“The Island Of Doctor Moreau” by H. G. Wells (1896)

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“I do not propose to add anything to what has already been written concerning the loss of the Lady Vain.”

Some classics really enter the cultural conversation. Most people could probably give a rough summary of what happens in Lord of the Flies or 1984. Others, however, sink a little lower. We know the names, we might be able to pluck out a single detail or two, but the whole plot is only accessible to someone who has gone to the source. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those for me. Not as famous as some of H. G. Wells’s other works, the closest I’d got to it before now was a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons. Time to set sail to Noble’s Isle.

Edward Prendick has survived the shipwreck of the Lady Vain, and against all odds is rescued by a ship carrying various wild animals and their keeper, Montgomery. The animal keeper nurses Prendick back to health, but after a dispute with the ship’s captain, Prendick is put ashore with Montgomery and all the animals on an island that he’s never heard of.

Here he meets the enigmatic and sinister Doctor Moreau. This name he knows – Moreau was cast out of London society for his controversial experiments and studies in the field of vivisection. Prendick is not welcome on the island and kept as far away from Moreau and Montgomery as possible, but he soon discovers that this island is not all it appears. It holds a dark and terrifying secret – Doctor Moreau has been playing God.

In the 1890s, it seems that Wells had an obsession with beasts and where humans stood in relation to all over animals. Part of this was probably down to the fact he studied under T. H. Huxley, a disciple of Charles Darwin. In several of his books of the time, he explores the differences between man and beast. In The Time Machine, we see humanity evolve into hideous creatures. In The War of the Worlds, he sees humanity destroyed by alien beasts. Here, two become one, as – and I think the statue of spoilers will cover me on a book that was published over 120 years ago – man and animal have been spliced together to create hideous monsters, neither quite one thing or the other.

All told, I was fairly disappointed with the story. I appreciate it’s “of it’s time” and all that, but there was so much more that could’ve been done with it, I felt, and it all ends on a bit of an anticlimax. Moreau is creepy, but I didn’t feel he got enough page time for us to really come to fear or loathe him, and Prendick is a classically blank Victorian hero, his abstinence from alcohol being one of his few notable traits. The Beast Men are creepy, however, with just enough information given for us to conjure up our own images but not so much that we fully understand what we’re seeing. Special mention to the sloth creature, who is unnerving in a whole other way, if not specifically scary.

An interesting tip into Victorian literature, but there is a reason it doesn’t sit at the top table of the classical canon.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Concrete Island” by J. G. Ballard (1974)

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“Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.”

They say that no man is an island (except for the Isle of Man, of course), but even in this world that is more connected than it has ever been, it’s still possible to feel alone, surrounded by people who don’t understand you or maybe don’t even notice you’re there. Coming from an island nation myself, I do wonder if all that living apart does something to a society’s psyche. Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Cuba … they often have some of the most interesting and unique histories. But we’re not here to talk about natural islands – this one is entirely man made.

Robert Maitland is driving out of London at just over seventy miles an hour when his front tyre blows out and his car smashes through a crash barrier and down into a patch of grass, ignored by every motorist who passes by on the three motorways surrounding it. He manages to pry himself from his Jaguar and clambers back up the embankment, hoping that he’ll get picked up. But there’s nowhere here to stop, or at least no one willing to do so. Still in shock, he considers making a break for it, but he’s hit by a car before he has a chance and tumbles back down onto the traffic island, cut off some his old life – his wife, his mistress, his job, his friends… Now he is a resident of this concrete island and he needs to work out how to get off. Will he end up here forever? And is he even the first person to have made it onto this forgotten land?

An allegory for how we’re all really, at the end of the day, on our own, and selfishness remains an endemic problem of humanity (unless I’m entirely missing the point), the novella sees Ballard deal with the constraint of having all of his action take place in one very small area. With very little dialogue, Ballard is tied to letting the world tell the story. Maitland initially seems to have very limited resources, but I do feel that there’s a cheat when he discovers the remains of the buildings that used to stand here and finds that some of the basements are still in working order. In fact, the whole island itself is much larger than I had gathered from the premise, which again feels like a cheat.

There’s little characterisation for Maitland, too, and we never really find out all that much about him, save the facts he’s a rich businessman and has two women in his life who may or may not be aware of one another. A lot is left vague, and actually some of that works, but it’s hard to feel too sympathetic for him. The premise as a whole is a little far fetched, too. I’m not against a weird plot – not by any means – but it’s hard to believe that not a single person sees him down there. Even if they thought he was a tramp, surely a police car or concerned motorist would double check? Ballard is at pains to make sure Maitland can’t just walk across the empty roads at night by giving him an injury, and like the island and its surrounding roads, it all feels a little too artificial.

Robinson Crusoe for the modern era – a weird story with some interesting ideas behind it.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!