Dear Edgar #6 MS Found in a Bottle

‘I’ll send an SOS to the world… I’ll send an SOS to the world …’

‘I hope that some one gets my, I hope that some one gets my..’

‘I hope that someone gets my … Message in a bottle….yer’

Some bloke called Gordon and his mates…

I happen to like The Police, the band, not the boys in blue. Message in a bottle however is at best a bit of a middling track. It’s no ‘Walking on the Moon’ or ‘Roxanne’ It does however take its title from the odd little maritime tradition of placing a message in a bottle, sealing it with wax and hurling it in to the sea in the hope that maybe, just maybe it will get back home to the people you love even if you don’t…

This is of course a mostly fictitious odd little maritime tradition, which is to say while it did happen on occasion before the 1800’s it really only gained prominence as a thing people did when a couple of writers managed to glamorise the idea, Perhaps most famously the idea of a message in a bottle was used by Charles Dickens in 1860 in his story story ‘Message from the Sea’, but before him a little known American writer called Edgar wrote a tale called ‘MS Found in Bottle’ which won him a writing contest in the ‘Baltimore Saturday Visitor’ in 1833 and a the not inconsiderable sum for the time of $50… Edgar would of course go on to be a contemporary of Dickens but was young at the time. His story, however, as much as Charlie-boys helped create a lasting cultural passion for placing messages in bottles and flinging them into the sea in the late Victorian period, which entered the cultural zeitgeist and ultimately managed to inspired Sting and the boys. However, this particular Poe story also has another legacy in other, interesting and many tentacled ways…

Unlike Poe’s earlier stories this one is not specifically humorous. Though there are some aspects of it that arguably retain some of Poe’s earlier humour. It is a tale of misadventure at sea, which was a popular narrative in the early 1800’s. It is easy to read this story as a deliberately over the top exaggerated tale mockingly taking a shot across the bows of similar but more mundane stories. Certainly that is a possibility, everything Poe had previously had published at this point contained elements of this kind of cynical humour. Personally, however, I feel this is more a case of Poe stepping away from humour and delving into something more out and out esoteric for the first time.

What is most interesting to me as a reader is the structure of the tale. A structure I’m well acquainted with having found it throughout the fiction of one particular members of the later generation of writers Poe went to go on to inspire. The whole story has a certain relentless building up of the tension, while the strangeness of the tale is steadily ranked up at the same time. To begin with the story is reasonably mundane. A traveller takes passage on a ship sailing out of Batavia, modern day Jakarta in what was to become Indonesia but was Part of the Dutch East Indies in Poe’s time. It sails happily south east following the coast of java for a couple of days whence it is becalmed for several more. Then, out of the still hot dry air the ship is suddenly hit by weird combination of hurricane and sand storm.

The ship capsizes, all hands save the narrator and a fellow passage (referred to only as the swede) are lost. The ship, more than half wreaked, is driven southward in the howling gales which continue for days. Its about this point things get really weird and the storm ceases to be natural in any respect. Poe’s narrator writes of great swells and and waves hundreds of feet high. The expectation is that any moment the ship will break apart and hurl its two remaining passengers into the ocean depths. Then as the ship reaches it final moments an enormous black gallon appears through the storm and as the two ships crash together the narrator manages to leap aboard the other ship.

Now things get really odd, the crew of the black ship don’t even notice the narrator, even if he is stood in front of then. All the crew of the black galleon are old men who seem half crazed. Meanwhile the ship sails ever southward, deep into Antarctic waters, and towards its doom. A doom the crew seem to invite and welcome, a final release from whatever curse lay upon the ship. Baring with them our narrator writing diary entries he finally stuffs int a bottle to hurl into the sea to tell his tale to whomever might find it before he meets his fate…

That then is the tale, but it is the telling of the tale more than the tale itself that has been of such influence. Poe builds the story (as he does in many of his later works) with layer upon layer of uncanny strangeness and increasing tension. While we might consider this far from unusual in Poe fiction, this was the first story in which he focus’s on this as a refined structure, though there were hints of it in the earlier works. This was a technique that inspired many later writers, notably HP Lovecraft’s a near century later. There are echoes of this style throughout Old Tentacle Huggers writings, but what reading this story brought most to mind was Lovecraft’s ‘The Temple’. Admittedly that may be because there are some surface similarities, ‘The Temple’ is another tale of the sea in which the narrator finds himself increasingly isolated by events beyond his control, swept along by strange currents and stranger events… But it is the layers of increasing tension and weirdness, each building up to the next that really mark the Lovecraft tale as inspired by this one.

The most notable thing about that Lovecraft tale is it is the first story he wrote that hints of some dark deity waiting in a lost realm below the ocean waves.

“He is calling! He is calling!” 

‘The Temple’ HP Lovecraft

Lovecraft was not the only writer to draw inspiration from this story, Herman Melville credited Poe and this story as among his inspirations when he began to write Moby Dick. Joseph Conrad (He of Heart of Darkness fame) who had spent near 15 years at sea before he was a writer said of Poe’s story it was ‘about as fine as anything of that kind can be’. While Poe scholars are apt to say it was this story that truly launched Poe’s career. Certainly its is the first tale to read the way you expect Poe to read, with an ominous intensity wrapped in poetic language, creeping with ever more intensity towards a dark grim conclusion. In this tale then, you can see all that is to come late in Poe’s career.


Should your read it: In this story you can see The Masque of the Red Death, The Telltale Heart, This is Poe becoming Poe, so if that interests you then yes you should read this… You can also see the coming of Lovecraft and the tentacle faced one lurking within, as well as much more.

Should you avoid it: There is no reason to avoid this tale, unless you get sea sick…

Bluffers fact: The word Poe uses for the storm that hits the narrators first vessel is ‘simoom’ which literally translates as ‘poison wind’. It is a violent roasting desert wind that often causes heat stroke. It is likely Poe confused a ‘simoom’ with a ‘monsoon’, a storm of a type far more likely to occur amid the Indian ocean.


About Mark Hayes

Writer A messy, complicated sort of entity. Quantum Pagan. Occasional weregoth Knows where his spoon is, do you? #author #steampunk
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