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The Moon Pool
A. Merritt
Bison Frontiers of the Imagination/Univ. Nebraska Press, 287 pages

R.W. Boeche
The Moon Pool
A. Merritt
Abraham Merritt was born in Beverly, New Jersey, January 20, 1884. His family moved some 30 miles south to Philadelphia in 1894. Dropping out of high school after a year, he went to work for a lawyer and became involved in a shakedown racket from which he emerged with a payoff and a strong suggestion to find employment elsewhere. Though only 18, he obtained a cub reporter job at The Philadelphia Enquirer, through which he met some eminent doctors and developed a strong sense for the scientific method. In 1903, inadvertent witness to a major political faux-pas, he was bundled off to Mexico for a year. All his expenses paid, he spent his time exploring Mayan ruins, as well as "wenching and learning how to drink." On his return, he resumed his job at The Philadelphia Enquirer. In 1912, also working as the city correspondent for the Hearst publication Sunday American Magazine he was offered a job in New York City, under Morrill Goddard, editor of The American Weekly, the largest circulation Sunday supplement of the time. He remained assistant editor until 1937, then editor until his death by heart attack on August 21, 1943.

Merritt married twice, once in the 1910s to Eleanore Ratcliffe, with whom he raised an adopted daughter, and again some 20-odd years later, after the death of his first wife, this time with Eleanor Humphreys Johnson, a newspaper woman. Merritt was also well known for his gardening, specifically his cultivation of rare plants associated with witchcraft and sorcery, a collection which reached 67 species at its peak in the mid-30s. He also maintained a large library on the occult as well as being an avid reader of the pulp magazines.

Carrying on a demanding full-time job that required unflowery, matter-of-fact writing and a large time commitment seems rather at odds with being a hugely popular (think Stephen King) and influential fantasy author, whose complete fantasy works remained continuously in print for close to 40 years after his death. Merritt wrote his lush, ornate, at times prose-poem fantasies in his spare time. His first story "Through the Dragon Glass" was published in All-Story Weekly in 1917. However, it is the publication of the short story "The Moon Pool" (1918) and the novel-length sequel "The Conquest of the Moon Pool" (Feb-Mar 1919) in the same magazine, and the later release in book form as The Moon Pool (1919) that cemented his reputation. Between then and his death, Merritt only published 8 novels and the equivalent of one book of short stories. His novels of occult menace included Burn, Witch, Burn, and Creep, Shadow, Creep along with Seven Footprints to Satan. His fantasy gems include Dwellers in the Mirage, The Face in the Abyss, The Metal Monster, and what many consider his best work, The Ship of Ishtar. The Fox Woman and Other Stories (1949) collected his short stories, some completed by his great fan, the renowned fantasy artist Hannes Bok. Bok also completed Merritt's unfinished novel The Black Wheel (1948). A critical biography, many stories, fragments, poems, and letters previously unpublished in book form were collected in A. Merritt: Reflections in the Moon Pool (1985).

Bio/Bibliography in English: 1, 2, 3, 4
Bio/Bibliography in French: 1, 2
Bio/Bibliography in German: 1, 2
Bio/Bibliography in Russian: 1
Book review: The Ship of Ishtar
Book reviews: in Japanese
E-text: The Metal Monster
E-text: The Moon Pool, 1, 2, 3
Book Edition: The Fox Woman and Other Stories
Movie: The Devil Doll (1936) based on Merritt's Burn, Witch, Burn: 1, 2
Movie: Seven Footprints to Satan (1929): 1, 2
Early Merritt book and magazine covers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

When I first read The Moon Pool I was maybe 17, and it blew my mind... this was somebody who could combine H. Rider Haggard and Clark Ashton Smith and pull it off. Well, now I'm 40+ and I was prepared to be disappointed, just a bit. Are characters like the scientist-skeptic, the hulking blonde Norse berserker, the slightly fey heroic Irishman, and the nefarious double-crossing Russian (German in the pulp magazine version) clichéd? Completely. Are plot devices like lost races, male characters enraptured by incredibly beautiful virginally pure or malevolently evil priestesses (or possibly both combined), alien super-science, and vampiric transdimensional life-forms as ancient as the hills? Absolutely. Except that Merritt, along with perhaps Haggard and Burroughs, created these clichés, and these clichés sold -- something that Merritt would have been acutely aware of as a newspaper man. Besides which, Merritt's breadth of imagination and sense and ability to depict completely alien surroundings and atmospheres far outweigh the aspects of his work which tie it to his time.

