Every summer, the usual onslaught of new John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Clive Cussler and James Patterson novels try to climb the rungs of the bestseller lists selling the most thrilling beach reads. Like most made-for-TV movies, most of these novels are forgettable. However, there is a small category of thrillers that have entertained millions since they were published in the late 19th and early 20th century. These “science-fiction” or adventure novels anticipated so much of our current technology that they have been relabeled as part of the “fantastic past.” They’re also all part of the public domain now, and consequently available at most libraries and for free on Kindle. This summer, don’t spring for the textbook beach read – instead, dive into the fantastic past with books you’ve always thought you’ve read but never have. The original, (and this is a rule), is usually much better than the Disney version.
6. The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912.
Doyle isn’t just famous for Sherlock Holmes – in 1912, he wrote the story of an obsessive and egotistical professor and his quest to find dinosaurs in the Amazon rainforest. Not to be confused with Michael Crichton’s 1995 sequel to Jurassic Park, (though also a good read), The Lost World is a humorous and exciting adventure novel still reading well today, (with the exception of outdated science regarding the portrayal of dinosaurs and the condescending interpretations of indigenous and non-white characters.) The Lost World, however, is not the first novel of the fantastic past to feature dinosaurs. That distinction would go to the next book on our list.
5. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, 1864.
And no, we’re not referring to the 2008 movie, which takes significant liberties from the book’s plot in service of the 3D medium. Journey to Center of the Earth is about a professor and his assistant (I’m sensing a pattern here) that discovers the notes of a previous explorer which details an entrance to a subterranean world below the volcanoes of Iceland. They discover a lush world filled with prehistoric beasts and astounding geology. While not disproven at the time of publication, Journey is a seminal work in the adventure thriller genre.
4. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883.
You’ve heard of this one – it has been adapted in so many versions, from the Muppets to the Disney sci-fi cartoon Treasure Planet. The novel is the quintessential pirate adventure – featuring and cementing pirate tropes into popular culture, such as the “Black Spot,” “X Marks the Spot,” treasure maps, parrots on the shoulders of pirates and the unforgettable anti-villain Long John Silver, a complex character that is both mentor to the young narrator and villain. Not a story to miss in its original version.
3. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, 1870.
Contrary to popular belief, the “20,000 leagues” of the title do not refer to depth – the ocean is not that deep. Rather, it refers to distance traveled on the submarine Nautilus, the first literary submarine that predicted many capabilities of modern submarine vessels. Captured by the enigmatic Captain Nemo, Professor Aronnax, harpoonist Ned Land and Aronnax’s servant Conseil witness many strange wonders, such as the ruins of Atlantis, an underwater burial, the massacre of an innocent ship at Nemo’s hand and a climactic if underwhelming battle with giant squids. Nemo’s character, forever living on in popular culture, lives on and is further developed in the sequel to 20,000 Leagues – a book that arguably outdoes the original.
2. The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne, 1874.
Five Union soldiers, held prisoners of war in Richmond in the final days of the Civil War, attempt to escape in a hot air balloon, but a hurricane blows them into the Pacific Ocean – preposterous, I know, but you gotta just roll with it! – and they find themselves on a ‘mysterious island.’ The soldiers, like good Army Corps of Engineers, build an elaborate shelter and settlement, and speculate on topics as far-seeing as the consumption of all fossil fuels and possible replacement by hydrocarbons. The book’s purpose as a crossover sequel becomes clear when a character from one of Verne’s more obscure works, In Search of the Castaways, shows up, and so does Captain Nemo – the ensuing events serve as a thrilling epilogue to 20,000 Leagues, as well as an adventure work in its own right. All on the island with “the mouth of a gaping dogfish.”
1. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, 1896.
The Mysterious Island is not the only story of an island hiding a terrible secret – which has become a cliche of and in itself – but H.G. Wells’ novel, long overlooked by his more famous War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, is an astounding meditation on the horrible potential of genetic engineering, long before such engineering was possible. Our protagonist is stranded on an island controlled by Dr. Moreau, a mad scientist who manipulates the form of animals through live dissections, giving them human emotions, speech and figures. Then Dr. Moreau, the God figure, is killed, and the protagonist and animals must grasp for meaning. A precursor to the horrors of living in a godless world like in Lord of the Flies, this Wells novel is a meditation on the ethics of creation itself.