The Island of Doctor Moreau

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The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. WellsThe 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 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…”

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.

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Island of Doctor Moreau (The)
by H. G. Wells

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