Readers of Poe's short stories will recognise some of his favourite themes such as horror and the incredible. His psychological insight and uncompromising style render a vivid portrayal of the protagonist's experiences, and the circumstance and context - adventure on the high seas - make it easy to discern the novel's influence on authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville and Jules Verne.
Yet if we only saw it as adventure and horror combined into a longer narrative we might be forgiven for thinking that it is no more than a particularly long instance of his shorter fiction. This would be a mistake, and a quick explanation will hopefully illustrate why. The "Introductory Note" is signed off "A.G. Pym", and in it Mr. Pym refers to his recent travels and their fictionalisation by a writer, a certain "Mr. Poe". This conceit is very clever and raises unexpected questions about authorship and authenticity. In this Introductory Note, Mr. Pym says:
"This exposé being made, it will be seen at once how much of what follows I claim to be my own writing; and it will also be understood that no fact is misrepresented in the first few pages which were written by Mr. Poe. Even to those readers who have not seen the "Messenger," it will be unnecessary to point out where his portion ends and my own commences; the difference in point of style will be readily perceived."
Poe was no stranger to playing with readers' expectations, such as in the Balloon-Hoax a few years later, but this conceit is subtly different. The "Editor's Note" offered at the end of the novel to account for the abrupt end to the narrative reveals that, although we are offered the present story as fact, written by Mr. Pym rather than by Mr. Poe, Mr. Poe (the writer) doubts its authenticity - particularly in the latter parts.
"The gentleman [Mr. Poe] whose name is mentioned in the preface, and who, from the statement there made, might be supposed able to fill the vacuum, has declined the task - this, for satisfactory reasons connected with the general inaccuracy of the details afforded him, and his disbelief in the entire truth of the latter portions of the narration."
We are not told exactly which latter parts, but they would most certainly include the parts of the adventure where the protagonist had drifted into uncharted waters. In other words, the parts that are more clearly "fictionalised".
This instability in the text raises questions about narration, authenticity, and also the nature of experience. Did Mr. Pym really experience all that was related? If he hadn't, how could he still write so cogently about his deeply remembered feelings of terror and danger? Is the outside world merely a catalyst and stimulant for our inner worlds?
The novel's genre is difficult to pin down, because it exhibits elements of horror, adventure, and science fantasy. By adding questions about authorship to the mix, Edgar Allan Poe's only completed novel rises further above the level of genre-writing and mere narrative.