THE MOON POOL (18)
October 9, 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 shell carried us straight back to the house of Yolara. Larry was awaiting me. We stood again before the tenebrous wall where first we had faced the priestess and the Voice. And as we stood, again the portal appeared with all its disconcerting, magical abruptness.
But now the scene was changed. Around the jet table were grouped a number of figures—Lugur, Yolara beside him; seven others—all of them fair-haired and all men save one who sat at the left of the priestess—an old, old woman, how old I could not tell, her face bearing traces of beauty that must once have been as great as Yolara’s own, but now ravaged, in some way awesome; through its ruins the fearful, malicious gaiety shining out like a spirit of joy held within a corpse!
Began then our examination, for such it was. And as it progressed I was more and more struck by the change in the O’Keefe. All flippancy was gone, rarely did his sense of humour reveal itself in any of his answers. He was like a cautious swordsman, fencing, guarding, studying his opponent; or rather, like a chess-player who keeps sensing some far-reaching purpose in the game: alert, contained, watchful. Always he stressed the power of our surface races, their multitudes, their solidarity.
Their questions were myriad. What were our occupations? Our system of government? How great were the waters? The land? Intensely interested were they in the World War, querying minutely into its causes, its effects. In our weapons their interest was avid. And they were exceedingly minute in their examination of us as to the ruins which had excited our curiosity; their position and surroundings—and if others than ourselves might be expected to find and pass through their entrance!
At this I shot a glance at Lugur. He did not seem unduly interested. I wondered if the Russian had told him as yet of the girl of the rosy wall of the Moon Pool Chamber and the real reasons for our search. Then I answered as briefly as possible—omitting all reference to these things. The red dwarf watched me with unmistakable amusement—and I knew Marakinoff had told him. But clearly Lugur had kept his information even from Yolara; and as clearly she had spoken to none of that episode when O’Keefe’s automatic had shattered the Keth-smitten vase. Again I felt that sense of deep bewilderment—of helpless search for clue to all the tangle.
For two hours we were questioned and then the priestess called Rador and let us go.
Larry was sombre as we returned. He walked about the room uneasily.
“Hell’s brewing here all right,” he said at last, stopping before me. “I can’t make out just the particular brand—that’s all that bothers me. We’re going to have a stiff fight, that’s sure. What I want to do quick is to find the Golden Girl, Doc. Haven’t seen her on the wall lately, have you?” he queried, hopefully fantastic.
“Laugh if you want to,” he went on. “But she’s our best bet. It’s going to be a race between her and the O’Keefe banshee—but I put my money on her. I had a queer experience while I was in that garden, after you’d left.” His voice grew solemn. “Did you ever see a leprechaun, Doc?” I shook my head again, as solemnly. “He’s a little man in green,” said Larry. “Oh, about as high as your knee. I saw one once—in Carntogher Woods. And as I sat there, half asleep, in Yolara’s garden, the living spit of him stepped out from one of those bushes, twirling a little shillalah.
“‘It’s a tight box ye’re gettin’ in, Larry avick,’ said he, ‘but don’t ye be downhearted, lad.’
“‘I’m carrying on,’ said I, ‘but you’re a long way from Ireland,’ I said, or thought I did.
“‘Ye’ve a lot o’ friends there,’ he answered. ‘An’ where the heart rests the feet are swift to follow. Not that I’m sayin’ I’d like to live here, Larry,’ said he.
“‘I know where my heart is now,’ I told him. ‘It rests on a girl with golden eyes and the hair and swan-white breast of Eilidh the Fair—but me feet don’t seem to get me to her,’ I said.”
The brogue thickened.
“An’ the little man in green nodded his head an’ whirled his shillalah.
“‘It’s what I came to tell ye,’ says he. ‘Don’t ye fall for the Bhean-Nimher, the serpent woman wit’ the blue eyes; she’s a daughter of Ivor, lad—an’ don’t ye do nothin’ to make the brown-haired coleen ashamed o’ ye, Larry O’Keefe. I knew yer great, great grandfather an’ his before him, aroon,’ says he, ‘an’ wan o’ the O’Keefe failin’s is to think their hearts big enough to hold all the wimmen o’ the world. A heart’s built to hold only wan permanently, Larry,’ he says, ‘an’ I’m warnin’ ye a nice girl don’t like to move into a place all cluttered up wid another’s washin’ an’ mendin’ an’ cookin’ an’ other things pertainin’ to general wife work. Not that I think the blue-eyed wan is keen for mendin’ an’ cookin’!’ says he.
“‘You don’t have to be comin’ all this way to tell me that,’ I answer.
“‘Well, I’m just a tellin’ you,’ he says. ‘Ye’ve got some rough knocks comin’, Larry. In fact, ye’re in for a devil of a time. But, remember that ye’re the O’Keefe,’ says he. ‘An’ while the bhoys are all wid ye, avick, ye’ve got to be on the job yourself.’
“‘I hope,’ I tell him, ‘that the O’Keefe banshee can find her way here in time—that is, if it’s necessary, which I hope it won’t be.’
