On a hot summer day in 1977, my cousin Casey and I spent the entire, glorious day at the local tri-plex theater. We paid to see one movie, but hopped the red velvet ropes between films and saw all three features, one of which had such a profound impact on me that, even though I only saw it the one time over 30 years ago, I have never forgotten it. We saw Viva Knievel (which is worth its own post in a “forgotten movies” discussion), starring the motorcycle daredevil Evil Knievel. We saw another movie that has maintained a little more staying power than the Knievel flick, a little movie you might have heard of called Star Wars. And the third was the Burt Lancaster/Michael York sci-fi/horror film The Island of Dr. Moreau. I was young and impressionable, with an imagination always on the lookout for some new flight of fancy. And though, like everyone else my age, I thought Star Wars was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen, it wasn’t the movie that I left the theater obsessed with. I was smitten with the animal/human hybrids that were created by the twisted Dr. Moreau.
In 1977 I was ten. As I mentioned in my last forgotten book post, my primary companions as a youth were two big dogs. After seeing the movie, I constantly played “Island of Dr. Moreau” with the dogs, tearing around out in the fields around the house, and back in the line of trees that bordered a ditch that bisected the property about a quarter mile away. I had a set of those plastic vampire teeth that you can get when Halloween costumes come out, and I used to run around pretending I was some kind of half man/half animal creature, with super strength and agility, of course. I don’t know how long this went on, and I don’t remember if I ever got any friends to play the game with me (though I don’t believe I did, because no one else had seen the movie), but I do know I only saw the movie that one time. Nor will we speak of the 1996 remake, which I did, unfortunately, see.
Fast-forward now to 2010. Last week I was browsing through the local used bookstore, idly looking for whatever caught my eye. Particularly I was looking for “forgotten”, to me at least, books. I found myself in the “W” section (looking to see if they had any Daniel Woodrell, to be honest), when I saw they had several works by H.G. Wells. I was shocked to see The Island of Dr. Moreau among them. Turns out it was his third novel, published in 1896.
Again, I don’t know how forgotten this book is to people more well read than I, but I sure didn’t remember it, not as a novel anyway. I’m ashamed to say I’d never read it before. I’m certain I was aware that it existed as a book, but the movie has always been my point of reference. And that it was written by H.G. Wells? Sure, it makes sense now, but I would expect that most people who think of H.G. Wells and his novels tend to think of works like The Time Machine or War of the Worlds first. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong. I’m no Wells scholar, that’s for sure. I picked up a copy and read it while hunkered down in a motel room on the edge of a big chunk of wilderness that serves as home to myriad wild beasts, not the least of which are wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolverine. That seems somehow appropriate. Yes, there are less threatening species in abundance too, but it is the big predators that keep us up at night, right?
The story is told in the first person by a narrator named Edward Prendick, who is rescued at sea after being the only survivor of a shipwreck. His rescuer is a doctor named Montgomery, who has a strange and brutish manservant named M’Ling. The captain and the crew want nothing to do with either men, and their loathing is passed along to include Prendick. The only other passengers are an odd collection of animals kept on deck in filthy cages.
When the ship arrives at the island home of Montgomery and M’Ling, the captain also chooses to throw Prendick off the ship, leaving him stranded on the island, with no other ships expected for months. Ultimately Prendick learns that the island is the home of Dr. Moreau, a London physiologist who was run out of town after his gruesome experiments in vivisection were uncovered. He has continued work on this remote island, and is working to alter animals in such a way as to make them human-like. The long and short of it is Prendick is horrified and mayhem ensues.
This little novel is more horror than science fiction. It is also a great adventure story, a shipwreck story, and a meditation on some ethical concerns of Wells’s era that are frighteningly relevant today. For example, from the “Note” section that precedes the first chapter:
Dr. Moreau, the surgeon turned vivisectionist, is one of Wells’s earliest and most sinister personifications of the scientific question to control and manipulate the natural world and, ultimately, human nature itself. The ethical questions raised by Wells in this novel, written almost a century before the science of biomechanical engineering existed, continue to grow in relevance as genetic manipulation becomes increasingly more commonplace.
GMOs? Cloning? Hell, even stem cell research. These are all things going on in the real world today that Wells seemed to be waving a red flag and shouting, “Do you people really want to be doing this kind of thing?” What would he think of our world today?
I enjoyed the book. More than once I paused, shaking my head that the story was written more than 100 years ago. It doesn’t read like so many of the older books do, in a strange and archaic form of language. That it is presented as a report by Prendick, any inconsistencies can easily be attributed to the unreliability of the narrator, so I was never jolted out of the story by any writerly indiscretions. Is it the greatest book I’ve ever read? Certainly not, but I had a lot of fun with it and will certainly read it again. I’m happy to have found it. I’m looking forward now to rewatching the old, 1977 movie.