Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The
by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)
I read this in preparation for Mat Johnson’s Pym, since I knew it was a major motif of the novel. Knowing most of Poe’s short works I was happy to read something “new” from him, and while it wasn’t great it also wasn’t bad.
The best thing I can say about it is that it’s downright grisly in parts, I mean with episodes that had me actually grimacing as I read (something I haven’t done since I was a teenager). There’s a matter-of-fact recounting of straight-up cannibalism where they cut off the head, hands and feet of a major character so they don’t have to think too hard about him while they eat him. It’s made even more shocking (and actually kind of inadvertently hilarious) immediately afterward when Arthur remembers that the whole time they had an axe available, allowing them to break into the food storage area. WHAT?!
Then shortly after this, another guy dies and Poe describes how his body was so putrified at the time of his death that his limbs just started falling off as they tried to drag him away. I’m laughing right now just thinking about how awesomely gruesome that is.
So yeah, Poe definitely brought it, arguably in more shocking and outrageous ways than he did in any of his short stories. Also, the ending is absolutely, amazingly HILARIOUS. I won’t spoil it too bad but I I will say that I imagine at least one or two of the Monty Python fellows must have been aware of it on some level . . .
It’s only fair to warn of the racism in describing blacks and natives, as Poe was nowhere near progressive on the political spectrum. But if you can get past mild antiquated white supremacy, there is some value here. Perhaps best of all is that it’s short, and you can skip the odd nautical, historical and biological asides that Poe weirdly inserts apparently so as to corroborate the “true account.” I read it in a couple days and I would highly recommend it to any fans of Poe, or to those with a strong stomach that are looking for something that can truly make you squeamish.