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I've never been an avid reader of science fiction, but some years ago I was rather taken with H.G. Wells's stories in that genre. Maybe it was the surreal fantasy element in them that hooked me where others in that genre failed. In my teens I read was enthralled by (enjoyed is perhaps not quite the right word) 'The Island of Dr Moreau', first published in 1896 when the author was only aged thirty. A few months ago I revisited it and, having completely forgotten everything that the blurb didn't remind me of, still found it fascinating.
At the time it was written, various scientific bodies were alternatively intrigued with and repelled by the concept of human degeneration and vivisection, and the more unpleasant themes of the latter form the core of the book. It's not a cosy read, admittedly.
The narrator, Edward Prendick, is shipwrecked in the south seas, and is rescued by a passing vessel. On board is Mr Montgomery, a friendly enough yet rather eccentric individual in charge of a menagerie including a puma, several fierce dogs and rabbits. He explains to Prendick that he and the animals are bound for a nearby island where he works. More than that he will not say, and at first Prendick has no idea what or why. When he meets Montgomery's personal manservant, M'ling, a semi-bestial individual, he feels a little uneasy, but as he has just been brought on to the ship when he could easily have perished instead, he realises that it is not the time to ask questions.
On arriving at the island, he is introduced to Dr Edward Moreau, a rather sinister, secretive character. After the new animals have been unloaded from the vessel, Prendick is given quarters in an enclosure close to where the men 'work'. Puzzled by the furtiveness of both men, Prendick then realises that the name of Moreau is uncannily familiar. He was a physiologist in London who undertook gruesome experiments in vivisection, and was forced to flee after being exposed by a journalist. So this, it dawns on him, is why he was rescued by Montgomery. Was it less an act of kindness and more a case of being the next victim for these unpleasant men and their experiments?
Next day, Moreau starts his obnoxious experiments on the puma. Its terrified cries are too much for Prendick, who is anxious to get away, although, being stranded on an island, his room for manoeuvre is rather limited. While wandering around aimlessly, he meets a group of people, or more accurately beast-men, who look like hogs. Walking back to his living quarters, he finds that they are following him. When the most aggressive one threatens him, in desperation he defends himself and manages to stun it. He asks Montgomery what is going on, but the latter refuses to tell him. Finding it difficult to rest that night as he is so worried, he takes a sleeping draught. Next morning he wakes up, and sees that a nearby door has been left unlocked. His worst fears are confirmed when he goes in to investigate, finds himself in a laboratory, and sees a humanoid form wrapped in bandages. A furious Dr Moreau finds him and orders him out.
Running away again, and increasingly convinced that he is going to be the next victim, he flees into the jungle and comes into contact with an apeman, who takes him to meet a group of similar specimens. Their leader recites passages from the Law, a litany with which they have evidently been indoctrinated, against animal behaviour ('Not to go on all-fours, not to suck up drink, not to claw bark of trees...that is the law, are we not men?') and praising Moreau as a kind of deity ('His is the house of pain, his is the hand that makes, his is the hand that wounds, his is the hand that heals'). Moreau himself then appears, followed by Montgomery with a revolver in his hand, and Prendick suddenly has an impulse to drown himself rather than end up in the laboratory as another experiment. But the others stop him, and Moreau explains that the Beast Folk are creatures that he has been working on in order to resemble humans. The only reason he is inflicting pain on them is in the name of scientific research and curiosity.
Now a little more confident of his personal safety, Prendick is prepared to reconcile himself to his existence on the island and accept the grotesque creatures he sees around him. But things could so easily go wrong. Although fearful that one day the beasts might taste blood, Moreau is determined to complete his experiments, Montgomery is a happy-go-lucky drunk, if not a full-blown alcoholic, and that puma is a very powerful creature...
