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From: Jim Jordan <jbjordan@gnt.net>
Subject: Re: (urth) Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories
Date: Mon, 17 Apr 2000 16:39:36 

Some exegesis of this story, grist for your mills:

1. The island is almost an island, but not quite, and is not really on the
map. Thus, it is like the island in the pseudo-novel.

2. The House of 31 February is not quite on the calendar. There's no such
date, but some months do have 31 days, so it's "almost but not quite" on
the calendar. Calendar -- time -- is a clear theme: The aunts are named May
and Julie (July). It's winter. The year is about to "start all over again."
See No. 21 below.

3. The book's cover shows Ransom struggling and apparently defeating an
apeman. This anticipates the narrative in the semi-real world. Also, surely
Ransom is a nod to Lewis, and to Jesus. Compare Ransom's wrestling with the
Morlockian Un-Man in *Perelandra.* Also remember that humanity made itself
bestial by listening to a serpent at the beginning of time.

4. TACK MAN BAB COCK seems significant. I don't know about "tack", but
Man-Bab would be man-baby, and cock would be the wake-up call. The boy
grows up a bit in the story, receiving a wakeup call from cold reality. For
more on the name, see 24 below.

5. A trip to the drugstore with Jason also anticipates later events, Jason
as providing drugs for Mom. But the drugstore also provides the book, which
I shall argue stands for the Bible. One can get either good or bad from
this place. (If we read the story negatively, which I don't think would be
right, the novel is a drug and Tackman is being drugged by it.) Notice also
by way of anticipation the armed policeman (compare the knights and the
police later on) and the fearful dog (compare Bruno later on). Lots of
narrative foreshadowing here. 

6. I note a SHEEP-skin coat on p. 14. Tackman is protected from the weather
by this. Wearing it, he meets Jesus (Captain Ransom). Ransom is taller than
Tackman, but shaking Ransom-Jesus' hands makes Tackman feel taller and
older. Dr. Death does not have this effect on Tackman. That by itself is
interesting, since the atheistic brand of existentialism (Heidegger;
Sartre) would say that it is reflection on death that makes us become real
men. Is Wolfe attacking this notion, and saying that encountering Jesus is
the real way to grow up?

7. The semi-real life Dr. Death would seem to be Dr. Black. Death smokes
cigarettes; Black smokes cigars. 

8. Death and Ransom are wrestlers who put on a show, but only under the
spotlight, according to Death. How do we take this? Wolfe's belief is that
death is God's servant, and that Satan is also, though an unwilling one. We
know full well from the Bible (as Wolfe would say) that the last enemy
Jesus will defeat is death, so Tackman is right that Ransom will kill
Death. But for now, they wrestle. That "wrestling under the spotlight" is
how God has organized history, as a way of redeeming fallen humanity, for
God did not immediately destroy death; it will happen only at the end. 

9. Here's as good a place as any to note that we are told in detail every
morsel of food Tackman eats. Is this one of Wolfe's "sacramental" hints?

9a. (I don't want to renumber all these, so I'll insert this). The "bad"
people convey Tackman by automobiles, but Ransom arrives on a boat. Compare
the boat as the Church (built, like Noah's Ark, with a "nave"). 

10. My guess is that within the pulp novel, as used by Wolfe, Talar figures
the Church, the enemy of Dr. Death, who is being corrupted by him. Ransom
must rescue her. She corresponds to Mom-Barbara, rescued by Tackman at the

11. The fact that Bruno, the SAINT Bernard, does not like Talar, only
indicates that she is in need of ransoming. She has fought Death in the
past, but she herself is not yet "on the side of the angels." She is like
the not-yet-redeemed Church, and also like Mom -- beautiful Mom, who needs

12. Again, within the layered "use" of this pseudo-novel by Wolfe, Bruno
would seem to be the pastors of the Church. There was more than one St.
Bruno during the Middle Ages. As St. Bernard dogs rescue travellers, so
Bruno rescues Ransom. It is the job of saints to "rescue" Christ (His
witness) in times of forgetfulness.

