‘Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal?’1
Stephen King’s short story from 1982 is about a surgeon who literally turns on himself, amputating his foot at the ankle, and thence in succession both legs, an arm, a piece of ear and so on. The first amputation in the series is necessary because he has broken his ankle; the others are a means to a sort of auto-cannibalism. He does all this from hunger, in a heroin daze, and in a madness best interpreted as punishment for the egotism which is virtually his only quality as a person. So much for the tradition of the castaway story, in which cannibalism is imagined as the horror that confronts the Western castaway, who has been busy milking goats and cultivating wheat, when his island is invaded.
This castaway, who is also the narrator of the story, is no Everyman with whom we can easily sympathise. He has no inhibitions about revealing his selfishness, criminality, and contempt for all other human beings: his father (‘He died of cancer when he was forty-six. I was glad.’)2; his mother; the other guys in his neighbourhood; and the various people who helped him to deal drugs, evade taxes, and scam the medical system, while he was putting himself through medical school and becoming a successful, profiteering surgeon. Then he was caught, lost his licence, and travelled to Saigon for a big heroin deal– an allusion to one aspect of the American involvement in Vietnam. (His plan is to use the proceeds to bribe his way back into medical practice.) He has taken a ship for his return journey, it sinks, he rows away alone, and washes up on a desolate island without food apart from any gulls he can kill, and such creatures as a crab and a spider which he is driven to eat late in the story.
The surgeon operates on himself. The setting provides the material for the irony with which he is punished: the knives that are among the few things he salvages from the wrecked lifeboat (‘Whoever heard of a lifeboat with no FOOD in it?’ 431) will find a use later on. The heroin, useless as food, will serve as analgesic and later pitch him into the delirium in which he keeps amputating and eating himself, parody of the cannibalism that haunts castaway stories. The egoist is a kind of cannibal who eats himself; the tough-minded will to survive is the story’s motif, quoted several times: ‘How badly does the patient want to survive?’ (429, 437), and it leads to this ghastly dead end. (We know he eventually dies, because he has told us that if he survives he will destroy the journal we are reading.)
‘Survivor Type’ could be compared to stories about treasure hunts in which the desire for treasure overwhelms any human feeling among the treasure hunters, such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927); that comparison brings out this story’s ruthless economy: no treasure, except, ironically, the heroin, which is worth $40,000; no companions to fight so he will turn on himself. These details can be seen as brutal after-echoes of the moral reflections of earlier stories, such as Crusoe’s meditation on the uselessness of money in his present situation, or the way the balloonists in The Mysterious Island eject their money –- along with the rest of their property –- in their attempts to stay aloft.3
It is also like Golding’s Pincher Martin (discussed in chapter 4 of Castaway Tales)– Pincher Martin is an attack on the single-minded will of the worldly selfish individual to survive, no matter what; but we have no equivalent in ‘Survivor Type’ to Pincher’s improvisations which make his (apparent) survival engrossing for the reader. The story’s lack of all that makes its moral point. The constituents of the classic castaway story are present –- the shipwreck, salvage, the survey of the island and its resources, the struggle to survive, the notation of the days passing, the cannibalism – but in stripped and concentrated form, like a diagram. And the diagram signifies human, in this case contemporary, nastiness and waste.4 From this nadir we can assess other, often strikingly grim, but more complex depictions of violence and degeneration, and this is done in chapter 4 of Castaway Tales.
Melville, Moby Dick, quoted Michael Seidel, Exile and the Narrative Imagination, 212, n.32
‘Survivor Type’ in Skeleton Crew, Stephen King, London & Sydney: Futura, 1986, 429-51, 429 (First published in Terrors, ed Charles L. Grant, 1982.)
Robinson Crusoe, 247-8; The Mysterious Island, I: 8.
Also relevant, for its emphatic refusal to enter into even the grim side of the castaway story, is Somerset Maugham’s ‘German Harry’ (1924). German Harry, once wrecked, now living on an island in Torres Straits, was one of 16 who came ashore, of whom five survived; he stayed morosely on when the others were rescued. The locals suspect him of hiding treasure. The ingredients are noted – aloneness, probably cannibalism, misantrophy at least – but the story’s narrator refuses to examine or expand on them:
He seemed to be occupied with nothing but his food, his dogs, and his chickens. If what they tell us in books were true his long communion with nature and the sea should have taught him many subtle secrets. It hadn’t. He was a savage. He was nothing but a narrow, ignorant and cantankerous sea-faring man. (48)
Maugham’s contribution to the genre is to evoke it, then refuse it, and substitute flat certainty, retailed in less than four pages: if there was ever anything more interesting to be said, it’s now gone. ‘German Harry’, W. Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories, vol 4, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963, 46-49.