The Island of Dr. Moreau: A Possibility, by H. G. Wells – Book Review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
The Island of Dr. Moreau: A Possibility, by H. G. Wells. Frontispiece by C.R.A. [Charles Robert Ashbee]. London, William Heinemann, April 1896, x + 219 [+ 1 + 34] pages, 6/-.
This is arguably the first “furry” adult novel, not counting the talking animals of children’s literature such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Or the adult Metamorphosis/The Golden Ass of Lucius of Apuleius, which was caused by a magic salve and the gods.) It was intended as an anti-vivisection polemic, and it made quite a stir when it was published, although not entirely for the reason that Wells intended. According to the introduction by Alan Lightman in a later edition (Bantam Classic, 2005), “Ranked among the classic novels of the English language and the inspiration for several unforgettable movies, this early work of H. G. Wells was greeted in 1896 by howls of protest from reviewers, who found it horrifying and blasphemous. They wanted to know more about the wondrous possibilities of science shown in his first book, The Time Machine, not its potential for misuse and terror.”
The public focused less upon the animal-men than upon Dr. Moreau’s callous vivisection experiments. In the novel, the physiologist comes across as an obsessed sociopath who cares only for his scientific research, and is oblivious to the pain he causes to his animal subjects. But to the public, he was a crazed monster. This image is clearly emphasized in the second motion picture adaptation, Island of Lost Souls (1932), in which Charles Laughton plays Dr. Moreau as a whip-cracking sadist who seems interested in his experiments only as a justification for his cruel tortures of his victims, and to create subjects whom he can rule as a god.
But we are less interested in the vivisectionist than in the animal-men. The novel is presented as the journal of Edward Prendick, an Englishman who is shipwrecked in 1887 somewhere off the west coast of South America. He is rescued by a small schooner traveling to an unidentified island to land Montgomery, a medical technician, and a cargo of caged animals. It is on the boat that Prendick encounters the first of the Animal Men:
“We left the cabin and found a man at the companion obstructing our way. He was standing on the ladder with his back to us, peering over the combing of the hatchway. He was, I could see, a misshapen man, short, broad, and clumsy, with a crooked back, a hairy neck, and a head sunk between his shoulders. He was dressed in dark-blue serge, and had peculiarly thick, coarse, black hair. I heard the unseen dogs growl furiously, and forthwith he ducked back,—coming into contact with the hand I put out to fend him off from myself. He turned with animal swiftness.
In some indefinable way the black face thus flashed upon me shocked me profoundly. It was a singularly deformed one. The facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle, and the huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as I had ever seen in a human mouth. His eyes were blood-shot at the edges, with scarcely a rim of white round the hazel pupils. There was a curious glow of excitement in his face.
‘Confound you!’ said Montgomery. ‘Why the devil don’t you get out of the way?’
The black-faced man started aside without a word. I went on up the companion, staring at him instinctively as I did so. Montgomery stayed at the foot for a moment. ‘You have no business here, you know,’ he said in a deliberate tone. ‘Your place is forward.’
The black-faced man cowered. ‘They—won’t have me forward.’ He spoke slowly, with a queer, hoarse quality in his voice.” (p. 12-13)
The schooner’s drunken captain, who takes a dislike to Prendick, throws him off the boat with Montgomery at the unnamed island. There Prendick meets Montgomery’s employer, the biologist Dr. Moreau. They seem to have a staff of the queer animal-like natives of the island.
“I stopped just in time to prevent myself emerging upon an open space. It was a kind of glade in the forest, made by a fall; seedlings were already starting up to struggle for the vacant space; and beyond, the dense growth of stems and twining vines and splashes of fungus and flowers closed in again. Before me, squatting together upon the fungoid ruins of a huge fallen tree and still unaware of my approach, were three grotesque human figures. One was evidently a female; the other two were men. They were naked, save for swathings of scarlet cloth about the middle; and their skins were of a dull pinkish-drab colour, such as I had seen in no savages before. They had fat, heavy, chinless faces, retreating foreheads, and a scant bristly hair upon their heads. I never saw such bestial-looking creatures.
