Last year my wife suggested we each do a reading challenge for the year. The one we selected was Modern Mrs. Darcy’s, which, with only a dozen books, seemed doable. What makes it a challenge is that to meet Mrs. Darcy’s expectations, you have to read certain types of books, not just go through the stack beside your favorite chair than never seems to get any smaller. I finished the challenge in October or November and posted on most of the books on this blog. This year’s challenge includes a book you’ve read before. Since I’ve been reading about horror movies I decided to reach back to childhood and once again read H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was a timely choice.
For anyone not familiar with it, the story concerns a mad scientist (Moreau) who experiments on animals, making them “men” on an isolated island in the Pacific. These creations aren’t fully human and most of them are blends of different animals as well as part human. They can talk, and they can reason, in a rudimentary way. To create them without anesthesia, Dr. Moreau subjects them to tremendous pain and to prevent them from attacking him, he establishes a basic religion where they obey his rules or he will subject them once again to the “House of Pain.” The narrator, victim of a shipwreck, ends up on the island and has to come to an uneasy peace amid these very strange circumstances. The heart of the book is the chapter where Moreau explains what he’s doing and to justify it he makes a secular theodicy. He is, after all, god to these poor creatures. The book has been made into a horror movie or two over the years, but I’ve never seen any of the cinematic treatments.
What struck me as particularly interesting, revisiting this book some forty years after I last read it, was how easily Wells slips into theological thinking. This is a book unafraid of implicating the Almighty in the troubles of an island that clearly stands in for the world. I wouldn’t have noticed that as a tween. I don’t think there even were tweens when I was one. In any case, the story ends in chaos, rather than creation. What makes it such a timely choice? I suppose the arrogance and entitlement of Dr. Moreau suggested themselves as analogues to our current situation here in the US. Only Moreau is clearly intelligent as well as deranged. This little book is a cautionary tale of what happens when a strong will has its way, unimpeded. It might be a good time for all of us to pick up a copy.
75 years ago today Orson Welles presented a radio drama version of The War of the Worlds. Perhaps it was the looming fear of the Second World War in a society that hadn’t yet overcome the trauma of the First, or perhaps too few people had read H. G. Wells’ novel, but the result was surprisingly catastrophic. Panic arose as listeners supposed that the invasion was real—the broadcast, although announced as a radio drama, followed a news bulletin format that overrode the rational faculties of many. This episode would influence government decisions about what to reveal to the public for years. And, naturally, it all began in New Jersey. Unlike the novel, the radio broadcast set the invasion, initially, in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This tiny town is difficult to locate even today, falling as it does between the busy north-south roadways that run through the central part of the state.
The Hindenburg disaster had taken place the previous year in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Welles, impressed by the radio coverage of that celestial fear, used those broadcasts as models for his play. A few weeks ago I ventured to Grover’s Mill to let my imagination roam free for a while. A great deal of history may have been determined by that broadcast and the public reaction. We are ready to believe that danger lurks above. The First World War began to make early use of the airplane as a weapon. The sky, previously, had been obtainable only with the slowly moving balloon. Only eleven years earlier Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic by plane for the first time. The Second World War would see air combat as a major component of victory, also for the first time. My mother grew up in New Jersey, watching planes searching for German U-boats off the shore. The skies were not so friendly then.
As I stood in Grover’s Mill, I recollected an unpublished book I once wrote about the weather in the book of Psalms. The thesis, somewhat loosely, suggested that for the average person the sky reflects the mood of the divine. Dramatic clouds still look angry, even when God is removed from the equation. The Reagan era gave us all new things to fear raining down on us from the skies. September 11, 2001, brought the skies crashing to the earth again. Invasion from above is an apt way to add a chill to Halloween, for it takes the prerogative of the deity and makes it either human or alien. At least most people who believe in God think he’s on their side. When the Wright brothers took their heavier-than-air craft briefly to the skies in 1903, The War of the Worlds had only been on the market for five years. The coming decades would drive God from the skies and we would come to learn that what falls from above would no longer have our best interests at heart.
