Friday 22 June 2018

The Moon Pool - A Century of Adventure with A. Merritt


The publication of the following narrative of Dr. Walter T. Goodwin has been authorized by the Executive Council of the International Association of Science.
To end officially what is beginning to be called the Throckmartin Mystery and to kill the innuendo and scandalous suspicions which have threatened to stain the reputations of Dr. David Throckmartin, his youthful wife, and equally youthful associate Dr. Charles Stanton ever since a tardy despatch from Melbourne, Australia, reported the disappearance of the first from a ship sailing to that port, and the subsequent reports of the disappearance of his wife and associate from the camp of their expedition in the Caroline Islands.
Because the Executive Council have concluded that Dr. Goodwin's experiences in his wholly heroic effort to save the three, and the lessons and warnings within those experiences, are too important to humanity as a whole to be hidden away in scientific papers understandable only to the technically educated; or to be presented through the newspaper press in the abridged and fragmentary form which the space limitations of that vehicle make necessary.
For these reasons the Executive Council commissioned Mr. A. Merritt to transcribe into form to be readily understood by the layman the stenographic notes of Dr. Goodwin's own report to the Council, supplemented by further oral reminiscences and comments by Dr. Goodwin; this transcription, edited and censored by the Executive Council of the Association, forms the contents of this book.
Himself a member of the Council, Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, Ph.D., F.R.G.S. etc., is without cavil the foremost of American botanists, an observer of international reputation and the author of several epochal treaties upon his chosen branch of science. His story, amazing in the best sense of that word as it may be, is fully supported by proofs brought forward by him and accepted by the organization of which I have the honor to be president. What matter has been elided from this popular presentation—because of the excessively menacing potentialities it contains, which unrestricted dissemination might develop—will be dealt with in purely scientific pamphlets of carefully guarded circulation
Per J. B. K., President

"The Moon Pool" illustrated by - who else? - Virgil Finlay.

While many stories utilise the Literary Agent Hypothesis, there aren't many as taught and instantly compelling as the above foreword.

Thus began "The Moon Pool," the third published story by A. Merritt, and the tale which changed everything.

I really had a delightful time — seeing all the old gang… But the meeting which will interest you most is that with A. Merritt, the Moon Pool man. It seems he had long known my work and held a very kindly opinion of it. Hearing of my presence in NY he took steps to get in touch with me, and finally invited me to dinner at his club — the Players, which occupies Edwin Booth’s old home in Gramercy Park. Merritt is a stout, sandy, grey-eyed man of about 45 or 50 — extremely pleasant and genial, and a brilliant and well-informed conversationalist on all subjects. He is associate editor of Hearst’s American Weekly, but all his main interests centre in his weird writing. He agrees with me that the original Moon Pool novelette in the All-Story is his best work. Just now he is doing a sequel to Burn, Witch, Burn (which I haven’t read, but which he says he’ll send me), whose locale will be the fabulous sunken city of Ys, off the coast of Brittany. It will bring in the comparatively little-known legendry of shadow-magic. Merritt has a wide acquaintance among mystical enthusiasts, and is a close friend of old Nicholas Roerich, the Russian painter whose weird Thibetan landscapes I have so long admired. I was extremely glad to meet Merritt in person, for I have admired his work for 15 years. He has certain defects — caused by catering to a popular audience — but for all that he is the most poignant and distinctive fantaisiste now contributing to the pulps. As I mentioned some time ago — when you lent me the Mirage installment — he has a peculiar power of working up an atmosphere and investing a region with an aura of unholy dread.
 - H.P. Lovecraft, letter to Robert T. Barlowe

"The Moon Pool" was first published in the 22nd June 1918 All-Story Weekly, and has featured in multiple anthologies ever since. Now, with the wonders of the internet, we can actually read it online thanks to SFF Audio.

I've written on A. Merritt at length before, but not specifically on "The Moon Pool," which was particularly influential. I found Mordicai Knode and Tim Callahan's review on Tor quite a good overview, and highly recommend Cary Panshin's essay "A. Merritt and the Soul of the Twentieth Century" as detailed explorations of this fantastic tale.

As with Howard and other historically-minded authors, one of my favourite aspects of Merritt's writing is his use of historical mysteries to supplement his fiction. In "The Moon Pool," the setting is the Micronesian Archipelago, in the vast pacific between Indonesia and Australia. The story begins in New Guinea, in Merritt's time recently moved from German to Australian Rule, now part of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea - the nation's capital, Port Moresby, is also named in the novel. Yet while much has changed in the past century since The Moon Pool's publication, some things persisted for millennia.

