The Moon Pool: Exciting and accessible to modern readers

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Reposting to include Sandy’s new review:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAbraham Merritt A Dr Goodwin fantasy book review The Moon PoolThe Moon Pool by Abraham Merritt

Abraham Merritt’s The Moon Pool was originally published as two stories in All-Story Weekly (“The Moon Pool” and “Conquest of the Moon Pool”) and combined into a novel in 1919. Its copyright has expired, so you can find it at Project Gutenberg or as a free Kindle e-book at Amazon.

The Moon Pool is supposedly a layperson’s account (transcribed by Abraham Merritt) of Dr. Walter T. Goodwin’s exploration of the ancient ruins of Nan Madol in the South Pacific. Dr. Goodwin, a famous botanist, had run into his friend David Throckmartin, a colleague who claimed that his research partners (one of whom was his wife) were kidnapped by a sentient moonbeam while exploring the ancient ruins of Nan Madol. After Throckmartin tells him the strange story, Goodwin sees Throckmartin being borne away by a moonbeam that seems to encompass an evil being who Goodwin begins thinking of as The Dweller. On his way to investigate the ruins, Goodwin discovers that others have had similar experiences. This Dweller is stealing humans and, oddly, when they are taken away, they simultaneously have expressions of both horror and rapture on their faces. By the time that Goodwin arrives at the scene of the crimes, he’s accompanied by a few others who want to know what’s going on in the Nan Madol ruins: Larry O’Keefe, a roguish Irishman who’s a lieutenant in the British Navy’s Royal Flying Corps, Olaf Huldricksson, a Norseman whose wife and daughter have been kidnapped by The Dweller, and a Russian named Marakinoff.

The Moon Pool is a traditional SFF predator/lost world adventure story with an Indiana Jones feel. The story is exciting from the beginning as Dr. Goodwin, a scientist and a skeptic, can’t believe the preposterous tale he hears until he sees the evidence with his own eyes. He attempts to classify every strange thing he meets into its proper phylum and to develop plausible theories (according to the science of 1919) to explain away the weird occurrences. Meanwhile, Larry O’Keefe prefers to blame everything on mythological creatures from ancient Irish legends. When Goodwin mocks him, O’Keefe gives this delightful little speech:

You scientific people build up whole philosophies on the basis of things you never saw, and you scoff at people who believe in other things that you think they never saw and that don’t come under what you label scientific. You talk about paradoxes — why, your scientist, who thinks he is the most skeptical, the most materialistic aggregation of atoms ever gathered at the exact mathematical centre of Missouri, has more blind faith than a dervish, and more credulity, more superstition, than a cross-eyed smoke beating it past a country graveyard in the dark of the moon!

The union of legend and old scientific theories is stimulating and thought-provoking. Also, the addition of the attractive and gregarious Larry O’Keefe, who is really a secondary character, serves to liven things up. As much as I enjoyed Dr. Goodwin’s ideas, introspections, and footnotes explaining new technologies (some of which were “deleted” by the Executive Council of the International Association of Science so that they couldn’t be read by Russian enemies), he can’t really be considered an exciting hero.

There are a couple of minor issues with The Moon Pool. One is the frequent extensive visual descriptions of the lost world the explorers encounter and the concomitant overuse of words such as luminous, phosphorescent, prismatic, lacquered, iridescent, translucent, glowing, gleaming, rubrous, radiant, lambent, and shining and phrases such as “I gazed down into depth upon vertiginous depth” and “flickering points of vermilion” and “…the shimmering, curdled, misty fires of opalescence!” and “coruscating mist of the opalescence,” etc. It’s sensory overload.

Another issue is that the resolution of the story’s climax hinges on our belief in a love that feels like more of an unrealistic romantic attraction. This was disappointing because the lost world was so carefully constructed — and so believable — up to that point. I blame this deficit on early 20th century ideas about women’s roles. I think Merritt would have written this better today — nearly 100 years later!

Other than the shallow romance, The Moon Pool doesn’t feel like such an old book — it’s completely accessible to modern readers — and it’s free! I look forward to reading more by Abraham Merritt. He has written another novel featuring Dr. Goodwin (The Metal Monster) which I downloaded to my Kindle for 99¢.

