Friday, 13 September 2013

Week Thirty-Four - Jeanette

 The Island Of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896)
Recommended by Kieran

If you hadn’t realised already, I’m tackling my Two Readers books in alphabetical order by author surname. So H.G. Wells? At week thirty-four? What’s going on here, then?

Kieran’s going on here, then.

The Island Of Doctor Moreau is his favourite book and last week he gave it to me, his own copy, a beautifully weathered and musky red hardback.

It may seem like a little thing to you, perhaps, but it came like a sudden blow to me.

I’ve read some H.G. Wells before, but not much: The War Of The Worlds and The Time Machine (just like everyone else), plus The History Of Mr. Polly, one of his non-science fiction works and – as I remember – a very sharply-written snark of a novel about a bitterly unhappy man. It’s also useful to know what the ‘H.G.’ stands for (Herbert George), for it’s a regular-rotation pub quiz question.

‘As it happens, we are biologists here. This is a biological station – of a sort.’

Doctor Moreau, ‘a prominent and masterful physiologist, well known in scientific circles for his extraordinary imagination’, has commandeered an island. Prendick, our narrator and a shipwreck victim who washes up there, remembers well the scandal that forced Moreau to leave England: unusual animal experiments brought to public attention via a notorious pamphlet, The Moreau Horrors. The doctor’s cruelty was symbolized by a flayed and mutilated dog, reported as escaping from Moreau’s house with barely its life.

Prendick, a man of science himself, has some initial sympathy for Moreau. He considers vivisection rather unpleasant, but necessary for advance, and he sees the journalists who hounded Moreau as ill-informed dinosaurs. Nevertheless, as Prendick becomes aware that Moreau is experimenting again, his objectivity disappears. The sorrow of a tormented puma rings throughout the island, its baleful yells forcing him to confront his attitude to animal welfare.

The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice.

As I sit here typing this, with a gorgeous cat on my lap (Sprocket), the avoidable suffering of Moreau’s puma makes me want to throw up. (Yet this same cat is fresh from eviscerating a loudly squealing mouse because he wanted to give me a ‘present’. Some animals are more equal than others.)

Wells has written a powerful anti-vivisectionist tract, but preachy books, however much one agrees with the subject being preached on, are usually worth little more than one head-nodding read. The Island Of Doctor Moreau is far deeper. It takes Frankenstein’s idea of a troubled ‘mad scientist’ and races to gorier and more unsettling extremities.

The aspect I found most riveting was the book’s theme of cultural assimilation. Moreau’s tragic vivisected creatures have to find their new identity within themselves, but also within a newly-constructed society. The island is effectively totalitarian with Moreau as Il Duce; the leader cult and the quasi-religious rules are all designed to contain animalistic reactions.

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.’

Dystopian works predate The Island Of Doctor Moreau, of course, but this seems to me a very early sympathetic example of a dystopia for a misfit group. Clive Barker’s Nightbreed immediately popped into my head as an obvious child of Doctor Moreau. Barker’s unhappy monsters are forced into their own marginalized society, as they are pitied and despised by others; the film’s horror is not in how the monsters persecute, but in how they are persecuted. Nightbreed was a flop following the success of Barker’s Hellraiser. While Nightbreed is a less digestible film than Hellraiser (and it certainly has its cinematic limitations), the ideas within it remain unusual for a horror movie.

Perhaps even more pertinent as a reference point (and far better a movie) is the incredible 1959 Georges Franju film, Les Yeux Sans Visage.

Les Yeux Sans Visage, which I saw as a nineteen-year-old in Norwich’s Cinema City, had an overpowering effect on me. It also deals with the tragedy of demented science, and it was the first film I’d ever been to where an audience member queasily walked out. Les Yeux Sans Visage contains a surgery scene that belies belief given the year the film was made (for context, the only other film I’ve seen a walkout from was Takashi Miike’s 1999 sado-fest Audition). It feels like lots of readers might have slammed The Island Of Doctor Moreau shut, nausea overtaking them during passages like this…

One hand was almost severed at the wrist, and his silvery hair was dabbled in blood. His head had been battered in by the fetters of the puma. The broken canes beneath him were smeared with blood.

…and, in fact, the 1932 movie, titled Island Of Lost Souls, was banned in the UK until 1958.

(Love the ‘Panther Woman’ wearing a fur bikini, while Bela Lugosi gets the full-face ugly treatment.)

The subject matter of The Island Of Doctor Moreau is sensationalist, yet the execution of it never is. In this sense it feels very modern. It combines the moral turpitude of a Dostoyevsky work with the surreal savagery of a Jodorowsky film. I adored it.

I had my fifty-two recommendations in before I met Kieran. So, as I’m not going to nudge out any existing friends, I did wonder what to call this ‘week’. Bonus week? Interlude week? Some more poetic variation thereof? But, no, it didn't feel right; he's not a bonus and he's not an interlude. I’ve decided to keep it at ‘Week Thirty-Four’. This means that I’ve now vivisected the calendar, grafting on an extra seven days and making my year fifty-three weeks long.

Well, fair enough. Nothing seems impossible right now.