the opening decades of the 20th century, when the scientific romance
was evolving into modern science fiction, Abraham Merritt was arguably
the most popular and certainly the most influential writer of the
genre. Between the late Teens and the early 1930s, his stories
were more colorful, his prose more extravagant, and his ideas more
radically speculative than anyone else's. |
Today, Merritt is almost forgotten, seemingly left behind as science fiction advanced. For readers accustomed to the unadorned, no-nonsense prose of modern science fiction, his writing style can seem excessive and self-indulgent. He worked primarily in the old-fashioned idiom of the lost race story and never made the transition to stories of the future and outer space.
Yet at the same time, Merritt was more innovative in his philosophy than any other SF writer of his day. As a result, the themes and story devices that he introduced have never lost their relevance. They continue to exert a profound, though generally unrecognized, influence on contemporary SF.
Merritt's greatest strength was his holistic view of the universe. At a time when most of his contemporaries saw the physical universe in crudely materialistic terms as a vast machine, mindlessly destructive and hostile to all human values, Merritt was part of a new movement of thought that perceived the universe as an organic whole in which consciousness plays an essential part.
For Merritt, the universe may be strange beyond imagining and foreign to ordinary human experience, but nothing within it can be completely and unalterably alien. The proper way for humans to relate to such a universe is neither to do battle with it nor to seek mastery over it, but to accept it on its own terms and find our place within it.
It was not always easy for Merritt to hold onto this holistic vision. He expressed much of it only in the form of mystical intuitions -- fragile amalgams of romantic idealism and scientific speculation -- which even he had trouble maintaining in his more skeptical moments. As the 1920s progressed, Merritt's stories became increasingly cynical and hard-boiled, his lost race enclaves more susceptible to the corrosive influence of the outside world. By the early 30s he had ceased to write fiction. He drank increasingly and died of a heart attack in 1943, at the age of 59.
The new genre of science fiction that emerged in the 1920s and early 30s largely accepted the image of a bleakly mechanical universe dominated by a brute struggle for survival which Merritt had sought to dispel. Its most influential writers were obsessed with the invention of planet-busting super-weapons that would enable humans to impose their will on such a universe. Science fiction of the 1940s and 50s was more subtle in its imaginary manipulations, but it remained focused on the same ultimate goal of human dominance.
And yet, Merritt's example was never entirely forgotten. In the 1930s and 40s, a handful of younger SF writers even did their best to transplant his mystical themes and romantic backgrounds to distant times and other planets -- creating a hybrid form generally described as science fantasy. And in the final decades of the 20th century, as traditional written SF faltered and lost its readership, this Merritt-derived science fantasy became the dominant form of SF movies, television, comic books, and graphic novels.
Much about Merritt's fiction that now seems curious or outdated can be understood as a reflection of the world in which he lived, which was both larger and more mysterious than our own. When The Moon Pool was published in 1919, the tallest mountains were still unscaled, the deepest jungles seemingly impenetrable. The single means of rapid global communication was the telegraph -- and the wires only ran between major centers of population. Radio was a hobby for enthusiastic amateurs, television a matter of theory and tentative experiment, and the Internet had not even been imagined.
Most Westerners' experience of distant lands was limited to what they had encountered in books or glimpsed at zoos, museums, circuses, and world's fairs, and they found much of what they saw -- or imagined -- strange and unsettling. Foreign places were full of wonders that they half longed for and half feared -- bizarre locales, unfamiliar smells and tastes, primal and intoxicating musical rhythms, and the lure of forbidden sexuality.
And yet, for all their ambivalence, they were eager to explore that larger world. World War I, which concluded just as Merritt was writing The Moon Pool, had sent an unprecedented number of young Americans overseas -- and a popular song from that war asked, "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" Pulp magazines responded to their readers' thirst for exotic experiences by offering an endless parade of young adventurers with .45 automatics on their hips, ready to dare the challenges of the unknown in search of fortune and true love.
Even as the readers of pulp magazines ventured out into the world of their imaginations, however, the real world was growing smaller, better known, and more interconnected. The first commercial trans-Atlantic phone service and the first trans-Atlantic crossing by airplane both happened in 1927. Science fiction headed off into the future and outer space at precisely that moment, not so much because it wanted to as because it had no other choice. Earth was running out of mysteries.
But as fast as the world was changing, there was still room in the late Teens and early 20s for one final moment of earthbound desire and anticipation -- and Merritt was the perfect writer to respond to the longings of that moment.
Merritt had an advantage over most Westerners when it came to out-of-the-ordinary experiences. As an eighteen year old cub reporter in Philadelphia, he had been taken under the wing of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who was both a well-known writer of historical novels and a respected medical researcher with an active interest in folk magic and the supernatural -- interests he encouraged in Merritt.
Dr. Mitchell had been one of the first Westerners to experiment with the hallucinogenic plant peyote. In a pioneering report for The British Medical Journal in 1896, he described visions of "delicate floating films of colour" and "wonderful loveliness of swelling clouds of more vivid colours," followed by hallucinations of "a tall, richly finished Gothic tower," clusters of precious stones which "seemed to possess an interior light," and a huge cliff projecting "over a gulf of unseen depth."
These descriptions, reminiscent of many in The Moon Pool, suggest that Merritt's own stories may have been influenced by experiences with psychedelics. Certainly, in later life he enjoyed keeping what he called a "garden of poisonous plants" that included both marijuana and peyote.
