RETROSPECTIVE: “The People of the Pit” by A. Merritt

Thursday , 25, February 2016 Leave a comment

After reading “Through the Dragon Glass”, this one is a real disappointment. A. Merritt’s lush prose is completely appropriate in describing mysterious otherworldly women and strange, nightmarish landscapes. But the former is completely absent here while the latter is only given a brief treatment here. It’s compelling, though… and it’s stunning to realize that people could, in the past hundred years, actually imagine a place like this existing somewhere on this now thoroughly mapped and explored planet. The five peaks of Hand Mountain are just plain weird.

The premise of the story is solid:

We had reached I suppose three hundred mile above the first great bend of the Koskokwim toward the Yukon. Certainly we were in an untrodden part of the wilderness. We had pushed through from Dawson at the breaking of the Spring, on a fair lead to the lost five peaks between which, so the Athabascan medicine man had told us, the gold streams out like putty from a clenched fist. Not an Indian were we able to get to go with us. The land of the Hand Mountain was accursed they said. We had sighted the peaks the night before, their tops faintly outlined against a pulsing glow. And now we saw the light that had led us to them.

And the allusions to Odysseus, the Sirens, and “things that the Devil made before the Flood and that somehow have escaped God’s vengeance” give the tale some heft. But somehow, everything great about the basic frame fails to carry through in the main part of the story.

Here’s a passage that exemplifies what I mean:

I peeped from the side of the stone down into the street. I saw lights passing and repassing. More and more lights—they swam out of the circular doorways and they thronged the street. The highest were eight feet above the pave; the lowest perhaps two. They hurried, they sauntered, they bowed, they stopped and whispered—and there was nothing under them!”

“Nothing under them!” breathed Anderson.

“No,” he went on, “that was the terrible part of it—there was nothing under them.”

This is supposed to be an utterly terrifying story… but these soldiers of fortune out in the wilds can do little more than repeat back the words of this doomed explorer in astonishment. I hate to say it, but it’s just plain awful. Anything frightening or horrific here is undercut by this melodramatic dialog.

Not that this isn’t a significant work, mind you. It’s an example of someone attempting to write a Lovecraft story in 1918– well before even Lovecraft himself had sorted that out! There really is quite a bit here that anticipates “At the Mountains of Madness”, for example. And it tackles an entirely different type of story than A. Merritt other works from before 1920. But when Lovecraft said that the guy’s work suffered from the devitalising pressure of the cheap popular-magazine ideal, this is what he was referring to!

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