After finally reading some Wells ('The Invisible Man') instead of just assuming I had, it seemed like a good idea to read more. I was right. 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' is straight horror after the comedy of (with a tinge of horror) of 'The Invisible Man' but it's tremendously effective.
A shipwrecked Edward Prendick finds himself an unwelcome guest on a less than satisfactory ship. The captain is drunk, the crew surly, his fellow passengers a little odd, and the cargo not quite what might be expected. After a tow with the captain he finds himself set adrift until Doctor Moreau reluctantly agrees to give him shelter in his remote island.
For Prendick it's a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, because the island's other inhabitants are deeply disturbing, his host intent on his own experiments, and his situation in every way precarious. I doubt it's much of a spoiler to say that the Doctor has been carrying out experiments on animals, vivisecting and generally mutilating them to create creatures that have a semblance of humanity in some cases, in others just to appeal to his sense of whimsy. He maintains his rule over them with the threat of pain. He is a vengeful god.
There is also a hint that all of it might be the product of nightmarish hallucinations as when Prendick finally makes his way back to civilisation he's once again found out at sea in a small boat on the very edge of life. Not that the element of doubt makes his story any less nightmarish, or real - either to the character of Prendick, or to the reader.
If the science of Doctor Moreau no longer stands up, the absolute horror of what he's done is still as vivid as ever, it also chimes with current fears about genetic modification - and if Doctor Moreau is a direct descendent of Frankenstein, his influence on popular imagination is certainly as influential as his ancestors.
The ethical questions Wells asks about whether we should do what science can let us do are also as pertinent as ever. What it asks us about the nature of God is interesting as well, but that this exploration of what it is that makes us human is both a gripping book that it's a struggle to put down, and not the sort of thing I'd like to read late at night, is what really makes me a fan. It really is a case of better late than never with me and Wells.