H.G. Wells wrote gritty novels before gritty novels were popular. The late-Victorian English readership was more accustomed to light comedy and "clean" adventure stories about witty young men and their escapades in exotic locales in the name of the Queen. A book like The Island of Dr. Moreau, disturbing even to modern readers, was truly shocking with its graphic depictions of vivisection and half-man/half-animal beings wandering on a mad scientist's island. The novel is by no means tidy, either in terms of philosophy or conclusion, and the sickening world into which the protagonist Prendick falls is one of ambiguity and uncertainty.
The Island of Dr. Moreau explores the (sometimes seemingly tenuous) boundary between human and beast, as the crazed Moreau—a formerly renowned scientist later accused of cruelty for his bizarre experiments—carves living animals to transform them into Beast Men, as like to human beings as possible. He creates for them a code of conduct limiting their animalistic tendencies while encouraging human behaviors in the hope of civilizing his half-breed creations. So traumatized is he by his protracted contact with the Beast Men, that when Prendick finally escapes the island and returns to England (after a series of grisly adventures) he finds himself unable to bear the company of other humans, suspicious that they are in fact Beast Men whose reversion is imminent. He ends his days in solitude, studying astronomy.
Commonly understood to be an early science fiction novel, Wells' dark fable bears more in common with the horror genre, though certainly it is more philosophical than typical slasher fiction. And while one might be tempted to focus on the horror of the Beast Men themselves, to do so would be to disregard Wells' clear statements about mankind itself, its inherent cruelty and its minimal remove from social anarchy and self-destruction. Published in 1896, The Island of Dr. Moreau was unsettlingly prophetic concerning World War I and its excesses of violence, the conflict Wells himself would famously name "the War to end all wars." Even more to the point, it was a fictional preface to the monstrous experimentation of the Nazis on Jewish subjects in the concentration camps, experimentation not at all unlike Moreau's terrible vivisections.
This isn't some peppy adventure tale meant to amuse (though there's plenty of adventure, most of it more scary than exciting). It's a deeply frightening moral tale of the Heart of Darkness variety, one designed to shock and thereby to engender serious thought, a warning of what might be. And in our age of apparently limitless scientific inquiry it seems more pertinent than ever, more possible than Wells might have liked to admit. Not for the faint of heart (or stomach) The Island of Dr. Moreau is speculative fiction of the highest order.
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