Weird #12: “The People of the Pit” by A. Merritt (1918)

A Merritt

Having come this far in this Archaeology of Weird Fiction project, I have noticed that certain patterns of representing the attraction and danger of the weird have begun to repeat as patterns. In addition, I keep finding parallels, in one way or another, to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. In this, my experience of “People of the Pit” by A. Merritt was no different. It is, however, the first story in the collection to explicitly feature archaeology and past civilizations as a source of the weird (except perhaps in “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore).

Two men exploring the far northern reaches of Alaska come across a hazy mountain with five peaks outstretched like a hand where a strange light is glowing. A frightened man near death crawls up to their campfire and tells them he has just returned from those very mountains. He narrates the story of his encounter with the People of the Pit. Having reached the mountains from the other side, the horrified speaker recounts how he journeyed down the bottleneck of the seemingly infinite pit that lies between the mountains, to finally reach the massive, primeval city at the bottom.

Made a captive of the invisible, glowing creatures who live at the bottom of the pit, the man participates in their chanting rituals and eventually comes to see the inner sluglike forms. Horrified, he breaks his chains and escapes. The man finishes his tale and soon dies. The explorers cremate the man according to his wishes and scatter his ashes to prevent the People of the Pit from claiming his body after death.

According to the editors, Merritt was heavily influenced by Gertrude Barrows Bennett, the first major female American science fiction and fantasy writer and inventor of dark fantasy, who published under the pseudonym Francis Stevens and wrote weird tales about lost civilizations. Merrit, in turn, influenced H.P. Lovecraft, who himself was an admirer of Stevens/Bennett. All three authors are included in The Weird.

“The People of the Pit” follows the formula of an explorer/scientist who journeys to the frontiers of the (to Europeans) known world to investigate a curious phenomenon, only to encounter horror and terror and supernatural dread. Some of Merrit’s other scientists, like Throckmartin in The Moon Pool and Goodwin in The Metal Monster, use the scientific process to get themselves out of seeming supernatural quandaries, and do so successfully. These novels are better spoken of as science fantasy. However, “The People of the Pit” destabilizes the efficacy of science, calling into question its ability to categorize extraordinary phenomena, in the way that much weird fiction does.

The explorers note the whispering coming from a strange light on the mountain, which “can’t be the aurora” (101). Indeed, it is not a “crackling sound like the ghosts of winds that blew at Creation racing through the skeleton leaves of ancient trees that sheltered Lilith” either; rather, it holds “a demand. It was eager” (101). It evades the categories of Judeo-Christian mythology and science and attracts their curiosity with “inexorable insistence” (102) in a way that recalls the Sirens from the Odyssey. This phenomena that evades their categories and classifications produces a curiosity that can lures and seduce men to their doom. In a way, this whispering is the equivalent to Tagore’s marble palace and Ewers’s Clarimonde. It demonstrates the sensual’s domination over the rational, a modernist dichotomy.

Drawn by the mystery of the mountain, which is a kind of El Dorado given the “Athabasean” legend of gold streaming out from the peaks (102), the survivor recalls his first sign of the unusual: a road. Since he is far from civilization, the existence of an ancient road in the wilderness is unexpected in how it suggests the ancient presence of a technologically advanced human civilization. “Lost” civilization tropes often carry the problematic assumption that non-Western, non-white people could not have possibly built monumental structures, urban centres, or possessed advanced technology.  Perhaps, then, the Athabaseans’ ancestors, or those of another Indigenous nation, had built this city once, long ago. However, “The People of the Pit” does not specify who used to live here; that fact has been lost to time and history and is one of the many unsolved mysteries that confront the survivor as he ventures past the city, over the mountains, and into the pit.

Currently, I am teaching a 12-week course called “Imagining the Past: Fiction & Archaeology” in which I am leading discussion on fictional texts about archaeology and history. In this course, we’ve been talking a lot about what motivates archaeologists–for some it is a quest, a curiosity about the world, or a need to fill out the answers to a burning question rather than face the blankness of the unknown. Merritt’s story features and explorer and honourary archaeologist whose curiosity about the world leads him to his doom.

While celebrating this curiosity in a certain way, Merritt also exposes just how little of the world is actually known. In 1918, places like northern Alaska may still have contained regions remote enough that most Americans could believe a Pit of this size and scale could exist. However, what seems to have driven Merritt to write this story is not enthusiasm for mapping uncharted frontiers, but rather an awe at that very unchartedness. He revels in exposing precisely what is unknown, and those who investigate it too closely pay a price.

Perhaps he was a romantic, reacting against modernity’s exhortation to map the last pockets of difference on the earth’s surface. Rationalism and irrationalism, sensuality and reason are at war in Merritt’s work.

