The Big Chill

Historians called 1816 “The Year Without A Summer,” but literature enthusiasts saw it as the birth of a new genre.

Today the hot topic at any water cooler is the current state of our environment, otherwise known as global warming. What long-term effects will it have on our world? What can we do? How can we get involved?

But almost two hundred years ago, an entirely different scenario took place. Global cooling. And the results were completely unexpected.

It all began with a series of volcanic eruptions in the Caribbean, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. One estimate claims that Mount Timboro alone (in the East Indies) spewed a million and a half metric tons of dust into the stratosphere. The resultant diminished sunshine in 1816 caused a catastrophic and unexpected chain-reaction throughout Northern Europe, Newfoundland, the Canadian Maritimes, and the American northeast.

Frosts in May destroyed crops, which later caused food shortages and riots. Throughout the entire year, brown snow fell in Hungary and red snow fell in Italy. Almost a foot of snow blanketed Quebec City in June; in July--as far south as Pennsylvania--lakes and rivers chilled beneath layers of ice; within a matter of hours temperatures could swing from 95 degrees F to below freezing.

It was in the midst of this unpredictable year-with-no-summer that a capricious clique of intellectuals, writers and lovers decided to take a holiday. The group met in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where they stayed together in the Villa Diodati, and their interlocking history reads like a daytime soap opera.

Heading up the literary troupe were current lovers Percy Bysshe Shelley, an English romantic poet who had been expelled from Oxford in 1811, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of a famous feminist and an anarchist philosopher. Included in the group were Lord Byron, a reckless and talented poet known for mercilessly breaking hearts, and his physician, John William Polidori. Rounding out the cast and connecting all the melodrama-dots was Mary’s stepsister, Claire Claremont, a former lover of Percy’s who was now pregnant with Byron’s illegitimate child.

All their plans for an idyllic summer holiday changed, however, as a direct result of the inclement and unpredictable weather. “But it proved a wet, ungenial summer,” Mary wrote in her diary, “and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” With the weather too dismal to go outside, they all decided to stay indoors and read ghost stories from a book called Fantasmagoriana. It proved a fun distraction for a while, but they soon decided that they could write much better tales.

So they challenged each other to write a horror story.

Like most writers under pressure, the young 19-year-old Mary got writer’s block. She watched in frustration while the others penned gothic tales. Then one night she had a startling “waking dream,” or vision, where she saw an entire story enfold before her.

“When I placed my head upon my pillow, I did not sleep,” Mary wrote of her experience. “Nor could I be said to think...I saw—with eyes shut, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.”

She had stumbled upon her story, a project that she would continue to work on and eventually publish. She had also inadvertently created an entirely new and different genre of fiction: science fiction.

Her story: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Another noteworthy contribution from their little group was John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which would later influence Bram Stoker to write Dracula.

“What terrified me will terrify others,” Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley wrote of the vision that inspired her. “And I need only describe the spectre which haunted my midnight pillow.”

Science fiction would grow over the next century, with contributions by a vast number of mega-talented Victorian authors that include Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. It would involve a new approach, where the author continually asks himself, “What our world be like if . . .” Over the following two centuries science fiction writers would predict things like microwaves, cell phones, airplanes, space travel, computers and cyberspace. Today the United States Homeland Security Department employs a group of science fiction writers, including Greg Bear, to help combat terrorism by imagining “What if?” scenarios.

It’s possible that the cold spell of 1816 not only changed our literary landscape—it may have even changed the way we think.

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