The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Part 4 of 4

The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Poe’s done his research regarding life at sea, sometimes going on for pages about stowage or sails or sea cucumbers. Pym keeps repeating that what happens to him can’t be imagined by someone who hasn’t been in a similar position.

As a schoolboy, Pym and his friend Augustus take their boat out at night. Augustus is drunker than he appears and passes out. Pym doesn’t know how to operate a boat. A whaling vessel runs them over, destroying their boat, but through good luck, the whaling crew manages to save them.

18 months later, Augustus is going on a voyage. Pym wants to go, but his family won’t let him, so he stows away. After hiding on board a few days, he’s surprised from a dream by his Newfoundland dog Tiger who has a note tied to him. The note tells him his life depends upon staying where he is, but he’s out of water. His dog goes crazy and attacks him and he shuts his dog into a room. Augustus then appears with food and water. 

While Pym was in the hold, there was a mutiny led by the first mate, although the black cook Seymour is the most bloodthirsty of the mutineers killing over twenty of the crew who were still loyal to the captain. Another mutineer named Dirk Peters is half Indian. The cook wants to murder everybody, but Peters convinces the mutineers to let some survive. Captain Barnard and a few men were put in a boat without oars and set adrift. His son Augustus is kept on board to be Peters “clerk”.

Augustus is chained up, but he’s able to escape. Peters brings him Tiger, who Augustus had secretly brought on board. He ties a note on Tiger and released him and finds Pym a bit later. Augustus is granted freedom to move about the ship while Pym continues to hide. Tiger, no longer exposed to the noxious air, is back to normal. There are two factions among the mutineers vying for control.

Peters wants to turn himself in, but the rest of the crew is against him except Augustus who lets him know Pym is on board. The three of them come up with a plan to take the ship using the unnamed mate’s superstitious beliefs against him. Pym disguises himself as a recently dead crewmate. The sight of Pym is so terrifying, the mate immediately dies of fright. The other mutineers are frozen in place by fright and are quickly killed by the three men and their dog. The only mutineer who survives is Richard Parker who joins them.

Waking, Pym confuses the body of Richard Parker for Tiger (an inspiration for the novel Life of Pi). This is the last time Tiger is mentioned in the novel, so forget there was ever a dog. The lower decks of the ship are underwater, but the ship itself is in no danger of sinking since it’s full of empty barrels. However, food and water is down there. Peters goes underwater in search of provision but fails to bring back anything. 

A ship full of dead people approaches them. Pym briefly considers cannibalism but rejects the idea. The ship, in better condition than their own, drifts away before they realize they could have boarded. Based on the positions of the bodies, whatever killed the passengers happened suddenly.

After a while without food or water except for a bottle of wine they found, another ship approaches, but it disappears from view.

Parker suggests that one of them should die to save the rest. Pym disagrees, but is outvoted. They decide to draw straws. Parker loses and is eaten by the others. Pym remembers they have an axe and they use it to cut through the deck into the store room getting plenty of food, including a live tortoise. Too bad he didn’t remember the axe until after they’d eaten Parker.

A storm causes the deck to dip below water and a shark attacks! Food and water become an issue again. They eat the tortoise. Augustus’ wound goes bad and he dies. The ship rolls over. They lose their supplies and almost get eaten by sharks, but now with the ship upside-down they can at least eat barnacles. They finally get rescued by a British ship.

Instead of asking to be taken home, they accompany the crew to Desolation Island in the South Indian Ocean where they help hunt seals. The crew then approaches the South Pole. After getting around the ice, the temperature gets surprisingly warmer. They kill a 15 foot polar bear, bigger than those found near the North Pole.

They encounter whales and albatrosses. On land, there’s a berry bush and a strange land animal: with white silky hair, a rat’s tail, a cat’s face, and dog’s ears with scarlet teeth and claws. Approaching land, they encounter jet black natives in canoes with primitive weapons. They invite them on board. Their chief is named Too-wit. He thinks their ship is alive and he’s afraid of his own reflection. He invites them to his village. The water on land is composed of various shades of purple which keep separate from each other like oil and vinegar. 

Their homes are primitive, some no more than a hole in the ground and most of the villagers are naked unlike the canoe party. Their reception is friendly, although the white men think their food looks disgusting. They learn the natives’ language and trade with them. It’s implied they have sex with the native women.

The black-skinned natives betray them. As they walk through a ravine, they get buried alive by rocks collapsing. Peters and Pym escape, but all other white men on the island are dead. The savages take the ship, loot it, and set it on fire. It explodes, killing a thousand of them. The corpse of the strange red-clawed creature with white hair is thrown from the ship. The savages are afraid of it and shout Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li! (A word H. P. Lovercraft uses for At the Mountains of Madness).

Pym and Peters hide upon the island and explore some caves. Pym provides diagrams of the cave for some reason. There appear to be figures carved in the wall. He tells us they aren’t writing, just random marks caused by rock flaking off the wall, but he goes to the trouble of reproducing them anyway. This may come up later.

After a treacherous descent, they kill a few natives and take one prisoner. They steal a canoe and kill a few more natives, leaving the island. They go south. The water gets warmer and becomes milky. They see gray vapor in the sky. A disturbance in the water will cause white powder to rain down on them. Nu-Nu, their prisoner, has black teeth, the first time they’ve seen a native’s teeth. White linen makes him agitated and he shouts Tekeli-li! One of the weird animals floats by their boat. The current takes them towards a large waterfall, but they’ve become numb and don’t care. They see images inside the waterfall and there’s a mighty soundless wind. White birds fly by crying Tekeli-li and this causes Nu-Nu to die somehow. When they’re about to enter the waterfall, a giant person appears before them with skin as white as snow.

An editor tells us two or three remaining chapters have been lost, but if found, will be given to the public, so this is a cliff hanger ending. Pym has died an unspecified but distressing death. Peters is still alive, but unable to be reached for comment as of yet. The editor thinks the diagrams of the cave and figures on the wall mean something. The map of the caverns spells “to be shady” in Ethiopian and the random marks on the wall spell “to be white” in Arabic followed by “the region of the south” in Egyptian. He points out that the island of the natives entirely lacks the color white (if they don’t have whites in their eyes, wouldn’t Pym have commented upon that?) and they were afraid any time they saw something that color. Tekeli-li means white.

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