However, Merritt's most pivotal experience came in 1903, when the young reporter stumbled onto an event that would have proved embarrassing to a political candidate if it had become generally known and was hustled out of town for a year. Like some prototype of Indiana Jones, he went treasure hunting in Central America and was even initiated into a Mexican tribe -- gaining, as he later wrote, "a curious knowledge of Indian customs and religious ceremonies that would have stood his Quaker ancestors' hair on end."
After his return home, Merritt rapidly rose to the position of night city editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1912 he was invited to become the assistant to the editor of the Hearst newspapers' highly successful Sunday supplement, which was known for its sensationalistic mixture of crime, sex, scandal, exploration, and weird science -- subjects that formed a natural basis for the fiction Merritt would begin writing a few years later.
By the time he took up fiction writing, Merritt was a man with a unique set of attitudes, knowledge, and interests. From his very first story -- "Through the Dragon Glass," published in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in November 1917 -- he displayed a natural ability to present a fusion of high adventure and erotic tension in a distinctively hallucinatory prose style. By the time his third story was published in June 1918, he was a clear hit with the readers.
That third story was the original novelet version of "The Moon Pool." It was so successful that Merritt quickly followed it up with a much longer sequel, "The Conquest of the Moon Pool," which ran as a six-part serial in All-Story, beginning in February 1919. After a little rewriting, the two stories were published together later that year as a novel titled simply The Moon Pool.
The narrator of both parts of the novel is Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, a medical doctor and botanist. In the introductory novelet, however, it is not his own story he recounts but that of his friend and fellow-scientist, Dr. David Throckmartin.
This cumbersome narrator-within-a-narrator structure, which Merritt used in all three of his earliest stories, had been popular in SF since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a means of presenting events that were considered too fantastic to be believable. The primary narrator is able to offer himself as a sober and presumably reliable witness to some small portion of the story, while the secondary narrator makes far more extraordinary claims and then either dies or vanishes into the unknown before he can be challenged.
"I am breaking a long silence to clear the name of Dr. David Throckmartin and to lift the shadow of scandal from that of his wife and of Dr. Charles Stanton, his assistant," the novelet begins. "Dr. Throckmartin set forth, you will recall, to make some observations of Nan-Matal, that extraordinary group of island ruins, remains of a high and prehistoric civilization, that are clustered along the vast shore of Ponape."
This opening statement reminds us that Merritt's world was larger and more mysterious than our own in time as well as space. The island now known as Pohnpei is a real location in the Western Pacific, which is presently home to the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia. The ruined megalithic city of Nan Madol is real as well -- and its construction still holds many mysteries -- but it is far from prehistoric. This series of artificial islands linked by canals has been dated by a variety of methods and is believed to have been built to serve as the seat of a local dynasty no earlier than 1200 AD.
In Merritt's time, Ponape's actual history was not yet established, and Nan-Matal could plausibly be regarded as the remains of a civilization ten thousand or even a hundred thousand years old. Merritt went well beyond scientific speculation, however, in having Goodwin describe this and other ruins as "these relics of a vanished race that titanically strew certain islands of the Pacific and form the basis for the theory of a submerged Pacific continent."
The idea of a sunken continent of "Lemuria" had first been proposed by 19th century geologists to explain the distribution of certain fossil species, but it had then been seized upon by the occult writer Madame Blavatsky and incorporated into her highly imaginative account of pre-human races and civilizations. It was not the scientific but the occult version of Lemuria that Merritt drew upon when he had Goodwin speak of "that colossal riddle of humanity whose answer has its roots in immeasurable antiquity; a weird flower of man-made civilization that blossomed ages before the seeds of Egypt were sown; of whose arts we know little and of whose science and secret knowledge of nature nothing."
In revising his novelet for book publication, Merritt greatly shortened and streamlined its opening, compressing the introductory material on Nan-Matal -- including the descriptions quoted above -- and inserting it into later dialogue. The novel version of The Moon Pool begins more directly, with Goodwin standing on the upper deck of a ship docked at Port Moresby, on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea, as he heads back to civilization following the completion of a botanical expedition to the South Pacific.
As he gazes out over the harbor, Goodwin spies his old friend Throckmartin coming on board -- but to his shock, he finds the man disturbingly changed in just the few months since their last meeting. Throckmartin's formerly customary expression of enthusiasm and "expectant search" has given way to what Goodwin describes as the look of one who "had borne some searing shock of mingled rapture and horror; some soul cataclysm that in its climax had remoulded, deep from within, his face, setting on it the seal of wedded joy and fear."
This is an extraordinary conclusion for Goodwin to arrive at on the basis of one quick glimpse from above, followed by a wordless handshake as Throckmartin hurries to his cabin. And yet not only is Goodwin's intuition entirely accurate, but the strange condition of "mingled rapture and horror" which he reads on his friend's face will prove to be the dominant theme of the story.
That night, Goodwin encounters a distraught Throckmartin on deck. The moon is full, and as Goodwin attempts to ask what is wrong, a bizarre creature appears in the reflected path of moonlight that leads across the water to the ship. Goodwin describes this being as an "opalescent mistiness" that surrounds "a nucleus of intenser light -- veined, opaline, effulgent, intensely alive." As it advances, it tinkles with a sound "like a pizzicati on violins of glass."
