THE MOON POOL (36)
February 11, 2022
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.
“My heart, Larry—” It was the handmaiden’s murmur. “My heart feels like a bird that is flying from a nest of sorrow.”
We were pacing down the length of the bridge, guards of the Akka beside us, others following with those companies of ladala that had rushed to aid us; in front of us the bandaged Rador swung gently within a litter; beside him, in another, lay Nak, the frog-king—much less of him than there had been before the battle began, but living.
Hours had passed since the terror I have just related. My first task had been to search for Throckmartin and his wife among the fallen multitudes strewn thick as autumn leaves along the flying arch of stone, over the cavern ledge, and back, back as far as the eye could reach.
At last, Lakla and Larry helping, we found them. They lay close to the bridge-end, not parted—locked tight in each other’s arms, pallid face to face, her hair streaming over his breast! As though when that unearthly life the Dweller had set within them passed away, their own had come back for one fleeting instant—and they had known each other, and clasped before kindly death had taken them.
“Love is stronger than all things.” The handmaiden was weeping softly. “Love never left them. Love was stronger than the Shining One. And when its evil fled, love went with them—wherever souls go.”
Of Stanton and Thora there was no trace; nor, after our discovery of those other two, did I care to look more. They were dead—and they were free.
We buried Throckmartin and Edith beside Olaf in Lakla’s bower. But before the body of my old friend was placed within the grave I gave it a careful and sorrowful examination. The skin was firm and smooth, but cold; not the cold of death, but with a chill that set my touching fingers tingling unpleasantly. The body was bloodless; the course of veins and arteries marked by faintly indented white furrows, as though their walls had long collapsed. Lips, mouth, even the tongue, was paper white. There was no sign of dissolution as we know it; no shadow or stain upon the marble surface. Whatever the force that, streaming from the Dweller or impregnating its lair, had energized the dead-alive, it was barrier against putrescence of any kind; that at least was certain.
But it was not barrier against the poison of the Medusae, for, our sad task done, and looking down upon the waters, I saw the pale forms of the Dweller’s hordes dissolving, vanishing into the shifting glories of the gigantic moons sailing down upon them from every quarter of the Sea of Crimson.
While the frog-men, those late levies from the farthest forests, were clearing bridge and ledge of cavern of the litter of the dead, we listened to a leader of the ladala. They had risen, even as the messenger had promised Rador. Fierce had been the struggle in the gardened city by the silver waters with those Lugur and Yolara had left behind to garrison it. Deadly had been the slaughter of the fair-haired, reaping the harvest of hatred they had been sowing so long. Not without a pang of regret did I think of the beautiful, gaily malicious elfin women destroyed—evil though they may have been.
The ancient city of Lara was a charnel. Of all the rulers not twoscore had escaped, and these into regions of peril which to describe as sanctuary would be mockery. Nor had the ladala fared so well. Of all the men and women, for women as well as men had taken their part in the swift war, not more than a tenth remained alive.
And the dancing motes of light in the silver air were thick, thick—they whispered.
They told us of the Shining One rushing through the Veil, cometlike, its hosts streaming behind it, raging with it, in ranks that seemed interminable!
Of the massacre of the priests and priestesses in the Cyclopean temple; of the flashing forth of the summoning lights by unseen hands—followed by the tearing of the rainbow curtain, by colossal shatterings of the radiant cliffs; the vanishing behind their debris of all trace of entrance to the haunted place wherein the hordes of the Shining One had slaved—the sealing of the lair!
Then, when the tempest of hate had ended in seething Lara, how, thrilled with victory, armed with the weapons of those they had slain, they had lifted the Shadow, passed through the Portal, met and slaughtered the fleeing remnants of Yolara’s men—only to find the tempest stilled here, too.
But of Marakinoff they had seen nothing! Had the Russian escaped, I wondered, or was he lying out there among the dead?
But now the ladala were calling upon Lakla to come with them, to govern them.
“I don’t want to, Larry darlin’,” she told him. “I want to go out with you to Ireland. But for a time—I think the Three would have us remain and set that place in order.”
The O’Keefe was bothered about something else than the government of Muria.
“If they’ve killed off all the priests, who’s to marry us, heart of mine?” he worried. “None of those Siya and Siyana rites, no matter what,” he added hastily.
“Marry!” cried the handmaiden incredulously. “Marry us? Why, Larry dear, we are married!”
The O’Keefe’s astonishment was complete; his jaw dropped; collapse seemed imminent.
“We are?” he gasped. “When?” he stammered fatuously.
