by Percy Bysshe Shelley
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Shelley’s gothic novel written at age eighteen suffers in comparison to his future wife’s gothic novel written when she was eighteen. The latter, after all, is one of the classics of the form, and arguably one of the great modern myths (depending on how one defines myth). So there’s a sense in which Zastrozzi is most useful as a way to throw the greatness of Frankenstein into stark relief. Comparatively, Zastrozzi is flat, and its prose more mannered. It never really touches on the primal fears that Frankenstein does, and seems much more of its era. Largely a violent soap opera, filled with lies and stabbings, its plot moves in fits and starts, and its conception of character is broad and simple.
But it’s not unentertaining, if you like the gothic. Specifically, if you like early gothic — Ann Radcliffe-style gothic, which was light on supernatural events but heavy on crumbling castles, sublime scenery, and villainous Byronic figures in the south of Europe conducting elaborate vendettas. It has been said that the gothic novel, in its original form, was in part defined by its anti-Catholic bias, its exoticising of Catholic societies, and you can see that in Zastrozzi’s wild Italian killers. That said, anti-Catholicism doesn’t seem to be a focus of the book, the way it seems a conscious interest of Maturin in Melmoth the Wanderer. In fact, other than the introduction of the evil Inquisition, there’s surprisingly little anti-Catholic sentiment here from such a noted atheist as Shelley.
You could probably read the book as an interesting contrast to Shelley’s own Cenci as well as a contrast to Frankenstein, or to Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest. Like The Cenci, it’s about thwarted love and heightened emotion, with aristocratic Italian characters. On a technical level, you could probably argue that it’s better than Radcliffe's Romance in its dramatic technique, and particularly in its concision — the book presents itself as a fragment, a favourite technique of the Romantic era as it is now, and so begins in the middle of things with background filled in along the way. It’s almost terse, in structure if not in style, and gains a real power from the extreme compression with which the material is treated. At its best, it’s almost hallucinatory in its intensity. Which is a good and fitting thing in a true gothic novel.