This phantasm of light and mist is not merely immaterial but altogether unearthly. "It was articulate," Goodwin says of the being's cry, "but as though from something utterly foreign to this world. The ear took the cry and translated with conscious labour into the sounds of earth." Throckmartin is starting to stride towards the creature, with a look of "utter agony and utter ecstasy" on his face, when clouds sweep over the moon and it vanishes.
Throckmartin then tells Goodwin the story of how his party fell prey to this Dweller in the Moon Pool, which appears whenever the light of the full moon shines onto a mysterious pool within a chamber deep in the ruins of Nan-Matal. First to be taken was his wife Edith's maid and former childhood nurse. The second victim was Throckmartin's young assistant Stanton, whom he saw transformed by the creature's embrace into "a thing of living light" whose face "shone with a rapture too great to be borne by living man, and was shadowed with insuperable misery."
Throckmartin finally determined to take the battle to the Dweller. He invaded its chamber and futilely fired shot after shot as it reached out and wrapped one shining tentacle around his chest. "Every atom of me quivered with delight and shrank with despair," he tells Goodwin. "Its shining core had shape -- but a shape that my eyes and brain could not define. It was as though a being of another sphere should assume what it might of human semblance, but was not able to conceal that what human eyes saw was but a part of it. It was neither man nor woman; it was unearthly and androgynous. Even as I found its human semblance it changed."
Throckmartin stood helpless in the creature's grip until the sound of his wife's screaming restored his will to resist. However, he stumbled as he wrenched himself free, and Edith protectively ran in front of him, plunging into the creature's embrace. The Dweller tinkled jubilantly and "wrapped its shining self around her" as Throckmartin blindly stumbled out of the cavern and made his way off the island.
Throckmartin and Goodwin meet again on the following day, and Throckmartin speaks at length of his plan to return to Nan-Matal and destroy the Dweller. But sleep overtakes them both -- and with the rising of the moon, the Dweller returns one last time to envelop Throckmartin in its "robe of living opalescence" and bear him away.
On that final note of horror, followed by Goodwin's resolution to carry out Throckmartin's plans, the novelet ends.
"The Moon Pool" not only made a great impact on its original readers but would continue to influence SF for decades to come. Its emotional power is undeniable -- but the reasons for its effectiveness are less apparent. What is the meaning of this intense yet almost plotless little drama? How are we to interpret Merritt's repeated invocations of "mingled rapture and horror"? And what are we to make of the terrifying yet seductive nature of the Dweller itself?
The most useful key to what Merritt intended may be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the prototypical SF monster story, which Merritt had clearly used as a model. When Shelley in later years described the genesis of her story, she recalled that her overriding ambition had been to "speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror." That had been Merritt's goal as well.
It was by no means an easy undertaking. It is simple enough to evoke everyday fears -- which is why run-of-the-mill horror stories tend to be full of insane murderers and rotting corpses. But to "speak to the mysterious fears of our nature" implies something very different -- an appeal to deep and powerful emotions of which the reader, and perhaps even the writer, is consciously unaware.
In the case of "The Moon Pool," the most obvious reference point for the sensation of "utter agony and utter ecstasy" which the Dweller evokes is that it is sexual in nature. When Edith Throckmartin hears the Dweller's crystalline tinklings for the first time and comments, "They frighten me half to death, and, at the same time, they make me feel as though some enormous rapture were just around the corner," she might be describing any post-Victorian woman's expectations of the 20th century sexual revolution just getting underway.
However, although the sexual aspects of the Dweller's embrace are undeniable, sex alone does not fully explain its hypnotic and mind-altering qualities.
Given Merritt's occult interests, a more complete explanation of the Dweller's effect might be that it is intended to evoke the experience of ego-loss which occurs in many states of altered consciousness -- in mystical trances and the use of psychedelic drugs, in sexual ecstasy and romantic love, in dreams and nightmares. These states can be either exalting or terrifying, depending on whether they are experienced as self-transcendence or as personal dissolution -- and the prospect of being absorbed by the Dweller and transformed into "a thing of living light" clearly has aspects of both.
In addition to the sexual-psychological component of the Dweller, however, it has a second element that is equally important -- and that is science.
Merritt emphasizes over and over that the Dweller is not a supernatural creature like a ghost or a vampire but the product of "a vanished race ... of whose arts we know little and of whose science and secret knowledge of nature nothing." Early in "The Conquest of the Moon Pool," Goodwin spells this out explicitly, saying that he believes the Dweller is "energized by a force unknown to modern science" and that its creators "may have gone far in the mastery of certain universal forms of energy -- especially that we call light."
It is noteworthy that Merritt speaks of "secret knowledge of nature" and not merely of science. There is a difference between them.
Most science in SF stories amounts to nothing more than imaginary gadgets offered up with a gloss of technobabble -- the rocket ships, ray guns and other gosh-wow devices that allow the protagonists to go places and do things and have adventures. But there is also a rarer strain of SF which treats science not as a source of amusement but as a means of tapping into the ultimate mysteries of creation.
We can see that deeper strain in Frankenstein, whose intellectual starting point -- established well before the introduction of the monster -- is the proposition that modern science may attain the knowledge claimed by the medieval alchemists and discover the secret of life. It is that possibility that is the true source of the story's power and terror.
