When I think of A. Merritt, I think of pulp fiction inevitably. If Ugolini’s story was leaning in that direction, ‘The People of the Pit’ puts us squarely in pulp territory, but geographically somewhere very vague, above the Yukon, perhaps in Alaska. All we really know is that it’s somewhere in the North. The vagueness is deliberate, of course, enough to make you think the place might be real, enough to make sure you couldn’t find it if you wanted to, and mostly to cover up the fact that it doesn’t exist at all, layer after layer of contrivance and verisimilitude, supporting and undermining one another simultaneously. It’s irresistible.
Our heroes, Starr Anderson and the narrator, Frank, are wandering around the North, looking for gold, as adventurers are wont to do in these circumstances. With a few deft strokes, Merritt implies a shared back story for these men, one based on strange experiences: ‘It makes me think of the frozen hand of cloud that Shan Nadour set before the Gate of Ghouls to keep them in the lairs that Eblis cut for them’ (101). It assures the reader of oddness to come, as if that weren’t clear enough already, from the mysterious shaft of light they are watching, and the way it ‘broke into myriads of little luminous globes that swung to and fro and dropped gently. They seemed to be searching’ (101). It’s difficult to resist a line like that.
Yet there is incredible tension in this opening sequence, with the realisation that something odd is going on in the distance, coupled with intuitive knowledge that it is better to be observing from ‘here’, rather than experiencing first-hand over ‘there’. This business of keeping a distance is interesting. A number of the stories I’ve looked at so far use various framing devices, either a narrator recounting a story someone else told, or the diary by the person who is no longer there to explain it, and so on. It seems to be a common feature of this kind of story, and one might toy with reasons why it is so popular. There is, of course, that sense of vicarious thrill, of being able to experience the horror second-hand without being involved in it. Conversely, the extra layer of narration hints at things which might have been overlooked or deliberately left out, and the reader thrills to the prospect of imagining worse horrors. It also elevates the sense of mystery, the desire to have observed first-hand in order to be absolutely clear about what really did happen. And, crucially, it leaves room for doubt.
In this instance, the secondary narrator is a man who, in classic Northern fashion, crawls into the men’s camp. And the manner of his crawling is horrific in itself. This is no collapsing half-stagger, no dragging himself along the floor, but as the narrator says, ‘it was like a baby crawling upstairs. The forepaws lifted themselves in grotesquely infantile fashion’ (102). Again, there is so much packed into those few sentences. Man or beast? Adult or baby? Where Blackwood, for example, merely hints at the nature of the horror lurking in the willows, Merritt’s approach is much more straightforward. Is it s a small bear? No, it’s a man, horribly damaged by having crawled through the forest on his hands and knees, though does that account for his curious gait.
On top of this, he wears a band of gold round his waist, and a chain. Gold, of course, is what has brought the explorers to this place, but when they remove it, ‘it was like no gold I had ever handled. […] it had an unclean, viscid life of its own. It clung to the file. […] It was – loathsome’ (103). Something is clearly not right when a man in search of gold actively throws it away.
The story when it comes is one that is now familiar, the lost civilisation, in this instance living in the bottom of a ravine. Not any old ravine, however, but ‘Imagine the Grand Canyon five times as wide and with the bottom dropped out’ (104). It’s probably impossible to imagine this geographical marvel, and conveniently, it is tucked out of sight on the other side of the Hand Mountain that our explorers had been travelling towards, so they have never seen it, and we have only the word of Sinclair Stanton, the crawling man, that it exists at all, positioning him as an unreliable first-person narrator, not least because he has just spent several months in a cabin on his own, sitting out the winter, waiting for the spring so he could continue his journey. However, his rationality and lucidity are set against this, inviting us to believe him.
Stanton descends miles into the huge pit, down stairs that were clearly made by someone, or something. He is uncertain of what he will encounter. There have been hints; on the edge of the mega-canyon he has found ruined buildings, and sculptures of ‘the heroic figure of a man’, and lurking behind them, things like ‘enormous upright slugs’ (104). When he encounters a city made of cylinders, it doesn’t take much ingenuity to work out what is probably living in them. Except that, as Stanton’s account plays out, the creatures he encounters are rarely visible, often more a feeling than a physical experience. Physicality is most plainly manifest in the hideous trees that grow in the bottom of the pit and in the architecture and carvings that appear to mimic their writhings – ‘mad octopuses with a thousand drunken tentacles’.
There is a fascinating disconnection between the repulsive physicality of Stanton’s surroundings and his encounters with the inhabitants of the pit, who manifest as globes of light or else as feelings of, mainly, repulsion focused on an invisible consciousness, as though they have, in the best science-fictional fashion, transcended the need for a body. Stanton can offer no real clue as to what they are, except perhaps to describe himself as ‘an atom of consciousness in a sea of cadenced whispering’ (107), as though he is to be subsumed into some sort of gestalt entity. It is only towards the end of the story that the nature of the creatures is, to some extent, revealed: ‘like the ghosts of inconceivably monstrous slugs’ (108). Floating monstrous slugs. Could it get any worse?
For Stanton, yes, in that he is more disturbed by the fact that he has joined in the chanting of the people of the pit, become part of them, at least for a while. And this, to my mind, is actually the most interesting part of the story in that Stanton never clearly articulates the nature of his fear of joining in the chanting in the first place; he describes his tortuous escape, the pursuit by the slug people, and how the whispering threatens and cajoles, but there is clearly something else at work. What Merritt is getting at is not made explicit but one can make a guess, with the juxtaposing a hidden alien society against Stanton’s East Coast upbringing (Yale man, and all that), and the fear of surrendering himself to the chanting. Stanton’s escape from the malign influence, his death and demand that his body be burned, ensures that he can escape their influence finally, while the explorers, suitably horrified and chastened, turn back to civilisation. The kicker, of course, is that the civilisation remains … out there … somewhere.
‘The People of the Pit’ comes across as good, honest, entertaining pulp, riffing off authors like H Rider Haggard and the ‘into the unknown’ style of travel account, yet somehow right at the heart of it is this unspoken fear, and it’s that which really catches my attention.