Some dude named Whitney points out a mysterious island to another dude named Rainsford.
The island is called “Ship-Trap Island” and has a spooky reputation. Sailors have “a curious dread of the place” (I.3).
Gee, consider us spooked.
The thick black night prevents Rainsford from seeing the island—even though the guy has hawk-like vision, which we understand he uses in his incredible hunting skills.
But the “moist black velvet” (I.6) of the Caribbean night is impossible to see through.
What, no night-vision goggles? This guy is hardcore.
Whitney tells Rainsford that they should be in Rio in a few days, where they hope to have received their jaguar guns from Purdey (a famous gun dealer).
No word on the jaguars' special shipment of human guns.
Apparently, these guys are off to do some sport hunting in the Amazon. Good times!
Whitney and Rainsford discuss the philosophy of hunting and the nature of fear and pain. Whitney has sympathy for his prey; Rainsford doesn’t care how the jaguar feels, claiming: “The world is made up of two classes--the hunters and the huntees” (I.14).
Here’s where it leaves Ayn Rand territory to seem like an episode of Scooby-Doo: Whitney and Rainsford get all worked up over the island’s reputation.
The crew is “jumpy”—even Captain Nielson, who apparently has no fear, is quaking in his clogs.
Basically, there are major bad vibes on the ship. Whitney, who has quite the way of talking, describes it as a “mental chill; a sort of sudden dread” (I.22).
On the one hand, superstition can be a baseless fear that spreads like a contagious disease.
But hey, on the other hand, maybe sailors actually do have a kind of sixth sense.
Whitney goes to bed, leaving Rainsford on the afterdeck to smoke a pipe.
The night is dead silent, except for the hum of the boat’s engine.
Rainsford hears three gunshots in the distance and, leaning over the railing to get a better view, drops his pipe.
Reaching out to catch the pipe, Rainsford falls into the Caribbean Sea.
(Moral of the story: don't smoke, kids.)
Apparently no one notices the whole man-overboard thing, because the yacht sails off into the distance.
Swimming in the direction of the shots he had heard earlier, Rainsford hears “a high screaming sound” (I.36)—a sound he doesn't recognize.
After agonizing effort, Rainsford makes it to a rocky shore. He clambers up into a dense forest, where he falls into the “deepest sleep” of his life.
When he wakes up, he heads off to look for signs of human life. The weeds and trees are a dense tangle that makes it very difficult for him to pass, so he travels along the shore.
He's creeped out when he sees signs of a fight in the vegetation. It was a big struggle, and there's an empty rifle cartridge on the ground.
Remember, this guy is a pro hunter. He figures out that the animal must have been big, but it was killed with a twenty-two.
That's … odd. Big thrashing, smallish animal, gun that kills humans… something isn't adding up here.
And then he sees footprints.
He follows them through the jungle until he sees “the outlines of a palatial chateau” (I.46) set high on a cliff.
Mirage? Nope, because here's a gate. Rainsford knocks on a massive door and is greeted by “a gigantic creature” holding a revolver.
Rainsford puts on his best smile and introduces himself as “Sanger Rainsford of New York City" (I.50).
Strangely, the guy doesn’t warm to him and continues to stick a revolver in Rainsford’s face.
This large brute of a man salutes another man who is now coming down the stairs.
Now this guy is a class act—all aristocratic and well spoken.
And evidently, Rainsford’s reputation as a hunter precedes him. The man is honored to meet such an accomplished hunter.
We find out that Rainsford has written a book about hunting snow leopards in Tibet. (Now available on Kindle).
Um, can you say endangered?
Anyway, the gentleman’s name is General Zaroff (naturally).
Zaroff is a handsome guy, past middle age, military mustache—just imagine your average Russian villain from an '80s action movie, and up the creepy quotient.
The lug with the rifle is Ivan, who is clearly under Zaroff’s command.
Ivan and Zaroff are Cossacks, which in this case just means "Russian soldier."
Zaroff is quite the host—inviting Rainsford to stay for dinner, offering fresh clothes, letting him rest, the works.
A bedroom is waiting for Rainsford, as is a suit of clothes made by a fancy London tailor.
Zaroff greets Rainsford in the dining room, which is a taxidermist’s heaven. (That’s one of those people who stuffs dead animals.) There are stuffed animal heads all over the walls.
Gee, that really gets our appetite going.
The two men enjoy a cocktail together and nosh on some classy imported foodstuffs.
That Zaroff’s not such a bad guy, thinks Rainsford. But, why is he staring at me like that?
They talk about books on hunting, mounted animal heads, and what Rainsford calls “the most dangerous of all big game” (I.75)—the Cape buffalo.
Well, Zaroff begs to differ on that one: There's something even more dangerous, and he just so happens to stock the island with it.
Tigers? Nah, tigers are just too easy at this point. But there is definitely some good hunting in store.
Now we get a little history of Zaroff’s hunting accomplishments and upbringing—grew up in the Crimea, son of a rich sportsman. Killed his first bear when he was ten. Joined the army.
You know, your average childhood.
After “the debacle in Russia” (we’ll explain that later), he—got out of Russia.
Civil War, Shmival War. He hunted all over the world but, yawn, he just wasn’t challenged anymore. It’s not his fault he’s an exceptionally brilliant and gifted hunter.
What does a man (psycho) do when he has hunted all of the game in the world and needs a new challenge?
He gets really bummed out when he realizes that “Instinct is no match for reason” (I.98), buys anisland, and finds new prey.
Prey with “courage, cunning […and the ability] to reason” (I.107).
But, but … no animal can reason. (Forget what PETA says for now.) What could Zaroff be talking about?
Light bulb! Zaroff hunts people.
Nuh-uh, Rainsford says. That’s not hunting—it’s murder.
Zaroff dismisses Rainsford’s romantic ideas, calling him naïve and Puritanical. He tries the peer pressure route—you know, trust me, you’ll have a good time, everyone else is doing it, just try a little bit …
There's a philosophical element to it, too. Zaroff believes in the whole “might makes right” philosophy—meaning that if the strong can take, they should take, and too bad for all of the “scum of the earth” that he hunts.
And here’s where we circle back to the whole “Ship-Trap” island bit: how convenient that ships are constantly crashing into giant rocks because sailors think there’s a channel there, right?
Or, you know, it's a story Zaroff circulates to lure potential victims to his island.
But don’t get the wrong idea about Zaroff. He treats his visitors well by “enrolling” them as pupils in his “training school” (I. 132).
So here's the deal: He gives them food and a knife and a three-hour head start. If they survive for three days—they get off scot-free. If not, well, Zaroff carries a pistol for a reason.
Oh, but don’t worry: Zaroff gives these guys a choice: Be hunted or let Ivan whip you.
Did we mention that Ivan specializes in torture?
But did we mention that Zaroff has never lost? And that he has a pack of bloodthirsty dogs to help him?
Zaroff notices that Rainsford is looking tired, so he offers him a good night's sleep. They’ll hunt tomorrow.
The bed is soft and the sheets are silk, but Rainsford has a touch of insomnia. Wonder why?
Just as he is falling asleep, he hears pistol shots in the distance.
Rainsford and Zaroff join each other in the morning. Zaroff refuses to let Rainsford leave the island: he has other plans.
Hunt or don’t hunt, Zaroff explains. Up to you. And since Rainsford doesn't want to hunt with Zaroff—he'll have to hunt against him. Ivan generously supplies Rainsford with “khaki hunting clothes, a haversack of food, a leather sheath containing a long-bladed hunting knife” (I.170).