Poe is known for short stories and poetry, but fans who haven’t read his only novel are missing out. These two-hundred pages encapsulate all there is to love about Poe. That includes chapters with alive burials, unforgettable gore, relentless anxiety and all manner of physical torture. The body count is high and the deaths are brutal. Yes, please!
The premise is that Arthur Pym and his companion are young daydreamers with fantasies of going on adventures in the open ocean. Unfortunately, Pym’s family forbids such folly. So the friend helps him stow away on a voyage. Once sufficiently out at sea, and thus too far to turn back, Pym expects to reveal his presence and enjoy the ride. This plan soon goes awry, however, with one ghastly event leading to the next until it seems unimaginable anything worse can happen. That’s exactly when things get doubly and triply worse.
Eventually the voyage reaches the South Pole, which was a source of imagination and intrigue since no one had been there. One of the theories at the time was that the poles were actually a warm, tropical paradise. Poe provides his own fantasies for what lies in that unchartered territory, which are quite fantastic and high adventure at its finest.
Many scholars consider Pym a genre-creating novel due to its direct inspiration for later sea adventures, such as Moby Dick (1851), Treasure Island (1881) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1871). Considering Poe is also credited for inventing the horror story and the detective story, this extra bullet on his résumé is impressive, and well-deserved. Jules Verne was such a fan of Poe’s novel that he wrote a sequel entitled An Antarctic Mystery (1897).
Verne’s desperate need for continuation, to the point of writing his own, is not a unique reaction. Among its critics are many who complain Poe’s novel is “unfinished” and thus not nearly as satisfying as his short stories.
It’s true that the ending is not tidy, but rather a sudden break. When first published, Poe masqueraded the book as a non-fiction account written by the allegedly real explorer Arthur Gordon Pym. An ending note explains the abrupt conclusion to a certain degree. For those who enjoy their narratives tied up with a bow, this explanation will not be enough. It is admittedly hard to not yearn for the thrills to continue or feel cheated out of at least a dozen more pages. That said, I disagree with any claim that the novel was hastily pasted together by an exhausted Poe.
Poe generally detested novels and long poetry, feeling such length was inevitably bloated. His artistic vision was for a “singular effect” where every word propels the narrative to a specific conclusion. Pym concludes with one of the most dramatic images in Poe’s bibliography. To go on further and deliver a drawn out “happy ending” would have resulted in the kind of excessive trash writing he despised. Leaving the reader thirsty for more was, in his view, favorable to putting them through pages of resolution with no dramatic purpose.
He made the correct choice—but of course he did. Poe wasn’t an amateur.
This Oxford World’s Classics edition includes an additional sampling of Poe’s short stories with artistic or thematic connections to Pym. Here’s my review of those:
MS Found in a Bottle
This story has obvious connections to Pym. There is a disaster at sea leaving few survivors. A huge ship appears but instead of rescue, the new vessel makes a bad situation even more unnerving. Wizened phantoms inhabit the massive ship. Our protagonist initially hides in fear, but soon discovers there’s no point. They can’t see him or are incapable of interacting with him if they can. There’s discussion of venturing to the mysterious South Pole and the horrors/wonders that may be found there. The framework of the story suggests a “realness” to the fiction, with a protagonist who assures the reader he is of rational thought, despite the unbelievability of his narrative.
First published in 1833, it is one of Poe’s earliest tales to receive acclaim. It won first prize in a writing contest hosted by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter and endured long after through various re-prints. Mindful of the success, it’s no surprise that Poe returned to comfortable territory with his first and only novel. Pym is essentially an extended version of “MS. Found in a Bottle” almost to the letter.
I admire Poe’s brevity in most cases, but this is one where the novel is considerably more triumphant than the short story. I don’t think Poe had yet mastered his talent for singular focus yet. “MS. Found in a Bottle” has a lot of content to cram into a small package. In consequence, the numerous epic disasters feel minor. Compare this to “The Tell-Tale Heart” where the entire narration is painstakingly devoted to a singular event. That’s a case where Poe makes a small canvas seem enormous rather than a big canvas feel small. Of course, even minor Poe is marvelous. Who doesn’t love a creepy ghost ship?
Loss of Breath
No obvious connection to Pym but aligns with Poe’s interests in suffocation and alive burial. Surprisingly, the genre of this tale is satirical comedy. The premise is that Mr. Lackobreath literally loses his breath one day during an argument with his wife. He assures readers that this is no figure of speech, he literally lost his breath.
Mr. Lackobreath searches around the house for his missing breath to no avail and soon extends his investigation to town, where he’s squashed by large persons in a coach to the point of disfigurement. All manner of slapstick torture follows. This includes being sold to a surgeon for organs, where his ears are cut off, having his nose eaten by cats, being mistook for a thief and hanged—he does not die from this but convulses as if in agony to give audiences a show. Then he’s buried alive. Upon escape from his coffin, he finds his missing voice among the corpses in the cemetery.
