Last week I discussed A. Merritt's book The Moon Pool (1919), an adventure/horror novel showing genuine flashes of weird brilliance but marred by some rather stereotypical pulp conventions. Merritt's next novel, The Metal Monster (1920), is something else entirely! Perhaps the best place to start is with the assessment of H.P. Lovecraft, from a letter to James F. Morton dated March 6, 1934:
Other recent items on my calendar are Dunsany's new book -- The Curse of the Wise Woman -- Weigall's Wanderings in Roman Britain, and A. Merritt's old yarn The Metal Monster, which I had never read before because Eddy told me it was dull. The damn'd fool! (nephew -- not our late bilbiophilick friend) Actually, 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!
Just as with The Moon Pool, I find myself in complete agreement with Lovecraft's assessment (excepting that I have no opinion on the foolishness of Lovecraft's nephew). Though the protagonists of the novel are essentially generic pulp heroes and heroines, the weird and horrific elements of the novel are truly jaw-dropping in their beauty and utterly unique. The Metal Monster has catapulted to near the top of my list of all-time favorite weird tales. Let's take a loving look at it below the fold...
A quick note before we begin: the book was first published in serial form, and when it was finally produced as a book substantial portions were changed or completely removed. The most complete, original edition has been released by The Hippocampus Press as part of their "Lovecraft's Library" series and I recommend it to those who want the best experience: it includes a nice introduction about the history of the book. For those unwilling to part with the money, one of the later, abridged, versions can be read via Project Gutenberg for free.
The novel begins in the well-established 'planet fantasy' format: Merritt inserts himself in the novel as the ghostwriter of the 'true' narrative of Dr. Walter Goodwin of "The International Association of Science". This style of storytelling was popularized by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who always placed himself as the humble relayer of his heroes' adventures. (See, for instance, my comments on his Pellucidar and Venus stories.)
If anything, the use of this pulp convention leaves the reader a little unprepared for the sublime weirdness which follows. Dr. Goodwin is the same narrator who escaped the horrors of The Moon Pool in Merritt's previous novel. The novel begins with Merritt's own meeting with Goodwin, at which it is clear that Goodwin is suffering from some sort of affliction.
Here the narrative depends upon the edition one reads! The Hippocampus Press edition (highly recommended) restores the original and most elegant version of the novel, which includes dramatic events in the meeting of Merritt and Goodwin. After some discussion of their previous collaboration (The Moon Pool), their conversation is interrupted when Goodwin is pulled against the wall by a powerful and mysterious magnetic force! The force passes, leaving Goodwin weakened. He cryptically leads Goodwin to look at a dark spot on the sun:
"Look at the sun," he said, and handed me a tinted lens. "Up by the northern limb. Do you see it?"
"The spot?" I asked, and then as he nodded: "Why, I've watched that for weeks. Every one has. But it's been getting smaller. What has it to do with what I have just seen?"
He seemed to ignored my question.
"Yes." There was some curious inflexion in his words. "As you say, it is smaller now -- not more than sixty thousand miles in diameter -- only large enough to drop into it without touching its sides seven of our earths strung side by side together like a rope of beads. And since your mind runs upon proportions, I have seen it when it was one hundred thousand miles in diameter -- so great that a hundred of our earths could have been thrown into it, like a handful of peas through a furnace door.
"You asked me," he went on, a touch of satire now in his voice. "what that blotch, that blemish on our sun's radiant face, has to do with -- would you still call it the little magic of the watch, the compass and, the shining globule? What would you say if I told you a something -- an inhuman Thing -- but sentient and conscious as you and I -- stretched its will and its craft up through those ninety million miles of space between us and the sun and stirred that cyclone, that volcano, if not into being -- at the least, into prodigiously greater being? That there was a -- Thing that did this and then sat and spun from the forces it had released a power to crush earth into a highway for itself and its hordes that were -- Itself?"
