A. Merritt is one of several authors who've I've become aware of thanks to Appendix N, and when I saw an 8 Novel, 8 Short Story collection of one Abraham Merritt on Amazon for 99 cents, I figured why not?
And then I read The Moon Pool (1919) and so much of what I assumed about the mechanics of science fiction was challenged.
Here is a story that starts out as a proto-Lovecraftian horror tale that makes a convincing monster out of moonlight that lives in the ruins of the island of Nan-Matal (a real place, I might add). As our scientist narrator learns about this Dweller, he accrues two other adventurers to examine the ruins and find the reason for the disappearances.
Then they find the entrance to a bizarre Hollow Earth situation with super strong dwarfs, cloaks of invisibility, disintegration guns, seashell-shaped hover cars, a seductive evil priestess at war with a heroic good priestess, mysterious extradimensional gods, an undead army, and benevolent warrior frog people called the Akka.
This isn't the kind of story that knocks your teeth out like R.E. Howard could crank out effortlessly. The Moon Pool is a slow burn that admittedly spends too much time on exposition. The last few chapters before the climactic battle are a massive infodump of lore and little else. Merritt was a smart man, and its clear that a lot of time was spent thinking up the theology and prehistory of the underground world.
And yet despite a fair bit of clunking around explaining things (this was Merritt's first novel, after all, and by the end it feels as though he's much more confident as a writer than at the beginning), it wins you over with its action and heroes and the rhythm of the language.
Oh yes, it has heroes. Flawed, sometimes motivated by darker impulses, but unabashedly heroic. Dr. Goodwin, the narrator, operates as a narrator whose function is to bear witness to the events, but he's no simple reactionary. He started off on a quest to find a lost friend and does so, at personal expense.
Then there is Captain Olaf Huldricksson, a brawny Norwegian overcome with grief and revenge for his lost wife and daughter, who were taken from his boat by the Shining One of the Moon Pool. A man of few words, most of them Norwegian, he's a secondary character and a modern author would have killed him off in an early scene for cheap drama or had him turn into a villain. Not so here. Even when he spends significant time off screen, Merritt develops the hell out of Olaf to the point where he gets a suitably Scandinavian fate.
This image will make sense when you read the book
Then there's the O'Keefe. Half American, Half Irish, and Half Mad, Larry O'Keefe survived flying in World War I and is rescued from the sea by Goodwin's ship, and then sensing ADVENTURE, signs on with the expedition in a heartbeat. Recklessly brave and hot-blooded about the supremacy of Ireland, he is an enormous skeptic of the supernatural except regarding any Irish myths. At one point, he tells Goodwin that a leprechaun visited him in a dream with advice with a completely straight face. Part of his impulsiveness comes from surviving the horrors of WWI and wanting to wring as much out of life before the end comes. He's also remarkably loyal and won't even stop to think about rushing into danger to help one of his friends. A Hero like Larry needs a woman worth conquering the world for, and Lakla, the auburn-haired good priestess, is just that. Its a whirlwind romance once they finally meet, but the two compliment each other beautifully.
In a modern world of brooding anti-heroes O'Keefe is a breath of fresh air. For whatever reason (that's not worth dipping into here), we've cast aside the ability to make compelling true-blue, Capital H Heroes in the name of being true to reality or some such nonsense.
Larry O'Keefe in The Moon Pool is a reminder that Capital H Heroes are there to inspire us to make reality out of truth.
Big ideas, chilling horror, frog people, and Big Damn Heroes. Its a 98 year old book that crackles with life.
Absolutely recommended, and its not even Merritt's magnum opus, The Ship of Ishtar.