Every few years, HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau enjoys something of a rebirth. This summer, IDW will release a full-on comic version of the story, but before that we have a new illustrated edition that reflects the dark and grotesque preoccupations of the original text. This is a story so embedded in the public imagination that it has been filmed over six times (never fully successfully), parodied on The Simpsons, and entered the lexicon as shorthand for irresponsible science, eugenics, and any number of other cautionary tales from the modern world. It is a truly 20th century text, despite having been written in the 19th, as it highlights the anxieties of a species coming to grips with its own formidable power, horrifyingly amplified by a cascade of new technologies.
But this new edition from Beehive Books, illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, conjures some of what must have been the original power of the novel on contemporary readers. Wells’ words, in that late Victorian style, are thick with Gothic weeds, smoke, shadow, and mystery, infused with the moral revulsion of a society that fancied itself ultra modern coming face to face with a colonial legacy that was anything but.
For those who are unfamiliar – or those who would welcome a reminder – The Island of Doctor Moreau tells the story of Edward Pendrick, “A private gentleman”, marooned in a shipwreck in 1887. Picked from a lifeboat in the Pacific by a schooner, Pendrick finds himself on a strange tropical island populated by odd beings – neither fully human nor fully any other sort of mammal – and two men, the hard-drinking sailor Montgomery and a strange scientist named Moreau. Pendrick gradually becomes aware of the strange goings on on this island, including the presence of “beast folk”, which it is revealed are the result of illegal (some would say immoral) biological experiments on the part of Moreau. The beast folk become uncontrollable at a certain point, and the society of the island breaks down, leaving Moreau dead, his camp burned and Pendrick fashioning a raft with which to escape. Pendrick finally escapes on a washed up lifeboat and returns to London to relate his tale, which makes up the bulk of the narrative text.
The story, originally published in 1896, has the oddly formal vernacular of the Late Victorian era, which might seem odd to modern ears, but it also has an underlying sense of anxiety, fear and revulsion towards the wild forces of nature that would also have been part of the Victorian sensibility. In 1896 Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had been in print for thirty years, but although Mendel’s discovery of the principles of genetic inheritance were already in the past, they had been largely lost to the educated world and thus there was a pervasive sense that humans were about to fall from what previously had been considered a privileged position in the natural world, governed by supernatural forces. Pendrick is the quintessential man of his era, civilized and distinguished but ultimately afraid – most prominently afraid of his own inner nature. For if “man” (as they would have said in those days) is simply a beast, what does civilization really mean? These issues were tackled in many contemporary works (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness covered similar ground), but Moreau went to an extreme and grotesque place that would undoubtedly have horrified readers at the time.
This new edition adds a wonderful layout, complete with chilling illustrations evoking pagan rites leading off each chapter, the titles of the chapters offered in spare splash pages (and those titles are wonderfully evocative: “The Locked Door”; “The Crying of the Puma”; “The Thing in the Forest”), and most prominently eleven fully rendered pages by Sienkiewicz scattered at key points through the text to capture essential moments and conjure the spirit of the novel. Sienkiewicz’s use of colour and texture, in some cases double exposures, are by turns haunting and frightening. Always slightly out of focus, as if part of a half-remembered dream, his images lock us into the terrified Pendrick’s point of view. Sienkiewicz suggests much, reveals little, as creatures are rarely seen face-on, but rather slinking away, into the shadows, half-glimpsed, with the lingering image completed by our imagination (and that of Pendrick).
The effect of the images, complemented by the text, is to reinforce the uncanny atmosphere of the book. Through films and constant cultural re-capitulation (not to mention a century of horror cinema and grotesque comics), the shocking nature of this novel has been somewhat defanged. Sienkiewicz’s pictures serve as a welcome re-boot of our collective imagination regarding Wells’ original intent. The artist’s goal is not so much to shock but to remind us, the audience, that we are still capable of being shocked by the notion of an irresponsible scientist bent on improving (or at least coming to a greater understanding of) the human species. It’s important to note that this text dates from before the eugenics movement (albeit only just) and certainly before the horrors of the holocaust, which rightfully linger in the public imagination as the quintessential expression of our collective revulsion over biological science gone horribly awry. Some might argue that today’s genetically modified organisms conjure the same feeling (as someone educated in this science, I don’t share that particular phobia), but it’s quite enough to see this classic tale re-told in all its grotesque glory to pause and re-consider once again the age-old question of whether a process is possible obliges it to be carried out. In the end, The Island of Doctor Moreau is a horror text, and this new edition succeeds on the simple basis that it makes the text fresh, and unsettlingly horrific.