Coincidentally with my recognition came a shock of surprise, definitely—unpleasant. It was Throckmartin—but about him was something disturbingly unlike the man I had known long so well and to whom and to whose little party I had bidden farewell less than a month before I myself had sailed for these seas. He had married only a few weeks before, Edith, the daughter of Professor William Frazier, younger by at least a decade than he but at one with him in his ideals and as much in love, if it were possible, as Throckmartin. By virtue of her father's training a wonderful assistant, by virtue of her own sweet, sound heart a—I use the word in its olden sense—lover. With his equally youthful associate Dr. Charles Stanton and a Swedish woman, Thora Halversen, who had been Edith Throckmartin's nurse from babyhood, they had set forth for the Nan-Matal, that extraordinary group of island ruins clustered along the eastern shore of Ponape in the Carolines.
I knew that he had planned to spend at least a year among these ruins, not only of Ponape but of Lele—twin centres of a colossal riddle of humanity, a weird flower of civilization that blossomed ages before the seeds of Egypt were sown; of whose arts we know little enough and of whose science nothing.
The ruins which feature as the focus of The Moon Pool are real. "Nan-Matal" is almost certainly Nan Madol, a site in the isles with a name translating to "Spaces Between" - which takes on a dark, Lovecraftian resonance when considering the story. Similarly, Ponape is Pohnpei, an island in what is now part of the Federated States of Micronesia, whose name means "Upon a Stone Altar." The ominous overtones just keep coming. Mention is made of a "Kapa-Kapa" boy, evoking the Kapa-Kapa Trail of New Guinea, likely a mishearing of Gabagaba. "Lele" must be a reference to Lelu Island. Other names are more difficult to track down: one of the islands is named "Nan-Tuach," and one particularly notable island is called "Uschen-Tau." Merritt offers this annotation, though as of yet, I haven't been able to track down a copy of the book:

For more detailed observations on these points refer to G. Volkens, Uber die Karolinen Insel Yap, in Verhandlungen Gesellschaft Erdkunde Berlin, xxvii (1901); J. S. Kubary, Ethnographische Beitrage zur Kentniss des Karolinen Archipel (Leiden, 1889-1892); De Abrade Historia del Conflicto de las Carolinas, etc. (Madrid, 1886).—W. T. G.

Nan Madol was only fairly recently known to the western world at the time Merritt wrote this story: indeed, James Churchwood's first publication on Mu, which makes heavy mention of Nan Madol, would not be published until four years after The Moon Pool. Nonetheless, the legends of Lemuria and Kumari Kandam stretch back further, meaning Nan Madol could easily fit into the theosophical hue the book takes - and, by happy coincidence, a "Hyborian"-style association with the scientifically proposed Sundaland and Sahul, real Lost Worlds of the Pleistocene Period. Sundaland and Sahul, like Doggerland, Viking-Berger Island, Beringia, are historic landmasses which have since sunk beneath the waves.

Modern archaeology has discovered a great deal more about Nan Madol and the ancient ruins of Indonesia than was available to Merritt. Nan Madol itself is believed to be the seat of the Saudeleur Dynasty a civilisation hundreds rather than thousands of years old, which lasted from the early 12th Century until its conquest by the semi-mythical Pohnpei warrior Isokelekel in 1648. Carbon dating was used to date the earliest monolithic constructions, which place their establishment around the 1100 mark, rather than the vast antiquities earlier archaeologists (and Sword-and-Sorcery authors) thought.

Merritt's travelogue-style description of the islands prior to the adventure at Nan Modal is very journalistic, dry, almost pedestrian - very deliberately so, as it provides a sharp contrast to the much more verbose & imaginative vocabulary to describe the fantastical events later in the book.

Much has been said of Merritt's descriptions, particularly his descriptions of light, in The Moon Pool, with more than a few writing it off as purple prose. Listen, pal: I may like my aubergine wordplay, but purple prose is what you get when you use big words when little words would do - such a utilitarian schema can be very useful for action and drama, but sometimes, small words just won't do. Merritt, like Clark Ashton Smith, selected every word very deliberately, because they were simply the best word to use for the task at hand. It is not using big words for the sake of it.

