MS. Found in a Bottle
Creepmaster extraordinaire Edgar Allan Poe scored an early success with "MS. Found in a Bottle," an Olde Tyme sea adventure that combined the joys of a long-distance travel diary with the horror of dying alone in absolute darkness. Yeah, your run-of-the-mill short story this ain't.
He first submitted this puppy to a writing contest held in 1833 by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, where he had also submitted five other stories in an attempt to overwhelm the editors with his Awesome. That tactic worked: the judges unanimously selected "MS." as the contest winner. Poe picked up fifty bucks and the Visiter got a snazzy bit of fiction for their October 19, 1833 edition.
The story itself follows the basic pattern of sea adventures that were very popular at the time. Its narrator survives a hurricane, only to find himself stuck on a phantom ship manned by old men heading—apparently of their own volition—towards a giant whirlpool that will surely suck them into the bowels of the earth. It is, in a word, weird. Also scary.
"MS. Found in a Bottle" was one of Poe's earlier works, and he was still perfecting the Maximum Spooky vibe that made his later stories so popular. (It eventually showed up in his collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840, rubbing shoulders with better known Poe stories like "The Fall of the House of Usher.") Some critics actually see the story as a parody of adventure tales… weird considering that Poe was basically the god-king of Gloomy Guses, but here we are, sailing the high seas instead of touring haunted houses. And to be fair, things get pretty gloomy when you're circling the ocean's drain.
Why Should I Care?
Exploration tales are a staple of storytelling. We see it in everything from the Odyssey to Star Trek. The great unknown calls out to the hero, and off he goes, seeking new places and jumping up and down like a kid at Christmas every time he uncovers some fantastic discovery. Sure, there's danger, but he faces it head-on and returns to tell us all about it… usually after being celebrated as a hero.
Poe, not the most cheerful of writers, puts his own gloomy spin on that idea with "MS. Found in a Bottle." There's no triumph, no fantastical discoveries here. The narrator in "MS." spends most of his time in a state of pants-wetting terror, and his one brief moment of curiosity and excitement occurs just before he gets sucked into a giant whirlpool.
Poe takes the wind out of the adventure genre's sails, pointing out the dangers of exploration while suggesting that some places are better left undiscovered. Even in grim exploration stories like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the hero comes home. The narrator here doesn't. That's a real departure for this kind of story, the kind that doesn't show up very often. It also explains how people thought of "MS." as a satire rather than a straight piece, and most importantly—it's what sets this story apart.