RETROSPECTIVE: The Moon Pool by Abraham Merritt

Monday , 6, October 2014 2 Comments

As I read through the Appendix N book list, I am consistently surprised by how good some of this material really is. Edgar Rice Burroughs is superior to his imitators on more than a few points. Roger Zelazny’s Amber series is one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever picked up. And Robert E. Howard is such a strong writer, he strikes me as being the American counterpart to J. R. R. Tolkien. Time and again I’ve kicked myself, wishing I’d read these books sooner and wondering why no one had ever recommended them to me. And I’m often floored when I can’t get these books at the library, the book store, or even as an ebook.

This week’s book is, unfortunately, not one of those sorts of books. Oh, it’s a neat book… very influential and it has a lot of cool stuff in it. It anticipates the sort of astounding adventure that would be popularized in the old Fantastic Four comic books and in movies like The Fifth Element.¹ But Abraham Merritt’s The Moon Pool is just so hard to slog through, I’m not surprised that it is as obscure as it is now.

It’s his first novel, sure… and it came out almost a hundred years ago at the tail end of World War One.  But part of the problem is that it was written at a time before typical science fiction tropes were all nailed down into a common set of conventions. It’s like he has to start from scratch when he describes things that we take for granted today. (It takes him five paragraphs to explain what a disintegration ray does, for example.) But the book is just plain ponderous and the lack of Ernest Hemingway’s literary influence is distinctly in evidence as this passage describing the main monster attests:

Nearer and nearer it came, borne on the sparkling waves, and ever thinner shrank the protecting wall of shadow between it and us. Within the mistiness was a core, a nucleus of intenser light—veined, opaline, effulgent, intensely alive. And above it, tangled in the plumes and spirals that throbbed and whirled were seven glowing lights.

Through all the incessant but strangely ordered movement of the—thing—these lights held firm and steady. They were seven—like seven little moons. One was of a pearly pink, one of a delicate nacreous blue, one of lambent saffron, one of the emerald you see in the shallow waters of tropic isles; a deathly white; a ghostly amethyst; and one of the silver that is seen only when the flying fish leap beneath the moon.

The premise of this being an eyewitness account is maintained fastidiously.The narrator often launches into long-winded attempts to explain the science behind what he is observing. (He’s a respected botanist, so it’s in character at least.) Fictional editors occasionally break in to redact sensitive details. As if there’s not enough description in the main body of the novel, many of the chapters contain footnotes. And it takes ten chapters just to get past the first door. Ten chapters! In the lull between the two big fights in the end, Merritt decides to do two “brain dump” chapters, completely freezing the pace of the storytelling at the worst possible moment. The subsequent chapter actually opens with the narrator saying, “long had been her tale in the telling, and too long, perhaps, have I been in the repeating.” He actually apologizes for it in the text!

We do see several of the themes that made his later Creep, Shadow! so enjoyable, though. Once again, Merritt serves up not one, but two space princess type characters. They’re both beautiful, but one is actually an evil priestess with a hidden Gorgon side. (You know the type.) One of the heroes has to flirt with her until he can figure out more of what’s going on.² The other “space princess” has an army of two hundred thousand frog-man warriors backing her up! The author weaves together threads and themes from Irish myth, Norse myth, the “Chamberlain-Moulton theory of a coalescing nebula contracting into the sun and its planets”, and even the theory of  Panspermia. All of this is then filtered through the narrator’s odd blend of skepticism and Christian world view.³ The net result is a striking syncretic mash.

From a gaming perspective, the most interesting thing about the book is how Merritt manages to present a credible antecedent for a truly massive dungeon. It’s got secret passages, a fantastic underground city replete with grav-cars and rival cults, and even stretches of bizarre alien wilderness. There’s a slew of unique artifacts of the Ancients straight out of a good Traveller game: Predator-style chameleon suits, anti-grav vehicles, age accelerating contact poisons, powerful healing elixirs, and gravity manipulation rays. Most interesting of all is the way that the puzzles blocking the main entrance which is reminiscent of this common dungeon design technique that Alexis D. Smolensk has recently identified:

My personal experience is that dungeons work best when each ‘level’ or spreading section has one to three monsters in it. Typically, the main creature plus a supporting creature (goblins with wolves, a wizard with thirty pet owlbears, that sort of thing), and then some sort of vermin for the quiet corners, like spiders, rats, snakes, oozes, etc. This is then separated from the next section by a secret door, a cavern chimney that’s difficult to navigate (thus logically keeping the sections separate from one another) or some sort of installed block/barrier where the upper creatures are trying to keep the lower creatures from invading them.