They were talking, or at least one of the men was talking to the other two, and all three had been too closely interested to heed the rustling of my approach. They swayed their heads and shoulders from side to side. The speaker’s words came thick and sloppy, and though I could hear them distinctly I could not distinguish what he said. He seemed to me to be reciting some complicated gibberish. Presently his articulation became shriller, and spreading his hands he rose to his feet. At that the others began to gibber in unison, also rising to their feet, spreading their hands and swaying their bodies in rhythm with their chant. I noticed then the abnormal shortness of their legs, and their lank, clumsy feet. All three began slowly to circle round, raising and stamping their feet and waving their arms; a kind of tune crept into their rhythmic recitation, and a refrain,—“Aloola,” or “Balloola,” it sounded like. Their eyes began to sparkle, and their ugly faces to brighten, with an expression of strange pleasure. Saliva dripped from their lipless mouths.
Suddenly, as I watched their grotesque and unaccountable gestures, I perceived clearly for the first time what it was that had offended me, what had given me the two inconsistent and conflicting impressions of utter strangeness and yet of the strangest familiarity. The three creatures engaged in this mysterious rite were human in shape, and yet human beings with the strangest air about them of some familiar animal. Each of these creatures, despite its human form, its rag of clothing, and the rough humanity of its bodily form, had woven into it—into its movements, into the expression of its countenance, into its whole presence—some now irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint, the unmistakable mark of the beast.
I stood overcome by this amazing realisation and then the most horrible questionings came rushing into my mind. They began leaping in the air, first one and then the other, whooping and grunting. Then one slipped, and for a moment was on all-fours,—to recover, indeed, forthwith. But that transitory gleam of the true animalism of these monsters was enough.” (pgs. 59-61)
Prendick comes to assume that Dr. Moreau is conducting experiments to turn men into animals. He flees the biologists’ compound into the jungle, where he finds the Beast Folk’s community and their bizarre religion:
“‘Say the words,’ said the Ape-man, repeating, and the figures in the doorway echoed this, with a threat in the tone of their voices.
I realised that I had to repeat this idiotic formula; and then began the insanest ceremony. The voice in the dark began intoning a mad litany, line by line, and I and the rest to repeat it. As they did so, they swayed from side to side in the oddest way, and beat their hands upon their knees; and I followed their example. I could have imagined I was already dead and in another world. That dark hut, these grotesque dim figures, just flecked here and there by a glimmer of light, and all of them swaying in unison and chanting,
‘Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
‘Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
‘Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
‘Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
‘Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
And so from the prohibition of these acts of folly, on to the prohibition of what I thought then were the maddest, most impossible, and most indecent things one could well imagine. A kind of rhythmic fervour fell on all of us; we gabbled and swayed faster and faster, repeating this amazing Law. Superficially the contagion of these brutes was upon me, but deep down within me the laughter and disgust struggled together. We ran through a long list of prohibitions, and then the chant swung round to a new formula.
‘His is the House of Pain.
‘His is the Hand that makes.
‘His is the Hand that wounds.
‘His is the Hand that heals.’
And so on for another long series, mostly quite incomprehensible gibberish to me about Him, whoever he might be. I could have fancied it was a dream, but never before have I heard chanting in a dream.
‘His is the lightning flash,’ we sang. ‘His is the deep, salt sea.’
A horrible fancy came into my head that Moreau, after animalising these men, had infected their dwarfed brains with a kind of deification of himself. However, I was too keenly aware of white teeth and strong claws about me to stop my chanting on that account.
‘His are the stars in the sky.’
At last that song ended. I saw the Ape-man’s face shining with perspiration; and my eyes being now accustomed to the darkness, I saw more distinctly the figure in the corner from which the voice came. It was the size of a man, but it seemed covered with a dull grey hair almost like a Skye-terrier. What was it? What were they all? Imagine yourself surrounded by all the most horrible cripples and maniacs it is possible to conceive, and you may understand a little of my feelings with these grotesque caricatures of humanity about me.