Cover of The Metal Monster by A. Merritt from Fantastic Mysteries Magazine
A. Merritt’s novel The Metal Monster featured in a Fantastic Mysteries and Fantastic Novels joint issue

The survivor is drawn to his doom by the pit. Curiously, this image anticipates the Tower in VanderMeer’s Annihilation: a spiral staircase leading down, down, down to a seemingly infinite depth. “It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world down into the infinity where the planets roll!” writes Merritt (104). The pit has a hoard of possible meanings: a journey to the unconscious or to the underworld, a quest for the base of reality itself, the end of all questions and inquiry–a base that does not really exist.

In a further parallel with Annihilation, the walls are inscribed with an inscrutable text. In “People of the Pit,” that text is visual. The inscriptions along the wall of the spiral staircase in Merritt, left behind by unknown peoples, contain figures that hold back a vaguer, underlying image: an “impression of enormous upright slugs” (104). Later, when the survivor reaches the city at the bottom of the pit, he sees inscriptions on an altar of “formless things that gave no conscious image, yet pressed into the mind like small hot seals–ideas of hate–of combats between unthinkable monstrous things” (106), suggesting the abstracted forms of primitivist paintings.

The mention of a upright slugs connects the People of the Pit to the Crawler in Annihilation. Both are described as grotesque sluglike creatures who glow and whose form seems too much for the human eye to take in at once. Both are sublime monsters because they surpass our senses’ ability to see and our brains’ ability to make understand them.

To better illustrate, VanderMeer describes The Crawler as follows:

[I]t was no longer golden but blue-green, and the blue-green light was like nothing I had experienced before. […] As I adjusted to the light, the Crawler kept changing at a lightning pace, as if to mock my ability to comprehend it. […] It was a great sluglike monster ringed by satellites of even odder creatures. It was a glistening star. My eyes kept glancing off of it as if an optic nerve was not enough. (176)

Compare this with Merritt’s description of the People of the Pit:

Great transparent snail-like bodies–dozens of waving tentacles stretching from them–round gaping mouths under the luminous seeing globes. They were like the ghosts of inconceivably monstrous slugs! […] They did not crawl or walk–they floated! They floated and were–gone! (108)

While VanderMeer’s prose is less exclamatory, the similarities are clear. The monstrous bodies of the People of the Pit and the Crawler are abject and grotesque due to their being in excess of the very categories used to define them. They throw in question humanity’s ability to classify phenomena and understand the universe. They throw in question the very capacity of language–the very language the authors use–to describe them. They are a splinter irritating the universe with their own incomprehensibility, exposing the world for its illusions.

In short, “The People of the Pit” is a quintessential weird tale, destabilizing Enlightenment assumptions about reality and the knowability of the universe, suggesting there are whole worlds and civilizations that lie beyond our senses and our understanding–a position that would go on to influence Lovecraft.

Next week, I’ll be writing about the ‘father of the Japanese short story’, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and his weird tale, “The Hell Screen.”

Archaeological Adventure Fiction I: Indiana Jones and the Genre of Enlightenment

“Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth. […] So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. You do not follow maps to buried treasure and “X” never, ever, marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading. We cannot afford to take mythology at face value.”

These words were rather hypocritically spoken by none other than Harrison Ford, in his role as Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, to a classroom of eager archaeology students. The funny thing about this speech is that it accurately describes the real study of archaeology, which has nothing to do with chasing Nazi caravans through the desert or running away from massive, rolling boulders. Yet the Indiana Jones series pretends to be about archaeology and the discovery of the past.

The romanticized view of the archaeologist tends to reduce the real work associated with the profession–including excavation, survey, applying for funding, and all that library time–to what amounts to a treasure hunt. A certain set of clues leads Jones to a particular location, where the Grail or the Ark awaits discovery. Rather than reading soil samples, Jones reads his father’s diary and the inscription of a knight’s shield, which tells him exactly where he has to go.

What this does is speed things up to the pace suitable for an action movie. It also makes the plot more linear. It eliminates any scientific processes that would stretch out a long search for an ancient city over months and years. In short, it makes the archaeologist’s journey into a quest instead of a complicated search for evidence.

Archaeological quests imply something else than the analysis of dry data. Quests bring the archaeologist into the search for truth, and not just fact. The cities they discover become more than remains scattered in a certain area of land; their job ceases to be about conducting empirical analyses of whatever they might find. It becomes a journey towards a specific goal. In The Last Crusade, that goal is none other than the Grail, a modern-day medieval romance, heavy with incident.

A Merritt
A Merritt

The Indiana Jones movies belong to the genre of ‘archaeological adventure’ that finds precedents in literary works. Published in Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, an anthology that republished some long-unknown pieces of fiction, A. Merritt’s novella “The Moon Pool” involves a band of scientific adventurers who attempt to map the ruins of a fallen Pacific Islands civilization, only to be haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force that eliminates the members of the expedition one by one. Merritt wrote in the early part of the century. Several of his works were turned into films in the 1930s.

