The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories • 1970 • magical realism short story by Gene Wolfe


Meta: isfdb. This magical realism short story by Gene Wolfe was published 1970 in Damon Knight’s Orbit 7. The title with “… and other stories” is somewhat confusing, because it is a single short story.


Tackman Babcock is an neglected and pushed aside boy retreating into escapist literature to deal with his intolerable situation. He lives without peers in an old resort at the Atlantic shore with his divorced mother who prepares for and hosts a costume party. Her boyfriend steals a book called “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” for Tackman which seems to be an adaption of H.G. Well’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, featuring beastmen who obey one nefarious Dr. Death and his adversal, the corageous Captain Ransom. Those characters come to life and appear in Tackman’s reality, conversing with him and all become friends of him. He finds out that his mother is drugged and fetches the police.

Winter comes to water as well as land, though there are no leaves to fall. The waves that   were a bright, hard blue yesterday under a    fading sky today are green, opaque, and cold. If you are a boy not wanted in the house you  walk the beach for hours, feeling the winter  that has come in the night; sand blowing      across your shoes, spray wetting the legs of your corduroys. You turn your back to the sea, and with the sharp end of a stick found half-buried write in the wet sand Tackman Babcock.  Then you go home, knowing that behind you the Atlantic is destroying your work.



Isaac Asimov presented this short story mistakenly as the Nebula Award winner, before he was corrected by the committee. In fact, that year no short story has won an award in the short story category. But two years later, a similarly named story by Gene Wolfe – The Death of Dr. Island – won the Nebula. The author added two other stories in the so called Archipelago series: Death of the Island Doctor (1983) and The Doctor of Death Island (1978).

I loved this fascinating look at how pulp literature is treated positively, and how it can help an isolated boy come to terms with right and wrong. WolfeWiki proves that the novel’s characters are not imagined but physically entering the real world. It all starts with his search for identity: He writes his in the shore knowing that it will soon be erased.

The story is written in the very unusual second person point of view connecting the reader’s experience with the boy’s perspective. At the same time, it suggests an ironic or emotional distance, like a self-help book or one of those 1980s Fighting Fantasy RPG books where you can choose what will happen next and go a different path through a story. It brings closer Tackman’s incomprehension of the strange social life of the adults. This incomprehension is characteristical for Wolfe’s unreliable narrators who are either limited in their knowledge or even dumb.

Wolfe plays heavily with fiction and metafiction in the story’s structure: The framing story is interspersed with fragments of the novel Tackman is reading, giving emotional support and pushing the main protagonist to overcome his passiveness.

As usual, Wolfe places a couple of riddles in the story – is anything of it really happening? The girl at the party hints at it by saying to Tackman “I will pretend that you are real”. Of the half-possibility of the resort called “The House of 31 February” – a date which could be possible but February will never reach that date, just like this story will not reach reality.

Read only once as a plain story, it would deserve only 3 stars. But you can dig deeper and pull out additional gems which makes it worth re-reading. I recommend this enjoyable emotional story.


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