In a sense, this is a horror story, and all the more realistic in that the boundaries of fantasy are only crossed to a small extent. Wells convinces us that this could so easily have happened. The book is fairly short, around 190 pages in paperback. Although written in the last years of the Victorian era, it is very readable and not at all archaic in its style. There is something of the quaint 'Victorian gentleman' atmosphere about it, which I rather like. Underlying it are the theme of man's cruelty to nature, and the dangers that can arise when he tries to play God and alter the course of nature itself.
If the thought of something slightly old-fashioned appeals to you, to say nothing of a gripping story in which you can't wait to find what happens next, you could well enjoy this one. As far as I know it has never gone out of print, and has regularly been available in a choice of editions, either at a bookshop or library, or maybe both, near you.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
I've been on a 19th century fiction kick recently and I've enjoyed reading lots of books that I've been hearing about for years, but for some reason or other have passed me by. Originally published in 1896, The Island of Dr Moreau is the latest short novel I've managed to polish off on my morning commute. This novel is part of Well's contributions to early science-fiction, along with War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, etc. and bears a lot in common with Shelley's Frankenstein, in that the central message is a warning against the dangers of scientific exploration left unchecked by ethical concerns.
However, The Island of Dr Moreau is far from a "straight" science fiction novel (if such a thing exists!) and Wells skillfully blends elements of mystery, adventure and horror to make a story that is ultimately about survival. The story begins when a shipwrecked biologist, Edward Prendick, is rescued from his dinghy and taken aboard a ship carrying a mysterious cargo of animals. His saviour, Montgomery, is accompanied by a faithful man-servant who has something very bestial about him. When Prendick arrives at the island of the title and finally meets Dr Moreau, he meets similarly bizarre creatures and starts to question the experiments that he is conducting on his isolated research base. Soon enough, Prendick sets out to discover the island for himself and stumbles upon more of the island's secrets...
To reveal much more of the plot would be to ruin the reader's enjoyment of the novel, so I'd best pass over onto comments on the novel. A|lthough this is a good yarn and keeps you gripped from start to finish, I couldn't help but feel that there's something missing. At some level, the story feels a bit lack-lustre. This could be because, over the years, Wells's novel has been so revered and referenced (it even has a Simpsons episode devoted to parodying it) that it's difficult to live up to the reader's expectations. Similarly, as is the case of many classic mystery novels, the average reader will already have some knowledge of the essential twists which would have delighted its initial audience.
My other criticism would be that the central character isn't very developed: despite proclaiming himself a biologist, he shows very little specialist knowledge throughout the novel and could easily have held any profession. This is in direct contrast to other books of a contemporary time, such as Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, in which the sheer volume of scientific observation can be overwhelming.
Still, this is a short enough novel to read in a few sittings and is definitely worth the effort. The story makes the reader ask what separates animals (beasts) from humans, and shares many concerns with contemporary horror.
The Island of Doctor Moreau is a quasi-allegorical 1896 science fiction novel written by the great HG Wells. The story concerns the frequently terrified Edward Prendick, a shipwrecked sailor who is rescued in the South Seas and ends up on a remote and mysterious island where a hubristic scientist named Moreau is conducting all manner of strange and troubling experiments. Prendick is soon spooked by the strange sights he catches glimpses of in the jungle and the cries he hears late at night from his room and becomes very curious to find out what exactly is going on as this unsettling tale unfolds and the macabre secrets of Moreau are gradually revealed. 'On January the Fifth, 1888,' informs the wonderfully atmospheric introduction. 'That is eleven months and four days after my uncle, Edward Prendick, a private gentleman, was picked up in latitude 5' 3" S. and longitude 101' W. in a small open boat of which the name was illegible but which is supposed to have belonged to the missing schooner Ipecacuanha. He gave such a strange account of himself that he was supposed demented. Subsequently he alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment of his escape from the Lady Vain. His case was discussed among psychologists at the time as a curious instance of the lapse of memory consequent upon physical and mental stress. The following narrative was found among his papers.'
