Saturday, February 19, 2011

Islands of the Imagination

I love islands -- I mean REALLY love them... perhaps in an unnatural way. Just writing about them -- just mentioning them -- makes my hands shake with excitement. Yes, they're shaking involuntarily right now. I'm missing every second key because I'm too island orgasmic to concentrate. Get a hold of yourself, you island-ridden fuck!

A recently published book on the subject of remote islands (my favorite kind!) is a publishing watershed. There has never been anything quite like this book. Probably never will again.

Movies about islands destroy me with their dramatic, sexual, and savage possibilities. An island is a world divorced from continents, divorced from the rule of law, divorced from all that is orderly, conservative, and determined to get in the way of sundry forms of mischief and raw animalism.

My island fetish, surely the most alarming of all fetishes because it will kill me one day, probably began with my reading of RM Ballantyne's The Coral Island.  This book, the Daddy-O of juvenile island adventures, had me combing through atlases to plan my escape from civilization -- and my parents' house. Going against me was the fact that I was eight year's old, but age was no barrier to my dreaming, at least.

Gilligan's Island was around more than my dad when I was growing up. The Skipper, well, he was a second dad, and he didn't hit near as hard as my first one. He did swipe Gilligan with his cap now and then, but those swipes were a loving, caring thing. Gilligan made island life look like fun. He got to drive a pedal-powered car between the palm trees,  meet Japanese submariners who spoke Stereotype, hang oit with jungle boys played by Kurt Russell, meet inventors, and hang out with farm girls in short shorts.

Despite my passion for Gilligan's piece of heaven, my parallel preference was for islands of danger, gore, and dismemberment -- naturall, I was all over 'Danger Island', a segment of the TV show Banana Splits. This anarchic gem featured a bunch of multi-colored everyday folks -- including Jan Michael Vincent sans bottle -- being chased across a hostile island by angry, chortling, spear-waving savages. Often directed by future bigshot director Richard Donner, this was one fantastic island where the excitement never stopped.

In Dennis Gifford's boyhood bible of horror, Horror Movies, I got my first look at images from several island films including The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Mad Doctor of Blood Island, Isle of the Dead, and Island of Terror. It became clear to me very early on in life that islands were where it's at, man, they were the place to be if you craved the kind of fun you can only have without your parnets. Clearly, I wasn't the only one who grooved on the very idea of islands -- Filipino filmmaker Eddie Romero set a whole stew of movies on islands with his 'Blood Island' pictures.

Author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, had island flu, too, because he wrote The Island, a cracking good yarn about a mysterious island located in the Bermuda Triangle that was a secret hideway for pirates from another century . Universal made a fun film of the movie, and though it's not available on DVD in the US, it is available in Australia, Germany, and other more island-friendly nations. It even stars Michael Caine, clearly another island connoisseur.

British scribe Guy N. Smith wrote a novel titled The Island in '88. Set on 'Ulver Island', it cut quickly to the nitty-gritty of island life love by introducing a bevy of beautiful ladies, hussies all,  to a romantic mixture of death, doom, and island inhospitality.

The possibilities are limitless on islands. I never grow tired of these lonely patches of land in some godforsaken sea a thousand miles south of nowhere and a hundred clicks north of Fuck You All.

Goat fucking gets pride of place in Nico Mastorakis's Island of Death, another gem of an island film involving the adventures of two incestuous siblings with homicidal tendencies. Then there's the fetus-eating island treats of Joe D'Amato's Anthropophagus. Not the greatest film ever made, but another vote for island hopping and bopping. D'Amato, unable to resist the pull of the concept, stuck around for more sleazy island screwing in the underappreciated Porno Holocaust. Crikey, visiting islands is like having a gory, horny Xmas every day of the year. 

Filmmakers and novelists do not tire of islands, and neither they should. Richard Laymon served up his  own Island with geysers of blood; TM Wright gave us Children of the Island (the island being Manhattan in this case) and The Island (both classics!), and Scott O'Dell got serious about islands and island life in Island of the Blue Dolphins. Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindo went island mad, too, with his The Naked Island, a film documenting the infernal hardships of island life over a one year period.

