THE MOON POOL (9)
August 21, 2021
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize A. Merritt’s 1919 proto-sf novel The Moon Pool for HILOBROW’s readers. Often cited as an influence on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, it was first published in All-Story Weekly (1918–19) as two short stories.
There was a little silence. I looked upon him with wonder. Clearly he was in deepest earnest. I know the psychology of the Gael is a curious one and that deep in all their hearts their ancient traditions and beliefs have strong and living roots. And I was both amused and touched.
Here was this soldier, who had faced war and its ugly realities open-eyed and fearless, picking, indeed, the most dangerous branch of service for his own, a modern if ever there was one, appreciative of most unmystical Broadway, and yet soberly and earnestly attesting to his belief in banshee, in shadowy people of the woods, and phantom harpers! I wondered what he would think if he could see the Dweller and then, with a pang, that perhaps his superstitions might make him an easy prey.
He shook his head half impatiently and ran a hand over his eyes; turned to me and grinned:
“Don’t think I’m cracked, Professor,” he said. “I’m not. But it takes me that way now and then. It’s the Irish in me. And, believe it or not, I’m telling you the truth.”
I looked eastward where the moon, now nearly a week past the full, was mounting.
“You can’t make me see what you’ve seen, Lieutenant,” I laughed. “But you can make me hear. I’ve always wondered what kind of a noise a disembodied spirit could make without any vocal cords or breath or any other earthly sound-producing mechanism. How does the banshee sound?”
O’Keefe looked at me seriously.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll show you.” From deep down in his throat came first a low, weird sobbing that mounted steadily into a keening whose mournfulness made my skin creep. And then his hand shot out and gripped my shoulder, and I stiffened like stone in my chair—for from behind us, like an echo, and then taking up the cry, swelled a wail that seemed to hold within it a sublimation of the sorrows of centuries! It gathered itself into one heartbroken, sobbing note and died away! O’Keefe’s grip loosened, and he rose swiftly to his feet.
“It’s all right, Professor,” he said. “It’s for me. It found me—all this way from Ireland.”
Again the silence was rent by the cry. But now I had located it. It came from my room, and it could mean only one thing—Huldricksson had wakened.
“Forget your banshee!” I gasped, and made a jump for the cabin.
Out of the corner of my eye I noted a look of half-sheepish relief flit over O’Keefe’s face, and then he was beside me. Da Costa shouted an order from the wheel, the Cantonese ran up and took it from his hands and the little Portuguese pattered down toward us. My hand on the door, ready to throw it open, I stopped. What if the Dweller were within—what if we had been wrong and it was not dependent for its power upon that full flood of moon ray which Throckmartin had thought essential to draw it from the blue pool!
From within, the sobbing wail began once more to rise. O’Keefe pushed me aside, threw open the door and crouched low within it. I saw an automatic flash dully in his hand; saw it cover the cabin from side to side, following the swift sweep of his eyes around it. Then he straightened and his face, turned toward the berth, was filled with wondering pity.
Through the window streamed a shaft of the moonlight. It fell upon Huldricksson’s staring eyes; in them great tears slowly gathered and rolled down his cheeks; from his opened mouth came the woe-laden wailing. I ran to the port and drew the curtains. Da Costa snapped the lights.
The Norseman’s dolorous crying stopped as abruptly as though cut. His gaze rolled toward us. And at one bound he broke through the leashes I had buckled round him and faced us, his eyes glaring, his yellow hair almost erect with the force of the rage visibly surging through him. Da Costa shrunk behind me. O’Keefe, coolly watchful, took a quick step that brought him in front of me.
“Where do you take me?” said Huldricksson, and his voice was like the growl of a beast. “Where is my boat?”
I touched O’Keefe gently and stood before the giant.
“Listen, Olaf Huldricksson,” I said. “We take you to where the sparkling devil took your Helma and your Freda. We follow the sparkling devil that came down from the moon. Do you hear me?” I spoke slowly, distinctly, striving to pierce the mists that I knew swirled around the strained brain. And the words did pierce.
He thrust out a shaking hand.
“You say you follow?” he asked falteringly. “You know where to follow? Where it took my Helma and my little Freda?”
“Just that, Olaf Huldricksson,” I answered. “Just that! I pledge you my life that I know.”
Da Costa stepped forward. “He speaks true, Olaf. You go faster on the Suwarna than on the Br-rw-un’ilda, Olaf, yes.”
The giant Norseman, still gripping my hand, looked at him. “I know you, Da Costa,” he muttered. “You are all right. Ja! You are a fair man. Where is the Brunhilda?”
“She follow be’ind on a big rope, Olaf,” soothed the Portuguese. “Soon you see her. But now lie down an’ tell us, if you can, why you tie yourself to your wheel an’ what it is that happen, Olaf.”
“If you’ll tell us how the sparkling devil came it will help us all when we get to where it is, Huldricksson,” I said.
On O’Keefe’s face there was an expression of well-nigh ludicrous doubt and amazement. He glanced from one to the other. The giant shifted his own tense look from me to the Irishman. A gleam of approval lighted in his eyes. He loosed me, and gripped O’Keefe’s arm. “Staerk!” he said. “Ja—strong, and with a strong heart. A man—ja! He comes too—we shall need him—ja!”
“I tell,” he muttered, and seated himself on the side of the bunk. “It was four nights ago. My Freda”—his voice shook—”Mine Yndling! She loved the moonlight. I was at the wheel and my Freda and my Helma they were behind me. The moon was behind us and the Brunhilda was like a swanboat sailing down with the moonlight sending her, ja.
