Friday, December 13, 2013

3. Through a Gateway

“But what shall he who has a Gateway do but pass through it? Is it not better to leave the Gateway behind —unless he dare go through it?”

The image of a gateway through which the curious or adventurous can pass into other times and dimensions is very common in horror, science fiction and fantasy stories.  The origin of the idea is probably ancient and perhaps connected with religious practice—going through the gateway is always transformative in some way.  The threshold may take the form of an actual gate, but other possibilities are a doorway, arch, tunnel, picture, pool of water, or mirror—reflective surfaces especially lend themselves to this purpose.

The Stargate franchise is probably one of the more familiar contemporary examples of this notion.  A classic episode of the original Star Trek written by Harlan Ellison employs this device, (“The City on the Edge of Forever”, 1967.)  The Hellraiser franchise offers a much darker use of the concept.  Readers can probably supply many more examples of ‘gateways’ from fiction, TV and film.

In A. Merritt’s Through the Dragon Glass (1917), the gateway is an oval of polished stone surrounded by an ornate frame depicting dragons and a strange landscape.  This story was published in the All-Story Weekly, a Munsey magazine and a predecessor of Weird Tales.  It preceded Merritt’s best known story, The Moon Pool by a year.  There are interesting similarities between the two tales.  As with H.P. Lovecraft, the author seems to perseverate on certain ideas and images, to which he returns in various ways across stories.  Merritt seems unusually interested in the moon, the number 7, and the color green.

Well connected white adventurer James Herndon takes advantage of the Boxer Rebellion in China to raid the Forbidden City of its treasures.  (Between 1899 and 1901, a group of Chinese nationalists attempted unsuccessfully to drive out western powers, who subsequently captured the capitol city of Beijing and looted it.)  Herndon becomes a millionaire with what he steals from the Forbidden City.  While there, he and his associates break into a secret room containing various artifacts and a mural depicting the legend of a mysterious “wonder-worker”.   He takes back with him a strange item he calls ‘the Dragon Glass’.

Not long after returning to New York, he suddenly vanishes but then reappears, “his body mauled as though by a tiger.”  He tells his friend Ward of his adventures, which involve the use of ‘the Dragon Glass’ as a portal to a beautiful but treacherous land, ruled by a god-like wonder-worker named Rak.  There is a woman there that he has fallen in love with—Santhu—and he must go back and rescue her.

As in The People of the Pit, the story is muddied by overuse of obscure metaphors, which seems to be a stylistic habit of the author.  When Herndon encounters the wonder-worker, (who created the paradisiacal landscape and the portal to it), his eyes are described as yellow as buttercups, or as the sunstone on the crest of the Feathered Serpent they worship down in the Hidden Temple of Tuloon.  That is pretty yellow in my book. 

Santhu’s eyes on the other hand are "as blue as the corn flowers, as blue as the big sapphire that shines in the forehead of Vishnu, in his temple at Benares.   That’s pretty blue.  More importantly, she is “lithe and slender and yielding as the reeds that grow before the Shrine of Hathor that stands on the edge of the Pool of Djeeba.”  That is pretty lithe, and, well…yielding.

Yet to be fair, a strength of Merritt’s writing is his vivid, detailed description of important scenes and subjects in his narratives.  More so than many other pulp fiction writers, one can visualize the things he describes.  He provides a more sensory and sensual experience for the reader than is typical from many of his contemporaries.  Only H.P. Lovecraft can compete with Merritt in the creation of strange and foreboding settings and atmospheres.   Another asset is his enthusiasm for personifying and wrestling with big philosophical and theological ideas.  He can be thought provoking at times—if a little ‘off the wall’.

Theology appears to have been an interest of Merritt’s.  As Herndon is telling his friend Ward of his experiences on the other side of ‘the Dragon Glass’, there is an explanation of an elaborate mythology and cosmos.  It involves the creation of world illumined by seven moons that ensnares souls from earth in countless cycles of reincarnation.  A dragon guards this world, and is Herndon’s principle adversary when he tries to escape and later when he attempts to rescue Santhu.

And what is it with the number seven?  Moonlight?  The color green?  These three elements also appeared in various combinations in the two stories discussed in the previous posts.  The Moon Pool and Through the Dragon Glass were produced earlier in the author’s career, and relatively close in time, which may account for the similar imagery. 

But The Last Poet and the Robots was published over a decade later, and still contains a strong echo of this imagery.  In all Merritt’s stories discussed so far, there is also the concept of emanations, vibrations or projections that simultaneously attract and destroy.  Patterns like this are fascinating to find—even more so when they occur across the work of several contemporaneous writers.   What was in their heads?

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