~Kat Hooper


Abraham Merritt A Dr Goodwin fantasy book review The Moon PoolA. Merritt‘s masterful first novel, The Moon Pool, originally appeared in the magazine All-Story Weekly, as a short story entitled “The Moon Pool,” in 1918. Its full-length sequel, “The Conquest of the Moon Pool,” followed in that pub the following year. The first book publication, later in 1919, combined these two works into a unified whole, and the result is an astonishing piece of fantastic fiction. And it would seem that Orson Welles’ radio rendition of H.G. WellsThe War of the Worlds on 10/30/38 was not the first piece of fantasy to dupe the public, either. Readers of The Moon Pool in 1918 were so convinced of the book’s veracity that they wrote to All-Story Weekly wanting more information.

I can easily understand their confusion, as this novel is told in a very realistic style, purportedly from notes that the famous botanist Dr. Walter Goodwin had submitted to the International Association of Science. Goodwin had been en route from Port Moresby, New Guinea to Melbourne when he encountered an old associate, Dr. Throckmartin, who told him a remarkable story. It seems that Throckmartin’s entire scientific party had been abducted by a being of light, while they were exploring the (actual) Nan-Matal ruins off Panape, in the Caroline Islands. Throckmartin himself is abducted before Goodwin’s eyes, leading to Goodwin’s exploration of those same ruins. Throckmartin’s tale is eerie and quite suspenseful; indeed, those first 30 pages of The Moon Pool are so very intense that the reader will be amazed to realize that there’s another 250 pages in this novel yet to go!

En route to Panape to effect his investigation, Goodwin, through a series of somewhat forced coincidences, encounters a Norwegian captain whose family had been abducted by the strange light entity; a visionary, somewhat fey, Irish fighter pilot; and a duplicitous Russian (German in the original magazine version!) scientist, all of whom accompany him on his adventures. And this is just the introductory setup in what turns out to be a long, involving, at times hallucinatory, and all in all quite remarkable tale. Underground civilizations, invisibility cloaks, giant jellyfish, disintegrating beams, good and evil priestesses, battles involving thousands, frogmen, shell-shaped flying cars … Merritt’s imagination seems to be bursting loose in this, his first work.

Much has been said regarding the fact that Merritt, a newspaperman for the most part (for many years on The American Weekly), could switch so easily from dry journalese to the florid, purple prose that soon became his trademark. This book would not be what it is without his dense, adjective-heavy, hyper-imaginative prose (I love it when Kat, above, refers to it as “sensory overload”), with its wide range of reference and yearning lyricism. Just take this example, in which the author describes the flora of the underground world that Goodwin & Co. discover:

…moss veils like banners of a marching host of Titans; pennons and bannerets of the sunset; gonfalons of the Jinn; webs of faery; oriflammes of elfland! Springing up through that polychromatic flood myriads of pedicles — slender and straight as spears, or soaring in spirals, or curving with undulations gracile as the white serpents of Tanit in ancient Carthaginian groves — and all surmounted by a fantasy of spore cases in shapes of minaret and turret, domes and spires and cones, caps of Phrygia and bishops’ mitres, shapes grotesque and unnameable — shapes delicate and lovely! They hung high poised, nodding and swaying — like goblins hovering over Titania’s court; cacophony of Cathay accenting the “Flower Maiden” music of “Parsifal”; bizarrerie of the angled, fantastic beings that people the Javan pantheon watching a bacchanal of houris in Mohammed’s paradise!

Despite the reader’s desire to flip through the pages breathlessly to see what happens next, prose such as this almost demands a more leisurely pace. I found myself rereading many such passages, just reveling in Merritt’s ability to conjure up dreamlike word pictures. But strangely enough, although he is extraordinarily good with these descriptions, sometimes Merritt overreaches himself, and then his attempts to picture things fall flat. I defy any reader to fully visualize Goodwin & Co.’s means of descent into the Murian underworld, for instance, or the geography of the bridge leading to the Portal. But for the most part, Merritt’s prose is extremely effective at conveying a sense of alien wonder, and The Moon Pool does indeed live up to its reputation as a fantasy classic. I recommend it wholeheartedly to all readers.

~Sandy Ferber


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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9 comments

  1. This sounds like fun! I love how easy and free/cheap it is to get some of the really old books now.

  2. I know, and so many used to be hard to find!

  3. Just looked at it on Goodreads, and some of the old covers are hilarious!

  4. oooo! I love this one!

  5. I loved that one too. A buxom babe and a giant frog–what more could you want? ;)

  6. Yeah, well she and the guy in the Navy uniform are the “unrealistic love” I mentioned in the review. Sorry — I’m not believing that he loves her for her brains or her wonderful personality.

  7. Yeah, I’m thinking the red strappy lingerie might have something to do with it…

  8. I went to school with Sentient Moonbeam. (Not really, but I do live in Northern California, so it could have happened.)

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