This ominous monologue is a wonderful sample of the sense of cosmic fear that Merritt infuses into the novel. After this mysterious discussion of the cyclone on the sun, the actual narrative of Goodwin begins, and with a whiz-bang soliloquy:
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!
This speech is very Lovecraftian in that it captures that spirit of mankind being a rather insignificant speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos. It represents Goodwin's defense of the strange story he is about to tell.
The tale begins proper with Goodwin exploring the wild and mountainous Trans Himalayan region near Tibet. He has been wandering, pursuing his botanical interests, in an attempt to forget the tragic events which unfolded in his previous adventure, keeping only a Chinese cook as company.
Unexpectedly, he encounters another Westerner in the wilderness, a boisterous American named Dick Drake. The two hit it off and decide to explore the wilds together. They have barely sat down for their first evening dinner together, however, when an unnatural light show shines forth over the mountains:
Through the darkening sky swept a rosy pencil of living light; that utterly strange, pure beam whose coming never fails to clutch the throat of the beholder with the hand of ecstasy, the ray which the Tibetans name the Ting-Pa. For a moment this rosy finger pointed to the east, then arched itself, divided slowly into six shining, rosy bands; began to creep downward toward the eastern horizon where a nebulous, pulsing splendor arose to meet it.
And as we watched I heard a gasp from Drake -- myself watched, incredulously!
For the six beams were swaying, moving with ever swifter motion from side to side in ever-widening sweep, as though the hidden orb from which they sprang were swaying like a pendulum, were being rocked like a searchlight! Faster and faster the six high-flung beams swayed -- and then broke -- broke as though a gigantic, unseen hand had reached up and snapped them! An instant the severed ends ribboned aimlessly, then bent, turned down and darted earthward into the welter of clustered summits at the north and swiftly were gone, while down upon the valley fell night.
"Good God!" It was Drake. "It was as though something reached up, broke those rays and drew them down!"
"I saw it." I was struggling with my own bewilderment. "I saw it. But I never saw anything like it before," I ended, most inadequately.
"It was purposeful," he whispered. "It was deliberate. As though something reached up, juggled with the rays, broke them, and drew them down like willow withes!"
They decide to investigate the phenomena, and proceed deeper into the wilds. As they progress, they come across a massive impression in the ground which is uncomfortably suggestive of a titanic footprint. Disturbed, but undaunted, they continue on, and finally enter a valley with ancient ruins in its center. The ruins are seemingly protected by a barrier of emotional desolation, which so oppresses the men that they are almost paralyzed with fear and misery. Being pulp heroes, they decide to push through it, only to find two more Westerners trapped by the barrier inside: Ruth Ventnor and her brother Martin.
Here the story gets truly interesting. Ruth and Martin are being pursued by a long lost tribe of Persian warriors, exiled and hidden in the Trans-Himalayas since before the time of Xerxes. The Westerners (and cook) decide that they will risk a crossing of the fear barrier again as soon as possible, but not before collecting a disturbing group of artifacts the Ventnors have found in the ruins, a small ring of metallic geometric shapes:
Now I could see that the ring was not continuous. Its broken circle was made of sharply edged cubes about an inch in height, separated from each other with mathematical exactness by another inch of space. I counted them--there were nineteen.
Almost touching them with their bases were an equal number of pyramids, of tetrahedrons, as sharply angled and of similar length. They lay on their sides with tips pointing starlike to six spheres clustered like a conventionalized five petaled primrose in the exact center. Five of these spheres--the petals--were, I roughly calculated, about an inch and a half in diameter, the ball they enclosed larger by almost an inch.
So orderly was their arrangement, so much like a geometrical design nicely done by some clever child that I hesitated to disturb it. I bent, and stiffened, the first touch of dread upon me.
For within the ring, close to the clustering globes, was a miniature replica of the giant track in the poppied valley!
Touching the ring causes the shapes to spring to life, and after assembling themselves in various forms, including a foot-high 'kobold', the shapes scurry away and out of sight. None of the observers can avoid the obvious impression the shapes had placed upon them:
Afraid? Drake afraid. Well--so was I. Bitterly, terribly afraid.