Such over-the-top hilarity almost seems to spoof Poe’s own works, but the story’s subheading “A Tale Neither In Nor Out of ‘Blackwood” makes it clear the context was Poe writing a farce of the hyperbolic adventures found in Blackwood Magazine. He may also be poking fun at “science” texts of the day, such as The Danger of Premature Interment (1816). In this volume, there are numerous “true” stories of persons surviving hanging and being buried alive and being dismembered by surgeons after confused for dead.
Poe published this story under the pseudonym Littleton Barry, possibly to distance himself from the low-brow humor of the piece. It doesn’t fit neatly into his oeuvre of grim horror tales. It is, however, a fine example of his diversity as a writer and ability to revise favorite themes for humor. A delightful discovery to find hidden among Poe’s lesser-known works.
More comedy from Poe, this time poking fun at gentlemanly arguments. Some university students with hot tempers and verbose philosophy get into a row over an arbitrary dispute of ideas. It adds up to a dramatic moment where one is accused of not being a gentleman and the other gets revenge by throwing a goblet of wine at the man’s reflection in a mirror. Such an insult may have led to a duel, were it not for a de-escalation via clever letter writing.
Not an especially memorable piece by Poe, and no connection to Pym except that it was likely written while he was working on the novel. Some cute social commentary that’s possibly autobiographical from Poe’s own university years. Scholars note that it is an early example of Poe’s interest in code writing. Also, the mirror scene establishes Poe’s interest in “doubles” that would define much of his later works. Again, nice to read these lesser-known stories even if they are not as marvelous as his most iconic works.
How to Write a Blackwood Article
Poe really was funny! This is another knee-slapper. A female narrator (rare in the Poe-verse) is taught to write a successful article for Blackwood Magazine by a Dr. Moneypenny. Of course these “rules” drip with satire. Blackwood was famous for sensation stories, such as firsthand accounts of torture that go into great detail about the painful “sensations” of the situation. Dr. Moneypenny references Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) by Thomas De Quincey as an example. He also mentions presumably made-up examples, like personal accounts of being buried alive or being baked in an oven.
All this is cheeky since Poe wrote numerous sensation stories of torture and was clearly influenced by Blackwood’s formulaic tales. For comparison, imagine George Saunders writing a piece that pokes fun at The New Yorker. He’s someone who follows that formula, so it gives him the right to laugh at it. Roald Dahl actually wrote something similar in “The Great Automatic Grammatizator”. In this story, a man uses grammar “rules” to program a machine to churn out prize-winning novels in 15 minutes. Many of Dahl’s satirical suggestions are identical to Poe’s, such as using giant words that no one knows the meaning of to make you look smart.
In the end, Dr. Moneypenny recommends the woman (hilariously named Signora Psyche Zenobia) find some method of torture right away and begin writing down her experience. He even offers to have nearby bull dogs rip her to shreds. The Signora politely declines, but informs the reader that by the late afternoon she found herself in a sensational scrape and was able to write a brilliant Blackwood article from the experience.
This is a direct sequel to “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and is meant to be the actual article, written by Signora Psyche Zenobia, using the suggested techniques by Dr. Moneypenny. For some reason the editors chose not to include it in this collection, though they are frequently published together for obvious reasons. My other Poe volume included the tale so I was able to read it. I’m sure it can also be found online.
The story is quite humorous, though it could also be read as a precursor to one of Poe’s most terrifying tales, The Pit and the Pendulum. While going about town with her poodle, Zenobia spontaneously decides to explore the top floor of a Gothic cathedral. She pokes her head through a small opening to look at the countryside and discovers she’s in the notch of a giant clock. She becomes stuck as the sharp, “scimitar-like” blade of the clock hands approach. Soon the minute hand cuts into her neck and creates such a strain that her eyes literally pop from their sockets. Inch by inch, minute by minute, the blade slices deeper into her tender flesh. Eventually her head is fully decapitated and, worst of all, her poodle was eaten by a rat in the meantime. Somehow she survives all this, which is another pointed jest at Blackwood articles.
A Descent into the Maelstrom
Another adventure at sea. This time describing the sensational horror of being sucked into a massive whirlpool in the middle of a hurricane. Though structured as a story-within-a-story, there’s no difficulty following the adventure and the action begins right away.
Consistent with Poe’s desires as a writer, it provokes a singular effect without expansion. While there is a lacking narrative complexity, it succeeds—like all of Poe’s best stories—in sparking the imagination and creating an unforgettable image. Funneling into the oceanic abyss, whole trees, ships, and other debris swirling nearby, there is the obvious sense of horror, but also of wonder. The depths of the ocean being so thoroughly unexplored in 1841, Poe once again provokes pre-Jules Verne fascination with unchartered depths of the planet.
Though relatively obscure among Poe’s bibliography, I was surprised to discover it has such a cultural impact. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a sequel and Philip Glass composed music inspired by the story, and that’s only a few examples of its enduring legacy. I wouldn’t consider it a Top 10 favorite, but I do understand how it could inspire so many readers. I suspect it will be one of the many Poe stories to haunt my brain, long after reading the final page.