The modern grandpappy of island movies is Battle Royale, a masterpiece that contrasts brutal killing with shimmering island vistas.  I can't watch the film without wanting to join those kids on that amazing island, the very same where Spielberg shot Jurassic Park.

Islands connect with our lust for adventure and touch something deep within us that is primal and private. We yearn in varying degrees for the freedom an island implies, even if that freedom is rarely achieved in the stories that shape us... or in reality.

My island reality is that I have spent a total of two weeks on a couple of uninhabited islands in Indonesia. Accompanied by cans of sardines, water and a local boatman's promise that he would remember to pick me up after my two week, it was a trying but amazing experience.

Lying at the base of my Aussie homeland is the continent's only island state, Tasmania. Although Tasmania has the population of a small city and looks like a vagina prior to a Brazilian, its geographical location still sets my dreams soaring, and I'm certain that it is in Tasmania where I will spend my final days.

Although my preferred final crash pad is Tristan de Cunha...

... island living there is by family invite only, so my chances of landing feet first and permanent there are as remote as the place itself.

Which brings me full circle to the publishing watershed that is Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands, a Penguin hardcover originally published in 2009, but re-published with English translation by Christine Lo in 2010.

Last year was a year of amazing non-fiction such as Mark W. Moffett's Adventures Among Ants (fuck me, what a book!), Marcus Hearn's The Art of Hammer (as good as first time sex), Jimmy McDonough's Big Bosoms and Square Jaws (not published in 2010, but read that year by me), the 10th anniversary edition of Stephen King's On Writing, and Mike Howlett's The Weird World of Creepy Publications. For mine, thoughthe Atlas of Remote Islands was and remains my favorite non-fiction book of the last twelve months.

"Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will" is how Schalansky prefaces her mini-essays on close to fifty ultra-remote islands in regions encompassing the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic, the Indian, the Pacific, and Antartica.

In the Pacific, which boasts the world's most remote landfalls, she writes about Napuka, Pingelap, Pitcairn, St. George Island, and Tikopia, "an island so small that breaking waves can be heard from its (center)". The writer's descriptions of each island are sourced from historical narrative, scientific records,  and legend, and she succeeds in creating in us, her readers, a desperate hunger to explore these almost intangible lands, lands so far off the beaten shipping lane that imagining them is akin to conjuring life on another planet.

Accompanying each island's micro-history is, of course, a lovingly rendered map, and it is these maps that have held me hypnotized since I cracked opened the book's first pages.

This impeccably presented, essential volume is one to carry with you at all times. It has rarely left my side or leather pouch since landing on my modest domestic island close to six months ago.

Writer Beth Simmons, who writes for, recently interviewed the book's author, Judith Schalansky, and learned that she grew up in East Germany where she was confined, as a child, to its strict geographical and political boundaries. This national suppression of wanderlust triggered in Judith her a love of atlases and the worlds they paint so painstakingly.    

This amazing little tome is a dreamer's Holy Grail, and an inexpensive ticket to worlds of rare wonder.


  1. You've really hit a lot of the bases here from the underappreciated Banana Splits, to the sublime Island of Death, and Filipino B-movies... I'm quite frankly shocked that you've left out David Copperfield's private island to which he escapes with his abducted rapebait.

  2. great post, my favorite remote island being lakshadweep, for the name and for its equidistance from land masses, i think it is the remotest island and among radio ham clubs broadcasting from lakshadweep is something of a coup, anyway your post(s) is great, my reading list has been duly updated

  3. jervaise brooke hamsterFebruary 22, 2011 at 4:13 PM

    Phantom, if i was Bill Gates i`d offer my entire $100 billion dollar fortune to anyone who could bring Heather O`Rourke back to life ! ! !.

  4. d -- sorry I missed Copperfield's haven of pleasure.


    Noah -- Lakshadweep has been on my must-sees for a while, too.

  5. Thanks to you, The Atlas of Remote Islands is currently sitting on my lap. Thanks, man. \n//

  6. Diary -- I'm happy to put that book in anybody's lap. It's look a doorway to a rich fuckin world of wonder. There'd be no suicide if this book were an obligatory own and read.

  7. jervaise brooke hamsterApril 3, 2011 at 6:10 AM

    Phantom, there'd be no suicide if everyone could actually live on those islands, just owning and reading the book would not be enough to kill their despair.