The story begins in fine fashion with Prendick shipwrecked before managing to get aboard a fairly unfriendly ship that has an intimidating Captain and is full of caged animals. 'We drifted famishing, and, after our water had come to an end, tormented by an intolerable thirst, for eight days altogether. After the second day the sea subsided slowly to a glassy calm. It is quite impossible for the ordinary reader to imagine those eight days. He has not, luckily for himself, anything in his memory to imagine with.' Prendick is not welcome aboard at all but is saved by Montgomery, a doctor who is traveling to the mysterious island with the animals and a strange manservant named M'ling who barely seems human and greatly unsettles Prendick by his mere presence. I quite liked the fact that Prendick is a rather put upon central protagonist and we always identify with his confusion, fear and, most of all, curiosity. One strength of The Island of Doctor Moreau is that the characters are drawn in shades of grey - a case in point the character of Montgomery who is kind at times but also cruel elsewhere and involved in very dubious matters. His moral compass spins wildly.
The novel has some obvious horror elements and maintains a mildly disturbing atmosphere throughout its shortish length as Prendick finds himself on this strange island run by two men he isn't quite sure if he can trust or not. 'He sat in my deck chair,' says Prendick the narrator of Moreau. 'A cigar half consumed in his white, dexterous-looking fingers. The light of the swinging lamp fell on his white hair; he stared through the little window out at the starlight. I sat as far away from him as possible, the table between us and the revolvers to hand. Montgomery was not present. I did not care to be with the two of them in such a little room.' The Island of Doctor Moreau is genuinely creepy at times, especially the early portions of the book when Prendick is a guest of Moreau but being kept at arms length from the true nature of what is going here, his fear and interest piqued by ominous cries infiltrating his room from somewhere beyond.
The story is essentially about meddling with nature and playing God and was written when a fierce debate on vivisection was raging in Britain. Moreau is the classic mad scientist - brilliant but cruel and unethical - attempting to reshape nature into the image of man. His creations may chant laws but this veneer of civilisation is a thin one. Moreau is always an interesting and mildly enigmatic character and I liked the notion that he was once famous in London circles but somehow disgraced himself with Prendick half-remembering something about the name Moreau and trying to recall the full details. "AND now, Prendick, I will explain,' says the world weary but very sure of himself Moreau by way of warning. 'I must confess that you are the most dictatorial guest I ever entertained. I warn you that this is the last I shall do to oblige you.' The book maintains a moody and slightly unsettling air that always keeps one absorbed as Prendick staggers around the jungle in terror encountering some very strange things indeed and the intentions of Moreau become apparent. These experiments are a bit daft it has to be said but serve the story - which isn't supposed to be Crime and Punishment anyway - well with much food for thought about ethics and the nature of man and beast. The tension between human sentiment, science and technology makes The Island of Doctor Moreau a story that is still relevant today and way ahead of its time.
I didn't find the novel quite as gripping as The Time Machine or, especially, The War of the Worlds - which is one of my top two or three favourite books ever written - but The Island of Doctor Moreau is certainly a good old-fashioned and highly readable adventure with both sci-fi and horror elements and Wells' descriptive qualities and ability to create vivid and memorable characters are all present and correct. The island and jungles are also wonderfully evoked at times by the author. 'The place was a pleasant one. The rivulet was hidden by the luxuriant vegetation of the banks save at one point, where I caught a triangular patch of its glittering water. On the farther side I saw through a bluish haze a tangle of trees and creepers, and above these again the luminous blue of the sky. Here and there a splash of white or crimson marked the blooming of some trailing epiphyte. I let my eyes wander over this scene for a while, and then began to turn over in my mind again the strange peculiarities of Montgomery's man.'
The Island of Doctor Moreau is an entertaining and thoughtful piece of escapism with much to say about the things mankind is capable of in the name of progress and at what point we draw the line. Although the book is mildly disturbing at times, it's always a pleasure to slip back into the Victorian world and incredible imagination of HG Wells and The Island of Doctor Moreau is a very readable if macabre addition to his wonderful legacy.