THE MOON POOL (16)
September 25, 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.
The Angry, Whispering Globe
Our way led along a winding path between banked masses of softly radiant blooms, groups of feathery ferns whose plumes were starred with fragrant white and blue flowerets, slender creepers swinging from the branches of the strangely trunked trees, bearing along their threads orchid-like blossoms both delicately frail and gorgeously flamboyant.
The path we trod was an exquisite mosaic—pastel greens and pinks upon a soft grey base, garlands of nimbused forms like the flaming rose of the Rosicrucians held in the mouths of the flying serpents. A smaller pavilion arose before us, single-storied, front wide open.
Upon its threshold Rador paused, bowed deeply, and motioned us within. The chamber we entered was large, closed on two sides by screens of grey; at the back gay, concealing curtains. The low table of blue stone, dressed with fine white cloths, stretched at one side flanked by the cushioned divans.
At the left was a high tripod bearing one of the rosy globes we had seen in the house of Yolara; at the head of the table a smaller globe similar to the whispering one. Rador pressed upon its base, and two other screens slid into place across the entrance, shutting in the room.
He clapped his hands; the curtains parted, and two girls came through them. Tall and willow lithe, their bluish-black hair falling in ringlets just below their white shoulders, their clear eyes of forget-me-not blue, and skins of extraordinary fineness and purity—they were singularly attractive. Each was clad in an extremely scanty bodice of silken blue, girdled above a kirtle that came barely to their very pretty knees.
“Food and drink,” ordered Rador.
They dropped back through the curtains.
“Do you like them?” he asked us.
“Some chickens!” said Larry. “They delight the heart,” he translated for Rador.
The green dwarf’s next remark made me gasp.
“They are yours,” he said.
Before I could question him further upon this extraordinary statement the pair re-entered, bearing a great platter on which were small loaves, strange fruits, and three immense flagons of rock crystal—two filled with a slightly sparkling yellow liquid and the third with a purplish drink. I became acutely sensible that it had been hours since I had either eaten or drunk. The yellow flagons were set before Larry and me, the purple at Rador’s hand.
The girls, at his signal, again withdrew. I raised my glass to my lips and took a deep draft. The taste was unfamiliar but delightful.
Almost at once my fatigue disappeared. I realized a clarity of mind, an interesting exhilaration and sense of irresponsibility, of freedom from care, that were oddly enjoyable. Larry became immediately his old gay self.
The green dwarf regarded us whimsically, sipping from his great flagon of rock crystal.
“Much do I desire to know of that world you came from,” he said at last—”through the rocks,” he added, slyly.
“And much do we desire to know of this world of yours, O Rador,” I answered.
Should I ask him of the Dweller; seek from him a clue to Throckmartin? Again, clearly as a spoken command, came the warning to forbear, to wait. And once more I obeyed.
“Let us learn, then, from each other.” The dwarf was laughing. “And first—are all above like you—drawn out”—he made an expressive gesture—”and are there many of you?”
“There are—” I hesitated, and at last spoke the Polynesian that means tens upon tens multiplied indefinitely—”there are as many as the drops of water in the lake we saw from the ledge where you found us,” I continued; “many as the leaves on the trees without. And they are all like us—varyingly.”
He considered skeptically, I could see, my remark upon our numbers.
“In Muria,” he said at last, “the men are like me or like Lugur. Our women are as you see them—like Yolara or those two who served you.” He hesitated. “And there is a third; but only one.”
Larry leaned forward eagerly.
“Brown-haired with glints of ruddy bronze, golden-eyed, and lovely as a dream, with long, slender, beautiful hands?” he cried.
“Where saw you her?” interrupted the dwarf, starting to his feet.
“Saw her?” Larry recovered himself. “Nay, Rador, perhaps, I only dreamed that there was such a woman.”
“See to it, then, that you tell not your dream to Yolara,” said the dwarf grimly. “For her I meant and her you have pictured is Lakla, the hand-maiden to the Silent Ones, and neither Yolara nor Lugur, nay, nor the Shining One, love her overmuch, stranger.”
“Does she dwell here?” Larry’s face was alight.
The dwarf hesitated, glanced about him anxiously.
“Nay,” he answered, “ask me no more of her.” He was silent for a space. “And what do you who are as leaves or drops of water do in that world of yours?” he said, plainly bent on turning the subject.
“Keep off the golden-eyed girl, Larry,” I interjected. “Wait till we find out why she’s tabu.”
“Love and battle, strive and accomplish and die; or fail and die,” answered Larry—to Rador—giving me a quick nod of acquiescence to my
warning in English.
“In that at least your world and mine differ little,” said the dwarf.
“How great is this world of yours, Rador?” I spoke.
