Call me Arthur. Arthur Gordon Pym.
In 1838, Edgar Allan Poe, then chiefly known (if at all) as a poet, published his only novel, an exceedingly strange tale that would be unexpectedly influential.
Poe borrowed something of the premise from a newspaper editor, Jeremiah Reynolds, who, the year before, had gone on the lecture circuit to talk about his own book, a history of the then-brand-new exploration of the coast of Antarctica. But Poe had something broader in mind. He opens his tale on Nantucket, with a young man named Arthur Gordon Pym who, having nothing better to do, wants to go out and see the world on a whaling ship. (If that sounds familiar, it should.) His first adventure on the open sea almost ends in his death, but Arthur is undeterred. His second bodes poorly, too, for the whaler on which he is a stowaway, captained by the father of Arthur’s best friend, first undergoes a mutiny by the crew, then breaks apart in a howling storm—but not before one of the crew is eaten by the others.
Cannibalism aside, we’re in conventional, Crusoe-esque territory so far. But now Pym is rescued by another hunting ship, this one out of Liverpool, that is bound into the South Seas. The ship crosses an ice barrier and arrives at an island inhabited by savages who “rushed wildly about, going to and from a certain point on the beach, with the strangest expressions of mingled horror, rage, and intense curiosity depicted on their countenances.” An adoptive Southerner, Poe signals that a place with free black inhabitants offers no end of danger. And so it does, sending what is left of the crew fleeing into the spectral waters of Antarctica, where they encounter giant figures shrouded in white robes—not the KKK, but aliens of some sort who live deep within the Earth in a labyrinth on whose walls are inscribed Egyptian hieroglyphs and indecipherable signs from some other world.
With that narrative turn, Poe can be said to be, if not the first, at least one of the inventors of science fiction. Certainly others followed his lead: Jules Verne wrote a direct sequel to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, even as he wrote stories such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea that drew on Poe’s tale. Poe would find another disciple in American horror master H. P. Lovecraft, whose novel At the Mountains of Madness, published 98 years after Poe’s, picks up the story. More recently, Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym runs with the racial dimension of Poe’s story in the form of a nicely turned literary mystery. And then, well out on the fringe, there were the theorists of the Nazi Party, who took up the notion of the hollow Earth with great enthusiasm, for which see Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s 1985 book The Occult Roots of Nazism, if not Steven Spielberg’s film Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Having had his moment with sci-fi, Poe moved on to found the detective fiction genre. He later dismissed Pym as “a very silly book.” It is that, to be sure—but a uniquely strange one, too, and always worth a fresh look.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.