Brought to life by the mysterious forces of science, Victor Frankenstein's creature is endowed with superhuman vitality, endurance, and strength. This makes it a threat not merely to its maker but to all of humanity. Frankenstein's terror-stricken anticipation of a race of monsters overrunning the world is what causes him to destroy the "bride" he had promised to his creature and thus seal his own doom.
"One of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children," Frankenstein explains, "and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. ... I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race."
As a product of the "secret knowledge of nature" and a potential threat to all of humanity, Merritt's Dweller in the Moon Pool is a being of the same order as Frankenstein's monster. Its ultimate promise and ultimate threat lie in its ability to shatter everyday life -- in much the same way that mystical experience shatters the individual ego -- and remake it in a manner that may be superior to anything we know but may also be unendurably alien.
This theme of radical transformative change is what binds the two aspects of the Dweller together. In its light, the psychological and the scientific, the consciousness-altering and the world-altering, become opposite sides of the same apocalyptic coin.
Frankenstein was published in 1818, "The Moon Pool" in 1918 -- and there is no other story during the century-long gap between them that presents as radical a view of the world-altering power of science. This is hardly an accident. Both stories were the product of unparalleled moments of social, psychological, and scientific dislocation.
Mary Shelley was born at the time of the French Revolution, and her early life was defined by radical challenges to the social order. Her father was the leading freethinker of his day, her mother a pioneering advocate of the rights of women, and she herself had run off at the age of sixteen with a married man -- the 22 year old Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. By the time Mary wrote Frankenstein, however, this period of questioning and reevaluation was almost at an end. Napoleon had met his final defeat at Waterloo and the rulers of Europe were intent on reimposing political and religious orthodoxy.
As the 19th century wore on, Victorian society became less repressive and more able to tolerate heretical notions -- but only as long as they remained on the level of theory or whimsy. The general mood of society in the late 1800s was one of complacency and self-satisfaction, and the dominant forms of SF were based on the expectation that scientific progress would serve only to make life more comfortable and enjoyable.
Serious cracks began to appear in the Victorian facade in the 1890's, however. At that time the apocalyptic strain was reintroduced to SF by one extraordinary writer -- H.G. Wells. In The Time Machine, Wells offered his readers a future in which human civilization has long since collapsed. In The War of the Worlds, he subjected his own secure Victorian world to a devastating attack by technologically advanced Martians.
Wells' stories were brilliantly subversive, but they were also one-sided. They offered only the negative face of the apocalyptic coin -- science but no secret knowledge, devolution but no condition higher than that of present-day humanity, destruction but no prospect of transformation. That was where Merritt had something to offer that Wells could not have imagined.
By the time Merritt wrote "The Moon Pool," twenty years had passed since The War of the Worlds, and society was once more as destabilized as it had been when Mary Shelley was a girl. The secure global order that had been painstakingly reconstructed after the fall of Napoleon was crashing to ruin in the vast catastrophe of the World War. The social and sexual norms of the Victorians were breaking down under the impact of liberating new technologies like motion pictures, automobiles, and birth control. And the increased ability of science to explain the universe was undercutting the claims of traditional religion.
At such a moment, it could seem as though everything solid was dissolving into mist -- a perception that was reinforced by the unsettling new theories of 20th century physics. The discovery of subatomic particles in 1897 had demonstrated that solid matter was not actually solid but consisted mostly of empty space. Einstein's special theory of relativity had proclaimed in 1905, with the famous formula E=mc2, that matter itself was just a form of energy. And Einstein's general theory of relativity, published in 1916, appeared to suggest that the very nature of the universe might alter depending on the angle from which it was viewed.
Merritt was the first SF writer to fully acknowledge the implications of this radical new science and incorporate them into his fiction. It is no accident that the Dweller is described as composed of light and opalescent mist and nothing more, or that its appearance is indeterminate and changes even as the eye attempts to grasp it. For Merritt, this indeterminacy is not a form of ignorance to be overcome but represents the ultimate reality -- not only of the physical universe but of human nature as well.
When Merritt embarked on the novel-length sequel to "The Moon Pool," his focus inevitably narrowed. He became less concerned with speaking to "the mysterious fears of our nature" and more interested in the practical problem of how the Dweller might be defeated. That led him to consider some very specific questions: Where did the Dweller come from? Who had created it and why? And what force might be powerful enough to destroy it?
In order to answer those questions, Merritt would have to reconfigure the basic premises of his story. In "The Moon Pool," the Dweller is a solitary enigma whose makers have long since vanished. It has no lair to which it might be tracked but is summoned from "another sphere" by the light of the full moon. There is no way to learn its history or discover its weaknesses.
In The Conquest of the Moon Pool, all of those assumptions have been altered. Taking his inspiration from two mid-nineteenth century works -- Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Lord Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race -- Merritt dispatches Dr. Goodwin to a fantastic subterranean realm inhabited by descendants of refugees from the sunken Pacific continent. He also locates the Dweller's stronghold there and reduces the Moon Pool to a mere gateway by which the Dweller periodically visits the surface to seek out victims.
As a result of these changes, the Dweller loses much of its glimmering indeterminacy. It becomes a more conventional menace -- still alien and threatening but without its earlier aura of infinite potentiality. The narrative tone of the story correspondingly becomes more scientific and the plot for a time more action-oriented. Not until the final third of the novel would Merritt introduce fresh mysteries equal in power to those of the original novelet.
