Monday, January 30, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Metal Monster

I've talked recently about how the name Abraham Merritt is not as well known among fantasy enthusiast as it ought to be and I stand by that assertion. In the early part of the 20th century, Merritt, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, was fantasy. His stories were widely read and influential, none moreso than his The Moon Pool, which was a particular favorite of Gary Gygax. The Moon Pool had a sequel of sorts called The Metal Monster, which first appeared in the pages of Argosy All-Story Weekly in serial form during the weeks of August 7 to September 25, 1920. H.P. Lovecraft thought very highly of the story, remarking in a letter written in 1934 that
the book contains the most remarkable presentation of the utterly alien and non-human that I have ever seen.  I don’t wonder that Merrittt calls it his “best and worst” production.  The human characters are commonplace and wooden — just pulp hokum — but the scenes and phaenomena… oh, boy!
I think that's a fair assessment, not just of The Metal Monster but of Merritt's work in general. His characters are rarely noteworthy but his ideas are often top-notch and inspiring. This is certainly the case in The Metal Monster, which concerns an expedition by Dr. Walter Goodwin of the International Association of Science to Himalayas in search of rare plants. Goodwin also makes an appearance in The Moon Pool, which is why I call The Metal Monster "a sequel of sorts" to the former book, even though The Metal Monster stands perfectly well on its own.

The story is framed, as was The Moon Pool, as a real account of an adventure that Dr. Goodwin related to Merritt. In this respect, it's very much in keeping with the conventions of Burroughs, who does the same in his Barsoom tales. Where Merritt differs is in the ominousness with which he infuses his novel. Before he sets off on his expedition, Dr. Goodwin has an extended soliloquy that espouses a Lovecraftian worldview before the fact.
In this great crucible of life we call the world—in the vaster one we call the universe—the mysteries lie close packed, uncountable as grains of sand on ocean's shores. They thread gigantic, the star-flung spaces; they creep, atomic, beneath the microscope's peering eye. They walk beside us, unseen and unheard, calling out to us, asking why we are deaf to their crying, blind to their wonder.
Sometimes the veils drop from a man's eyes, and he sees—and speaks of his vision. Then those who have not seen pass him by with the lifted brows of disbelief, or they mock him, or if his vision has been great enough they fall upon and destroy him.
For the greater the mystery, the more bitterly is its verity assailed; upon what seem the lesser a man may give testimony and at least gain for himself a hearing.
There is reason for this. Life is a ferment, and upon and about it, shifting and changing, adding to or taking away, beat over legions of forces, seen and unseen, known and unknown. And man, an atom in the ferment, clings desperately to what to him seems stable; nor greets with joy him who hazards that what he grips may be but a broken staff, and, so saying, fails to hold forth a sturdier one.
Earth is a ship, plowing her way through uncharted oceans of space wherein are strange currents, hidden shoals and reefs, and where blow the unknown winds of Cosmos.
If to the voyagers, painfully plotting their course, comes one who cries that their charts must be remade, nor can tell WHY they must be—that man is not welcome—no!
Therefore it is that men have grown chary of giving testimony upon mysteries. Yet knowing each in his own heart the truth of that vision he has himself beheld, lo, it is that in whose reality he most believes.
This speech is intended to prepare the reader for the many oddities that Merritt describes once Dr. Goodwin reaches the Himalayas. There, the protagonist quickly makes the acquaintances of several other researchers and explorers -- Dick Drake and the brother and sister team of Martin and Ruth Ventnor -- who join him in his activities. As they press onward, they see strange lights, what appears to be a giant set of footprints, and a civilization of vicious men who look to their eyes to be ancient Persians unchanged since the time of Darius and Xerxes. These Persians pose a grave threat to Goodwin and his compatriots, until they are rescued by a mysterious woman who appears from nowhere.

Within the black background of the fissure stood a shape, an apparition, a woman—beautiful, awesome, incredible!
She was tall, standing there swathed from chin to feet in clinging veils of pale amber, she seemed taller even than tall Drake. Yet it was not her height that sent through me the thrill of awe, of half incredulous terror which, relaxing my grip, let my smoking rifle drop to earth; nor was it that about her proud head a cloud of shining tresses swirled and pennoned like a misty banner of woven copper flames—no, nor that through her veils her body gleamed faint radiance.
It was her eyes—her great, wide eyes whose clear depths were like pools of living star fires. They shone from her white face—not phosphorescent, not merely lucent and light reflecting, but as though they themselves were SOURCES of the cold white flames of far stars—and as calm as those stars themselves.
And in that face, although as yet I could distinguish nothing but the eyes, I sensed something unearthly.
The woman reveals herself as Norhala and commands remarkable powers in her battle against the Persians.

