Of all genres of thriller the tale of exotic and terrifying monsters encountered on isolated islands is among the very oldest, stretching all the way back to one of the very first works of literature in Western culture, The Odyssey by Homer, dating some three thousand years ago, and the Argonautica, a tale which was probably in circulation when Homer was alive. In The Odyssey, Odysseus’s men encounter cannibals, a witch and a cyclops, among other things, on various mysterious islands in the Mediterranean. In Appolonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, popularized in the film Jason and the Argonauts by Ray Harryhausen’s fantastic special effects, Jason’s quest for the golden fleece leads his ship, the Argo, to a series of islands populated by six-armed men, seductive nymphs, harpies, fierce birds of prey, and a serpent that guards the famed fleece.
As the ice age ended 12,000 years ago the Mediterranean was formed by flood waters, creating many islands and isolating the creatures stranded on them. The fossil record on these islands proves that, over time, miniature elephants, giant rats and a multitude of other oddities unique to each island evolved. Though many would go extinct long before civilization arose, probably at the hands of man, they no doubt served as an inspiration for these very first island thrillers. Moreover, mammoth skulls found in earlier layers on islands like Crete were interpreted to be Cyclops in ancient times, the large cavity for their trunks likened to the socket of one gargantuan eye. To explain the strange fauna, fossils and collective memories associated with islands these stories utilized the myth and understanding of their times, but they started with the same fascination, the same thrill at the exotic and undiscovered, that draws our imaginations to islands today.
Mysterious islands have cropped up again and again throughout literature and around the world in all cultures. Sometimes they set the stage for social satire, as in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where tiny Lilliputians and giant Brobdignagians are discovered. But it wasn’t until the 19th century, with the scientific revolution and Darwin’s theory of evolution in full bloom, that the stories took on a new character to reflect the new understanding.
As geology was rewriting the age and history of the Earth, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World presented a landlocked island in South America, an enormous plateau towering over a sea of surrounding jungle. And upon the back of this metaphorical island was as a place frozen in time that carried, unchanged across eons, a menagerie of prehistoric beasts that had gone extinct everywhere else. Like Skull Island in King Kong, dinosaurs and apes flourished in Conan Doyle’s time capsule, giving us a glimpse in full flesh and motion of the startling creatures whose bones we were now unearthing and studying for the first time.
As modern science continued to progress, the island thriller adapted itself in yet another way. In stories like Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, after being adapted for the screen, the scientific efforts of Captain Nemo bring forth species of giant animals for feeding the world. In H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, the titular mad doctor attempts to speed up evolution and turn beasts into men on his isolated island. And in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the island’s terrifying beasts are not the work of a mad scientist but of a mad genetic engineering corporation that brings the world of dinosaurs back to life.
There’s as long a history for island thrillers as for literature itself. And even though my own novel, Fragment, has a different premise, once again the difference is a reflection of the current state of biological knowledge. We now know that islands do not get frozen in time so much as diverge in unique biological directions after their isolation. Whole and unique ecosystems of interdependent life develop, producing hundreds of specialized creatures in only a few million years. In the case of Henders Island, which has been isolated for 600 million years in Fragment, enough time has passed to rewrite the whole story of life without the need for mad scientists or genetic engineering.
But it all goes back to the primal thrill of discovery that islands seem to promise on the horizon. Whether they conceal the works of people or nature, of utopias or paradises, of dystopias or hell, stranded in the blue space of the sea, islands are like miniature alien planets. They are potentially strange, wonderful, terrifying new worlds awaiting exploration, offering untold wonders and threatening unknown dangers. Since nature has found them to be the perfect pages on which to create new and fantastic creatures, perhaps it’s no surprise that we have, too.