Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W • 1972 • magical realism novelette by Harlan Ellison


Meta: isfdb. This magical realism short story appeared October 1974 in The Magazine of Fantasy and SF and was re-published in Deathbird Stories. It won the 1975 Hugo and Locus Awards.

Synopsis:  (Copied from Wikipedia:) Larry Talbot wants to die, but cannot unless he first knows the exact physical location of his soul. To this end, he tracks down Victor Frankenstein, who sends him on a fantastic voyage.

Review:  The title alone deserves 5 stars and I consider it to be within Ellison’s top 3 titles “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” and “I See A Man Sitting On a Chair, And the Chair Is Biting His Leg”. It describes the content precisely but is also misleading and probably not perfectly recitable from memory. The “Islets of Langerhans” address the last part of the synopsis – a journey into the body similar to Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage to a target which is not a geographical location but a medical term for groups of endocrine cells near the pancreas. The given latitude and longitudes didn’t help much either – you’ll find the place at a crossing near the capitol hill in Washington, D.C.

With the title starts a great puzzle of a great story conflating several works of phantastic literature. If the title doesn’t grip you, so should the first sentence:

 When Moby Dick awoke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed of kelp into a monstrous Ahab.

Ellison writes in the tradition of Franz Kafka and shows it: That first sentence is taken from Kafka’s Metamorphosis where he replaces Gregor Samsa with Melville’s main protagonists from Moby Dick. In fact, the main character is neither Ahab, nor Moby Dick, but the epitome of metamorphosis: Werewolf Lawrence Talbot from the famous 1941 Universal Studio film “The Wolf Man” (written by Curt Siodmak). Similar to a sequel of this movie, Talbot has Victor Frankenstein (who quotes The Wizard of Oz) as a friend who will give him the chance to travel to his target within his own body. Other pastiches from Theodor Sturgeon’s mysteriously disappearing store, or mythological Demeter are woven perfectly into this adventurous tale.

In the happy ending, Talbot overcomes his curse of immortality, but chooses life when he sees how he can help others to cure their mental illness.

A combined Kafka, Melville, Mary Shelley, Asimov, and Siodmak? It switches genres like a wet piece of soap – surrealism, horror, time travel, comic fiction culminating in that lunatic science fiction adaption of Asimov’s Fantastic Journey. None of the elements dominate the story, Ellison always stays in control, adding his own taste and postmodernistic style. It quite literally a metamorphosis: The horror story turns to a happy ending, from science fiction to fantasy, from myth to modern days comics.

An absolutely stunning work of imagination containing lots of puzzles for SF&F fans.

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