“Sometimes I tried to imitate the pleasant songs of the birds but was unable. Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again” (Frankenstein, 110).
“He raised her and smiled with such kindness and affection that I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature; they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions” (117)
My friends, steel your hearts, stiffen your spines and seal your ears for have you ever encountered anything as shuddersome as the Earl of Lemongrab?
Made from lemons—or possibly lemon candy—the Earl of Lemongrab is one of Princess Bubblegum’s creations in the animated television series, Adventure Time. (I’ve also written about Adventure Time, here). As Princess Bubblegum tells Finn (hero of Adventure Time), “He was the first one of my experiments gone wrong” (“Too Young”) and Lemongrab has gone very wrong since he was brought to life late one night. He is one of the most disturbing Frankensteins* I’ve ever seen. In fact, Lemongrab is the first creature who has instilled in me the sense of utter wrongness that characters in Frankenstein feel upon encountering Victor Frankenstein’s stitched-together son. I so often identify with the monster, that it is fascinating to sympathize with those he freaks the hell out.
While much is made of Frankenstein’s* loathesome visage, it is more complicated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus (Dark Horse, 2008). His creator had attempted to make Frankenstein beautiful and part of the horror comes from the contrast between the beauty of Frankenstein’s parts and the wrongness of his totality (56). Similarly, Lemongrab gets much of his horror from his totality of wrongness. By itself, his voice is not terrible, certainly not worse than other characters in the show, but his shrieking is shuddersome. His affect is all wrong—laughing with little expression, but much distorted head-jiggling. He is lonesome, but poorly-socialized and punitive, threatening characters with “one million years dungeon,” “reconditioning,” and electrical shocks. Lemongrab also has a penchant for threatening to eat other characters—or demanding that they prepare themselves as food for him. He can unhinge his lemony jaw. Without any guidance but his “lemon-heart,” his relationship tohimself and the world is ill-formed.
And though I’d shelve him in the same aisle as Frankenstein, Lemongrab is harder for me to sympathize with than the Frankenstein of the book or the films. In part, that’s because the book reflects Frankenstein’s perspective. We see the cruelty, the shunning and the pain it causes him. In the films, the idea of a man created from disparate human parts is indeed disturbing, but, again, the cruelty towards him is terrible. In the book, Frankenstein, we are with the creature as he peers into a cottage from the outside and sympathize with his longing to join the people inside. In Frankenstein (1931), we see his first tentative steps and his wonder at the sun and feel the wonder with him. Karloff’s Frankenstein is, in many ways, the best of toddlers—his curiosity, his delight, his desire to be loved, his trust. Lemongrab is the worst in toddlers, the rigidity, the rudimentary empathy, the inability to articulate his needs, the screaming and shrieking. And in Adventure Time, we first see the Earl of Lemongrab as he dismounts his lemon camel, enters Princess Bubblegum’s castle and screams, “This castle is in unacceptable condition!”
Lemongrab takes over the Candy Kingdom because a de-aged Princess Bubblegum is now too young to rule, and Lemongrab is next in line to the throne. “It’s complicated,” Bubblegum explains to Finn, before agreeing that the only solution is to pull pranks on Lemongrab until he leaves. He tries to understand the pranks as humor, laughing with, again, disturbing, desperate jiggling, but sentences the candy people to “one million years dungeon.” But Lemongrab has also come to the castle seeking companionship. Like Frankenstein, Lemongrab is lonely and that drives almost all his action. This is made explicit in, “You Made Me.” Paralleling Frankenstein peering into the cottage, Lemongrab is caught standing in the bedrooms of various candy people and staring at them while they sleep. He tells Princess Bubblegum: “I am the Earl of Nothing….Castle Lemongrab has no citizens. You have excess candies. You must donate. Donate!”
“But you don’t get along with others. I don’t understand you, Lemongrab.”
“No one understands. I am alone and you made me that way. You made me! You made me! You’re my Glob!” Lemongrab shrieks as he runs away tearing off his clothing. (Glob = God in Adventure Time).
Seeking help from his creator, Frankenstein made a similar complaint, “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, who thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss from which I alone am irrevocably excluded” (108).
Bubblegum tries sending him three candypeople to be citizens. But Lemongrab shocks them in in his Reconditioning Chamber, because, “They didn’t understand my lemon-styles.”
She tries to get him to learn the “Candy-styles,” demonstrating how to treat candy people. Lemongrab tries before declaring, “This is gross! And who says your way’s right, anyway? I look in the lemon heart that you gave me and see my lemon way to act and that must be right.”
In the book, Victor Frankenstein refuses to create a companion for fear that things will go awry. In Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Henry Frankenstein and the fabulous Dr. Pretorius make a bride for Frankenstein, and things do go awry. In Adventure Time, Bubblegum creates another Lemongrab to ease his loneliness. She recognizes that Lemongrab can only get along with himself—and that only another Lemongrab could tolerate Lemongrab for long. All seems well. The apparently content Lemongrabs settle into Castle Lemongrab, agreeing that, “A lemon gives by taking and cares by yelling.”
