Monday, December 9, 2013

1. Av-o-lo-ha!

‘Av-o-lo-ha!’ is the unearthly and incomprehensible chant that is heard at the approach of ‘the dweller’, an ancient entity that resides in ‘the moon pool’, deep below the mysterious ruins of Nan-Tanach.  This is the focus of A. Merritt’s story of the same name, originally published in a Munsey magazine called the All Story Weekly in 1918.    

As in A. Merritt’s The People of the Pit, published earlier that same year, adventurers stumble upon the remains of an unknown, lost civilization.  The ruins however contain an actively evil, though alluring and irresistible presence.  The Moon Pool, is by far the better of the two stories, and is probably responsible for establishing Merritt’s career in weird fiction.  Yet both are entertaining for their imaginative creation of beings that are wholly “other”.  Interestingly, an escape is possible—barely—in The People of the Pit, but not at all in The Moon Pool.   

The Moon Pool will remind some readers of the Indiana Jones series and similar films, which probably drew their inspiration from stories like those written by A. Merritt.  Professor Throckmartin, fleeing by boat from a strange entity that has seized his wife and the rest of his expedition, tells his story to an acquaintance named Goodwin.  So much depends on the presence of moonlight—the source of the entity’s power and its ability to travel great distances.  A storm overhead keeps the professor safe long enough to tell his tale.  But his escape is short lived, and Goodwin is left with maps and other details, and perhaps enough courage, to launch a rescue.  (Merritt wrote a sequel published in 1919 called Conquest of the Moon Pool.)

Like much pulp fiction of the time, racial and ethnic stereotypes serve as kind of shorthand for characterization, as if national or socio-economic origin was a reliable predictor of personality traits and temperaments.  For example, the character of Thora, a Swedish woman who accompanies the professor’s wife, is described as “a Swede, as you know, and in her blood ran the beliefs and superstitions of the Northland…” and:  “She was the great Norse type—tall, deep breasted, molded on the old Viking lines.”  For this kind of characterization to work requires that readers hold these stereotypes to be true, and not personally know any particular Swedes that might challenge these assumptions.

In a similar vein, the women in the party are submissive to the men, and more susceptible to the powers of the entity that resides beneath the ancient monoliths.  The native islanders are seen as fearful, superstitious, and conniving.  They ascribe the weirdness of the place to evil spirits they call ani.  In flight from the ruins of Nan-Tanach, Professor Throckmartin repeatedly calls for additional white team members, who are presumably more reliable than the natives.  At least the natives had the sense to avoid a place that generations of them had identified as extremely hazardous to body and soul—and they know it was risky business to be in the vicinity during three days of the full moon.

There is some interesting theology in The Moon Pool.  Much is made of the number 7, which describes aspects of the entity’s appearance and the ancient underground structure from which it emerges.   The number 7 is prevalent in the Old and New Testaments, where it often signifies completion or perfection.  Merritt also toys with a kind of dualism or Manichaeism—the notion that good and evil are inextricably mixed together as a result of ongoing struggles between the light of spirit and the darkness of the material world. 

Throckmartin and his friends are simultaneously attracted and repelled by the emanations of ‘the dweller’.  The mingling of opposite tendencies is mirrored in their faces, which have been transformed as though “by the hand of God and the hand of Satan, working together and in harmony.”  In both The Moon Pool and The People of the Pit, Merritt describes an almost sexual and ecstatic attraction to evil.  It is not clear what these evil beings want with weak-willed humans, though it appears to be a kind of worship mixed with enslavement.  As in many horror stories with a religious tone, idolatry is on stage.

More interesting from an historical perspective—World War One had just ended when Merritt published The Moon Pool—is this question that Throckmartin rhetorically asks at one point:

“Yet I cannot believe that God would let a thing like that conquer! But why did He then let it take my Edith?  And why does He allow it to exist?  Are there things stronger than God, do you think, Goodwin?”

The essential question is ancient, and attempts to answer it are documented thousands of years ago—in the Book of Job for example, among other places.  But its appearance even here shows the impact of The Great War on modern assumptions of God’s presence or omnipotence in the face of great evil.

Merritt achieves some genuine creepiness through great attention to visual and physical detail—his preoccupation with the moon, for example—and emotional tone.  There is one graphically jarring scene in which Throckmartin asks Goodwin to experiment with a mark left by ‘the dweller’ on his chest—using a knife and a cigarette!  But his attempts to tackle broader questions about the unknown and the reliability of traditional religion in the modern world make this an impressive story.  The Moon Pool should be considered required reading for fans of early 20th century horror and science fiction.

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