005 — A Sailor’s Life and Delicious Foods for Me!

I’ll bet you’ve heard of Edgar Allan Poe. Have you read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym? Yeah, that was less likely. It’s worth a look, though.

So Pym gets drunk and decides it’d be a great idea to pilot a boat around the harbor in the middle of the night. That goes about as well as you’d imagine, as the boat gets swamped in a storm and he nearly drowns. The buddy who’s with him proceeds to help Pym sneak aboard the Grampus, captained by his buddy Augustus’s father. OK, fine.

So they build a box in the cargo hold, fill it with sausage, wine, and matches, along with a pile of books, and just shove Pym inside.

Wait, they do what? Well, at least he’s not going to get stuck in there, I mean, it’s Poe, no one ever gets stuck in small containers or confined spaces, right?

Son of a bitch! The crew mutinies, kills Augustus’s dad, and Augustus manages to cover the entrance to the hold with a chain, so no one bothers to go down there. But Pym can’t get out! And he uses all his matches! And Augustus can’t help because he has to get liquor for the mutineers all the time! However will Pym get out of this one?

Answer: luck. He doesn’t dehydrate, despite the sausages, though his life sucks a lot. Eventually Augustus can get food to Pym and it turns out that another crew member, Dirk Peters, doesn’t like the new captain, and they take back the ship. Is that a reverse mutiny? A double mutiny? I mean, I guess Augustus’s dad was the original captain, is this an un-mutiny? Something like that, I guess.

The plan is to have Pym dress up as a ghost. That’s about it. This never worked for Scooby Doo, why should it work for Pym?

Except it does. Of course. I guess the dog is on the good guys’ side again (seriously – Pym brought his dog on board, it’s been starving to death with him in the hold all this time). So now they have control of the ship, and the mutineers are dead, save one dude they keep around to help steer and maintain the ship. Augustus gets hurt in the fight, despite his awesome ghost-friend-costume powers.

Then the sea throws another storm at everyone. I mean, really? Couldn’t it be a giant shark with a spooky mask or something? Well, anyway, the storm soaks all the food and drowns most of the hold, so they can’t get at the storage. They begin to starve to death, after a weird series of attempts to dive into the hold and bring up food. They catch some turtles, some of which go bad because, you know, they don’t have a jerky smoker on board.

Uh, and then they eat the red shirt. Yup. He has a name, but you don’t care. They draw lots, but conveniently it’s not him who goes. After that Augustus dies.  And then they get picked up by another ship.

This one’s the Jane Guy, and it’s, uh, hunting seals, basically? The captain’s sort of a flake, he wants to head scientific expedition but, well, isn’t, but that’s all he talks about. So, actually, hunting seals. Ideally, staring at, catching, and then killing strange and new animals, that future sailors will come to kill and sell. They sail south, and the captain refuses to turn around and take Pym and Dirk home. Pym doesn’t really mind. His drunken bet about adventure on the sea is coming true, after all, so yay!

They run into some natives who are, of course, black. It’s significant at this point, at least once you start to interpret the book, to mention that Dirk Peters is a “half breed.” The natives are friendly and trade with the crew, and take them to see something awesome. What it is doesn’t matter, because it’s obviously a trap. The natives are freaked out by the fact that the crew are all white-skinned; they even blacken their teeth and kill any white bird that flies to the island.

Pym happens to wander off at the right time and doesn’t die. Peters is awesome and doesn’t die. They escape the trap – rocks tumbled into a ravine – and climb down a mountain, steal a boat, kidnap a native to help them, and off to sea they go again!

You may be wondering why the hell I’m talking about this in a history of fantasy. Here’s the first of the two major reasons: the weird writing. In the caves that Pym and Peters use to escape the trap they find writing. Pym does the typical scholarly-protagonist-derp-derp with it but can’t read it, though they’re faithfully reproduced in the manuscript. Peters has no idea what they are. Where did they come from? What do they mean? There are hints that it’s a pre-human, or at least incredibly ancient, language.

Then there’s the enormous snow goddess at the south pole.

Yeah, did I forget to mention that part? Pym and Peters get caught by a current and get swept south. Remember how the natives hated the color white? Well, this would seem to be why. They knew, or once knew, about this super creepy, crazy, dangerous goddess standing in the middle of a whirlpool that appears to drain down into the hollow earth – this was back when people still had good fun with the theory that the earth was hollow and the south pole was an entrance into the earth.

And then the book ends.

What now? It’s a first person narration, Pym’s writing the story later, back home, but the manuscript just ends there, no explanation. There’s an editor’s note mentioning that he, too, never got the rest of the story from Pym. So it just ends.

Well, that’s interesting? My favorite interpretation is that Pym is faced by the fact that white skin can be just as “evil” (that is, not actually evil, but socially strange and dangerous) as black skin.

But why talk about it in a history of fantasy? Well, it’s Poe’s only novel. So if you like his work, you’ll like this book. It’s also crazy. It also inspired Herman Melville and Jules Verne (Verne was a big fan of Poe’s). And it’s an interesting descent from a generally realistic adventure story into a surreal fantasy world, venturing into undiscovered territory (no one had made it to the south pole yet, and the novel mentions that) and finding strange things no one from our culture has ever seen before. It’s a freaky reminder that we haven’t found everything here, and that’s one of the things the modern “dark fantasy” sub-genre does – imply our world has magic in it, we just haven’t seen it yet.

One thought on “005 — A Sailor’s Life and Delicious Foods for Me!

  1. Pingback: Halloween special 2013: Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness | Wondrous Windows

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