Take this passage:
A hundred paces away was a dais, its rim raised a yard above the floor. From the edge of this rim streamed upward a steady, coruscating mist of the opalescence, veined even as was that of the Dweller's shining core and shot with milky shadows like curdled moonlight; up it stretched like a wall.
Coruscating is a very precise term derived from the Latin coruscō, "I flash," itself from coruscare, "to vibrate, glitter," and is used often in reference to phenomena like Aurora. Sure, you could say something like "flashing," "sparkling," "glittering," or even something like "scintillate," but do any of those words really convey the unearthly, pulsating, almost living illuminations of an Aurora? Likewise, what synonym exists for "opalescence," which similarly encapsulates the very essence of that texture & look, even feel, that evokes the opal? Yet alongside such specific & exotic terms as "dais," "coruscating," and "opalescence," Merritt utilises some very common - and no less descriptive - adjectives, like "steady" and "curdled." Were Merritt truly a purveyor of purple prose, the passage would surely read something like this:
A quarter furlong away was a mandapam, its periphery elevated a cubit atop the floor. From the marge of this periphery cascaded acclivitously a uniform, coruscating brume of the opalescence, stratified yet as was that of the Dweller's effulgent nucleus and variegated with opaque tenibrosity like coagulated lux lunae; up it extended like a palisade.
So. Don't talk to me about purple prose.

Our dramatis personae are an eclectic bunch, but a particular standout to me is Thora Halverson, Edith Throckmartin's Swedish nurse. Thora immediately conjured memories of Verne's Hans Bjelke, the determined giant Icelander who seems more appropriate to a saga of longships and longaxes than a 20th Century pulp adventure - a predicament not unlike Esau Cairn's in Almuric. But this out-of-place human anachronism is far from a simple character trait - it's integral to the story's merging and mashing of mythology, science, and cosmic horror. Consider this appraisal of Thora:

She was a Swede, as you know, and in her blood ran the beliefs and superstitions of the Northland—some of them so strangely akin to those of this far southern land; beliefs of spirits of mountain and forest and water werewolves and beings malign. From the first she showed a curious sensitivity to what, I suppose, may be called the 'influences' of the place. She said it 'smelled' of ghosts and warlocks.

Mythologies from across the world are invoked, from the "Fisher of Souls" of Louisiades lore, to the Dyak people's "Akla Bird" who functioned as the moonray-winged messenger of Buddha - possibly a reference to the Garuda - and we later see a whole lot more of Norse, and Irish, and Egyptian, and all sorts of mythologies.

This mixing of science and sorcery, mythology and history, agony and ecstasy, even mundane description with wild reverie, is one of Merritt's themes. This duality permeates "The Moon Pool":

... But the Throckmartin I had seen below was one who had borne some scaring shock of mingled rapture and horror; some soul cataclysm that in its climax had remoulded, deep from within, his face, setting on it seal of wedded ecstasy and despair; as though indeed these two had come to him hand in hand, taken possession of him and departing left behind, ineradicably, their linked shadows! 
... "'I—don't know,' he answered hesitatingly. 'But something tells me so. Throck,' he went on half earnestly, half laughingly, 'the purely scientific part of me is fighting the purely human part of me. The scientific part is urging me to find some way to get that slab either down or open. The human part is just as strongly urging me to do nothing of the sort and get away while I can!'

Like his contemporary William Hope Hodgson, Merritt's work is suffused with the barely conceivable, overwhelming death that wracked the fields of Europe, the sands of the Middle East, and the coasts of Africa over four horrific years - and even the climes of the Pacific could not escape the shadow of that conflict. It seems somewhat fitting that "The Moon Pool" and the end of that ghastly war share a centennial.

"The Moon Pool" is one of three of Merritt's books listed in Gary Gygax's famous "Appendix N" in The Dungeonmaster's Guide, alongside Creep, Shadow, Creep! and Dwellers in the Mirage - and Merritt is the only author on the list to have three titles listed. I'd love to say it's my favourite Merritt story, but I keep finding reasons to say that about all of them. Perhaps, then, "The Moon Pool" stands out for being the place where it all began - the first of Merritt's real successes, a massive influence on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Michael Moorcock and other giants, and the beginnings of a new type of adventure novel just as the world recovers from one of the most terrible horrors in its history.

Such is the legacy of A. Merritt and the soul of the Twentieth Century.

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