In “Anne”, the 35th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, demon Ken asks Buffy “What is Hell, but the total absence of hope?”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the novel Island of the Doomed really have nothing in common. One is a fun, albeit sometimes campy, television show that makes many people glad they came of age during the ‘90s rather than the Twilight era. The other is, to quote J.M.G. Le Clézio, who wrote the foreword to the 2012 edition of Island of the Doomed, “one of the strangest novels of the twentieth century” (or perhaps of all time).
Still, as I was reading Island of the Doomed I kept thinking back to episode 35 of Buffy, and that question, because reading Island of the Doomed involves stepping into a world with no hope.
Written by Stig Dagerman in 1946, the book tells the story of seven people—five men and two women—who survive a shipwreck only to land on an island with no food or drinking water where they wait to die. Or as the book jacket relates: it is “a haunting tale that oscillates around seven castaways as they await their inevitable death on a desert island populated by blind gulls and hordes of iguanas”. Even in this extreme situation, these seven people seem unable to relate to, communicate with, or provide basic human compassion to each other. In many ways, they are as isolated from each other as they are the rest of the world.
The book is divided into two parts, “The Castaways” and “The Struggle over the Lion”. “The Castaways” is further divided into seven chapters—each devoted to one of the main characters. “The Struggle over the Lion” is where they die or as Dagerman states in the beginning of this section:
“It’s just about the last day they have to live, and they all know that in a ridiculous, sub-conscious sort of way; just as an old horse knows it’s destined for the slaughterhouse when a little bow-legged fellow smelling of blood comes up to its stable one afternoon and puts a different bridle on it, and he’s hopeless when it comes to taking it out and he leads it out on to the road without even letting it have a drink from the butt by the well and then he sets off in the wrong direction, the wrong direction altogether…”
But it’s not only this strange island world that is hopeless. The first seven chapters, which often provide glimpses into the castaways’ lives before they were castaways, are filled with equally disturbing images. For example, a scene that begins with a horse ride in “the grass of childhood” ends with:
“For a moment, nothing but motionless pain; like a brook of bitter wine, the red ants are now streaming over the road, and the dead horse’s belly and hindquarters are soaked in ants; flies and other winged insects take fright and fly silently up into the treetops. And then, without meaning to do it quite so violently perhaps, he delivers a kick right into the horse’s side, so vicious that one of its hooves rises up a little, killing several ants underneath it.”
In subtle and not so subtle ways, Dagerman draws comparisons between both worlds. One character remembers (before he was a castaway) having to ask himself: “Am I allowed to do this, who’s in charge of this, how much does all this cost, will it break if I touch it? How do you think anyone can escape from it all? You are sitting there as securely as anybody can, but secure in your own filth, secure in your own poverty, secure in your own impotence.” Little seems to have changed, because on the island: “Although nobody said a word to him, although nobody shouted at him, they only needed to gesture towards him and he found himself helplessly subordinate to these people; jump like a fish, wriggle like a snake—”
Beautifully and densely written, the book is, according to Le Clézio, “a whirlwind of sensations and images” and perhaps also a whirlwind of symbolism. Repeated references to running, falling, obedience, and dreaming dominate the text, as do the connections between humans and animals. The passage of time, the ending of a day, the number seven, the characters themselves—all provide almost infinite ways of interpreting the novel.
“Dagerman’s true subject” according to the book jacket “is the nature of horror”, but it’s certainly not the horror that is prevalent in American society today. In fact, fans of the torture porn genre or films such as Saw may not recognize Island of the Doomed as horror at all. Bloodshed, certainly—an iguana that is crushed with a stone, an iguana attack where the iguanas “crash into Tim Soldier’s chest in sickening unison… bite straight through his thin shirt and into his flesh, and hang on limply like rats as the blood oozes up around their armoured snouts”, the fish that shreds the captain’s body as he swims across the lagoon—but these scenes hardly rise to level of gore that seems to be synonymous with horror today.
Instead, Island of the Doomed is a much more literary form of horror. Likened to Kafka and Faulkner, Dagerman created a book that is not so much to be read as studied and a story that is not meant (just) to be enjoyed but analyzed. The angst, worry, isolation, and despair found in the text will likely resonate (albeit for very different reasons) with readers today as much as it did with the original audience. The language, which at times feels more 19th century than 20th, more poetry than prose, may be less familiar to today’s audiences, but unraveling the at times mysterious text is certainly worth the effort.