He considered me gravely.
“How great indeed I do not know,” he said frankly at last. “The land where we dwell with the Shining One stretches along the white waters for—” He used a phrase of which I could make nothing. “Beyond this city of the Shining One and on the hither shores of the white waters dwell the mayia ladala—the common ones.” He took a deep draft from his flagon. “There are, first, the fair-haired ones, the children of the ancient rulers,” he continued. “There are, second, we the soldiers; and last, the mayia ladala, who dig and till and weave and toil and give our rulers and us their daughters, and dance with the Shining One!” he added.
“Who rules?” I asked.
“The fair-haired, under the Council of Nine, who are under Yolara, the Priestess and Lugur, the Voice,” he answered, “who are in turn beneath the Shining One!” There was a ring of bitter satire in the last.
“And those three who were judged?”—this from Larry.
“They were of the mayia ladala,” he replied, “like those two I gave you. But they grow restless. They do not like to dance with the Shining One—the blasphemers!” He raised his voice in a sudden great shout of mocking laughter.
In his words I caught a fleeting picture of the race—an ancient, luxurious, close-bred oligarchy clustered about some mysterious deity; a soldier class that supported them; and underneath all the toiling, oppressed hordes.
“And is that all?” asked Larry.
“No,” he answered. “There is the Sea of Crimson where—”
Without warning the globe beside us sent out a vicious note, Rador turned toward it, his face paling. Its surface crawled with whisperings—angry, peremptory!
“I hear!” he croaked, gripping the table. “I obey!”
He turned to us a face devoid for once of its malice.
“Ask me no more questions, strangers,” he said. “And now, if you are done, I will show you where you may sleep and bathe.”
He arose abruptly. We followed him through the hangings, passed through a corridor and into another smaller chamber, roofless, the sides walled with screens of dark grey. Two cushioned couches were there and a curtained door leading into an open, outer enclosure in which a fountain played within a wide pool.
“Your bath,” said Rador. He dropped the curtain and came back into the room. He touched a carved flower at one side. There was a tiny sighing from overhead and instantly across the top spread a veil of blackness, impenetrable to light but certainly not to air, for through it pulsed little breaths of the garden fragrances. The room filled with a cool twilight, refreshing, sleep-inducing. The green dwarf pointed to the couches.
“Sleep!” he said. “Sleep and fear nothing. My men are on guard outside.” He came closer to us, the old mocking gaiety sparkling in his eyes.
“But I spoke too quickly,” he whispered. “Whether it is because the Afyo Maie fears their tongues—or—” he laughed at Larry. “The maids are not yours!” Still laughing he vanished through the curtains of the room of the fountain before I could ask him the meaning of his curious gift, its withdrawal, and his most enigmatic closing remarks.
“Back in the great old days of Ireland,” thus Larry breaking into my thoughts raptly, the brogue thick, “there was Cairill mac Cairill—Cairill Swiftspear. An’ Cairill wronged Keevan of Emhain Abhlach, of the blood of Angus of the great people when he was sleeping in the likeness of a pale reed. Then Keevan put this penance on Cairill—that for a year Cairill should wear his body in Emhain Abhlach, which is the Land of Faery and for that year Keevan should wear the body of Cairill. And it was done.
“In that year Cairill met Emar of the Birds that are one white, one red, and one black—and they loved, and from that love sprang Ailill their son. And when Ailill was born he took a reed flute and first he played slumber on Cairill, and then he played old age so that Cairill grew white and withered; then Ailill played again and Cairill became a shadow—then a shadow of a shadow—then a breath; and the breath went out upon the wind!” He shivered. “Like the old gnome,” he whispered, “that they called Songar of the Lower Waters!”
He shook his head as though he cast a dream from him. Then, all alert—
“But that was in Ireland ages agone. And there’s nothing like that here, Doc!” He laughed. “It doesn’t scare me one little bit, old boy. The pretty devil lady’s got the wrong slant. When you’ve had a pal standing beside you one moment—full of life, and joy, and power, and potentialities, telling what he’s going to do to make the world hum when he gets through the slaughter, just running over with zip and pep of life, Doc—and the next instant, right in the middle of a laugh—a piece of damned shell takes off half his head and with it joy and power and all the rest of it”—his face twitched—”well, old man, in the face of that mystery a disappearing act such as the devil lady treated us to doesn’t make much of a dent. Not on me. But by the brogans of Brian Boru—if we could have had some of that stuff to turn on during the war—oh, boy!”
He was silent, evidently contemplating the idea with vast pleasure. And as for me, at that moment my last doubt of Larry O’Keefe vanished, I saw that he did believe, really believed, in his banshees, his leprechauns and all the old dreams of the Gael—but only within the limits of Ireland.
