Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Gadz, The Workshop of Filthy Creation (2021)

Richard Gadz, The Workshop of Filthy Creation. Deixis Press, 2021. Pp. 258. ISBN 978-1-8384987-3-3. $15.99.

Reviewed by Jason Kahler

In the days leading up to me finishing reading Richard Gadz’s excellent The Workshop of Filthy Creation, my significant other and I braved the COVID-draped movie theater for a special double-feature of the classic (1931) films Dracula and Frankenstein. I’d seen both of those movies before, of course, but I don’t think I’d ever watched them back-to-back, and certainly never on the big screen.

As much as I love both of those films, and appreciate them as important artifacts of film and cultural history, I don’t think I’d understood just how much I prefer Frankenstein until experiencing them in such direct juxtaposition. For starters, Dracula is just so slow, with so much of its menace focused on Bela Lugosi’s eyes just emoting dread. Frankenstein crackles with intensity, with desperation, and ultimately, with deeper questions about the nature of living and humanity. There’s just more on the shelf. Lugosi’s count may win the trophy for best performance between the two (though Karloff really does a great job of showing the monster’s despair through all that make-up), but Frankenstein is just a better movie.

It’s no surprise, then, that I greatly enjoyed Richard Gadz’s novel The Workshop of Filthy Creation. The main premise of the book is that the story of Frankenstein that we know from Mary Shelley’s book is real, and that Frankenstein—whose real surname, according to this new novel, was von Frakken—had heirs who continued and expanded upon his work. The result is a series of unsettling, gory, and morally reprehensible experiments and procedures that Gadz unveils deftly throughout the story. The description is never exploitive, and the true horror is the cavalier way the villains of the book subject their victims to their cruel science.

Von Frakken’s work isn’t all blood and guts, however, and you can’t have a Frankenstein without a monster. Here, it’s Maria, a sort of Frankenstein Monster 2.0 who is insightful, strong, and beautiful, in her way. She has a voice and agency that the monster from the classic movie never receives. Fans of the original novel might recognize some of the first Creature’s introspection at play with Maria. For people whose entire exposure to the Frankenstein Monster concludes with Halloween masks and Karloff’s grunting, an intellectual monster might be a nice change of pace. One significant change, however, between this von Frakken creation and the previous, is that Gadz’s monster spends much less time pining for the approval of her maker and more time exploring what makes her unique.

What does it mean to be made of parts? To have memories that aren’t your own? What power is there in experiences you know for a fact were the result of your own decisions? This book explores some pretty heady philosophy, but never sacrifices plot or story for navel-gazing.

The book does an excellent job of exploring the time in human history where science, morality, and religion were smashing together. The technology of Frankenstein has advanced here, with amazing new breakthroughs that make Maria possible. But these advances are also beholden to superstition and flawed sciences, like galvanism. This isn’t a steampunk novel, but it shares some of steampunk’s sensibilities.

For example, the London of The Workshop of Filthy Creation is everything you’d expect from a Victoriana-inspired cityscape. Lives there are brutal, dirty, cheap, and short. I enjoy steampunk and alternative histories, so I felt right at home in the world Gadz created. The people who struggle to exist in this crap-hole felt real; I celebrated their successes, and felt badly when they suffered. It’s these people who orbit Maria that create the drama and conflict. They each see Maria for what she is and what she represents, but that vision is rarely shared by anyone else.

As the dark underbelly of the Industrial Revolution, Ganz’s London is a machine in and of itself. Everybody is a commodity to be exploited, and so is every body. Maria is the perfect “-punk,” the ultimate outsider who can see us and the systems on which we rely for what they really are. What they are isn’t good, or kind, or fair. Like so many Victoriana authors before him, Ganz questions the price of progress, who suffers beneath its machines, and who’s allowed to benefit. Considering many people in our world are openly questioning the risks and rewards of medical advancements like vaccines, the book is asking particularly timely questions.

As with all good monster stories, the true “monsters” are the people in the world. Gadz has deftly populated his story with people who hold competing priorities. When those priorities run afoul of each other, the ensuing mayhem nicely blends characterization and exhilaration. For all of Maria’s philosophical wonderment, there’s plenty of action to keep the blood moving.

If I would level any criticism on the storytelling, I might mention how the technique of using journal excerpts, which is key to the story at the book’s beginning and a nice nod to the structure of the source material, is ultimately abandoned in favor of more traditional narrative storytelling. When used poorly, that device is a crutch, but when used well, as it is early on here, excerpts like that can advance the plot while also revealing character in an efficient manner. I would have liked to learn more about the inner-thinking of some of the characters. It’s good that I’m keen to learn more, because the ending—though satisfying in its own right—leaves open the possibility that there’s more of Maria’s story to tell. I’d welcome spending more time in Gadz’s London.

I recommend the book to any reader looking for a scary adventure that has more to say about the qualities that make us human, but I strongly recommend it for fans of Frankenstein (the movie or the book) and for fans of other media like The Frankenstein Chronicles. I think it’s appropriate to mention, too, since this book and other stories about Frankenstein’s monsters are always so focused on material creation, that The Workshop of Filthy Creation is a nice object. I appreciate the feel of a well-made book, and though a good story can be shared on napkin scraps, if need be, it’s a pleasure to hold such a well-made artifact while also enjoying its contents.

The great battle for supremacy between Dracula and the Creature will never fully be over, and that’s fine. There’s room in this world for lovers of vampires and for lovers of creatures stitched together and reanimated. But The Workshop of Filthy Creation is a fine example of why I believe the scales are tipped in Frankenstein’s favor. In these narratives, there exists the possibility of just having more to say. More understanding to illuminate. Because, though vampires may get to be suave and debonair, Frankenstein’s monsters get to stomp around in the light.

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