Monday, January 16, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The People of the Pit

As many of you no doubt already know, Gary Gygax not only includes Abraham Merritt in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide but also includes him among a select handful of authors whom he deems as "the most immediate influences upon AD&D." With Merritt's 139th birthday looming later this week (January 20), I thought it fitting to take a look one of his earliest stories – his second, as it turns out – as a way to celebrate him and the influence he had upon the Gygaxian conception of Dungeons & Dragons.

"The People of the Pit" first appeared in the January 5, 1918 issue of All-Story Weekly, though it was much reprinted from the late 1920s onward. It is, in many ways, a prototype for many of Merritt's most well-known tales, in that it involves a lost world and a hidden, subterranean city – themes to which he and those influenced by him would return again and again. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, was an avowed admirer of Merritt's works. He frequently cited "The Moon Pool" as a favorite, though I can't help but wonder if the snowy boreal setting of "The People of the Pit" might have contributed in some small way to his At the Mountains of Madness. 

The story concerns a pair of prospectors, Starr Anderson and the unnamed narrator. While on an expedition somewhere north of the Yukon River, they observe a peculiar shaft of light.

North of us a shaft of light shot half way to the zenith. It came from behind the five peaks. The beam drove up through a column of blue haze whose edges were marked as sharply as the rain that streams from the edges of a thunder cloud. It was like the flash of a searchlight through an azure mist. It cast no shadows.

As it struck upward the summits were outlined hard and black and I saw that the whole mountain was shaped like a hand. As the light silhouetted it, the gigantic fingers stretched, the hand seemed to thrust itself forward. It was exactly as though it moved to push something back. The shining beam held steady for a moment; then broke into myriads of little luminous globes that swung to and fro and dropped gently. They seemed to be searching.

The comrades continue to observe this oddity and theorize about its nature. Not long thereafter, the two men hear first an "eager" whispering sound and then something else entirely.

Through the whispering had broken a curious pad-pad and a rustling. It sounded as though a small bear were moving towards us. I threw a pile of wood on the fire and, as it blazed up, saw something break through the bushes. It walked on all fours, but it did not walk like a bear. All at once it flashed upon me—it was like a baby crawling upstairs. The forepaws lifted themselves in grotesquely infantile fashion. It was grotesque but it was—terrible. It grew closer. We reached for our guns—and dropped them. Suddenly we knew that this crawling thing was a man!

It was a man. Still with the high climbing pad-pad he swayed to the fire. He stopped.

"Safe," whispered the crawling man, in a voice that was an echo of the murmur overhead. "Quite safe here. They can't get out of the blue, you know. They can't get you—unless you go to them—"

He fell over on his side. We ran to him. Anderson knelt.

"God's love!" he said. "Frank, look at this!" He pointed to the hands. The wrists were covered with torn rags of a heavy shirt. The hands themselves were stumps! The fingers had been bent into the palms and the flesh had been worn to the bone. They looked like the feet of a little black elephant! My eyes traveled down the body. Around the waist was a heavy band of yellow metal. From it fell a ring and a dozen links of shining white chain!

Anderson and the narrator are baffled by the sudden appearance of the man and ponder the nature of his injuries. They also ponder the band around his waist, from which the narrator frees him by filing it. 

It was gold, but it was like no gold I had ever handled. Pure gold is soft. This was soft, but it had an unclean, viscid life of its own. It clung to the file. I gashed through it, bent it away from the body and hurled it far off. It was— loathsome!

When the man awakes later, he says that his name is Sinclair Stanton, a graduate of Yale University and an explorer, who'd "gotten too far North." He asks his rescuers a couple of odd questions:

"Was there any light up there last night?" He nodded to the North eagerly. "Any whispering?"

"Neither," I answered. His head fell back and he stared up at the sky.

"They've given it up, then?" he said at last.

"Who have given it up?" asked Anderson.

"Why, the people of the pit," replied the crawling man quietly.

We stared at him. "The people of the pit," he said. "Things that the Devil made before the Flood and that somehow have escaped God's vengeance. You weren't in any danger from them—unless you had followed their call. They can't get any further than the blue haze. I was their prisoner," he added simply. "They were trying to whisper me back to them!"

Stanton insists that he is not insane. He then tells the story of his ill-fated expedition, starting with his partner, who had "sickened" along the way. He sent him back south with some of their Indian guides, as he pressed onward. As he got closer to a place he called Hand Mountain, all his remaining guides abandoned him, believing it cursed – correctly, as it turned out. 

Stanton, however, was undeterred and inexplicably discovered "a fine smooth stone road" that "passed between two high rocks that raised themselves like a gateway."

"They were a gateway," he said. "I reached them. I went between them. And then I sprawled and clutched the earth in sheer awe! I was on a broad stone platform. Before me was—sheer space! Imagine the Grand Canyon five times as wide and with the bottom dropped out. That is what I was looking into. It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world down into the infinity where the planets roll! On the far side stood the five peaks. They looked like a gigantic warning hand stretched up to the sky. The lip of the abyss curved away on each side of me.

"I could see down perhaps a thousand feet. Then a thick blue haze shut out the eye. It was like the blue you see gather on the high hills at dusk. And the pit—it was awesome; awesome as the Maori Gulf of Ranalak, that sinks between the living and the dead and that only the freshly released soul has strength to leap—but never strength to cross again.

"I crept back from the verge and stood up, weak. My hand rested against one of the pillars of the gateway. There was carving upon it. It bore in still sharp outlines the heroic figure of a man. His back was turned. His arms were outstretched. There was an odd peaked headdress upon him. I looked at the opposite pillar. It bore a figure exactly similar. The pillars were triangular and the carvings were on the side away from the pit. The figures seemed to be holding something back. I looked closer. Behind the outstretched hands I seemed to see other shapes.

"I traced them out vaguely. Suddenly I felt unaccountably sick. There had come to me an impression of enormous upright slugs. Their swollen bodies were faintly cut—all except the heads which were well marked globes. They were—unutterably loathsome. I turned from the gates back to the void. I stretched myself upon the slab and looked over the edge.

"A stairway led down into the pit!"

What Stanton finds when he descends the stairs and reaches the bottom of the pit I'll leave to the reader to learn. I will say only that, in the best pulp tradition, Merritt does an excellent job in building tension and holding the reader's interest till the end of his story. 

Reading "The People of the Pit," it's easy to see why someone like Lovecraft admired Merritt so much, combining as he does a superb adventure story with elements of cosmic horror. That the story has directly inspired not one but two different old school fantasy adventure modules, both of which share their title with Merritt's tale, is, I think, another point in its favor. It's a fun and enjoyable yarn.


  1. "North of us a shaft of light shot half way to the zenith. It came from behind the five peaks. The beam drove up through a column of blue haze whose edges were marked as sharply as the rain that streams from the edges of a thunder cloud. It was like the flash of a searchlight through an azure mist. It cast no shadows."

    An excellent passage to cite when you want to show how little creativity there is in modern Hollywood. Even in 1918 people were shoving skybeams into their stories. :)

  2. Things that the Devil made before the Flood..."

    I'm always a fan of a RPG setting's mysterious prehistory or fallen culture, rather than an untouched wilderness. Ancient ruins and horrors unleashed!
    Will definitely be reading The People of the Pit. Thanks!