Wolfe's Comments from the Introduction to Starwater Strains

"Mute is a story I wrote for the program book of the World Horror Convention at which Judi Rohrig introduced me to Brian Hopkins. If you don't like it, blame Rich Lukes and Tina Jens: they co-chaired the con. Save some blame for John Everson, who took it. It was nominated for the Stoker Award but didn't win."

Wolfe's Comments Related to the Wastelands Anthology (from this page)

Wolfe’s story for Wastelands, “Mute”–which first appeared in the program book for the 2002 World Horror Convention, where Wolfe was guest of honor–was inspired by watching a muted television, Wolfe said. “I generally mute commercials, and often mute shows,” he said. “At times, it can be interesting to try to figure out just what is going on, and it spares me from the canned laughter of the sitcoms.”

“Mute” is about two children who return home, find an empty house–and their father dead–and are forced to grow up in a hurry, Wolfe said. “Jill is a girl who will probably begin menstruation within a year, an intelligent and resourceful child still very much in the shadow of her older brother,” he said.

It is a considerable challenge to write an honest story in which the principal characters are as young as Jill and her brother, Wolfe said. “Children are not angels, devils, or short adults,” he said. “There is a breathtaking simplicity and purity. My research consisted largely of observing children, talking to them whenever possible, and occasionally questioning teenagers about their childhoods.”

In writing “Mute,” Wolfe drew upon his own childhood a great deal, he said. “People today almost never leave small children alone in the house,” he said. “It wasn’t like that when I was child. My father was away from home almost every week from Monday morning until Friday night–he was a salesman covering an enormous territory–Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana–by car. We had no relatives in Texas. My mother often left me alone in the house for half a day or more while she shopped, went to the dentist, or whatever. On weekends, my parents would play bridge at the house of some other bridge-playing couple; I was often in bed and asleep by the time they returned.”

The Appeal of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Wolfe said that, to him, power is the chief appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction. “Most of us have very little control over our lives and our environments,” he said. “We must work to eat, and take whatever jobs we can get. Our votes do not matter because the men and women who are supposed to represent us could scarcely care less about our situations or opinions. We must live by the mores of our society–mores we cannot reshape; and we long at times for a simpler, rougher age.”


Jill and Jimmy, brother and sister, are delivered by bus to the house where their father is supposed to be. It seems to be empty, except that the television in the front room is on and set permanently on "MUTE."


  • Note: the following analysis drew a favorable mention from the SF Signal blog.
  • At the beginning of the story, Jill speculates whether the bus is a school bus or a "pay-as-you-get-on" bus. This tells us that she has no memory of boarding the bus.
  • They are in a closed Klein-bottle world with no outside. They go from the back of the house to a wall with a locked gate, and get inside it with difficulty (Jill by squeezing through the bars, Jimmy by climbing with the help of a "fallen young tree"). Once inside, they climb a path and find themselves in the front of the same house they started from.
  • The image of the innocent fawn with the long-haired girl is from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. She and a fawn walk together when both have lost their memories. When they recover them the fawn runs away. This is like the innocence and animal friendship in the Garden of Eden.
  • The knight falling off his horse is also from Through the Looking-Glass. The White Knight is encumbered by all his inventions and frequently falls. This suggests the fall of man after obtaining the knowledge of good and evil. The rusty picture of the girl on the horse suggests lost innocence also.
  • Given their mirror-world inside-outside surroundings, it's appropriate that the images are from Through the Looking-Glass. The man on TV also looks down at a reflective surface (the polished table top) before repeating his message.
  • The father, whose ghost is seen and whose body they find, suggests being cut off from the love of the Father, God. The "MUTE" TV also suggests being unable to hear the voice of God.
  • Jill's nickname of "Jelly" is like the name "Candi Apple" in "Pocketsful of Diamonds", and it gives the first hint of incest between the siblings.
  • The hill their house is on is called "Poplar Hill." Wikipedia says "A folk tradition noted among Michigan miners in the early 20th century asserted that poplar wood was used to make the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified."
  • Jill says her portrait would look good in a black frame; black frames are traditionally used at funerals. She and her brother are both dead.
  • There were living people in the place where they were before, but not here. Now they are in the land of the dead.
  • "Trees closed above it to shut out the sun, relented for a moment or two, then closed again. As it seemed, forever." This foreshadows the loss of power and light and suggests the pitch darkness at the end will be permanent.
  • It's odd that this was put into an end-of-the-world anthology. This seems to be a pure horror story with echoes of the Genesis story of the Fall of Man. Jill and Jimmy seem to be trapped in a private hell that gradually grows worse. Their sin seems to be incest.

Unresolved Questions

  • Is Wolfe being deceptive when he talks about Jill beginning menstruation? Is it really possible for a dead girl to have a child by her brother in Hell?

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