With this kind of a set up keeping the underground world isolated from the men of 1919, a dangerous game begins when the adventuring party arrives in the underground city. If they cannot successfully shift the balance of power between the rival cults in their favor, they risk unleashing a veritable Armageddon on the war-torn world above!

A vision of the Shining One swirling into our world, a monstrous, glorious flaming pillar of incarnate, eternal Evil—of peoples passing through its radiant embrace into that hideous, unearthly life-in-death which I had seen enfold the sacrifices—of armies trembling into dancing atoms of diamond dust beneath the green ray’s rhythmic death—of cities rushing out into space upon the wings of that other demoniac force which Olaf had watched at work—of a haunted world through which the assassins of the Dweller’s court stole invisible, carrying with them every passion of hell—of the rallying to the Thing of every sinister soul and of the weak and the unbalanced, mystics and carnivores of humanity alike; for well I knew that, once loosed, not any nation could hold this devil-god for long and that swiftly its blight would spread!

And then a world that was all colossal reek of cruelty and terror; a welter of lusts, of hatreds and of torment; a chaos of horror in which the Dweller waxing ever stronger, the ghastly hordes of those it had consumed growing ever greater, wreaked its inhuman will!

At the last a ruined planet, a cosmic plague, spinning through the shuddering heavens; its verdant plains, its murmuring forests, its meadows and its mountains manned only by a countless crew of soulless, mindless dead-alive, their shells illumined with the Dweller’s infernal glory—and flaming over this vampirized earth like a flare from some hell far, infinitely far, beyond the reach of man’s farthest flung imagining—the Dweller!

These are not the stakes that initially come to mind when novice dungeon masters look at the megadungeon cross-sections from the Holmes Basic Set or in B4 The Lost City. This by itself makes the concepts of this book a significant innovation over, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s At the Earth’s Core where the heroes not only had a relatively straightforward means of getting back home at the end, but also ended up with a wide open frontier that was ripe for an almost leisurely combination of adventure, conquest, and missionary work.

Another thing that’s unusual here is that Merritt presents cults that actually have access to the object of their worship. These are not remote god-like beings that provide clerical spells in return for prayers. And they are not horrific and inscrutable in the manner of the alien entities of Lovecraft’s work. It’s rare to get to see “the man behind the curtain” to the extent that we do here just as it’s rare that the man turns out to be much more than a man. One of the god-like beings is a result of hubris on the part of the “good” gods: they’ve inadvertently created a monster that is now beyond their control and which cannot be defeated except through a very specific Achilles Heel.

While the “good gods” are shown here to provide both healing and critical adventure-solving type information, there is one complication with having them not be so remote:

She turned his head with one of the long, white hands—and he looked into the faces of the Three; looked long, was shaken even as had been Olaf and myself; was swept by that same wave of power and of—of—what can I call it?—holiness that streamed from them.

Then for the first time I saw real awe mount into his face. Another moment he stared—and dropped upon one knee and bowed his head before them as would a worshipper before the shrine of his saint. And—I am not ashamed to tell it—I joined him; and with us knelt Lakla and Olaf and Rador.

This passage is surprising now if only because Tolkien was at pains to avoid a scene like this. Indeed, the only direct description of religion in The Lord of the Rings is the understated and silent prayer of Faramir’s men to the West. Religion is only mentioned once when Denethor makes an anachronistic remark about “the heathen kings.” His handling of Galadriel arguably borders on this, but Tolkien consciously avoided depicting anything that could be misconstrued as worship. It’s just too problematic for a man that takes religion seriously.

