First, a bit of background:

I like horror stories. Somewhere early on this included Stephen King and from him I took a pointer to try H.P. Lovecraft. After reading everything I could find from him, I took a cue from his novella set in Antarctica (At The Mountains of Madness) and tried an Edgar Allen Poe story with the awkward name of ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantuckett’ (a sailing story that was said to end in Antarctica with some fantastical creatures). At the time, to get access to that Novella I had to buy the complete works of Poe. Which i did, and I enjoyed most of them

Unfortunately, TNoAGPoN was not one of them. In fact, it was a disaster of a story. I will not attempt to enumerate the badness of it here, just trust me for the moment. Suffice to say that the fantastical creatures were not, and the story leading up to them was unreasonably long and embarrassingly told.

Now, my wife reads a lot of books, and I’m a cheap bastard, so sometimes I go to the library and pick up a dozen random books I think she’s never read before—which means selecting authors I’ve not heard of before.

It was on one of these library quests that I walked past a book with an iceberg blue cover and 3 large letters for a title: P Y M. Without so much as a glance at the dust jacket it was in my basket and heading home.

I had fantasies of a sequel (or a retelling) that fixed it all. I was somewhat surprised to dive in to chapter one and find the main character was an English professor wanting to lecture on the racial overtones of TNoAGPoN. Admittedly, some 20 years had passed since my reading, but I hadn’t really thought of Poe’s story in racial terms, just travelogue and strange people and creatures.

But his thesis made sense. He even gave a fair and accurate summary of the original story, highlighting major plot points and storytelling shortfalls. An example would be a dog who appears in a chapter to resolve a cliffhanger, is described as Pym’s beloved dog, only to disappear from the narrative for the remainder of the story—quite a feat given that they are at sea on a months long journey. The important upshot of this is that a reader need not endure the Poe story to enjoy this one.

And the author (Mat Johnson, as I realize I haven’t said his name yet) makes his case quite credibly for racism in the original. To the point that I was embarrassed I didn’t really latch onto it at the time.

And before you roll your eyes and say anything like “not really interested in reading a thesis on race in some old story”, let me assure you that is by no means the ultimate focus. And the telling, from beginning to end is done with a joy and humor and artistry I haven’t read the like of in decades. Imagine perhaps the erudition and imagination of an early Clive Barker with the tongue-in-cheek sublime of Terry Pratchett—with jokes sometimes so subtle and sly that those not intimately familiar with the side matter would not even realize they’d missed a joke. (Mr, Johnson, should you ever see this, I’m thinking specifically of the Star Trek reference in the naming sequence—priceless!)

From there the story takes a series of turns common to movie sequels whose premise is “no really, that first story was true. let’s collect a few clues then follow in their footsteps.” And before long the author (who is actually a storyteller ghost-authored by Johnson in the same way the story of Pym was ghost-written by Poe (i.e. a seemingly cheap excuse to use the first person voice) has a boat full of black people heading to antarctica for a broad range of reasons, among them to look for the critters from the original story.

Once on the ice, the story explodes in a variety of directions and by the time it is all over most every character has had their moments of oppression and oppressing, they’ve had conundrums, made hard choices, and made bad choices.

Also by the end, every criticism of the telling for the original Poe story has been explained and excused, most having been purposefully re-capitulated in this sequel. Including a dog who appears on the ship once it’s in Antarctica only to escape mention for the remaining 200 pages.

I don’t know what else he has written, but in Pym Mat Johnson has delivered a master work of several genres at once. I didn’t want it to end, even as I raced to find the resolution. And, as with the rest of the book, the punchline reflects the Poe punchline, while at the same time giving a sort of closure to the entire race debate with a simple and glorious observation on the world we live in.

And, finally, along the way, Johnson mentioned another classic entry related to the Poe and Lovecraft sources. A tale by Jules Verne that also referenced Pym. I suppose I shall have to go read that now.