In one drawer of his mind was packed all his superstition, his mysticism, and what of weakness it might carry. But face him with any peril or problem and the drawer closed instantaneously leaving a mind that was utterly fearless, incredulous, and ingenious; swept clean of all cobwebs by as fine a skeptic broom as ever brushed a brain.
“Some stuff!” Deepest admiration was in his voice. “If we’d only had it when the war was on—imagine half a dozen of us scooting over the enemy batteries and the gunners underneath all at once beginning to shake themselves to pieces! Wow!” His tone was rapturous.
“It’s easy enough to explain, Larry,” I said. “The effect, that is—for what the green ray is made of I don’t know, of course. But what it does, clearly, is stimulate atomic vibration to such a pitch that the cohesion between the particles of matter is broken and the body flies to bits—just as a fly-wheel does when its speed gets so great that the particles of which it is made can’t hold together.”
“Shake themselves to pieces is right, then!” he exclaimed.
“Absolutely right,” I nodded. “Everything in Nature vibrates. And all matter—whether man or beast or stone or metal or vegetable—is made up of vibrating molecules, which are made up of vibrating atoms which are made up of truly infinitely small particles of electricity called electrons, and electrons, the base of all matter, are themselves perhaps only a vibration of the mysterious ether.
“If a magnifying glass of sufficient size and strength could be placed over us we could see ourselves as sieves—our space lattice, as it is called. And all that is necessary to break down the lattice, to shake us into nothingness, is some agent that will set our atoms vibrating at such a rate that at last they escape the unseen cords and fly off.
“The green ray of Yolara is such an agent. It set up in the dwarf that incredibly rapid rhythm that you saw and—shook him not to atoms—but to electrons!”
“They had a gun on the West Front—a seventy-five,” said O’Keefe, “that broke the eardrums of everybody who fired it, no matter what protection they used. It looked like all the other seventy-fives—but there was something about its sound that did it. They had to recast it.”
“It’s practically the same thing,” I replied. “By some freak its vibratory qualities had that effect. The deep whistle of the sunken Lusitania would, for instance, make the Singer Building shake to its foundations; while the Olympic did not affect the Singer at all but made the Woolworth shiver all through. In each case they stimulated the atomic vibration of the particular building—”
I paused, aware all at once of an intense drowsiness. O’Keefe, yawning, reached down to unfasten his puttees.
“Lord, I’m sleepy!” he exclaimed. “Can’t understand it—what you say—most—interesting—Lord!” he yawned again; straightened. “What made Reddy take such a shine to the Russian?” he asked.
“Thanaroa,” I answered, fighting to keep my eyes open.
“When Lugur spoke that name I saw Marakinoff signal him. Thanaroa is, I suspect, the original form of the name of Tangaroa, the greatest god of the Polynesians. There’s a secret cult to him in the islands. Marakinoff may belong to it—he knows it anyway. Lugur recognized the signal and despite his surprise answered it.”
“So he gave him the high sign, eh?” mused Larry. “How could they both know it?”
“The cult is a very ancient one. Undoubtedly it had its origin in the dim beginnings before these people migrated here,” I replied. “It’s a link—one—of the few links between up there and the lost past—”
“Trouble then,” mumbled Larry. “Hell brewing! I smell it—Say, Doc, is this sleepiness natural? Wonder where my—gas mask—is—” he added, half incoherently.
But I myself was struggling desperately against the drugged slumber pressing down upon me.
“Lakla!” I heard O’Keefe murmur. “Lakla of the golden eyes—no Eilidh—the Fair!” He made an immense effort, half raised himself, grinned faintly.
“Thought this was paradise when I first saw it, Doc,” he sighed. “But I know now, if it is, No-Man’s Land was the greatest place on earth for a honeymoon. They—they’ve got us, Doc—” He sank back. “Good luck, old boy, wherever you’re going.” His hand waved feebly. “Glad—knew—you. Hope—see—you—’gain—”
His voice trailed into silence. Fighting, fighting with every fibre of brain and nerve against the sleep, I felt myself being steadily overcome. Yet before oblivion rushed down upon me I seemed to see upon the grey-screened wall nearest the Irishman an oval of rosy light begin to glow; watched, as my falling lids inexorably fell, a flame-tipped shadow waver on it; thicken; condense—and there looking down upon Larry, her eyes great golden stars in which intensest curiosity and shy tenderness struggled, sweet mouth half smiling, was the girl of the Moon Pool’s Chamber, the girl whom the green dwarf had named—Lakla: the vision Larry had invoked before that sleep which I could no longer deny had claimed him—
Closer she came—closer—-the eyes were over us.
Then oblivion indeed!
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”