Note: This public domain title is free on Kindle.
In his short story entitled “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833), author Edgar Allan Poe told a tale of shipwreck on the high seas, following the mother of all storms. Along with one other survivor, our narrator drifts helplessly on the surface of the water, later encountering what seems to be a ghost ship, on which he climbs aboard, only to be swept toward the south polar regions and to an unknown fate. Flash forward five years, and Poe has now enlarged on some of this story’s set pieces and themes, and turned them into the long-form work known as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Although Poe would ultimately write 50 poems (Poe-ems?), 68 short stories, and reams of literary criticism before his premature death at age 40, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was his only novel. Its first few chapters initially appeared in The Southern Literary Messenger, the Richmond, Virginia publication where Poe worked as editor; the novel itself first appeared in 1838, sans Poe’s name on the title page, and when the budding author was only 29.
Poe’s one and only novel did not do well and was critically ill received, but today, going on 200 years later, its classic reputation rests very solidly indeed. The book, apparently, was not only an inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), but also for Jules Verne, who was moved to write a sequel, and for H.P. Lovecraft, whose At the Mountains of Madness (1936) is clearly indebted to Poe’s work here. My main reason for reading Poe’s novel at this time, however, other than its classic and influential status, is the fact that it has been chosen for inclusion in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s excellent overview volume Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, a reference work that I tend to use as a reading syllabus/checklist. And I’m so glad that I did!
As would be expected, the book takes the form of an extended narrative of a Nantucket schoolboy named Pym, who tells us here of the adventures he had subsequent to stowing away on the whaler Grampus. His best friend Augustus Barnard, whose father was the ship’s captain, smuggled him on board, and hid him in the cargo hold belowdecks, where poor Pym was trapped within pitch darkness for two weeks, and with scanty food and water, foul air, and his increasingly deranged dog, Tiger. But Pym’s lot only became worse after being freed from the hold. The Grampus had been taken over by a band of cutthroat mutineers, who had either killed or put overboard the entire ship’s complement!
Pym, Augustus, Tiger, and the diminutive but Herculean Indian half-breed Dirk Peters managed to eliminate the mutineers, only to face days of hurricane-force winds, weeks of thirst and starvation, the imminent threat of hungry sharks, the necessity of cannibalism, the capsizing of the Grampus, and then still more days at sea. Truly, a harrowing, horrendous ocean voyage for young Pym, although all firmly in the realm of the credible, with no fantasy elements whatsoever. It is only when Pym and Peters, the sole survivors, are rescued at sea by the schooner Jane Guy that Poe’s novel/Pym’s story veers off into the fantastic. The Jane Guy’s crew, apparently, soon decided to explore the regions near and below the Antarctic Circle, only to have discovered strange forms of flora and fauna, and an island filled with a seemingly friendly clan of black people: black skin, black clothes, even black teeth. But that surface amiability on the part of the natives of the island of Tsalal was very short lived, indeed…
When The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was initially released, without Poe’s name attached to it, the book fooled many readers into the belief that the events described had actually happened to the young author Pym, and it is easy to see why. Poe invests so much detail and so many verifiable facts into his book that even the most skeptical of readers might find his/her incredulity being (like the Grampus itself) swept away. Poe, thus, regales us with travelogue bits (for example, the history of the Kerguelen Islands in the south Indian Ocean), gives us some natural history information (everything you’ll likely ever need to know about the nesting habits of the albatross, for example), provides precise compass readings of every obscure island visited (in case you ever decide to seek out the legendary Aurora Islands), tells us the complete history of south polar exploration (Captain Cook, James Weddell, Benjamin Morrell, etc.), and explains the precise method for preparing and preserving sea cucumbers. To further add authenticity, former Army sergeant-major Poe demonstrates an impressive knowledge of seamanship, including lengthy passages on the correct way to store cargo and how to “lay-to” the wind. Amusingly, Cawthorn & Moorcock refer to these stretches of factual exposition as “occasional Sargassoes,” but somehow, this reader found it all pretty fascinating stuff (although I did find an unabridged dictionary and an atlas to be of invaluable assistance as I made my way through them).
Ultimately, though, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket does justify its claim to be included in the fantasy pantheon. Once in the Antarctic, those fantastic elements include the 3-foot-long, 6-inch-high, white-furred, scarlet-toothed (!) animal that the Jane Guy crew discovers; the black tribe on Tsalal; the oversized scorpions and reptiles (!!!) found near the South Pole; and the mysterious, multihued water that is met with on the natives’ island. Elements of horror are also to be found here in abundance, including Pym’s truly harrowing experience aboard the Grampus (belowdecks, with the mutineers, when facing storm and sharks and starvation), and most especially the scene in which lots are drawn to determine who will be sacrificed as a cannibal dinner for the others. In perhaps the book’s most memorable scene, however, the Grampus encounters a Dutch ship of the literal dead (a Flying Dutchman reference?); not a ship comprised of ghosts, as in the 1833 short story, but rather, a ship filled with nothing but putrescent corpses, one of whom gives the semblance of a bow’s figurehead from hell. For me, this book was both compelling and unputdownable; when I rush home from a day of proofreading and copyediting at work, yet still looking forward to picking up a book where I had left off the previous evening, that is a sure sign, indeed, of a grippingly well-told work.
Having said that, though, I will confess that Poe’s novel did present me with some problems. For one thing, the author seems to get some of his facts wrong on occasion. He tells us that the (real-life) brig Polly had been lost at sea from December 15th to June 20th, for a total of 191 days; shouldn’t that be 188 days? He goes on and on describing the cohabitation proclivities of the albatross and penguin, yet later tells us that this co-nesting is a habit of the albatross and … the pelican? He tells us that Capt. Barnard was “in the employ of Lloyd and Vredenburgh,” yet later, when a character named Vredenburgh falls overboard from the Jane Guy, nothing is made of the (what I’m guessing is a) coincidence. Perhaps worse is the fact that the fates of two of the characters, Tiger and Capt. Barnard, are left up in the air: Capt. Barnard is put into a rowboat by the mutineers, his ultimate fate not vouchsafed by the author, while the Newfoundland dog is simply written out of the story following his valiant fight with the mutineers. Was he lost at sea during the ensuing hurricane? Poe never deigns to tell us. And perhaps even worse is the egregious internal inconsistency regarding Augustus. Pym tells us of a tidbit that Augustus told him many years later … but how could this possibly have happened, since Augustus does not survive the Grampus ordeal?!?! And on a personal note, this reader could never properly envision the ravines, pits and gorges that Pym and Peters explore on Tsalal. As if in recognition of this potential problem for his readers, Poe supplies us with five explanatory diagrams, which help not a whit, and only served to confuse me more.
Finally, as is generally known, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket ends in a cliffhanger fashion, with Pym and Peters on the brink of discovering something momentous near the South Pole. This fact did not bother me; I actually liked the book ending with a sense of the cosmic unknowable, as in the William Hope Hodgson classic The House on the Borderland (1908). What did bother me is the fact that Pym supposedly makes it back to civilization (where his foreword was written) and then suddenly died; so why couldn’t “editor” Poe tell us what happened to him? It is all very strange, the cumulative effect being one of a very singular and mysterious experience, indeed. No wonder that Frenchman Jules Verne felt the necessity, in 1897, of trying to riddle out some of the story’s manifold mysteries, in his 44th novel, An Antarctic Mystery (aka The Sphinx of the Ice–Fields). I am now going to have to get my hands on this Verne title one day. The conundrum of those Tsalalian hieroglyphics is, for me, just too much to ignore…