"To the crevice," I shouted to Drake. He paid no heed to me, nor did Ruth—their gaze fastened upon the swathed woman.
Ventnor's hand shot out, gripped my shoulder, halted me. She had thrown up her head. The cloudy METALLIC hair billowed as though wind had blown it.
From the lifted throat came a low, a vibrant cry; harmonious, weirdly disquieting, golden and sweet—and laden with the eery, minor wailings of the blue valley's night, the dragoned chamber.
Before the cry had ceased there poured with incredible swiftness out of the crevice score upon score of the metal things. The fissures vomited them!

Globes and cubes and pyramids—not small like those of the ruins, but shapes all of four feet high, dully lustrous, and deep within that luster the myriads of tiny points of light like unwinking, staring eyes.
They swirled, eddied and formed a barricade between us and the armored men.
Down upon them poured a shower of arrows from the soldiers. I heard the shouts of their captains; they rushed. They had courage—those men—yes!
Again came the woman's cry—golden, peremptory.
Sphere and block and pyramid ran together, seemed to seethe. I had again that sense of a quicksilver melting. Up from them thrust a thick rectangular column. Eight feet in width and twenty feet high, it shaped itself. Out from its left side, from right side, sprang arms—fearful arms that grew and grew as globe and cube and angle raced up the column's side and clicked into place each upon, each after, the other. With magical quickness the arms lengthened.
Before us stood a monstrous shape; a geometric prodigy. A shining angled pillar that, though rigid, immobile, seemed to crouch, be instinct with living force striving to be unleashed.
Two great globes surmounted it—like the heads of some two-faced Janus of an alien world.
At the left and right the knobbed arms, now fully fifty feet in length, writhed, twisted, straightened; flexing themselves in grotesque imitation of a boxer. And at the end of each of the six arms the spheres were clustered thick, studded with the pyramids—again in gigantic, awful, parody of the spiked gloves of those ancient gladiators who fought for imperial Nero.
For an instant it stood here, preening, testing itself like an athlete—a chimera, amorphous yet weirdly symmetric—under the darkening sky, in the green of the hollow, the armored hosts frozen before it—
And then—it struck!
This is the metal monster of the title and its origins and purpose, along with the origins of all the other mysteries the protagonists encounter, most especially Norhala, form the bulk of the story. The Metal Monster is a great deal of fun if you can get past Merritt's somewhat archaic diction and thin characterization. As I said before, it's his ideas that are so compelling and are what made him such a popular and influential author in his day. Despite the weaknesses of his prose, I think him worth reading for his ideas alone; he's the wellspring of so many of the concepts that would eventually become commonplace, even trite, in later pulp fantasies. Anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of genre literature should seek this one out and read it.

8 comments:

  1. His characters are rarely noteworthy but his ideas are often top-notch and inspiring.

    I wonder if this is the secret to why pulp fantasy makes for good RPG inspiration. The strength of the stories is not in the plot of the characters, which would be difficult to port into an RPG without seriously missing the point. Instead it's in the "scenes" and the "phenomena" which are entirely portable.

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  2. I recall trying to read this as a teen and putting it down because of the boring prose. I'll have to find a copy and give it a second look.

    And the passage about metal monster itself made me think both of Modrons and Transformers.

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  3. Oh, it's very much where Nanites came from. (Whether or not folks who wrote Nanites had read the book.) It cries out for CGI.

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  4. Note: this story is free at the Kindle store. ;)

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  5. "Note: this story is free at the Kindle store. ;)"

    Indeed! And I have a few of Mr. Merritt's stories on my Kindle as we speak!

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  6. BTW, James, thank you for writing these "pulp fiction" showcases. I appreciate how they re-introduce (or often directly introduce) us to the literary roots of our favorite pass-time.

    And I absolutely blame you for my current CAS fixation. ;)

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  7. I do believe you've discovered one of the less-obvious sources of inspiration for Modrons, James.

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