“Why, when the Mother drew us together before her; when she put her hands on our heads after we had made the promise! Didn’t you understand that?” asked the handmaiden wonderingly.
He looked at her, into the purity of the clear golden eyes, into the purity of the soul that gazed out of them; all his own great love transfiguring his keen face.
“An’ is that enough for you, mavourneen?” he whispered humbly.
“Enough?” The handmaiden’s puzzlement was complete, profound. “Enough? Larry darlin’, what more could we ask?”
He drew a deep breath, clasped her close.
“Kiss the bride, Doc!” cried the O’Keefe. And for the third and, soul’s sorrow! the last time, Lakla dimpling and blushing, I thrilled to the touch of her soft, sweet lips.
Quickly were our preparations for departure made. Rador, conscious, his immense vitality conquering fast his wounds, was to be borne ahead of us. And when all was done, Lakla, Larry, and I made our way up to the scarlet stone that was the doorway to the chamber of the Three. We knew, of course, that they had gone, following, no doubt, those whose eyes I had seen in the curdled mists, and who, coming to the aid of the Three at last from whatever mysterious place that was their home, had thrown their strength with them against the Shining One. Nor were we wrong. When the great slab rolled away, no torrents of opalescence came rushing out upon us. The vast dome was dim, tenantless; its curved walls that had cascaded Light shone now but faintly; the dais was empty; its wall of moon-flame radiance gone.
A little time we stood, heads bent, reverent, our hearts filled with gratitude and love—yes, and with pity for that strange trinity so alien to us and yet so near; children even as we, though so unlike us, of our same Mother Earth.
And what I wondered had been the secret of that promise they had wrung from their handmaiden and from Larry. And whence, if what the Three had said had been all true—whence had come their power to avert the sacrifice at the very verge of its consummation?
“Love is stronger than all things!” had said Lakla.
Was it that they had needed, must have, the force which dwells within love, within willing sacrifice, to strengthen their own power and to enable them to destroy the evil, glorious Thing so long shielded by their own love? Did the thought of sacrifice, the will toward abnegation, have to be as strong as the eternals, unshaken by faintest thrill of hope, before the Three could make of it their key to unlock the Dweller’s guard and strike through at its life?
Here was a mystery—a mystery indeed! Lakla softly closed the crimson stone. The mystery of the red dwarf’s appearance was explained when we discovered a half-dozen of the water coria moored in a small cove not far from where the Sekta flashed their heads of living bloom. The dwarfs had borne the shallops with them, and from somewhere beyond the cavern ledge had launched them unperceived; stealing up to the farther side of the island and risking all in one bold stroke. Well, Lugur, no matter what he held of wickedness, held also high courage.
The cavern was paved with the dead-alive, the Akka carrying them out by the hundreds, casting them into the waters. Through the lane down which the Dweller had passed we went as quickly as we could, coming at last to the space where the coria waited. And not long after we swung past where the shadow had hung and hovered over the shining depths of the Midnight Pool.
Upon Lakla’s insistence we passed on to the palace of Lugur, not to Yolara’s—I do not know why, but go there then she would not. And within one of its columned rooms, maidens of the black-haired folks, the wistfulness, the fear, all gone from their sparkling eyes, served us.
There came to me a huge desire to see the destruction they had told us of the Dweller’s lair; to observe for myself whether it was not possible to make a way of entrance and to study its mysteries.
I spoke of this, and to my surprise both the handmaiden and the O’Keefe showed an almost embarrassed haste to acquiesce in my hesitant suggestion.
“Sure,” cried Larry, “there’s lots of time before night!”
He caught himself sheepishly; cast a glance at Lakla.
“I keep forgettin’ there’s no night here,” he mumbled.
“What did you say, Larry?” asked she.
“I said I wish we were sitting in our home in Ireland, watching the sun go down,” he whispered to her. Vaguely I wondered why she blushed.
But now I must hasten. We went to the temple, and here at least the ghastly litter of the dead had been cleaned away. We passed through the blue-caverned space, crossed the narrow arch that spanned the rushing sea stream, and, ascending, stood again upon the ivoried pave at the foot of the frowning, towering amphitheatre of jet.
Across the Silver Waters there was sign of neither Web of Rainbows nor colossal pillars nor the templed lips that I had seen curving out beneath the Veil when the Shining One had swirled out to greet its priestess and its voice and to dance with the sacrifices. There was but a broken and rent mass of the radiant cliffs against whose base the lake lapped.
