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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.


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