just about any old man can make. Perhaps fewer men can be true fathers.”
Abner Bartlett, the story’s narrator, a failed poet, is the one who finds Victor in the wilderness. Abner has several interactions with the monster, and his realizations about the monster’s nature could perhaps be applied upward to plenty of humans:
“Curiously the monster seemed possessed of a weird innocence. He was his own center and, if he had a conscience, it must certainly not be what we should call conscience … Whatever was right for him was right. Simply. If it was not right for him, it wasn’t right. His righteousness easily wore the face of innocence because he believed in his innocence. He could not do wrong. This is what he believed.”
The storytelling is enriched, but also complicated, by the fact that Abner Bartlett is telling us the tale from the vantage point of the afterlife, and the story sweeps several times into the 1980s, the present day of the other books in the overall story cycle. Asa Bartlett, Abner’s descendant, heads Gottheim’s historical association, and he shares the story of the monster with interested townspeople in the 1980s. 1980s Gottheim is oppressed by an environmental monster that is equivalent in some ways to Victor’s monster, but the significance of this fact isn’t made clear in this story. Various people from the 1980s are introduced, but readers who aren’t familiar with these characters from earlier books (likely most readers) may not be able to make much of these brief glimpses.
Not only is Abner speaking to us from the afterlife, but it is an explicitly Christian afterlife. This fact is woven into the story simply and with dignity; there’s no proselytizing here, it’s just a truth of the world of the story. It’s not particularly obtrusive (it really only comes up once or twice), but all the same, probably this book is not for those who are put off by expressions of religious conviction.
Victor and Abner’s discussions of human nature and human pride eventually lead to discussions of God’s nature. What kind of God can have created this world, wonders Victor, the tormented agnostic. “Why shouldn’t we believe God irrational also,” he demands of Abner, “if, as you believe, we are made in his image?”
That’s the sort of ruminative story this is. There are dramatic moments, but if you’re going to enjoy the book, it will be because you enjoy the evocation of the early nineteenth century (the language and storytelling feel very authentic) and reflection on philosophical and theological questions. It will be because you enjoy the direct addresses of Abner to you, the reader, sometimes in a very break-the-fourth-wall sort of way, as when he says, “But I would ask you, In what year are you holding this manuscript? In what year did it come into your hands?”
If the idea intrigues you, I heartily recommend giving it a try. You’re unlikely to find anything like it from mainstream publishers.