One mark of the shift in tone is that even though Goodwin sets off for Nan-Matal alone, he acquires three companions along the way -- one of whom, a young Irish-American aviator named Larry O'Keefe, will prove as central to the story as Goodwin himself. The adventurers successfully penetrate the cavern of the Moon Pool without encountering its monstrous inhabitant -- but instead, the projected form of a golden-eyed girl unexpectedly appears before them.
She indicates with gestures that they should enter a side corridor, a section of which abruptly transforms into a vehicle that plunges them "almost with the speed of light" into a vast underground abyss. They hurtle downward through regions of "impenetrable blackness" alternating with "luminous immensities." When at last the car slows to a halt, they find themselves in a place that Goodwin describes as a magical, hallucinatory wonderland:
"At first all that I could see was space -- a space filled with the same coruscating effulgence that pulsed about me. ... There was no sky -- at least no sky such as we know -- all was a sparkling nebulosity rising into infinite distances as the azure above the day-world seems to fill all the heavens -- through it ran pulsing waves and flashing javelin rays that were like shining shadows of the aurora; echoes, octaves lower, of those brilliant arpeggios and chords that play about the poles. ... Miles away, gigantic luminous cliffs sprang sheer from the limits of a lake whose waters were of milky opalescence. It was from these cliffs that the spangled radiance came, shimmering out from all their lustrous surfaces."
In this underground realm, the party finds a seeming scientific utopia, whose people speak an archaic Polynesian language and are masters of atomic energy, anti-gravity, force fields, disintegrator rays, and cloaks of invisibility. Their rulers, however, are heartless and decadent. They carelessly show off their power and cruelty by allowing the visitors to witness them not merely oppressing the common folk but offering them as sacrifices to the Dweller, which they know as "the Shining One."
Goodwin and O'Keefe find themselves caught up in a struggle between two powerful women. One is Lakla, the golden-eyed girl who had appeared to them in the chamber above. She has fallen in love with O'Keefe, as he with her, and is determined to do everything she can to protect him.
The other is Yolara, the sensuous but evil priestess of the Shining One. She is fascinated by what the two men tell her of life on the surface, and O'Keefe is glad to string her along for a while -- even amusing himself by teaching her to sing twenty year old pop songs -- until it becomes apparent that she has secretly been developing a plan to conquer the world with the aid of the Dweller.
When Goodwin learns of Yolara's schemes, he is overwhelmed by an apocalyptic vision of a world devastated by the Dweller's power:
"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 a haunted world through which the assassins of the Dweller's court stole invisible. ... 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."
Here we have the ultimate extension of Victor Frankenstein's fear that if his monster was given a mate, "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror." But in Goodwin's vision, humans are not merely hunted prey -- they have themselves become undead monsters, animated only by the Dweller's infernal glory.
Goodwin and O'Keefe are in grave danger now that they know Yolara's plans. Their only hope is to flee the city where she rules and seek the protection of the "Silent Ones" -- the three powerful but strangely passive godlike beings whom Lakla serves.
At that point the story takes an extraordinary turn.
Merritt has led the reader from the start to believe that the ruins of Nan-Matal represent the relics of "a weird flower of man-made civilization" whose "mastery of certain universal forms of energy" created the Dweller. But when Lakla brings Goodwin and O'Keefe before the Silent Ones, these expectations are swept away in an instant. The wielders of ultimate power in this realm are not human at all, but are profoundly wise and powerful non-human beings, with triangular eyes and heads shaped like those of "the great lizards."
Intelligent non-humans of any kind were rare in SF when Merritt wrote -- and for aliens to be the godlike masters of an almost supernatural knowledge of nature was unprecedented.
"I think," Goodwin tentatively speculates the next morning, "that we face an evolution of highly intelligent beings from ancestral sources radically removed from those through which mankind ascended. ... The Englishman, Wells, wrote an imaginative and very entertaining book concerning an invasion of earth by Martians, and he made his Martians enormously specialized cuttlefish. There was nothing inherently improbable in Wells' choice. ...
"I think ... that the race to which the Three belong never appeared on earth's surface; that their development took place here, unhindered through aeons. And if this be true, the structure of their brains, and therefore all their reactions, must be different from ours. Hence their knowledge and command of energies unfamiliar to us -- and hence also the question whether they may not have an entirely different set of values, of justice -- and that is rather terrifying."
By this point, Merritt has carried us through a long and dreamlike initiatory passage, using every device of wonder and terror and sensory overload at his command, all with the ultimate goal of bringing us face to face with the Silent Ones and posing this particular "terrifying" question about their nature and intentions.
The question was not Merritt's alone. During the final years of the 19th century, a combination of materialism and the overturning of traditional norms had raised the specter of a universe lacking humanly recognizable values of any kind. Wells' Martians -- blood-sucking monsters with whom there is no possibility of communication -- were one expression of that fear. Goodwin's vision of a Dweller-dominated planet "manned only by a countless crew of soulless, mindless dead-alive" was another. Over and over, early 20th century science fiction would express its apprehension of a morally hollow universe that might either crush the frail humans who ventured out into it or turn them into something as warped and soulless as itself.
