“A stairway led down into the pit!”
“A stairway!” we cried.
“A stairway,” repeated the crawling man as patiently as before.
..…“A stairway built into the wall of a precipice and leading down into a bottomless pit!”
“Not bottomless,” said the crawling man quietly. There was a bottom. I reached it.”
“Reached it?” we repeated.
“Yes, by the stairway,” answered the crawling man. “You see—I went down it!”
Scintillating dialogue like this mars an otherwise interesting story by Abraham Merritt, The People of the Pit, published in the All-Story Weekly in 1918. The text also contains a generous supply of exclamation points, which gives the impression that the narrator is either manic or hysterical. Another fairly obvious weakness is the overuse of obscure metaphors and allusions. These misfire as efforts to enliven the description of various scenes or emotional experiences in the story. Here are a few examples:
“My mouth was as dry as though Lao T’zai had poured his fear dust down my throat.”
“It makes me think of the frozen hand of cloud that Shan Nadour set before the Gate of Ghouls to keep them in the lairs that Eblis cut for them.”
And my favorite: “It was not the rustling of the aurora, that rushing, crackling sound like the ghosts of winds that blew at Creation racing through the skeleton leaves of ancient trees that sheltered Lilith.”
(It was not like that, not even close.)
These three examples occur on the first page of the story. The language is vivid, but incomprehensible and unfocused. After an attention grabbing opening, the story begins to slow and bog down in verbiage. This is one of the hazards of using sentence length similes and metaphors descriptively. Less is always more.
Maybe you remember creative writing classes where students were encouraged to insert more color and sensation into their writing by liberally sprinkling it with artful figures of speech. But metaphor—which is essentially a comparison of some sort with varying degrees of explicitness—is a very inefficient means of communicating detail. Basically one is mixing poetry with prose—oil and water—and creating a big mess.
One strategy for cutting the verbiage that metaphors and similes create is to convert them into verbs: “I shot him an angry look” instead of “My sharp look was like an arrow fired in his direction.” Or some such. But a little of this goes a long way. One more example from Merritt’s The People of the Pit:
“A few feet beneath me the stairway jutted out into a Titanic arch, unearthly as the span that bridges Hell and leads to Asgard.”
A. Merritt was considered by some to be a master of the “lost race fantasy”. He was a very successful journalist and editor, and his wealth allowed him to travel widely. His real estate in Jamaica and Ecuador probably helped support his hobby of collecting and cultivating orchids and a variety of plants associated with witchcraft, (because of their hallucinogenic properties). He also collected artifacts of various kinds from around the world, and reportedly maintained an occult library of over 5000 books.
To be fair, The People of the Pit was one of the earliest of Merritt’s stories to be published. He often appeared in Munsey magazines—All-Story, Argosy All-Story and Argosy—along with Francis Stevens and occasionally H.P. Lovecraft, among others. Merritt’s stories began appearing in print in 1917, right around the time Lovecraft was able to publish juvenilia like The Beast in the Cave and The Alchemist.
Who would have guessed that a forgotten civilization, fearfully avoided by Native Americans, could be found in a remote area of Alaska? This is the setting for The People of the Pit. The site is at the base of a row of mountains that resemble the fingers of an enormous hand, raised as if in warning to unwary travelers. The story opens with the narrator and his fellow explorer not far from the opening of this enormous cleft in the earth, comparable to the Grand Canyon. They feel strangely drawn to its perimeter, subliminally called by a strange vertical shaft of bluish light emerging from the pit.
A man stumbles into their camp. He is terribly mutilated by some ordeal—“The wrists were covered with torn rags of a heavy shirt. The hands themselves were stumps.” He has been fleeing from the pit where he had been ensnared by strange, nearly all powerful creatures that may be of extraterrestrial origin—“Things that the Devil made before the Flood and that somehow have escaped God’s vengeance.” The man is dying, but before he expires he tells the narrator and his friend of his experiences in ‘the Pit’.
What is appealing about the story is the author’s creation of a landscape or region permeated with an evil force, as well as a richly conceived city of bizarre architecture and plant life. This is basically an adventure story. Merritt is effective when he sticks with straight graphic description of what his hapless explorer finds in the pit. Readers can easily visualize the arduous descent, the fearful wandering in the cyclopean streets, and the frantic attempt to escape later. The author wisely leaves several questions unanswered, which contributes a feeling of mystery and other-worldliness to the tale.
The story is also interesting insofar as it marks a transition point between weird fiction and science fiction. While there are numerous Biblical allusions, “lost world” architectural details, and a climactic scene by an altar, the description of the creatures and their activities has a more technical and “sci-fi” feel.