Once again, as Halloween approaches, the semi-comic image of Frankenstein's monster lurches toward us from movies and ads and costume shops, his stiff arms akimbo and neck bolts glowing red. But lost in the frivolity is the idea that the original source -- Mary Shelley's horror novel, ''Frankenstein'' -- is an allegory on the industrial revolution of the 19th century and an increasingly relevant warning against uncontrolled scientific experimentation.
Shelley's ''Frankenstein'' is subtitled ''Or, the Modern Prometheus'' because Prometheus, according to Greek legend, made the first man. Similarly, the novel presents a potent vision of the well-intentioned ''modern'' scientist who creates a monster.
Of course, we don't expect Hollywood to stay faithful to the story from which a movie is made; in fact, with the Frankenstein, Dracula and assorted Wolfman and Mummy movies, we escape to whatever fear or terror the darkness of the theater can generate, and the last thing we want is to have the fun muddied by ideas. But the novel is a different matter.
Shelley was only 19 at the time she wrote ''Frankenstein,'' published in 1818 in three volumes. Only recently did I read it for the first time, and I was shocked by both the visceral impact of the book and the wisdom of its futuristic vision.
It is significant that we have a tendency to think that
Frankenstein is the eight-foot monster, rather than the scientist who creates the monster -- no doubt the result of Hollywood's influence.
Actually, in the novel it is not the monster who is horrifying but the scientist himself, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The unnamed creation has more humanity than his creator. He shows love, compassion, and sensitivity to all creatures, animals and humans. Sadly, all he really wants is to be accepted by society, to be loved as just another human being, especially by his creator, whom he loves without limits.
The novelist Joyce Carol Oates has written that, ''Surely one of the secrets of 'Frankenstein,' which helps to account for its abiding appeal, is the demon's unquestioning, utterly faithful and utterly human love for his irresponsible creator.''
Dr. Frankenstein, on the other hand, has none of these traits. He pretends to love his family and his fiancee, Elizabeth, but he allows them all to be killed through his own carelessness and stupidity.
He pretends to be compassionate, but the first thing he does after his creature comes to life is to reject him completely and to run from his responsibility as creator. Though the scientist genuinely suffers with the murders of his family and friends by the embittered creature, his feelings are directed tortuously inward and have little bearing on his callous actions.
Frankenstein, in short, is the consummate egotist, a monomaniacal fool. Like Faust, he sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for ultimate knowledge -- the ''deepest mysteries of creation,'' as he calls it -- but then refuses to take responsibility for his discovery.
In one of the novel's most moving and significant scenes, Frankenstein finally agrees to provide the friendless monster with a mate, a woman made (as is the creature himself) of the parts of other humans. But Frankenstein decides at the last minute that creating another monster would be to perpetuate monstrosity, and so he destroys her in front of his first creation.
In effect, he breaks the creature's heart, a more inhumane act than the original attempt to seek after ultimate knowledge through creating another human being.
Frankenstein, however, is not the ''mad scientist'' of the movie versions; in fact, his intentions may well have been good. Like many of the scientist-heroes we read about today, he seriously ++ wanted to improve the human race.
Mary Shelley's book is timeless because it goes beyond intentions to consequences. Through a blend of allegory and fantasy, ''Frankenstein'' questions the value of attempts by man to seek perfect knowledge, to play God.
It isn't that modern Prometheuses should not try to improve the human race. Rather, if they are going to play God, they should not then sit back and twiddle their thumbs while mere human beings are forced to cope with the result.
Therein lies the horror -- then and now.
Charles M. Oliver is professor of English at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.