‘He is a five-man, a five-man, a five-man—like me,’ said the Ape-man.
I held out my hands. The grey creature in the corner leant forward.
‘Not to run on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?’ he said.
He put out a strangely distorted talon and gripped my fingers. The thing was almost like the hoof of a deer produced into claws. I could have yelled with surprise and pain. His face came forward and peered at my nails, came forward into the light of the opening of the hut and I saw with a quivering disgust that it was like the face of neither man nor beast, but a mere shock of grey hair, with three shadowy over-archings to mark the eyes and mouth.” (pgs. 89-91)
But when Prendick is reunited with Moreau, the scientist tells him that the opposite is true. He is turning animals into humans – “triumphs of vivisection”! The strange religion that Prendick has seen has been created by Moreau to keep the Beast People less animal-like and more human.
Dr. Moreau explains at length, to Prendick’s disgust and horror. Prendick, speaking as the surrogate for Wells, is in favor of scientific research but conducted in a moral, humane manner; while Moreau stands for “science without sentiment” – the philosophy that, forty years later, resulted in the often-fatal Nazi experiments upon concentration camp prisoners. Moreau keeps the upper hand in his own laboratories, until the puma escapes and it and Moreau kill each other. Montgomery is soon also killed, and Prendick goes to live with the humanized Beast Folk. But without Moreau’s constant efforts to keep them semi-human, they gradually devolve back into feral beasts. Prendick flees the island and is rescued, but nobody believes him. When the island is revisited four years later by a British warship, they find “nothing living thereon except certain curious white moths, some hogs and rabbits, and some rather peculiar rats.” (p. vi) – presumably the larger carnivores and omnivores have eaten each other, and then died off.
The Island of Dr. Moreau was effective as an anti-vivisection screed, but nothing more because everybody knew that no vivisection could ever really change animals into men. Today, with advances in genetics and DNA manipulation, it does not look so impossible. In any case, this novel is the forerunner of all of the science-fiction stories of futuristic evolution and/or artificial mutation, and of “uplifted” animals since then.
Wells never wrote a sequel, but there have been many by other authors, counting the novelizations of movie screenplays that strayed far from the original story (e.g., The Island of Dr. Moreau, by Joseph Silva [Ron Goulart]. Screenplay by John Herman Shaner and Al Ramrus. Illustrated with stills from the motion picture. Ace Books, July 1977, 180 p.), and unauthorized sequels (e.g., Moreau’s Other Island, by Brian W. Aldiss. Jonathan Cape, August 1980, 174 p.; The Pride of Dr. Moreau, by Robert W. Butsch. Kindle, January 2014.), plus novels inspired by Wells’ classic (e.g., Dr. Franklin’s Island, by Ann Halam [Gwyneth Jones]. Dolphin/Orion Children’s Books, June 2001, 215 p.; or Sherlock Holmes: The Army of Dr. Moreau, by Guy Adams. Titan Books, August 2012, 284 p.). Most of them are enjoyable for one reason or another — the 1977 American-International movie and Ron Goulart’s novelization of it are memorable for their giving Dr. Moreau a first name (Paul), their changes to the plot (Dr. Moreau also tries to devolve Prendick [renamed as Andrew Braddock] into an animal), and A-I’s creation of the word humanimal™ which was overused in the movie’s advertising, and always with the ™ added. But Wells’ original is still the best.
- Combined edition of the original novel by H. G. Wells, and the 1977 movie novelization by “Joseph Silva”. Nelson Doubleday, October 1977.
- The Pride of Dr. Moreau, by Robert W. Butsch
- Dr. Franklin’s Island, by “Ann Halam”
- Sherlock Holmes: The Army of Dr. Moreau, by Guy Adams
- Island of Lost Souls poster
- Island of Lost Souls trailer
- 1977 poster
- 1996 poster