RogerBW's Blog

The Most Dangerous Game, Richard Connell 03 October 2014

Short story. An expert hunter, washed overboard from his ship, makes it to an island where his host explains how he makes hunting a real challenge: his prey is human beings.

I don't normally count short stories towards my tally of books, but this one's been hugely influential. I think my first exposure in fiction to the concept of humans hunting humans was probably John Woo's first American film, Hard Target, but it's so pervasive, especially in serial fiction forms that need a plot per book or episode, that I suspect nobody reading this is unfamiliar with it. (I've certainly used it in a role-playing game, and will probably do so again.)

And that of course is why I went back to read this story, which was published in 1924. It manages not to be particularly of its time: its villain, General Zaroff, did indeed leave Russia after the revolution, but his defining passion has always been hunting, and other things are interesting only insofar as they allow him to pursue that. His being a Cossack may have contributed to his being able to indulge his tastes, but it's not a defining characteristic. That said, I think there is a detectable post-war ethos here, though I'm possibly influenced by Buchan's The Three Hostages and its sense that after the Great War the world has gone irretrievably mad; it's notable to me that the idea of the human hunt became popular in science fiction in the 1950s, in the wake of another war (The Sound of His Horn, Seventh Victim).

Of course, as time has gone on, the idea of big-game hunting as a pleasant occupation and a normal thing for sufficiently rich men to do has rather fallen out of fashion, meaning that the villain-figures have had to become increasingly unhinged; and the element that the hero should himself be a hunter – of critical importance here, since the reason he survives where others have failed is specifically that he knows how to build a variety of deadly traps – has also disappeared. That rather weakens the story, since an unskilled victim too often ends up surviving by luck or deus ex machina (though of course the serial killer Robert Hansen was caught after one of his victims escaped, for all that the police didn't believe her).

In this story, though, it's definitely a contest of hunting skill against hunting skill. I did find myself wondering whether our hero would have felt quite the same enthusiasm for his jaguar-hunting trip in Brazil after his experiences on Ship-Trap Island, but there's nothing explicit within the text to suggest that he's going to change his ways.

In spite of the extensive use of the core idea (and my own suggestion that the quality of a TV series is directly proportional to the number of episodes it takes before it rips off this concept), the only adaptation of this story to film that used the original characters was the 1932 (pre-Code) RKO picture of the same title, of which I will post a review tomorrow.

The writing here is workmanlike rather than stunning; the first three-quarters of the story is setup and introduction, with the hunt itself taking up the last quarter, and even then sections are elided. I get the impression that Connell was more interested in laying out the implications of his idea than in the detailed implementation of it. Not a masterpiece of literature, then, but clearly a very compelling concept, written effectively and powerfully (and briefly!), and if you're anything like me you will value having read the original version of it.

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