The Moon Pool is the combination of two stories (see author notes), both narrated by the eminent scientist Walter Goodwin, as authorized by the "Executive Council of the International Association of Science," giving the story a semblance of veracity. Dr. Goodwin, doing research near the island of Ponape in the South Pacific, meets the eminent anthropologist Dr. Throckmartin aboard ship. Throckmartin has see his entire staff and his new wife drawn into a mysterious entity, mingled ultimate evil and ultimate good, which emerges from ancient ruins on a remote rocky island when the moon is full. When Throckmartin is bodily drawn from the boat along a mysterious moonbeam, Dr. Goodwin feels he must investigate. Through a series of incredible coincidences, he meets a despondent Norseman, Olaf Huldricksson, who has lost his wife and child to the entity, a downed Irish fighter pilot, Larry O'Keefe and, when they reach the site, a villainous Russian scientist, Marakinoff.

Having opened the portal with artificial moonlight, they discover the Moon Pool, from which the Dweller emerges. Scouting for a way out when the portal closes, they meet, through the light-transmitting stone of the cavern walls, Lakla the hand-maiden of Old Ones and her armoured frog-man bodyguard. Following a tunnel, they enter an underground land ruled by the evil priestess of the Dweller, Yolara. Things are coming to a head, with Yolara, her cronies and the Dweller (a.k.a. The Shining One) preparing to conquer the surface world, and Lakla and the Old Ones opposing her. To even attempt to cover all the intricacies of the plot is futile, but of course the good guys do win.

What held me to the book was not the plot or the characters, but the descriptive prose, as florid and adjective-riddled as it is. Merritt's atmosphere is stunning in its breadth of imagination and brings out like no other writer the alienness of the situation or place. Merritt's prose could, I think, be criticized in much the same way as H.P. Lovecraft's, but in both cases, it isn't the "lurid" prose itself that works for the author, but rather the atmosphere it creates. As an example of Merritt's lush descriptions this text of Chapter 19 of The Moon Pool, describes the ceremony of human sacrifice to the Dweller. For Lovecraft fans, note the alien piping, if that doesn't remind you of a certain Lovecraftian beastie... Merritt creates a monster that isn't just evil, but both ultimately evil and ultimately good, by human standards. Throughout the book, those who are absorbed by the Dweller are portrayed as simultaneously experiencing the greatest pleasure and the greatest fear and pain -- an orgasm of pain and pleasure. Someone trained in psychology could easily, I'm sure, find all sorts of subliminal psychosexual meaning in Merritt's imagery.

Besides all this, as Robert Silverberg points out in his introduction, Merritt intended and succeeded in making The Moon Pool "a whopping good yarn" by the standards of his day. Despite its datedness, it remains a wonderful story which packs more action and memorable and gorgeous imagery into 280-odd pages than the vast majority of current serial fantasies pack into a half dozen volumes. An original review of the first edition of The Moon Pool (1919), from The New York Times Book Review, included in this edition, concurs with this assessment of richness: "The book is very long; adventure follows adventure, marvel marvel; but the author's energy and fertility of imagination never seems to lessen."

The Moon Pool is certainly a book which every person seriously interested in fantasy and even science fiction should read at least once. While it is easy to avoid reading The Moon Pool by simply discounting it as dated or out of style, I suggest that such people, while they may find the writing style not to their taste, read it anyway and then seriously consider how many of the themes, plot twists, and other devices crop up regularly in the current fantasy they read. They may of course also discover that behind all their contempt for "that old stuff" lurks some admiration for one of the greatest fantasy stylists of modern times.

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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