Emma Carroll's YA novel 'A Strange Star' is a creepy imagining of the origins of history’s greatest horror story [Book Review]

Where did the inspiration for Mary Shelley's masterpiece Frankenstein come from? This book has a possible answer.

John Millen |

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Strange Star

By Emma Carroll

Published by Faber and Faber

ISBN 978 0 571 31765

The scene is set. It’s a dark and stormy evening in June 1816, and a small dinner party is being held at the Villa Diodati on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. As the guests gather for a relaxed, entertaining evening, the lightning flashes and the thunder cracks.

The host, English poet Lord Byron, has invited neighbours round for the evening. Byron’s guests are fellow poet Percy Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin, her sister Claire, and Dr Polidori, Byron’s physician. When dinner is over, the group of friends gathers in the sitting room around a roaring fire.

As the storm continues to rage outside, Byron challenges his guests to each tell a blood-chilling ghost story as after-dinner entertainment. But before the stories can begin, there is a loud pounding at the door. Who is so desperately trying to find shelter from the storm and get into the villa?

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The opening chapters of Emma Carroll’s haunting new novel Strange Star are based on actual recorded events. The ghost story evening at the Villa Diodati did take place, and it gave rise to probably the greatest horror story ever written.

Mary Godwin would become, after her marriage, Mary Shelley, and the story she told that night was about a mad scientist who created a monster out of bits of dead bodies. When she later wrote the story down in book form, she called her novel Frankenstein.

That pounding on the door that interrupts this famous story-telling evening begins the gripping and fearsome side-story that Carroll has decided to tell. The door opens to reveal a young girl with scars on her neck and face on the doorstep. She says she is searching for her younger sister who has been kidnapped by a woman called Mary.

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The girl’s name is Lizzie Appleby, and once inside the villa, she recognises Mary Godwin. Byron invites the terrified Lizzie to join his guests and explain why she has travelled all the way from England

to Switzerland.

Previously, Felix, Byron’s servant boy, had seen the ghostly figure of a girl with blond hair at an upper window of the Shelleys’ villa, but had thought nothing of it. But the Shelleys have no children, and the mystery deepens when Felix discovers that Mary is grieving over the death of a baby.

And then this near-dead English girl turns up out of nowhere, claiming to know Mary, and telling a tale of kidnapping. What are the Shelleys


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As the girl’s story unfolds, the action moves back to England to describe the events that have brought Lizzie to the Villa Diodati.

Last summer there were odd goings-on in the small country village where Lizzie lived with her family. A stranger had moved into Eden Court, a mansion on the outskirts of the village, and rumours spread like wild fire that dangerous and ungodly experiments were being carried out there. Without really understanding what was happening, Lizzie and her sister Peg got dragged into the mystery of what was going on at the big house.

And now Lizzie is in Switzerland, scarred, scared and barely alive. What terrible events have brought her to the infamous Villa Diodati?

Carroll writes brilliant and original YA novels, and Strange Star is her best yet. She cleverly bookends her own spooky story with a skillful mix of imagination and real events. This is an enthralling and at times chilling read, and could well be the

stepping stone to introduce young readers to Shelley’s gothic masterpiece when they feel brave enough!

John Millen can be contacted on [email protected]