In 1837 Poe wrote his only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a discombobulating, unearthly sea adventure involving shipwreck (after shipwreck, after shipwreck), cannibalism, marooning, vicious South Sea natives, piracy, and an ominously cryptic ending. Taking place in the Antarctic, his readers continue to find its origins in “MS. Found in a Bottle.” Regardless of its influence on Poe’s later writing career, “MS.” has proved a potent and haunting story of uncertain metaphysics, bizarre seascapes, and troubling riddles. Its nigh Lovecraftian worldview and imagery are blotted with searing cosmic vertigo in the misanthropic vortexes that Poe imagines transfixing our globe and putting to death physics, skepticism, and time. Often considered to be a riff on the myth of the Flying Dutchman, “MS.” has proven far more enigmatic, disturbing, and transcendental than the ghost story which inspired Wagner and terrified generations of sailors – a king of England among them. It exceeds terror: it is cosmic, existential, and like the “Descent into the Maelström,” it pits the adventurous spirit of mankind against the deaf and blind cyclone that squelches its curiosity and haunts its dreams: Oblivion.
The story follows the strange misadventure of a man seemingly drifting in life. Estranged from his family and exiled from his country, life seems to have left him by the wayside. Without anything better to do, he boards a merchantman bound for Indonesia, and sets sail. The voyage is hot and slow, and the crew sleep above deck one night when a spontaneous hurricane briefly capsizes the ship, drowning the crew and passengers -- save for our spunky narrator and a haunted, old Swede. The two survivors find their dismasted ship sailing mindlessly south, and perpetually darkness consumes them as the vessel is tossed like a cork on freakishly high waves. Drifting ever nearer the South Pole, they are shocked when a gigantic Dutch merchantman looms over the precipice of a tidal wave -- lanterns gleaming and cannons jutting through the gunports. The Swede goes mad and dies as the wave consumes the shattered cargo ship, but the narrator manages to survive, and climbs aboard the ghostly behemoth. The sailors aboard her never pay attention to the newcomer, and are all notably ancient -- dragging hopelessly about with long white beards and wrinkled faces. He finds the cabin filled with outdated maps and navigational tools, and notes that the very timbers of the black galleon seem to have swelled with time -- making it unnaturally large. One night he spies the captain bent over a sealed document -- official orders from his masters -- but the old man doesn't notice him. On another occasion, bored and aimless, the narrator dabs tar on a folded sail, only to be shocked when -- unfurled -- the meaningless dabbings spell the word DISCOVERY (rather like cutting paper snowflakes). The crew suddenly seem aggitated, or excited. The end of the voyage seems evident, and a flurry of activity consumes them. Having kept a journal up to this point, the narrator records the roar of terrible whirlpool, and signs off -- casting his manuscript (or MS.) overboard in a corked bottle as the ghost ship plunges into the lightless void.
Widely reckoned among the best of Poe’s science fiction stories, it is difficult to fail to perceive the debt incurred by later masters of the genre to “MS.” and its counterparts “A Descent into the Maelström” and Arthur Gordon Pym. Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey into the Center of the Earth), Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Land that Time Forgot), H.P. Lovecraft (“At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Temple”), and James De Mille (A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder) each built on the Antarctic, oceanic, and hollow earth phantasmagoria of Poe’s sea adventures, just as he owed a debt to Coleridge (“Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), and, perhaps, Washington Irving (“Rip Van Winkle”). The disquieting madness – silent and dark though it is – shreds through the comfortable skepticism of the narrator, whose early catalogs of cargo and geography become as useless as the ancient navigational tools once he enters into the dimension inhabited by the black galleon. In a coup for fantasy as a genre, Poe extended beyond the conventions of the Gothic with their historical settings and fable-like characters, motifs, and morals. Instead, he thrusts his readers into a contemporary descent into chaos – with no escape other than a moral-less death in the light-less bowels of an indifferent and ungovernable planet. Discovery – whose name embodies the humanist virtues of enlightenment, curiosity, and intellectual ambition – is obliterated at the apex of its expedition, a fly crushed by a cosmic hand during its inspection of an academic morsel. Driven helplessly by the (super)natural forces that toss and guide them, the crew have long ago accepted their helplessness in the hands of a capricious universe, and their horror has dissolved into wondrous awe, even as they are drawn into the pit of Oblivion. Whether the narrator ever fully surrenders to the brutal omnipotence of nature is not entirely sure, but the moment that he unconsciously dabs the ship’s name on sailcloth, we see a glimpse of Poe’s argument: that the closer one becomes to the chaos of the sublime – the more one surrenders his will to the whims of an indifferent cosmos – the more one fades from the corruptible forces of the conscious and the physical, and enters into the insights of the unconscious and the spirit. But Poe does not end his story with enlightenment or transcendence: merge with the soul though we may, all things are destined for the pulverizing wastes of Oblivion.