The editors, Hartwell and Cramer, confirm in their description of the novella that “this kind of pulp fantasy is the source of such contemporary off-shoots as the current [1988] Indiana Jones movies” (540). The novella creates an “aggressive blend of what we now call science fiction with the fantasy, using scientists and professionals to heighten the contrast between the scientific present and the magical past, mysterious and wonderful and very dangerous” (540).

Although the Jones movies do not emphasize science so much, the ‘science versus magic’ dichotomy reflects the contrast between Jones’s rigorous attention to fact in the classroom and his experience of the healing power of the supernatural Grail at the end of the film. Jones’ inner journey is towards what his father, Henry Jones, played by Sean Connery, calls “illumination.” A new faith that facts are not all what’s important.

Dr. Throckmartin, Merritt’s protagonist, encounters what appears to be the supernatural, but always finds a way to rationalize it, at least until the very end of the tale. The fantastic in Merrit is more dangerous here, however. Madness waits for Throckmartin if his rational faculties fail, if he lets himself be taken in by illusions.

A giant door opens to an inner temple–triggered only by the light of the moon. The natives claim that the ani, or spirit, opened it. But Throckmartin says, “The assertion of the natives that the ani had greatest power at this time might be a far-flung reflection of knowledge which had found ways to use forces contained in the moonlight, as we have found ways to utilize forces in the sun’s rays” (567). A mysterious sleep befalls the adventurers. But this might “have been some emanation from plants or gaseous emanations from the island itself” (567). The adventurers seek out scientific causes of the effects they must endure. They enact the kind of demystification of nature that Sir Francis Bacon outlines in his treatise on the Great Instauration: the depersonalizing of nature and the reduction of forces to matter that acts on other matter. Everything explained, no mysteries, and above all, nothing beyond or above natural causes.

“The Moon Pool” also illustrates certain themes of imperialism. Throckmartin’s request for white men to join his team rather than natives might appear racist to modern audiences; he justifies himself saying the white man is less superstitious. Scientific men who hold no irrational fears of haunted places make better workers. This dynamic of the archaeological adventure reflects the politics of imperialism, which accompanies enlightenment. The white man has science, while the natives are represented as ignorant animists who believe in spirits and carry prehistorical or medieval beliefs. Yet, the white man is at a certain disadvantage: he is ignorant of the dangerous secrets the island stores for him, while the natives are more familiar with these dangers–and are wise for avoiding them. The result is an encounter of the white man with the unknown supernatural other, a conflict that threatens to undermine the certainty of empirical discovery and rational explanation.

I would like to speculate that the imperialism of “The Moon Pool” is reflected to some extent in the Indiana Jones movies, in which a highly educated Western archaeologist–American no less– ‘discovers’ the secrets of the East, while the East remains incapable of discovering its own treasures. To an extent, I find this dynamic replicated in certain of Lord Dunsany’s Orientalist fantasies in The Book of Wonder, in which the object of wonder is usually a valuable gem or other glistening item that becomes a target for thieves. When Jones steals the golden idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, no one asks if he has the right to steal what the natives clearly worship and value. It seems like an act of American imperialism in the name of increasing the collections of Western museums.

Returning to the dialectical tension between science and magic in “The Moon Pool,” it is interesting to note how this dynamic strongly reflects one definition of fantasy that Brian Attebery provides in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” He suggests that fantasy might simply be the “meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10). An older world (historical materialists would say, an earlier mode of production) meets the empirical, ‘rational,’ and capitalist present. The result is a conflict between the epistemologies and beliefs of ancient and modern societies, whose systems are thrown into conflicting simultaneity. The archaeologist does not unearth the past as a past, but encounters it in the present, where it can affect and change him.

The powers of the Grail and the Ark of the Covenant may not be explained away by Doctor Jones. But the continuity between the movies and this novella by Merritt is there, suggesting that there does exist an archaeological fiction genre, little named or acknowledged, that possesses a certain set of rules that distinguishes it from fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction. The tension between conflicting epistemologies in this genre could make it a fascinating object to excavate and survey more deeply, as a way of discovering how they encode ideas about enlightenment and imperialism.

In the twenty-first century, there is one return to archaeological fiction that explores the dynamics of science and magic in popular culture: the Uncharted video game series. With its placing of importance on old diaries and maps, rather than on archaeological excavation, and given its obvious debt to the Jones movies, I would like to discuss aspects of this series next week. Also, I will speculate about how Edgar Allan Poe may have influenced this genre since its inception, in one of his short stories, “The Gold-Bug.”

Continued next week.

petra

Works Cited

Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Lantham and Robert A. Collins. Westport: Greenwood, 1995.

Hartwell, David and Kathryn Cramer. “The Moon Pool.” Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Script. Courtesy: dailyscript.com.

Picture Credits:

Merritt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Merritt

Petra: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Jones_and_the_Last_Crusade