The Pit and the Pendulum
Doesn’t get much more classic than this. Poe’s pendulum is an icon of torture. Not just for its violent possibilities, but for the long and agonizing horror and watching your death come slicing toward you, inch by inch. I’ve read the story multiple times and its power never faulters. This reading felt extra special since discovering his prior story “A Predicament” I got a clearer image how the composition came to be.
As previously mentioned, “A Predicament” was a spoof story making fun of sensation stories found in Blackwood magazine. It is about a woman being slowly decapitated by the minute hand of a giant clock. Originally, this story was published as “The Scythe of Time” with the overt thematic premise of being murdered slowly by time. In “The Pit and the Pendulum” Poe recycles many aspects of his joke story, including the image of Father Time utilizing a swaying pendulum “in lieu of” his traditional scythe.
Time is the essential villain of the story, since as every minute goes by fear and danger increases. The torture of the pendulum is not just the brutal slicing death it can provide, but the drawn-out agony of knowing what is to come. There’s metaphorical weight in this theme since we are all facing the “scythe of time” through our daily lives. We may not be strapped to a torture device, but it is only a matter of time before Death finds us. Every minute he gets closer and closer.
Outside of thematic and visual similarities, even Poe’s word choices are recycled. In “A Predicament” he describes the clock’s sharp minute hand as “scimitar-like” and here he compares the pendulum to the “the sweep of the fearful scimitar.”
Then, if there’s any doubt that Poe sought to revise his previous joke story, there are the rats. In “A Predicament” there is the memorable rat who eats a small poodle. In “Pendulum” there are, of course, hordes of rats who swarm the protagonist and ultimately become his savior.
A brief investigation into these two stories yields little direct knowledge of their composition, but it seems obvious that either one of Poe’s friends suggested he re-write his parody tale as a legitimate horror story, or he himself drew this conclusion while ruffling through his papers. It wasn’t unusual for Poe to borrow from his own ideas. “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are essentially the same story, told in different ways. These, at least, are both horror stories, however. It’s particularly interesting to see Poe spin a slapstick story into one of his most iconic macabre works.
Arguably because he was re-working such an over-the-top hyperbolic tale, it encouraged him to pursue heightened intensity that went beyond even what he would normally write. This is perhaps the secret to creating something iconic. Crank the drama up to max level, and then push it beyond even that.
The Balloon Hoax
Another Poe hijinks. Originally formatted as a newspaper article, complete with the buzz-worthy headline “ASTOUNDING NEWS…THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS!” He even managed to get it printed in New York City’s reputable newspaper The Sun as a legitimate story. It didn’t take long for the hoax to be revealed, when readers from South Carolina—where the flying balloon allegedly landed—reported no such event. In only two days, a tepid redaction was printed with the editors claiming they were “inclined” to believe the story false but retained that the premise was “by no means…impossible.” By then, of course, the story had already generated top sales.
Though fiction, Poe’s meticulous descriptions of the balloon mechanics certainly come across plausible. Being of a scientific mind, he likely spent considerable time imagining such a contraption and believed it could actually work. The overall message, and mass appeal of the story, is the value of scientific progress and imagining what accomplishments can be achieved. This appeal remains today, though it was especially attractive to its original 1840s audience.
Poe deliciously describes the balloon cresting mountaintops and hovering over ships as admiring seamen wave to the airborne explorers. The joyous greeting received as the balloon rests upon South Carolina’s beaches is all but a calling card to inventors across the country to get to work. I’m sure nothing would have made Poe happier than for someone to build a balloon following his mechanical directions and prove him a genius.
Jules Verne, being the Poe superfan that he was, references this story in one of his novels and likely borrowed the majestic aspects for his classics Around the World in Eighty Days and Five Weeks in a Balloon. I haven’t read much Verne, to be honest, but based on how much I enjoyed this story I’m excited to give him a try.
The Premature Burial
Poe writing an entire story on being buried alive seems like a match made in heaven, and it is good. But not as delicious as expected. Most of the story is devoted to rehashing tabloid tales of persons who were buried alive and survived to talk about it. Eventually we finally met our protagonist: a man with a rare disease that occasionally gives him the appearance of death. He’s so terrified that someone unfamiliar with his condition will mistake him for dead that he rarely leaves the house and remodeled his family vault with exit options. He gets so paranoid that he even distrusts his friends, thinking they will use his condition as an excuse to bury him early.
To be sure, this is marvelous premise. Poe masterfully extracts social anxieties into a realistic scenario that many can relate to. He even has the chance to flex his scientific muscle by imagining an inventive coffin that’s even more friendly to alive persons than the real “life-preserving coffins” which were available for sale at a premium.
The finale, however, is a missed opportunity. Our narrator wakes up to find himself surrounded by darkness. Inches above his head is pure wood. He’s cramped on all sides. Unlike the ‘buried alive’ scenes in Pym, which go on for pages and terrify the reader, Poe spends only a few sentences describing this nightmare scenario. The twist is soon revealed, extinguishing all tension, and a bizarrely happy outcome is achieved. Had Poe extended the anxiety scene for at least a full page longer, it might deserve masterpiece status. As is, it’s a stellar premise with a less-superior than usual execution.
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