Friday, June 15, 2012
A. Merritt, “The People of the Pit,” 1918
"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!"
-- A. Merritt, "The People of the Pit"
Here we have some gold prospectors exploring Alaska, one of whom finds a ravine that puts the Grand Canyon to shame, and at the bottom of it - who knows?
Our intrepid explorer follows the ravine down via "...steps [that] ran along the side of the rock at a forty degree pitch." This really should be the first sign that, whatever will be found at the bottom of the enormous ravine, it's not going to be candy and rainbows. Come on - steps down a gigantic ravine? Nothing human could possibly live down there, but "they" have obviously gone to the effort of luring people down there.
It's hard to know exactly what our man finds in the pit. There is talk of "Things that the Devil made before the Flood", intimating that the pit might perhaps be a kind of hell on Earth, at the very least, a holding place for the damned. Perhaps even Hell itself. This would significantly attribute to the weird nature of the story, as it brings the frighteningly mythological into the realm of the secular, and thus make such things more likely to in fact actually exist.
Yet, Merritt's story also has a very tangible sf feel to it. It is similar to Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness (written in 1931); even the slug-like creatures that Merritt's explorer finds in the pit can be seen as proto-forerunners of Lovecraft's shoggoths. And while we're on the topic of Lovecraft, let me just throw out this juicy little quote from "The People of the Pit":
"Its pillars were carved in monstrous scrolls - like mad octopuses with a thousand drunken tentacles; they rested on the backs of shapeless monstrosities carved in crimson stone. The altar front was a gigantic slab of purple covered with carvings."
Purple, like Lovecraft's writing. That, friends, could have come straight out of The Call of Cthulhu.
Whether the pit people are damned souls, demons, or a lost civilisation is a worthy point of argument. What leaves us uneasy about the story is that, whatever they are, they are not destroyed. They remain at the bottom of that unidentified pit, waiting for the next adventurer to stumble into. Might that be you?
Reviewed from The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Eds. Anne and Jeff Vandermeer