Monsters. What’s not to like? With a title so innocuous and limited US marketing, this 2010 British indie film only just came to my attention. I hadn’t even heard anything about it as I sat down to view it. The premise of invading aliens is as old as H. G. Wells, if not earlier, but this is a film without over-the-top CGI and a very human story. Showing far more tension than bloodshed, Andrew and Samantha, their Anglo names very prominent, are caught in alien-infested northern Mexico. Somewhat predictably, Samantha has a rich daddy who happens to be Andrew’s boss, but the couple has to find their way back to the United States as giant insectoid-octopi rampage through the night, destroying just about anything they can get their tentacles on. So far it sounds like standard Saturday-afternoon fare. As Andrew and Samantha reached the Rio Grande, however, overlooking the huge wall the US government built to keep out the aliens, I realized what the film is really about.
During the Bush years, shortly after the Berlin Wall had come down, a new wall was snaking its way along the Mexican border. America had become weary of “Give me your tired, your poor.” This was the land of opportunity, instead, for the chosen few. Never mind that we know that many of the jobs most of us don’t want are gratefully accepted by those who may not be technically legal in this country. Never mind that we deny social justice, in many ways, to those who make our lifestyle possible. Andrew and Samantha face the massive wall that says, “keep out.”
Of course, they make it back to Texas. They discover, however, that the aliens have breeched the walls as well. And they really pose no threat beyond wanting to draw strength from the abundant light-sources of a power-hungry world. The film’s ending is a bit ambiguous, but then again, the plight of the alien generally is. I watched the film with no expectation beyond a bit of sci-fi action to help give me the energy to make it through another week of work. Instead I saw a brash American coming to a deeper sense of humanity while standing in a church where hundreds were mourning their dead. The death of one small girl was as much a tragedy of as the breeching of the borders. Until humanity prevails over artificial borders, there will indeed be monsters. Were that they were only giant insectoid-octopi.
When the silence was first broken at Gorgias Press, one of my colleagues suggested that I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The title suggested to me some kind of point-of-view rewriting of H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, a novel that had a large influence on my young, science-fiction inclined mind. For some reason I wanted to keep this place sacred to the memory of Wells and I dismissed the suggestion with polite demurral. Since that time Niffenegger has been constructing quite a reputation as a novelist, and because I enjoy the implications of time-travel and I like to keep current – fashionably late, of course – I finally took the time to read the book.
I wasn’t sure what to expect; it is a sensitive love story, wrenching in parts, but the mysteries of time travel are left to a genetic defect and not some technological invention. In the course of wending in and out of past and present lives, the main characters, Clare and Henry, carry on a dialogue that includes the dynamic of a protagonist raised Catholic. Once, while discussing the bizarre nature of time traveling, Henry suggests that Noah is a fairy tale to which Clare replies, “Noah is in the Bible. He’s not a fairy tale.” This statement reaffirms that, for many people, Noah is the obvious touchstone of the Bible and modern society. A versatile figure, enigmatic and only sketchily drawn in the Bible, Noah reappears regularly in the popular media. Just this summer I noted how Justin Cronin’s The Passage also cites Noah as a schematic for much of the plot that bears the story. A few weeks ago I mentioned how the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still viewed Klaatu’s ship as an ark. Noah from outer space.
Noah is a foundational figure for our society. This should not be surprising since the flood myth is among the most ancient of stories that humanity has relegated to religious literature. The Sumerians and Babylonians told the story long before Genesis was composed. In its own way, the Noah story is an example of time-travel. A tale whose origins are lost in the pre-literate stages of humanity, it becomes history with the uncritical acceptance of the Bible, only to become a defining myth of twenty-first century literature. The world of the twenty-first century often feels like a fragile environment ripe for a catastrophic flood. Consciously or not, we are still looking for our Noah.