Long I looked—and turned away saddened. Knowing even as I did what the irised curtain had hidden, still it was as though some thing of supernal beauty and wonder had been swept away, never to be replaced; a glamour gone for ever; a work of the high gods destroyed.
“Let’s go back,” said Larry abruptly.
I dropped a little behind them to examine a bit of carving—and, after all, they did not want me. I watched them pacing slowly ahead, his arm around her, black hair close to bronze-gold ringlets. Then I followed. Half were they over the bridge when through the roar of the imprisoned stream I heard my name called softly.
“Goodwin! Dr. Goodwin!”
Amazed, I turned. From behind the pedestal of a carved group slunk—Marakinoff! My premonition had been right. Some way he had escaped, slipped through to here. He held his hands high, came forward cautiously.
“I am finished,” he whispered—”Done! I don’t care what they’ll do to me.” He nodded toward the handmaiden and Larry, now at the end of the bridge and passing on, oblivious of all save each other. He drew closer. His eyes were sunken, burning, mad; his face etched with deep lines, as though a graver’s tool had cut down through it. I took a step backward.
A grin, like the grimace of a fiend, blasted the Russian’s visage. He threw himself upon me, his hands clenching at my throat!
“Larry!” I yelled—and as I spun around under the shock of his onslaught, saw the two turn, stand paralyzed, then race toward me.
“But you’ll carry nothing out of here!” shrieked Marakinoff. “No!”
My foot, darting out behind me, touched vacancy. The roaring of the racing stream deafened me. I felt its mists about me; threw myself forward.
I was falling—falling—with the Russian’s hand strangling me. I struck water, sank; the hands that gripped my throat relaxed for a moment their clutch. I strove to writhe loose; felt that I was being hurled with dreadful speed on—full realization came—on the breast of that racing torrent dropping from some far ocean cleft and rushing—where? A little time, a few breathless instants, I struggled with the devil who clutched me—inflexibly, indomitably.
Then a shrieking as of all the pent winds of the universe in myears—blackness!
Consciousness returned slowly, agonizedly.
“Larry!” I groaned. “Lakla!”
A brilliant light was glowing through my closed lids. It hurt. I opened my eyes, closed them with swords and needles of dazzling pain shooting through them. Again I opened them cautiously. It was the sun!
I staggered to my feet. Behind me was a shattered wall of basalt monoliths, hewn and squared. Before me was the Pacific, smooth and blue and smiling.
And not far away, cast up on the strand even as I had been, was—Marakinoff!
He lay there, broken and dead indeed. Yet all the waters through which we had passed—not even the waters of death themselves—could wash from his face the grin of triumph. With the last of my strength I dragged the body from the strand and pushed it out into the waves. A little billow ran up, coiled about it, and carried it away, ducking and bending. Another seized it, and another, playing with it. It floated from my sight—that which had been Marakinoff, with all his schemes to turn our fair world into an undreamed-of-hell.
My strength began to come back to me. I found a thicket and slept; slept it must have been for many hours, for when I again awakened the dawn was rosing the east. I will not tell my sufferings. Suffice it to say that I found a spring and some fruit, and just before dusk had recovered enough to writhe up to the top of the wall and discover where I was.
The place was one of the farther islets of the Nan-Matal. To the north I caught the shadows of the ruins of Nan-Tauach, where was the moon door, black against the sky. Where was the moon door—which, someway, somehow, I must reach, and quickly.
At dawn of the next day I got together driftwood and bound it together in shape of a rough raft with fallen creepers. Then, with a makeshift paddle, I set forth for Nan-Tauach. Slowly, painfully, I crept up to it. It was late afternoon before I grounded my shaky craft on the little beach between the ruined sea-gates and, creeping up the giant steps, made my way to the inner enclosure.
And at its opening I stopped, and the tears ran streaming down my cheeks while I wept aloud with sorrow and with disappointment and with weariness.
For the great wall in which had been set the pale slab whose threshold we had crossed to the land of the Shining One lay shattered and broken. The monoliths were heaped about; the wall had fallen, and about them shone a film of water, half covering them.
There was no moon door!
Dazed and weeping, I drew closer, climbed upon their outlying fragments. I looked out only upon the sea. There had been a great subsidence, an earth shock, perhaps, tilting downward all that side—the echo, little doubt, of that cataclysm which had blasted the Dweller’s lair!
The little squared islet called Tau, in which were hidden the seven globes, had entirely disappeared. Upon the waters there was no trace of it.
The moon door was gone; the passage to the Moon Pool was closed to me—its chamber covered by the sea!
There was no road to Larry—nor to Lakla!
And there, for me, the world ended.
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”