However, Goodwin's "terrifying" question is far from Merritt's final word on the matter. O'Keefe immediately counters it by noting that the Silent Ones "certainly know love -- for I saw the way they looked at Lakla; and sorrow -- for there was no mistaking that in their faces." O'Keefe's perceptions are soon confirmed by the Silent Ones' own account of themselves, channeled through the voice of Lakla.
The Silent Ones say that ages ago they were the three wisest members of a race that had evolved deep within the earth at a time so remote that life on the surface was still confined to primitive sea creatures. Despite their great knowledge, however, they longed to know more -- and so they created a living being that would have direct access to the sentience of the cosmos.
They learned much from their creation, but they also infused it with their pride -- and as it gained self-awareness, that pride increased. Eventually, it rebelled against its makers and turned to the lesser members of their race, tempting and corrupting many of them with offers of the knowledge the Silent Ones had refused to share.
The Silent Ones might still have destroyed the Dweller at that point, but they refrained out of love for their "child." And while they withheld their hand, the Dweller grew in power, until it was beyond their ability to destroy.
In time, those members of the ancient race who had remained uncorrupted rose up against the servants of the Dweller and destroyed them entirely -- but the Dweller itself they could not harm. And so they chose to depart, sentencing the Silent Ones to remain behind, along with the Dweller, until they found both the will and the means to put an end to what they had unthinkingly created.
This little myth of pride and corruption provides answers to most of the questions concerning the Dweller -- but it also displays a few telltale signs of last-minute revision. In particular, the human inhabitants of the underground realm have been abruptly reduced from confident and arrogant masters of super-science to mere squatters, secondary servants of the Dweller who took over the territory when the original inhabitants departed.
Considered as a myth, however, it has considerable symbolic power -- and although it echoes themes familiar from other SF stories, it handles them in a highly, original manner. Frankenstein, for example, also involves a misguided attempt to create a living being -- but that creation is seen as a blasphemy, a usurpation of the power of God, and the creature which results is a shambling mockery of the human form. That is far from the case with the Dweller.
An even more striking comparison, however, is with the stories of Middle-earth which J.R.R. Tolkien began writing in 1916-17, at exactly the same time as Merritt was starting his own literary career. Both authors were influenced by lost race stories, both wrote of powerful pre-human races and an ancient human civilization on a sunken continent, and both expressed a very similar occult philosophy. But in Tolkien's work, unlike Merritt's, there is a permanent principle of evil and corruption which goes back to before the creation of the world.
Tolkien describes that evil as stemming from the fallen angel Morgoth's envious desire to usurp God's creative power and seize the Secret Fire which gives sentience to living beings. Because of Morgoth's original sin, Middle-earth is tainted and can never be fully healed. Even the destruction of the One Ring is made possible by Frodo's pity for a corrupt and broken Gollum -- which is to say, his compassion for the corruption and brokenness of Middle-earth itself.
Merritt's Silent Ones also go astray through a misguided impulse to create life and infuse it with sentience by drawing upon a force not unlike Tolkien's Secret Fire. But in Merritt's universe there is no God to sin against and no eternal battle of good versus evil. Instead, the Silent Ones present a vision of universal consciousness and cosmic oneness -- and the virtue that finally prevails over the Dweller is not pity but love.
The Silent Ones tell Goodwin that when they formed the Dweller:
"We said that what we would create should be of the spirit of life itself, speaking to us with the tongues of the far-flung stars, of the winds, of the waters, and of all upon and within these. Upon that universal matrix of matter, that mother of all things that you name the ether, we laboured. ... Within the Universal Mother we shaped it, to be a voice to tell us her secrets, a lamp to go before us lighting the mysteries. Out of the ether we fashioned it, giving it the soul of light. ...
"There is an energy beyond and above ether, a purposeful, sentient force that laps like an ocean the furthest-flung star, that transfuses all that ether bears, that sees and speaks and feels in us and in you, that is incorporate in beast and bird and reptile, in tree and grass and all living things, that sleeps in rock and stone, that finds sparkling tongue in jewel and star and in all dwellers within the firmament. And this ye call consciousness! ...
"Open to all consciousness it held within it the pole of utter joy and the pole of utter woe with all the arc that lies between; all the ecstasies of the countless worlds and suns and all their sorrows; all that ye symbolize as gods and all ye symbolize as devils -- not negativing each other, for there is no such thing as negation, but holding them together, balancing them, encompassing them, pole upon pole!"
It is not by accident that the Silent Ones dismiss as merely symbolic all the gods and devils which Tolkien saw as real and eternally warring. If the ultimate force is consciousness, which encompasses all things within itself, there can be no permanent embodiments of pure good or pure evil.
But that is not the limit of Merritt's speculations. The Silent Ones go on to tell Goodwin and O'Keefe that human emotions, both negative and positive, are actual physical energies -- and that it is those energies alone which can destroy the Dweller:
"Energies ye know nothing of entered into its shaping and are part of it; and still other energies it has gathered to itself ... and other energies still, forces that ye do know and symbolize by certain names -- hatred and pride and lust and many others... But within it is nothing of that greatest of all, that which can make powerless all the evil others, that which ye call -- love."
In a universe that seeks balance in all things, the imbalance of the Dweller -- which causes it to draw solely on "the power you call evil" -- means that it must be vulnerable to the power of love, of which it knows nothing. Even the great wisdom of the Silent Ones was insufficient to overcome the Dweller -- but the love of O'Keefe and Lakla, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves if need be for the sake of the world, will render it defenseless.
