The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley

“You pretend to love.  And you fear to face the devil for my sake.”

When I think of immortals, I usually think of these guys.

Is it just me?  Maybe that’s a sign that it’s time to revisit that franchise.  It’s been too long.  At any rate, you certainly won’t find the MacLeods in this short story.

Originally published in December 1833, some 15 years after her most celebrated novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelly offers this short story that ponders the limits of the human experience.  Sounds a bit like a running theme with her, doesn’t it?  And why not?  Science fiction is all about exploring the human condition when it’s written by those who wish to understand its potential.

Being a short story, the plot of The Mortal Immortal is pretty basic.  The infamous occultist Cornelius Agrippa (whose works Victor Frankenstein studied) believes he has come up with a formula that’s a cure for love, which the physicians of old thought of as a kind of sickness.  Suffering the negative effects of that sickness, his vengeful assistant — our narrator — ingests the formula in order to break the spell held over him by a woman who rejected him.

Except… the elixir isn’t exactly what he thinks.  Instead of curing him of love, it infused him with an inebriated courage that allowed him to win his beloved and pursue life.  Five years later, the dying alchemist has succeeded a second time in creating the object of his quest: the elixir for immortality.  In his mind, the cure for love, and indeed for all things, is simply time.  A shattered vial prevents the alchemist from his achieving his life’s work, and he dies, leaving his assistant with the understanding that he himself will never die.

As the years go by, the narrator is forced to question how permanent everlasting life really is, if indeed he’s the recipient of it.  More than that, he has to watch his beloved and all those around him grow old while he ages not a day.  Rumor and scandal set in over time, and he is forced to relocate to prevent worse.

To say more will be to spoil the truly great philosophical questions that Shelley dares to ask.  Having read The Picture of Dorian Gray, I’m of the mind that Oscar Wilde derived much of his work from having read this tale.  And that’s a good thing.  The only thing preventing a 5 star review of this is its brevity.  But perhaps that’s the point.  The idea is simple enough, but it forces the mind to dwell on such impossible questions.

Having never before read any of Shelley’s works beyond Frankenstein, and having read that one many times over the years, I am overjoyed to discover that classic novel is not a mere flash in the pan.  I’ll be putting more of her work on my to-read list.

4 stars

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