I’ve been reading Adventure stories, Horror stories, and Science Fiction stories from the late 1800s and early 1900s for most of my reading life. I started with Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne, expanded to H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith and more. Somehow, I missed Abraham Merritt along the way. I think I’ve read a couple of his short stories in anthologies, but this is definitely the first novel I’ve read by him.
The Moon Pool is very much of its time and of its genre, and I don’t mean that dismissively. Written a short time after the Great War, the shadow of that conflict still hung in the air, yet so did the suddenly bigger world, as Americans broke out of their isolationism to some degree. Here is the embrace of science and reason, though tainted by colonialism and mysticism. We experience the wonder and beauty of new lands, but also the sinister, nameless evil of ‘the other’ (read: anyone not Anglo-Saxon).
To say you can see the influence on Lovecraft would be an understatement. Themes and ideas from this book were picked up and carried to strange new places over the next decade and a half by Providence’s favorite son. The Moon Pool would rest easy on a shelf, right next to A Princess of Mars or C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories. It could easily have served as the inspiration for a Republic movies serial. All the elements are there. What makes it stand out and makes it worth the time is Merritt’s admittedly purple prose. It’s extremely evocative and occasionally beautiful. His characters are caricatures, to be sure, but fun to read about. A wild and bold Irishman, a dim but righteous Scandinavian, a sinister and deceitful Russian. And then things get really weird.
I really don’t want to talk too much about the plot of the book, because it goes into such strange and unexpected places. It starts out as a Far East nautical tale with mysterious islands and apparitions, giving the impression almost of a Hammer Horror film, or even something like the first half of the original ‘King Kong.’ Then it takes a turn, and that turn went into a very different place, almost a different genre. It gets very, very weird.
There are plenty of conventional, even cliche bits in the book. As I said, it’s very much of its time and its genre (whichever one it lives in at the moment). There’s not a terrible amount of depth to anyone, least of all the women. There are very outdated concepts of ‘race,’ and other ‘scientific’ ideas. It is, however, far less aggressively racist than some, and better written than many. Similar novels like John Taine’s The Purple Sapphire and Robert W. Chambers’s The Slayer of Souls, were far more egregious and ugly in their treatment of non-Europeans. Not that it’s a contest, but I can tune out the background noise of racism from some authors, so long as they don’t make it a focal point. Most of the time, I could tune out Merritt’s like I could not with Chambers or Taine.
If you’re a Burroughs fan or a Lovecraft fan, or just like old time adventure tales, give this one a read.