The most original element in this conclusion is not Merritt's appeal to the power of love. Stories of soulless menaces dispelled by love and sacrifice are nothing new. It is not even Merritt's exaltation of love as the highest power in the cosmos, since with his Quaker background, he would have been well aware of the teaching that God is love.
Rather, Merritt's unique contribution had to do with his ability to translate what would previously have been a religious conclusion into purely holistic terms. By affirming that human love is literally identical to the force that holds the cosmos together, Merritt had arrived at an answer to the menace of the Dweller that worked equally in both mystical and scientific terms.
At the same time, he had answered the questions of social, psychological, and scientific insecurity posed by his original novelet. If universal consciousness is the ground of existence, then nothing we encounter will ever be entirely alien. And if love is the ultimate power, there can be nothing to fear in social change, nothing to fear in the many manifestations of human passion, and nothing to fear in the larger universe of which humanity is a microcosm.
Merritt's concept of consciousness as a "purposeful, sentient force" transcending the merely physical forces of nature was not something he had dreamed up on his own. It is an essential aspect of the philosophy of holism, in which life and consciousness are regarded as fundamental aspects of the universe that are present in every atom, although they only become apparent at more complex levels of organization.
Holism was developed around the end of World War I with the aim of providing an alternative to both materialism -- in which matter alone is real and mind at best an accidental by-product -- and religious dualism, in which matter and spirit both exist but have little or no interaction. In holism, mind and matter are inextricably connected, two complementary aspects of a single reality.
The premises of holism were brand new when Merritt incorporated them into The Moon Pool -- so new that it is possible he encountered them only in the course of writing and recognized them as exactly what he needed to resolve his story. The new philosophy did not even have a name until 1919, when it was somewhat awkwardly dubbed "organicism" -- the more graceful term "holism" following in 1926.
Holism enjoyed a burst of popularity in the early 20s, but after 1925 materialism became increasingly dominant -- not because it was clearly superior, but because it provided intellectual underpinnings for a culture that saw the shape of the future in terms of fast cars, skyscrapers, and the technological conquest of nature. Holism was never completely abandoned, but it would remain on the margins for the next forty years.
One sign of this late 20s shift can be seen in pulp publishing. All-Story, where The Moon Pool had first appeared, was a general fiction magazine that included among its offerings a wide range of "different" stories such as Merritt's. But when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926, it was with the much narrower intention of publishing stories of fictionalized science. It was Gernsback's materialistic concept of science fiction, and not Merritt's holistic example, that would set the pattern for SF to come
Gernsback was willing to bend his standards if it would attract readers, and he had no problem reprinting The Moon Pool in the May, June, and July 1927 issues of Amazing, even describing it as "one of the greatest scientifiction classics of all time." That, however, was before the new paradigm had fully settled into place. In later years, Gernsback would become far less tolerant, telling his biographer Sam Moskowitz in 1959, "It was a fine piece of writing, but I believe I stretched a liberal policy too far."
Merritt himself would find it difficult to hold onto the holistic vision he had expressed so clearly in The Moon Pool. His stories of the early 20s were increasingly haunted by the materialistic specter of a bleak and purposeless cosmos. In the late 20s, he would write little. And his two final lost race novels, in 1930 and 1932, were near-fantasies, attempts to sidestep the growing power of Western machine civilization. In many ways, The Moon Pool would remain Merritt's most effective and influential work.
Although Gernsback's style of technology-based science fiction set the standard in the 30s and 40s, it was never to everyone's taste. Merritt's stories remained extremely popular, and some of the younger SF writers even attempted to transplant his characteristic devices and themes to the new territories of the future and outer space. Their tales of lost civilizations on other planets, hard-boiled space adventurers menaced by hypnotically seductive aliens, and artificial realities that display the hallucinatory glamour of The Moon Pool's subterranean realm established a hybrid form that came to be known as science fantasy.
The most influential of Merritt's disciples, however, was a far more mainstream SF writer. A.E. van Vogt had little use for the romantic trappings of science fantasy, but he was an enthusiastic follower of Merritt's holistic philosophy. In story after story during the 1940s, he systematically reviewed and expanded upon the problems and solutions that Merritt had originally presented in The Moon Pool.
In his first several stories, van Vogt showed human explorers prevailing over a variety of powerful and menacing aliens by being less self-interested and more mutually cooperative than the greedy and arrogant creatures that threaten them. These early Merritt-inspired monster stories have remained remarkably influential, providing inspiration for works as diverse as Star Trek, Alien, and Terminator.
Van Vogt's most enduring concern, however, was his own variant of the question raised by Goodwin after his encounter with the Silent Ones -- whether superior beings might be so caught up in their own superiority as to become cold, exploitive, and careless of the welfare of their fellows. And the conclusion van Vogt reached in every case was that the same altruistic tendencies which enable even ordinary humans in his stories to defeat superpowered monsters would be defining characteristics of genuinely superior beings as well.
Virtually every superhero story since -- as well as most depictions of advanced spacefaring civilizations -- has to some degree represented a further meditation on van Vogt's holistic conclusions concerning the inseparability of great power and great responsibility.
