…or, The Trials of Arthur Gordon Pym
[There are spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing]
I don’t actually remember reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I always assumed I had in my extreme youth because I remembered the basic plot and it isn’t one of those books that is so embedded in culture that everyone knows the plot just by existing. But surely I’d have remembered reading something this odd?
It’s tempting to sneer a bit at this book for being so ridiculously over the top. There’s a quality of breathless “and then, and then, and then!” about it – there was a mutiny! And then we were shipwrecked! and there were ghosts! And we had to eat a crew member! Then we were attacked by sharks! Yet this works – this is a story posing as a travel journal and if this were supposed to be a realistic narrative (it’s not) it would be a bit strange to have it carefully plotted. As a horror (? travel? fantasy? shipwreck? angry natives, run away!?) story it works even better – the eerie, bizarre incidents build up one on top of the other and by sustaining a level of hysteria throughout the book promise a spectacular climax.
I was struck by how genuinely weird the book is. Towards the beginning, when Arthur stows away aboard the ship, his friend Augustus has made careful arrangements to conceal him until they’re safely away at sea. He is to be hidden down a secret passage (on a ship!) in a box:
The taper gave out so feeble a ray that it was with the greatest difficulty I could grope my way through the confused mass of lumber among which I now found myself. By degrees, however, my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and I proceeded with less trouble, holding on to the skirts of my friend’s coat. He brought me, at length, after creeping and winding through innumerable narrow passages, to an iron-bound box, such as is used sometimes for packing fine earthenware. It was nearly four feet high, and full six long, but very narrow. Two large empty oil-casks lay on the top of it, and above these, again, a vast quantity of straw matting, piled up as high as the floor of the cabin. In every other direction around was wedged as closely as possible, even up to the ceiling, a complete chaos of almost every species of ship-furniture, together with a heterogeneous medley of crates, hampers, barrels, and bales, so that it seemed a matter no less than miraculous that we had discovered any passage at all to the box. I afterward found that Augustus had purposely arranged the stowage in this hold with a view to affording me a thorough concealment, having had only one assistant in the labour, a man not going out in the brig.
My companion now showed me that one of the ends of the box could be removed at pleasure. He slipped it aside and displayed the interior, at which I was excessively amused. A mattress from one of the cabin berths covered the whole of its bottom, and it contained almost every article of mere comfort which could be crowded into so small a space, allowing me, at the same time, sufficient room for my accommodation, either in a sitting position or lying at full length.
Pym shows absolutely no surprise at the notion that he is to encoffin himself and sit around in the dark for a few days; it is treated as an entirely routine part of stowing away. He obligingly goes off into a delirious dream for a few days. He wakes up days later to rotten meat, a dog who is behaving strangely , and the discovery that the ship has been taken over.
But it’s the delirious dream part that I find interesting – for someone who has just recently shown such willingness to bury himself prematurely (a chapter or so later Pym finds himself impersonating a corpse again) Pym seems to be suffering quite the breakdown.
While occupied with this thought, however, I fell in spite of every exertion to the contrary, into a state of profound sleep, or rather stupor. My dreams were of the most terrific description. Every species of calamity and horror befell me. Among other miseries I was smothered to death between huge pillows, by demons of the most ghastly and ferocious aspect. Immense serpents held me in their embrace, and looked earnestly in my face with their fearfully shining eyes. Then deserts, limitless, and of the most forlorn and awe-inspiring character, spread themselves out before me. Immensely tall trunks of trees, gray and leafless, rose up in endless succession as far as the eye could reach. Their roots were concealed in wide-spreading morasses, whose dreary water lay intensely black, still, and altogether terrible, beneath. And the strange trees seemed endowed with a human vitality, and waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy, in the shrill and piercing accents of the most acute agony and despair. The scene changed; and I stood, naked and alone, amidst the burning sand-plains of Sahara. At my feet lay crouched a fierce lion of the tropics. Suddenly his wild eyes opened and fell upon me. With a conculsive bound he sprang to his feet, and laid bare his horrible teeth. In another instant there burst from his red throat a roar like the thunder of the firmament, and I fell impetuously to the earth. Stifling in a paroxysm of terror, I at last found myself partially awake.
It strikes me as I write this that the characters all spend a good deal of their time not in their senses. There’s a drunken boating expedition in the first chapter that nearly causes Pym and Augustus their lives; there’s a lot section during which they and Dirk Peters are crazed with hunger (which happens to be when they see the alleged ghost ship), and the last section of the book, as they sail closer to the south pole, has a definite dream like quality to it.
And that’s how the terror element works as well. The shriekiness of the beginning (which is also the section where things like rotting flesh and cannibalism form the major part of the horror) gradually slips into this muted fear that is far more effective. When the southern barbarians kill most of the crew towards the end of the book, it’s a relatively bloodless mass murder that involves getting a cliff to fall on top of them (the earlier chapters would have included some dismemberment at the very least). The final sections of the book have the narrator and two of his companions sailing south into the unknown. At the very end Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow” and the narrative ends abruptly, with nothing more than a note in the frame narrative to tell us that the next few chapters are missing, that Pym is dead, that companion Dirk is alive. The climax we were promised turns out to be not knowing.
Arthur Gordon Pym is bizarre – it has elements of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Lovecraft, and the pirate comic in Watchmen, and I haven’t said half of what I want to say about it here. I’m surprised it hasn’t been referenced more in later literature – and if anyone reading this can think of instances where it has, let me know?