13. Tackman reads this book as one might read the Bible. It forms his
guide. Also, it puts it away "reverently" (p. 20). (All my pagination is
from the current edition, btw.) IMO, this is a major key to the story. As
Tackman reads the book, it comes alive for him, so that Bruno comes to
comfort him in the middle of the night, the was a saint might come to visit
a Catholic. (See 22 below on Bruno as talking animal on Christmas Eve.) Not
mentioned but clear to the reader is Tackman's nervous tension as he
anticipates his mother's wedding to Dr. Black. That's why he doesn't sleep,
and needs comfort.

14. Talar's people are "of old" and have become twisted in form. Ransom has
been brought to make them new? Compare beautiful Mom and her more twisted
sisters -- all "old" to Tackman.

15. The word "hypocrisy" means "masked." I think the masks at the wedding
relate to this. These people are somehow fakes. They have hidden agendas. 

16. Jason is dressed as a pirate with a whip. Probably the Jason of Greek
myth is alluded to. Jason had numerous affairs. Mom is Barbara, not Medea.
Were any of Jason's women non-Greek "barbarians"? Is there an allusion here
to anything specific? Jason as Heroic Playboy of myth does seem to fit the
story, not least as a foil for Ransom, the real hero. In the pseudo-novel,
Jason is Bolo. In "real life," Jason does not seem to be a servant of Dr.
Black, but both are supplying drugs to Mom. 

17. At the party, Ransom is dressed in rags, but they are clean and
starched. Again, a decent enough picture of Jesus, and a humble contrast to
all the finery of the masked hypocrites.

18. The men dressed in armor (knights) are from the City (Jerusalem? the
Church's pastors?) and are there to watch over Talar (church). Dr. Death
does not want Tackman to meet them. Instead, he shows Tackman the reality
of his mother's plight. Thus, he serves a good end. We can plug in a more
positive assessment of Heidegger and Sartre here, but only if death drives
us to become "taller" as a result of meeting Captain Ransom.

19. At the end of the pseudo-novel, Death is killed and Ransom departs and
leaves Talar. Well, that's the New Testament narrative, right down to
Jesus' departure, leaving the Church behind, delivered. 

20. If you start the book over, re-read the bible, you can read the story

20a. The bull-man also. Is this an allusion to the sin at the golden calf?
More generally to man's hearkening to the voice of a serpent (animal) and
becoming like an animal? Recall that the bull-man of sinful Judaism is
slain when Dr. Death's house is destroyed, and so (we may assume) is Bolo,
the sinful Gentiles (compare Jason). 

21. The last lines: essentially, "You'll be back. You're too young to
realize it...." My guess is that this typically Wolfean cryptic ending
means that as we re-read the Book of Books, we see ourselves therein. Also,
given Catholicism, the Church Year recapitulates the history of redemption,
and as one moves through it, this is like re-reading the Book. Thus the
calendar theme. The House of February 31 takes us off the (church)
calendar, but the story restores Tackman to it, in a sense, as he moves to
the mainland and into real time, real space.

22. When does this take place? Well, it's winter. There's a party, which
might have been a wedding party. Christmas? It would be very Wolfean if it
were. If "animals can talk on Christmas Eve," well then Bruno (in a vision)
speaks to Tackman the night before the wedding feast. Of course, this story
predates the later Christmas Eve story by almost 30 years, so Wolfe might
not have been thinking of that legend. Yet it does fit. 

23. Other notes: Ransom goes to Talar's village to get help in defeating
Dr. Death. Tackman runs to a neighboring house, where a lady lives, to get
help to save his mother. 

24. The cops are sure that Dr. Black has only been giving Barbara helpful
injections, but she has needle marks all over her arms. And the
amphetamines are taken orally (right), and we assume Jason has supplied
them. Both want Barbara, but Tackman (strengthened -- made taller -- by
Ransom) saves her. Thus, Barbara is like Talar, and Tackman like Ransom.
Ransom tacked his way across the sea, so perhaps this explains the first
part of Tackman's name. As a cock, Tackman sounded the warning that brought
the police. 

I don't submit this as definitive, but as a first stab. Anyone have any


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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