After 1950, however, the holistic strain in SF all but vanished for a time. Merritt was cast aside as being embarrassingly old-fashioned, science fantasy was derided as juvenile space opera, and even van Vogt's exuberant speculations were considered unserious and not quite respectable. Materialism was at its high point and nobody doubted that technology would control the shape of things to come.
Throughout the 50s, there seemed to be only two plausible scenarios for the future -- atomic doom or human-dominated galactic empire. Although an occasional author might toy with stranger notions, those ideas were never developed at length or presented as a serious alternative to the prevailing worldview.
An inevitable reaction against technological excess came in the 1960s, when people began to deliberately pursue the most far-out possibilities they could imagine in hopes of escaping from the dead weight of machine civilization. By the end of the decade, the hippie experiment had fallen victim to its own excesses, but its lasting result was the reestablishment of holistic thinking in a variety of forms.
The 60s ended with three pivotal events.
The first moon landing, on July 20, 1969, fulfilled the most enduring dream of Gernsbackian science fiction but also put a period to the Gernsback era. Its most lasting consequence may have been the realization that there was little of interest on the moon itself -- and that the real benefit of space travel was the ability to look back at the earth and perceive it as a whole.
At the same time, environmentalism was becoming a passionately held article of faith. The first Earth Day -- which was announced in September 1969 and observed in April 1970 -- is considered to mark the start of the modern environmental movement.
In the third significant event of that brief period, ARPANET -- which would grow to become the Internet -- was launched on October 29, 1969, with the single word "login" being transmitted over an arrangement of modems and routers from the University of California at Los Angeles to Stanford University outside San Francisco.
Science fiction was surprisingly slow to respond to these changes, clinging for some time to a materialistic worldview which saw computers only as big scary machines and environmental catastrophe as a more up-to-date equivalent of atomic doom. When the outworn paradigm of Gernsbackian SF was finally cast aside, it happened not in written SF but through the impact of one movie, Star Wars.
When it first appeared in 1977, Star Wars was viewed as an homage to pulp SF of every kind, with motifs borrowed from one story and another and jumbled together almost indiscriminately. But in fact there are clear distinctions within the film. The colorful and adventurous science fantasy elements are overwhelmingly associated with the good guys. Even the central theme of a ragtag bunch of rebels overthrowing a cruel and oppressive galactic empire had first appeared in a 1939 science fantasy novel by one of Merritt's earliest disciples, Jack Williamson. In contrast, the bad guys -- with their severe uniforms, massive warships, planet-destroying Death Star, and obsessive need for control -- come across as a nightmare version of the heroes of Gernsbackian science fiction.
But there is an even stronger echo of Merritt in Star Wars -- and that is the Force. Obi-Wan Kenobi defines the Force as "an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." This concept of a universal field of consciousness has no precedent in Gernsbackian science fiction, but it is essentially identical to The Moon Pool's "sentient force that laps like an ocean the furthest-flung star, that transfuses all that ether bears."
More than 30 years have now passed since Star Wars, and not only have science fantasy devices and themes become pervasive in SF movies and television, but holism in its various forms has increasingly supplanted the materialistic approach that dominated most of the 20th century. The conquest of nature has blown up in our faces, we are struggling to cope with a global economy which seems prepared to kill us if it is not brought under control, and there is a widespread recognition that holistic and environmental solutions offer our only way out of the mess we have brought upon ourselves through our exaggerated devotion to machine civilization.
Over those same 30 years, something radically new has come into the world -- the Internet. Nothing like it was ever predicted by science fiction -- perhaps inevitably, since the Net is not a technological gadget. It is a holistic system that surrounds us and makes us part of its operation, which is why it is variously described as a web, a sphere, or a space.
Perhaps the most mysterious thing about the Internet, however, is the degree to which it can be matched up point for point with Merritt's depiction of the Dweller.
Like the Dweller, the Internet is intended to serve as an amplifier of knowledge and "a lamp to go before us lighting the mysteries."
Like the Dweller, the Internet is multi-dimensional and has no fixed shape that the human mind can grasp. It is not formed of matter but of pure energy -- a continuous flow of electronic communications through what Merritt described in the language of his own day as "that universal matrix ... you name the ether."
And like the Dweller, the Internet has an even deeper aspect than the energy-flow which sustains it, being animated by the mingled consciousness of its users, which comprises "a purposeful, sentient force that transfuses all that ether bears."
At the same time, however, the Internet also provokes the darker questions raised by the Dweller: Will its promise be offered freely to all of humanity, or will its boons be hoarded by the most powerful among us? Will it remain our willing servant or become a controlling and destructive force? Will it unify humanity in a new awareness of our collective purpose or will it reduce us to mindless zombies, lost in a maze of illusions?
And, finally, do we ourselves have the wisdom and tolerance to accept what the Internet reveals of the best and the worst in human nature -- "the pole of utter joy and the pole of utter woe with all the arc that lies between" -- and accommodate them in a single reconciling vision?
Ninety years ago, Merritt poured into The Moon Pool his most profound intuitions concerning the promises and threats of the century to come. He made it clear that his intimations of the future "frighten me half to death, and, at the same time, they make me feel as though some enormous rapture were just around the corner." But he also promised that the answers to all the questions he had raised would be found in "that greatest of all" cosmic energies which humans call love.
(This essay was originally published as an afterword to the Phoenix Pick edition of The Moon Pool from Arc Manor.)
Background courtesy of Eos Development