By Harry Mottram: Over a couple of Bloody Marys in The Raven in Bath (or so the story goes) Chris Harris and Jonathan Willis hatched a Gothic plan.
Not to wear dark crimson lipstick or to put on long black cloaks and a top hat, but to open a house to celebrate the writer Mary Shelley.
“I said to Chris – this was a couple of years ago – did you know that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in Bath,” said Jonathan, “and he said no – but I said we should do something – I mean everyone knows that Jane Austen visited Bath but not the author of arguable the first Scifi novel and Gothic novel.”
Using Chris Harris’ theatrical background and creativity and Jonathan Willis’ entrepreneurial skills the duo set about creating Bath’s latest attraction: Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein.
“I live in The Circus and I look out the window and see hundreds of visitors everyday,” he explained, “but actually in Bath there’s not that much for families with teenagers to go and see together. They will go to the Roman Baths but they can’t jump in and visit the Abbey to see the tombs of dead people but for teenagers they want something a bit spooky.
“We’ve spent around £700,000 creating the House of Frankenstein with its very theatrical interior.
“It’s very scary so the age limit guidance is 12 plus. There’s a sound and light scape, and even an aroma scape – so when you go into the laboratory it smells like a school chemistry lab. The Mourning Room has a whiff of frankincense like a church while the room with the modern interpretations of movies and illustrations smells like a cinema foyer with pop corn.”
Mary Shelley (1797-1851) wrote the novel in 1816 with the first notes drafted in Geneva while visiting Lord Byron having been challenged to write a ghost story by the poet.
Her half sister Fanny had committed suicide that summer and further tragedy occurred when Mary’s first child died as a babe.
The Shelleys returned to England and Mary took up lodgings in Bath where she completed the novel with the encouragement of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and it was finally published in 1818.
It has not been out of print since. Jonathan said: “The house was by the Abbey where there is a blue plaque as it was demolished a long time ago but we wanted to celebrate Mary’s life as it was fascinating.
“The house explains about her life and the times she lived in and marks the fact that the novel was a landmark in English literature.
“There’s even an eight foot tall recreation of the Frankenstein she describes – not the Boris Karloff image we have. We pay homage to the literary and historical aspects of the novel as well as making the cellar really scary which is why it is not suitable for young children or those of a nervous disposition.”
The collaborative project has used the talents of theatre designers and inspirations from movies and cinema but above all it remains a spooky experience and a world away from that of Jane Austen and Georgian Bath.
“There was no IP address, no family of the Frankenstein to demand the rights to the name,” said Jonathan, “so we could get on with the idea and get to work.
“Of course as soon as we started work on the project there was a global pandemic which did create some delays but generally it didn’t hold us up too much.
“The building is on a lease and is a commercial property in Gay Street and is a Georgian house with lots of original fittings which we have kept.
“We’ve added lots of strange artefacts and vintage items to create the multi-sensory atmosphere that brings the imagination of Mary Shelley to life.”
The attraction opened to the public last month at 37 Gay Street – not far from The Raven or from Abbey Church Yard where Mary Shelley penned the novel.
Post script: The Chris Harris mentioned is not the late Chris Harris many pantomime fans in Bath will remember with affection who died in 2014.
Post, post script: the play, Frankenstein by Nick Dear, is being staged at the Mission Theatre from September 6-11, should you wish to be completely spooked.