Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Gene Wolfe: "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories"

Gene Wolfe
"The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories"
from The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive
Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction

In spite of the misleading title, this is a short story, and the title does make sense, although in Gene Wolfe's usual quirky manner.  As I read this tale, I couldn't help but be reminded of James Thurber's Walter Mitty.  While Thurber's Mitty is a middle-aged man, and  Wolfe's character is Tadman Babcock, a young boy,  both use fantasy to deal with reality.  Mitty fantasizes to escape his boring life while Tackie shields himself from his troubled home situation.  

Tackie's parents are divorced, and he's living with his mother on a small peninsula in a boarding house run by his mother.  There is one boarder (I think he's a boarder), Jason, who has a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Tackie's mother.  Tackie's mother has a drug problem.  She is also trying to capture a neighbor, Doctor Black, in the bonds of holy matrimony.  Several aunts are also regularly present, one of whom is the sister of his father.  She is determined to get Tackie's mother married off, so as to reduce her brother's alimony payments, and Doctor Black appears to be a very acceptable candidate.

However, on closer reading, several significant differences between Wolfe's tale and Thurber's tale.  Walter Mitty makes himself the hero of his fantasies, the super spy, the brave soldier, etc, while Tackie interacts with the characters in a book he is reading, a book that Jason stole from the store when Tackie asked him to buy it for him.  The book is very familiar, although no title is given.  It appears to be a revision of two very popular novels.  Initially it's the story of shipwrecked Captain Philip Ransom who drifts ashore on an island occupied by Doctor Death and other strange creatures.    It seems as though Doctor Death employs surgical techniques on various creatures, one of whom is Bruno, who originally was a Saint Bernard, but is now a shambling hulk, vaguely humanoid in shape. In his first encounter,  Tackie doesn't rescue Ransom but does help him to make it safely to the shore.

Captain Ransom  manages to escape the good Doctor and at the same time rescue a beautiful young maiden, Talar of the Long Eyes,  who just happens to be the queen of "(a) city older than civilization, buried in the jungle here on this little island."

This city, Talar, tells him is the last remnant of the lost civilization of Lemuria.  In addition, Talar tells him that he shouldn't be surprised at the degraded appearance of the other inhabitants of the city for they have degenerated from their original appearance while she alone still possesses the original appearance of the founders of their civilization.  This is why she was made their queen.

As I mentioned earlier, it does sound familiar.   There are at least three stories here: the book that Tackie reads seems to be a combination of two famous novels, while Tackie's situation is the third.  One might argue that the reference to Lemuria suggests a fourth, but I'm not aware of any novel that is set in Lemuria, although one might argue that everything said about Lemuria is fiction.

But, as I read I began to realize that this was a much more involved story than that of a troubled boy simply escaping from his home situation.  He does not construct the situation in order to make himself, as does Mitty, the hero of the story.  Instead, he seems to play the role of a minor supporting character in the story.

My initial assumption was that these encounters took place, just as does Mitty's fantasies, in Tackie's imagination.  However, his encounter with Bruno takes place in his own home.  One of his aunts sees him talking to Doctor Death,  and then Captain Ransom and Talar appear at a costume party, again in his home.  And this time, someone at the party sees them waking by and greets them.  Wolfe has crossed now into that gray area between consensus reality and fiction, or perhaps the imagination..

At one point, Tackie tells the Doctor that he doesn't want to finish the book because some characters will probably die and others will go away.  Doctor Death responds, "'But if you start the book again we'll all be back . . .  It's the same with you, Tackie.  You're too young to realize it, but it's the same with you.'"  Is Doctor Death suggesting some sort of repetitive universe or reincarnation or simply recognizing that Tackie is also a character in a story?

It is true, isn't it?  I can reread the story, and regardless of the ending, everything will be as it was when I first read it.  Only,  I have changed.

It's clear my first take on this story was inadequate.   It is much more than the simple escape from mundane reality.  I think Wolfe is blurring the lines that separate three different worlds here:  the world of the book, the world of the imagination, and the mundane or everyday world.


  1. this is like a lot of Wolfe's work... seemingly crossing barriers of time, space, reality... i recognized the take off on "The Island of Dr. Moreau", and the similarity to Edgar Rice Burroughs - not the Tarzan novels, but maybe the Martian ones or some of the independents with strange lands and princesses... but Mr. Wolfe isn't satisfied with observable connotations, his gift involves stirring into the mix everything that consciousness can dream up... hence, his writing is inevitably convoluted and responsive to almost any sort of interpretation... for some, it's an acquired taste; for others, it's an exercise in futility... which is probably the way Wolfe wants it...
    anyway, i've enjoyed most of his stories, and admire your skillful post: it captures in a real way the essence of the tale... tx...

    1. Mudpuddle--yes, the first part seemed to be Dr. Moreau. I hadn't even considered the ERB connection, although I briefly considered Tarzan but discounted it. I finally ended up with H. Rider Haggard's _She_. But, Wolfe really doesn't give us much to work with, so I suspect there may be several options.

      Wolfe never had a large following among SF fans, although his New Sun series was quite popular. He is, as you say, an acquired taste. I have read quite a bit of his works, but I find him difficult to write about. As you point out, his fiction is convoluted and that makes it hard to put something down on paper that captures, even to a slight extent, what he's doing.

    2. yes, it's a lot like i've found with some authors: you sort of have to pick something you notice from the text and think about it; then occasionally that leads you into other ramifications... but even so, you never get the feeling that you;'ve figured it all out... quite interesting in a way; one of the fascinating attractions of lit...

    3. Mudpuddle--that's exactly the way I work, especially when I'm going to write about the work. I try to find a way in or a hook or something that looks interesting and then see where that leads me.

      And it's that feeling that there's more is what drives me to reread certain authors such as Wolfe or Bradbury or Sturgeon or Melville or . . .

  2. Great review Fred. I read some Gene Wolfe years ago. I really like his stuff. I have not read this. Escape from reality stories can be very good, but this sounds like it adds additional dimensions to that kind of tale. It sounds as if these dimensions make the story more rewarding.

    1. Brian Joseph--Wolfe's fiction overall is much like this one--it seems at first simple and straightforward, but then as one gets deeper into the tale, it gets more complex.

      And in this story, although I didn't mention it, there seems to be a slight hint of an escape into reality. I'm not sure of this, so I'll have to take another look at it when I decide to start all over again from the beginning, as Doctor Death suggests.

  3. Gene wrote at least 2 more stories which switch around the title; they deepen the issues as I recall. Good analysis here too.

    1. Gregory--thanks for the kind words. The collection of his short stories that I am reading has the following titles: "The Death of Dr. Island" and "Death of the Island Doctor." Those would appear to be the two stories you referred to.

      They "deepen the issues"? I shall have skip the other stories and go right to these two.

  4. Hmmm. I’m intrigued. So I’m going to find something by Wolfe to read. What do you recommend for the novice?
    BTW, my blog has a new address, same name, and a new life. Here’s the link:
    I have a lot of configuration to do, but it is a work in progress.

  5. R.T.--a recommendation? That's hard to do with Wolfe. He really doesn't follow a pattern--each work is different. I would suggest getting a collection of his short stories.

    I have several posts on Wolfe; one is on his latest novel, The Borrowed Man. You may want to check that out. The url is

  6. RT: i've noted that W's later work is much more settled and comprehensible than his earlier stuff.... i read "Sword of the Torturer" series for a sci fi class when it first came out and it was in parts gruesome and mesmerizing... i think i'd recommend the "Sun" series, just because Fred liked it; haven't read it myself, although i've read most of W's other novels and stories...