“I heard my Freda say: ‘I see a nisse coming down the track of the moon.’ And I hear her mother laugh, low, like a mother does when her Yndling dreams. I was happy—that night—with my Helma and my Freda, and the Brunhilda sailing like a swan-boat, ja. I heard the child say, ‘The nisse comes fast!’ And then I heard a scream from my Helma, a great scream—like a mare when her foal is torn from her. I spun around fast, ja! I dropped the wheel and spun fast! I saw—” He covered his eyes with his hands.
The Portuguese had crept close to me, and I heard him panting like a frightened dog.
“I saw a white fire spring over the rail,” whispered Olaf Huldricksson. “It whirled round and round, and it shone like—like stars in a whirlwind mist. There was a noise in my ears. It sounded like bells—little bells, ja! Like the music you make when you run your finger round goblets. It made me sick and dizzy—the hell noise.
“My Helma was—indeholde—what you say—in the middle of the white fire. She turned her face to me and she turned it on the child, and my Helma’s face burned into my heart. Because it was full of fear, and it was full of happiness—of glaede. I tell you that the fear in my Helma’s face made me ice here”—he beat his breast with clenched hand—”but the happiness in it burned on me like fire. And I could not move—I could not move.
“I said in here”—he touched his head—”I said, ‘It is Loki come out of Helvede. But he cannot take my Helma, for Christ lives and Loki has no power to hurt my Helma or my Freda! Christ lives! Christ lives!’ I said. But the sparkling devil did not let my Helma go. It drew her to the rail; half over it. I saw her eyes upon the child and a little she broke away and reached to it. And my Freda jumped into her arms. And the fire wrapped them both and they were gone! A little I saw them whirling on the moon track behind the Brunhilda—and they were gone!
“The sparkling devil took them! Loki was loosed, and he had power. I turned the Brunhilda, and I followed where my Helma and mine Yndling had gone. My boys crept up and asked me to turn again. But I would not. They dropped a boat and left me. I steered straight on the path. I lashed my hands to the wheel that sleep might not loose them. I steered on and on and on—
“Where was the God I prayed when my wife and child were taken?” cried Olaf Huldricksson—and it was as though I heard Throckmartin asking that same bitter question. “I have left Him as He left me, ja! I pray now to Thor and to Odin, who can fetter Loki.” He sank back, covering again his eyes.
“Olaf,” I said, “what you have called the sparkling devil has taken ones dear to me. I, too, was following it when we found you. You shall go with me to its home, and there we will try to take from it your wife and your child and my friends as well. But now that you may be strong for what is before us, you must sleep again.”
Olaf Huldricksson looked upon me and in his eyes was that something which souls must see in the eyes of Him the old Egyptians called the Searcher of Hearts in the Judgment Hall of Osiris.
“You speak truth!” he said at last slowly. “I will do what you say!”
He stretched out an arm at my bidding. I gave him a second injection. He lay back and soon he was sleeping. I turned toward Da Costa. His face was livid and sweating, and he was trembling pitiably. O’Keefe stirred.
“You did that mighty well, Dr. Goodwin,” he said. “So well that I almost believed you myself.”
“What did you think of his story, Mr. O’Keefe?” I asked.
His answer was almost painfully brief and colloquial.
“Nuts!” he said. I was a little shocked, I admit. “I think he’s crazy, Dr. Goodwin,” he corrected himself, quickly. “What else could I think?”
I turned to the little Portuguese without answering.
“There’s no need for any anxiety tonight, Captain,” I said. “Take my word for it. You need some rest yourself. Shall I give you a sleeping draft?”
“I do wish you would, Dr. Goodwin, sair,” he answered gratefully. “Tomorrow, when I feel bettair—I would have a talk with you.”
I nodded. He did know something then! I mixed him an opiate of considerable strength. He took it and went to his own cabin.
I locked the door behind him and then, sitting beside the sleeping Norseman, I told O’Keefe my story from end to end. He asked few questions as I spoke. But after I had finished he cross-examined me rather minutely upon my recollections of the radiant phases upon each appearance, checking these with Throckmartin’s observations of the same phenomena in the Chamber of the Moon Pool.
“And now what do you think of it all?” I asked.
He sat silent for a while, looking at Huldricksson.
“Not what you seem to think, Dr. Goodwin,” he answered at last, gravely. “Let me sleep over it. One thing of course is certain—you and your friend Throckmartin and this man here saw—something. But—” he was silent again and then continued with a kindness that I found vaguely irritating—”but I’ve noticed that when a scientist gets superstitious it—er—takes very hard!
“Here’s a few things I can tell you now though,” he went on while I struggled to speak—”I pray in my heart that we’ll meet neither the Dolphin nor anything with wireless on board going up. Because, Dr. Goodwin, I’d dearly love to take a crack at your Dweller.
“And another thing,” said O’Keefe. “After this—cut out the trimmings, Doc, and call me plain Larry, for whether I think you’re crazy or whether I don’t, you’re there with the nerve, Professor, and I’m for you.
“Good night!” said Larry and took himself out to the deck hammock he had insisted upon having slung for him, refusing the captain’s importunities to use his own cabin.
And it was with extremely mixed emotions as to his compliment that I watched him go. Superstitious. I, whose pride was my scientific devotion to fact and fact alone! Superstitious—and this from a man who believed in banshees and ghostly harpers and Irish wood nymphs and no doubt in leprechauns and all their tribe!
Half laughing, half irritated, and wholly happy in even the part promise of Larry O’Keefe’s comradeship on my venture, I arranged a couple of pillows, stretched myself out on two chairs and took up my vigil beside Olaf Huldricksson.
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master”.