“‘Don’t ye worry about that,’ says he. ‘Not that she’s keen on leavin’ the ould sod, Larry. The good ould soul’s in quite a state o’ mind about ye, aroon. I don’t mind tellin’ ye, lad, that she’s mobilizing all the clan an’ if she has to come for ye, avick, they’ll be wid her an’ they’ll sweep this joint clean before ye go. What they’ll do to it’ll make the Big Wind look like a summer breeze on Lough Lene! An’ that’s about all, Larry. We thought a voice from the Green Isle would cheer ye. Don’t fergit that ye’re the O’Keefe an’ I say it again—all the bhoys are wid ye. But we want t’ kape bein’ proud o’ ye, lad!’
“An’ I looked again and there was only a bush waving.”
There wasn’t a smile in my heart—or if there was it was a very tender one.
“I’m going to bed,” he said abruptly. “Keep an eye on the wall, Doc!”
Between the seven sleeps that followed, Larry and I saw but little of each other. Yolara sought him more and more. Thrice we were called before the Council; once we were at a great feast, whose splendours and surprises I can never forget. Largely I was in the company of Rador. Together we two passed the green barriers into the dwelling-place of the ladala.
They seemed provided with everything needful for life. But everywhere was an oppressiveness, a gathering together of hate, that was spiritual rather than material—as tangible as the latter and far, far more menacing!
“They do not like to dance with the Shining One,” was Rador’s constant and only reply to my efforts to find the cause.
Once I had concrete evidence of the mood. Glancing behind me, I saw a white, vengeful face peer from behind a tree-trunk, a hand lift, a shining dart speed from it straight toward Rador’s back. Instinctively I thrust him aside. He turned upon me angrily. I pointed to where the little missile lay, still quivering, on the ground. He gripped my hand.
“That, some day I will repay!” he said. I looked again at the thing. At its end was a tiny cone covered with a glistening, gelatinous substance.
Rador pulled from a tree beside us a fruit somewhat like an apple.
“Look!” he said. He dropped it upon the dart—and at once, before my eyes, in less than ten seconds, the fruit had rotted away!
“That’s what would have happened to Rador but for you, friend!” he said.
Come now between this and the prelude to the latter half of the drama whose history this narrative is—only scattering and necessarily fragmentary observations.
First—the nature of the ebon opacities, blocking out the spaces between the pavilion-pillars or covering their tops like roofs, These were magnetic fields, light absorbers, negativing the vibrations of radiance; literally screens of electric force which formed as impervious a barrier to light as would have screens of steel.
They instantaneously made night appear in a place where no night was. But they interposed no obstacle to air or to sound. They were extremely simple in their inception—no more miraculous than is glass, which, inversely, admits the vibrations of light, but shuts out those coarser ones we call air—and, partly, those others which produce upon our auditory nerves the effects we call sound.
Briefly their mechanism was this:
[For the same reason that Dr. Goodwin’s exposition of the mechanism of the atomic engines was deleted, his description of the light-destroying screens has been deleted by the Executive Council.—J. B. F., President, I. A. of S.]
There were two favoured classes of the ladala—the soldiers and the dream-makers. The dream-makers were the most astonishing social phenomena, I think, of all. Denied by their circumscribed environment the wider experiences of us of the outer world, the Murians had perfected an amazing system of escape through the imagination.
They were, too, intensely musical. Their favourite instruments were double flutes; immensely complex pipe-organs; harps, great and small. They had another remarkable instrument made up of a double octave of small drums which gave forth percussions remarkably disturbing to the emotional centres.
It was this love of music that gave rise to one of the few truly humorous incidents of our caverned life. Larry came to me—it was just after our fourth sleep, I remember.
“Come on to a concert,” he said.
We skimmed off to one of the bridge garrisons. Rador called the two-score guards to attention; and then, to my utter stupefaction, the whole company, O’Keefe leading them, roared out the anthem, “God Save the King.” They sang—in a closer approach to the English than might have been expected scores of miles below England’s level. “Send him victorious! Happy and glorious!” they bellowed.
He quivered with suppressed mirth at my paralysis of surprise.
“Taught ’em that for Marakinoff’s benefit!” he gasped. “Wait till that Red hears it. He’ll blow up.
“Just wait until you hear Yolara lisp a pretty little thing I taught her,” said Larry as we set back for what we now called home. There was an impish twinkle in his eyes.
And I did hear. For it was not many minutes later that the priestess condescended to command me to come to her with O’Keefe.
“Show Goodwin how much you have learned of our speech, O lady of the lips of honeyed flame!” murmured Larry.
She hesitated; smiled at him, and then from that perfect mouth, out of the exquisite throat, in the voice that was like the chiming of little silver bells, she trilled a melody familiar to me indeed:
“She’s only a bird in a gilded cage,
A bee-yu-tiful sight to see—”
And so on to the bitter end.
“She thinks it’s a love-song,” said Larry when we had left. “It’s only part of a repertoire I’m teaching her. Honestly, Doc, it’s the only way I can keep my mind clear when I’m with her,” he went on earnestly. “She’s a devil-ess from hell—but a wonder. Whenever I find myself going I get her to sing that, or Take Back Your Gold! or some other ancient lay, and I’m back again—pronto—with the right perspective! POP goes all the mystery! ‘Hell!’ I say, ‘she’s only a woman!'”
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”.