For what we had beheld in the dusk of that dragoned, ruined chamber was outside all experience, beyond all knowledge or dream of science. Not their shapes--that was nothing. Not even that, being metal, they had moved.
But that being metal, they had moved consciously, thoughtfully, deliberately.
They were metal things with--minds!
That--that was the incredible, the terrifying thing. That --and their power.
Thor compressed within Hop-o'-my-thumb--and thinking. The lightnings incarnate in metal minacules--and thinking.
The inert, the immobile, given volition, movement, cognoscence--thinking.
Metal with a brain!
They have hardly had time to mull over their experience when a sizable force of Persian footsoldiers and cavalry enter the valley in pursuit of the Ventnors. The small band of explorers beat a quick retreat towards a fissure in the valley wall, slowing the pursuing force with firearms and explosives, but look certain to be overwhelmed. Without warning, however, another force enters the battle:
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.
When the Persians continue the attack, the woman -- who is named Norhala -- calls unfathomable allies to her side!
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!
The metal monster wreaks havoc amongst the hordes of Persians, in a battle described in what I can only call horrifying beauty. Norhala, having rescued the party of explorers, takes them with her as her "playthings". She is a high-ranking, and only, human servant of the metal creatures, which are an utterly alien race of geometric shapes, possessing a hive mentality and almost unfathomable power. The explorers quickly come to realize that humanity has been supplanted as the dominant species on the planet, and that they are facing a threat that will likely lead to mankind's doom.
Hopefully it hasn't seemed like I've spoiled too much of the novel; it's so beautifully written that it is hard not to quote the entire book in a summary of it! Suffice to say that all the events that I've described happen in the first quarter of the book. The massive battle between the envoy of the metal monster and the Persians is only one of three titanic battles that take place during the story -- and is the smallest of them.
Gratefully, in spite of having pulp heroes and heroines populating his novel, Merritt avoids most of the other pulp cliches in his story, and it maintains a sense of breathtaking weirdness from beginning to end. This is one of those rare novels that I stayed up well past midnight reading because I simply couldn't put it down.
Norhala is an intriguing character. A human woman raised by an inhuman race, she has an emotionless, amoral side to her but also shows sparks of humanity at unexpected times. She obviously is inspired to a significant extent by, well, She, the character of Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard's classic novel.
Merritt, rather like his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft, seems to have had a significant interest in the groundbreaking science of his day and uses it for inspiration and explanation.
The threat of humanity being supplanted by a superior species is clearly derived from Darwinian ideas. At one point, the character of Martin is in an almost dream-like state, from which he prophesizes doom for humanity:
"Dominion over the earth? Yes -- as long as man is fit to rule; no longer. Science had warned us. Where was the mammal when the giant reptiles reigned? Slinking hidden and afraid in the dark and secret places. Yet man sprang from these skulking mammals.
"For how long a time in the history of the earth has man been master of it? For a breath -- for a cloud's passing! And will remain master only until something grown stronger than he wrests mastery from him -- even as he wrested it from his ravening kind -- as they took it from the reptiles -- as did the reptiles from the giant saurians -- which snatched it from the nightmare rulers of the Triassic -- and so down to whatever held sway in the murk of earth dawn!
"Life! Life! Life! Life everywhere struggling for completion! Life crowding other life aside, battling for its moment of supremacy, gaining it, holding it for one rise and fall of the wings of time beating through eternity -- and then -- hurled down, trampled under the feet of another straining life whose hour has struck!
Life crowding outside every barred threshold in a million circling worlds, yes, in a million rushing universes; pressing against the doors, bursting them down, overwhelming, forcing out those dwellers who had thought themselves so secure."
Though the details of this description could, I'm sure, be criticized by biologists, it seems like a remarkably passionate description of evolutionary theory for a fiction writer! It is interesting to note that other discussions of evolution in the novel show that Merritt understood the process better than most creationists:
"But metal," he muttered, "and conscious. It's all very well -but where did that consciousness come from? And what is it? And where did they come from? And most of all, why haven't they overrun the world before this?