Unfortunately, things go really wrong after that. Imitating their “mother-princess,” the Lemongrabs go on to create life of their own, very wrong life. They believe that Bubblegum wanted them to do so because she accidentally left notes containing the candy life formula at Castle Lemongrab. Not even Victor Frankenstein foresaw this danger—the possibility that his creature and his creature’s companion would follow family tradition and asexually propagate. Like Baron Frankenstein of Hammer Studio’s films, the Lemongrabs lose interest after each act of creation, and so their creations starve. The Lemongrabs demand more food from Bubblegum. When Finn and Jake bring candy seeds to the castle, the very wrong lemon-creatures swarm them and Castle Lemongrab becomes an excellent 1930s-style mad science horror show. Some castle rooms contain only gigantic organs. In one room, containing giant kidneys, a tiny lemon-person sits next to screw. It slowly turns to face Finn and Jake and howls as its head peels itself.
The Lemongrabs explain to Finn and Jake what has happened:
“For once we had commenced, how could we desist? I looked deep in myself and found that I’m a guy who can’t stop making candy life from the food he needs.”
“Me, too. It just felt so pretty okay inside, greeting each new placid face.”
“And hearing each new piercing song.”
The Lemongrabs blame their children for the lack of food—their children’s existence keep food from those very children. After using the candy seeds to make one last candy person rather than to grow food, the Lemongrabs blame Finn and Jake for the Lemongrabs’ plan to attack the Candy Kingdom and use its candy to make a candy army:
“It’s all your fault.”
“All your fault.”
“We warned you.”
“We warned you about us.”
They’re responsible for their plan, but there is a skewed logic to their claims. They did say that they could not stop creating life, so giving them candy seeds was straight up a bad idea. And it is true that Bubblegum made them this way. The Lemongrabs are responsible for their Lemon-people and Princess Bubblegum is responsible for her Lemongrabs. But because this is a children’s adventure cartoon and not a horror movie, Finn, Jake and Princess Bubblegum solve the problem, no one starves and only one lemon person is cannibalized.** Bubblegum erases the formula from the Lemongrabs brains, using a pencil eraser. It’s not a horror movie, but it’s still Adventure Time and, therefore, kinda disturbing.
Things continue to go badly in, “Another Five Graybles” as the first Lemongrab finally makes good on his threats to eat someone. The Lemongrabs play with their son, a doll named, Lemonsweets. They play harmoniously until the first Lemongrab wants Lemonsweets to dance and the second wants Lemonsweets to go to bed. As the second fetches Lemonsweets’ sleeping bonnet, the first pointedly stares at his brother while making Lemonsweets dance. “We hate you,” he says. They struggle over Lemonsweets, who crashes to the floor, and the first Lemongrab is screams, “Only one!’ and shoves his brother into his mouth. Another horrible outcome, I doubt Victor Frankenstein foresaw in providing his creature with a companion.
In “Too Old,” Finn and Bubblegum attend a dinner at Castle Lemongrab and we discover that the second Lemongrab was not entirely consumed. Part of his head is bitten off and he has lost his legs, but he sits in a floating disk beside his now enormous brother, muttering contradictory “acceptables” to the other Lemongrab’s “unacceptables.” The first Lemongrab now resembles Henry VII. And he has attached shock collars to his citizens, and Lemonhope, a small boy who plays the harp and whose singing is not “piercing,” is imprisoned in the bathroom. The imprisonment of an innocent, the entertainment, the crowd of syncophantic yet terrified sorta medieval courtiers remind me more of Roger Corman’s The Masque of Red Death than Frankenstein. But Lemongrab still tries to impress his “princess-mother,” and win her regard in a way he can understand, one in accord with his lemon-styles.
When Bubblegum and Finn rescue Lemonhope, Lemongrab gives up on Bubblegum telling her that both dungeon and reconditioning have failed, so all that is left is unleashing his courtiers on her. It feels kind of like an inversion of the mobs who have persecuted both Frankensteins. Fortunately, the second Lemongrab has learned something of mercy and caring. After being wholly consumed, he emerges from Lemongrab #1′s maw to release the shock collars, declaring a message of hope, “Lemon need not squeeze lemon to survive.”
And I’m certain that’s not something Victor could’ve foreseen, the possibility of growth and change, but Mary Shelley probably could.
*I’m using Frankenstein to refer to Victor or Henry or Baron Frankenstein’s creation. I explain my thoughts around calling him Frankenstein in “The Specter of Frankenstein.”
**Lemonjon chooses to do so, sort of like a giant Lemon-Jesus, proclaiming: “Is this the rumored feeling of caring, the caring unknown to lemon?”
Who is this rigamarole? Carol Borden shouts to the uncaring heavens. She looks in her lemon heart and knows that her lemon ways must be right!
This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Oct. 8, 2013.