If his lack of compunctions on this point is awkward, Abraham Merritt at least doesn’t hold back with the payoff. He has an absolutely fantastic battle at the end where a dwarf army battles against a much larger number of frog-people. The dwarf side unleashes anti-gravity weapons to good tactical effect at a couple of points, and in the clutch, they even call in an unstoppable army of zombies in order to lay in the final hammer blow. This culminates into a final standoff between the two rival space princess characters and the god-like beings that they each serve. It’s awesome.

There is a lot of material here that can provide useful insights into the intent of the early adventure designs. This is certainly a solid premise for how to handle the mysterious domed city on the seventh level of J. Eric Holmes’s megadungeon. More subtle is how Merritt can alternate between both scientific and religious explanations about what is going on while he combines science fiction gadgets with traditional mythical creatures in a sprawling underworld. If you’ve ever wondered why early D&D materials are bursting with the sort of chutzpah that would allow designers to randomly insert an honest-to-goodness leprechaun⁴ of all things in the middle of something like this, it might be because guys like Abraham Merritt paved the way for them.⁵

¹ Some people have argued that this book might have inspired the television series Lost. Tim Callahan over at says, “The Moon Pool is nothing like Lost. It has about as much to do with Lost as The Jetsons has to do with Star Wars. And The Moon Pool has more imagination in any one chapter than Lost had in any ultra-long and tedious season.” I did end up watching Lost all the way through, I ashamed to admit… and I’ve got to say, I didn’t think of it once while reading this book!

² The rugged romantic lead actually teaches the femme fatale to sing the hit song from 1900, A Bird in a Gilded Cage. What a joker…!

³ The femme fatale starts speaking after the fashion of Hebrew poetry when things get serious, the character Olaf makes an allusion to Satan offering Christ “power over all the world” in order to describe her spiel, and at the climax, the otherwise skeptical and scientific narrator lets loose with this:

The blood rushed from my heart; scientist that I am, essentially, my reason rejected any such solution as this of the activities of the Dweller. Was it not, the thought flashed, a propitiation by the Three out of their own weakness—and as it flashed I looked up to see their eyes, full of sorrow, on mine—and knew they read the thought. Then into the whirling vortex of my mind came steadying reflections—of history changed by the power of hate, of passion, of ambition, and most of all, by love. Was there not actual dynamic energy in these things—was there not a Son of Man who hung upon a cross on Calvary?

⁴  The leprechaun is about the biggest clue bat that I’ve ever seen. Here’s a particularly striking bit from his short dialog with the hero:

“‘It’s what I came to tell ye,’ says he. ‘Don’t ye fall for the Bhean-Nimher, the serpent woman wit’ the blue eyes; she’s a daughter of Ivor, lad—an’ don’t ye do nothin’ to make the brown-haired coleen ashamed o’ ye, Larry O’Keefe. I knew yer great, great grandfather an’ his before him, aroon,’ says he, ‘an’ wan o’ the O’Keefe failin’s is to think their hearts big enough to hold all the wimmen o’ the world. A heart’s built to hold only wan permanently, Larry,’ he says, ‘an’ I’m warnin’ ye a nice girl don’t like to move into a place all cluttered up wid another’s washin’ an’ mendin’ an’ cookin’ an’ other things pertainin’ to general wife work. Not that I think the blue-eyed wan is keen for mendin’ an’ cookin’!’ says he.

⁵ When people see something unusual in Gary Gygax’s writing that seems particularly off the wall, they generally just assume he’s a bit off kilter. It rarely crosses their mind that he might be drawing on other sources and traditions that are actually different from the that we tend to think fantasy ought to be like today! The most recent example of this kind of unwitting ignorance comes to you courtesy of io9 where Rob Bricken states that “how Gary Gygax came up with ‘Fighting Man’ as opposed to ‘Fighter’ is unknowable.” No, it is not unknowable. Several books from the Appendix N list use the term “fighting man.” Of course, I was only familiar with a couple Appendix N books before I started this series, so I can’t be too hard on the guy. But still….

  • There’s no shame in having watched Lost. It provided an intriguing world for a few seasons– in the dawn times, before Lindelof revealed his true colors as a man who had no interest in answering the questions he was raising.

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