The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
A shipwreck in the South Seas, a palm-tree paradise where a mad doctor conducts vile experiments, animals that become human and then “beastly” in ways they never were before — it’s the stuff of high adventure. It’s also a parable about Darwinian theory, a social satire in the vein of Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and a bloody tale of horror.
As H. G. Wells himself wrote about this story, The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exercise in youthful blasphemy. “Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace. It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation.” (via Goodreads)
Why was I interested in this book?
I’ve been reading my way through H. G. Wells oeuvre. I was going to read The Invisible Man next, but The Island of Dr. Moreau has a more horror reputation and I wanted an extra title for Spring into Horror.
What Didn’t Work
The science is, of course, dated. Changing the gross physiology of an animal cannot make it into a more man-like creature. Likewise, the practice of vivisection was very controversial at the time of the novella’s original publication (1896), but the depictions are perhaps less shocking in our era of PETA disseminated photos of animals in labs. So, what does science fiction with outdated science hold for a modern audience?
Wells did believe, on some level, that the novel’s premise might be possible, though probably not in the way the novel depicts. The novel is a spinning what-if that begins in science and tumbles into philosophy. The story is more interested in how beasts might gain humanity (through fear of the law) and how human might lose humanity (through giving in to baser nature). Alas, when the Law is chanted, the refrain is “no escape.”
This Law they were ever repeating, I found, and ever breaking.
In a weird way, The Island of Dr. Moreau reminds me of a twisted version of The Tempest: a castaway ruins the tenuous calm of a genius’s retreat from the world. That work too muses on the nature of humanity.
But, also, The Island of Dr. Moreau has some pretty tense moments. Like many classics, the adaptations really aren’t spoilers for the original. I know I’ve seen the 1996 movie with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer and probably the 1977 version with Burt Lancaster too*, but I really didn’t know what was going to happen next. I know from the literary frame that Prendick will make it off the island, but like the tagline to another horror classic, what will be left of him? What I enjoy most about Wells is that, yes, he’s presenting a lot of his views of the world in his fiction, but, unlike Swift (see the blurb), he also writes a good story. Preach at me if you want, but entertain me too.
* My running playlist includes House of Pain. Two of the tracks on their first album sample the 1977 movie. “Commercial 2” has been the projected 1.5 mile mark on many of my 3K playlists
I am three for three with Mr. Wells. Looking forward to The Invisible Man.
Publishing info, my copy: ebook – HTML & Kindle, October 14, 2004 [EBook #159]
Acquired: Project Gutenberg
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction