The Island Of Doctor Death And Other Stories

Publications

Awards

  • Nominee, Nebula Award for Best Short Story, 1970

Summary

This story is told in the second person. "You" are Tackman "Tackie" Babcock, a young boy living with his divorced mother, bought a book called "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" by her boyfriend Jason. As the house prepares for and then hosts a costume party, characters from the title story -- shipwrecked mariner Captain Ransom, his adversary Dr Death, and others -- appear in Tackie's "real" world and converse with him. Dr Death shows Tackie that Dr Black, his mother's physician whom she may be to marry, is injecting her with drugs. Tackie fetches help and the police come. Dr Death reassures Tackie that although he dies at the end of the story, he will be back again as soon as the book is reopened, and that it's the same with Tackie himself.

Analysis

Characters and Onomastic Significances

Comments

  • 'The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories' is one of the Wolfe Archipelago-stories whose titles each contain the words death, doctor, and island in some order.
  • Set up like a classic 'story within a story' model. It is traditional in such stories to have the stories related, but in this case Wolfe goes even further and has the story within influence the story without.
  • The story-within-the-story is to some extent similar to HG Wells's novel The Island of Dr Moreau (as of course is its title). In this book, the survivor of a shipwreck lands on a mysterious island, where Dr Moreau breeds beast-men, imbuing them with precepts such as "Not to go on All-Fours; that is the Law". There are important differences, though: Talar of the Long Eyes and her Lemurian city have no equivalent in the Moreau story, and Moreau is killed (by a beast-man) well before the end, his compound destroyed by fire only accidentally.
  • While the inset narrative is certainly meant to be an homage to Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau , there's also a possible allusion to Robert E. Howard's classic Conan story, Rogues in the House , which also sees the protagonist doing battle with a powerful man-ape type of creature named Thak. Tackie describes the picture on the cover of the book, saying "...on the front is a picture of a man in rags fighting a thing partly like an ape and partly like a man, but much worse than either. The picture is in color and there is real blood on the ape-thing; the man is muscular and handsome, with tawny hair lighter than Jason's and no beard." This description seems more in line to the description of Conan, sans light hair, than with any character in Wells's novel, who wore traditional Victorian garb and were not described as "muscular and handsome". Furthermore, this scene on the cover sees the protagonist doing battle with a man-ape, which is something which does not happen in Wells's novel. In Wells's novel, the only physical confrontations the protagonists have with the beast-men include a puma-man hybrid and a leopard-man hybrid--there is no physical confrontation with an ape-man hybrid in Wells's novel. It's possible that Wolfe meant the cover to represent Howard's short story while the narrative of the book more closely resembles Wells's novel. Considering one of the major themes of the story is the redemptive power of fiction--particularly pulp fiction--Howard's short story may offer some other clues to what's going on in the text.

Here are some new observations, copied from a posting by DaveTallman on http://lists.urth.net/pipermail/urth-urth.net/2008-April/008819.html:

  1. Dr. Death says he will enhance the hero's sense of smell. It was the Fall of Man that gave knowledge of good and evil.
  2. Dr. Moreau = "The Moor" in French = "The Black Man"
  3. A bull-man is a Minotaur. In Greek myth Theseus, who defeated the Minotaur, is linked to Jason through Medea.
  4. Dr. Death has shiny black hair. Dr, Black has a shiny waxed car.
  5. Aunt Julie wears a fish-headed costume with a shiny silver dress. Her corresponding character in the inner story might be Golo, which sounds like Gollum, the LOTR monster who was always eating fish. Aunt Julie is helping Dr. Black get close to Tackman's mother so her brother will not have to keep paying alimony.
  6. Dr. Death has red-tipped cigarettes with golden dragons on the paper. The party decorations are red and gold paper masks made by Aunt Julie.
  7. The "Other Stories" of the title are all other stories of good vs. evil, including our own (since Tackie is "you").

Interpretation

  • When the characters from Tackie's book begin showing up in his actual life, the reader first wonders if the boy is imagining them. That he is not is demonstrated by the fact that his aunt observes him talking to Dr. Death. Towards the end, a woman having a "trip" at his mother's party also sees the warriors from Talar's country. The narrative suggests that it may be the bleakness of Tackie's circumstances that is a crucial factor in allowing him to manifest these characters. He seems to have no peers, his mother's boyfriend is condescending to him, his aunts are distant, he is not attending school, his father is completely absent, and his mother is apparently a junkie in the throes of her addiction.
  • One overall interpretation of the story as a whole: it is a positive view of what is negatively called "escapist" literature. To put it more bluntly, 'The Island...' dramatizes (by externalizing) the ways in which pulpish fantasies can help young people to deal with an otherwise-intolerable situation. The characters in the internal story, even the evil Doctor Death, are all ultimately Tackie's friends, in that they all help him to survive what is happening in his home.
  • It's significant that the first character Tackie manifests is the "hero" of his book, Captain Ransom. This is reflective of the relative simplicity of Tackie's value judgments in the beginning. A turning point is reached when Dr. Death is manifested. Tackie tells Dr. Death that Ransom is already around, and will kill him, to which Dr. Death is dismissive, saying he and Ransom are like wrestlers, and they only perform under the spotlight. After this there is evidence that Tackie's loyalties begin to change, and it's certainly related to the parallels between the book and his own life. At the swinging sex and drugs party, it is Dr. Death who gently leads Tackie upstairs where he sees Dr. Black injecting his mother with drugs. By the end of the story, Tackie is openly mourning the idea that Dr. Death will be killed in the fire that Ransom has set in the book, and he then predicts that Ransom will sail away and abandon Talar. The significance is that Tackie is a child desperately seeking a father figure to identify with. His real life offers no good model, the three males of his life being the patronizing boyfriend Jason, his absent father, and the suitor Dr. Black, whose name itself suggests he is not the paragon of virtue that the community regards him as. In rejecting Captain Ransom as the character he identifies with, Tackie has lumped him in with the inadequate male figures of his experience, particularly in his presumed abandonment of Talar. That Dr. Black is thematically linked to Dr. Death because of their names is only superficially true. The real role that Dr. Death is playing in Tackie's mind is that of the creator (and thus to some extent the deity as well). This is supported in the first big exchange in the book between Ransom and Dr. Death, where Ransom asks the doctor if he has made the human-animal hybrids populating the island. Dr. Death replies with a comparison to the Garden of Eden [which is a significant link to The Death of Doctor Island also], and draws the parallel: "I am God and Nature is Adam". As for the identity of the creator in Tackie's life, it is of course Tackie himself, with his love of the book so intense he is making the characters come alive. Therefore it is not surprising that Dr. Death is the character able to reveal to Tackie the truth of his mother's degradation, death itself being the ultimate in hard truths after all.

Alternative Interpretation

  • Bruno helps Ransom because "you smell good" (and Dr. Death presumably smells evil). In the outer story, Tackman plays the role of both Bruno and Ransom. He senses that Dr. Black is doing harm to his mother and he goes for help. The police seem to believe that Dr. Black is innocent, but I trust Tackman's instincts. I suspect that Jason the drug pusher is either working for Black or helps him inadvertently by becoming his fall guy. Jason plays the role of one of Dr. Death's minions, probably the bull-man.
  • Note: the fact that Wolfe has stated in interviews that there is a "thematic inversion" between this story and The Death of Dr. Island and that Doctor Black only looked like a villain renders this theory unlikely. Dr. Black is most likely innocent in this story after all.
  • According to Dr. Death, "Ransom and I are a bit like wrestlers. Under various guises we put on our show again and again -- but only under the spotlight." That is, the battle of good vs. evil is played out over and over. I don't trust Dr. Death when he compares it to a fake performance (the Devil lies). As Tackie found out, evil was real in his world.

Unresolved Questions

  • Why does Mrs Babcock call her house The House of 31 February?
  • Why is it that when Tackie takes Captain Ransom's hand he becomes taller and older, but not when he meets Dr Death?
  • Why does Dr Death describe the book as a novel?

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