"I don't know," I answered helplessly. "But evolution is not the slow, plodding process that Darwin thought. There seem to be explosions -- nature will create a new form almost in a night. Then comes the long ages of development and adjustment, and suddenly another new race appears."
Though "in a night" seems a bit exaggerated, the observation that evolution is not necessarily a "slow, plodding process" seems rather insightful.
As an alternative theory of the appearance of the monster on earth, Svante Arrhenius' book Worlds in the Making (1909) is cited for its theory that the life might have been brought to earth by interplanetary spores. I've mentioned Arrhenius' work before, namely how his extremely fanciful (and incorrect) assessment of Venus' atmosphere inspired a generation of planet fantasists.
Another book which is regularly cited in the text is Gustave Le Bon's Evolution of Matter (1909), which I will have to return to in a later post. In it, Le Bon suggests that all matter is inherently unstable, and eventually decays into lumineferous aether. Though this extreme is certainly not true (considering the consensus view of the aether is that it is nonexistent), it was an early realization that types of matter are not immutable, ala radioactive decay.
The book is a wonderful snapshot of the exotic, popular, and now forgotten and outdated theories of the time. For instance, in describing one aspect of the metal monster's appearance, Merritt writes:
What was their color? It came to me -- that of the mysterious element which stains the sun's corona, that diadem seen only when our day star is in eclipse; the unknown element that science has named coronium, that never yet has been found on earth and that may be electricity in its one material form; electricity that is ponderable; electricity in metal shape; force whose vibrations are keyed down to mass; power transmuted into substance!
Though the 'power transmuted into substance' is a bit more than scientists of the time believed, they did postulate the existence of a previously unknown element known as 'coronium'. I may return to discuss the subject in more detail in a later post, but a good history can be found here. In short, in 1869 an unusual spectral line was observed in the sun during a solar eclipse. Scientists, unable to pin it definitively to an existing element, suggested the new element 'coronium' was responsible. It was not until 1939 that researchers determined that the line was due to 13-times-ionized iron! It is worth noting that 'coronium' was not a mistake as much as a hypothesis, based on the available evidence of the time, which later turned out to be faulty.
One place where Merritt gets a bit confused, understandably, is in a discussion of general relativity. In a footnote related to a discussion of the motion of the metal shapes, he writes:
All motion is relative; its one varying factor being time. The snail and the express train are one and the same so far as their motion is concerned. The force of gravitation is constantly at work striving to keep each inert. Their progress, like ours, is a series of successive breakings away from gravitational force and the rate of progress is in the direct ratio of the time taken to effect these contact breakings. Gravitation, according to the newest and best scientific thought, is an energy which works entirely independent of time. It takes light one second to travel one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles. The birth of a baby on earth is instantaneously recorded by gravitational changes in the farthest stars!
Here Merritt has confused the theory of general relativity introduced to the world by Einstein in 1916 with the earlier views of Newton. There is relatively little in this description which is accurate or sensible, save for the value of the speed of light! To harp on the last sentence alone, part of the whole point of Einstein's relativity is that gravitational changes are not transmitted instantaneously, but at the speed of light. Experiments such as LIGO are designed to hunt for the faint signals of gravitational waves, in large part to directly confirm Einstein's predictions.
This is a minor, nitpicky quibble, however: if you haven't realized it yet, I really, really liked and recommend The Metal Monster. It is undeniably a weird fiction classic and a must read for fans of pulp science fiction. Some of its images still haunt me today...
One question remains: why hasn't such a masterful book remained nearly ignored for so long? Part of it may be the loss of some of its charm in the later editing of the story, but it may also be that Merritt didn't have someone saving and promoting his work after death, as H.P. Lovecraft had in August Derleth. We'll have more to say about Lovecraft and Merritt in a future post on Merritt's work...