In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.
Up this week is A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, full of ray guns, frogmen and lost civilizations!
Tim Callahan: I don’t know which edition of A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool you ended up buying, but the version I have is a sad attempt to cash in on the popularity of ABC’s Lost. How can I tell? Because the front and back cover mention Lost no less than SEVEN times. I’m paraphrasing with this not-quite-real-cover-copy, but this ugly edition of The Moon Pool is sold as “If you like Lost, you’ll like this lost classic about a lost civilization that inspired the TV show Lost!”
But here’s the problem, besides the cash-grab grotesquerie of the cover: The Moon Pool is nothing like Lost. It has about as much to do with Lost as The Jetsons has to do with Star Wars. And The Moon Pool has more imagination in any one chapter than Lost had in any ultra-long and tedious season.
This conversation about A. Merritt and The Moon Pool has already gotten away from me and revealed my longstanding animosity toward a supremely disappointing show that I watched every single episode of. The Moon Pool deserves better.
Mordicai Knode: I got an old used copy but I can see why some enterprising editor would try to rebrand it. It does have a mysterious island! And Lost was a big cultural phenomenon for a minute there...but yeah, no. It is like comparing Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus to Alien or The Thing. Sure, they all have monsters, but... (Also, I think Lost and Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus have their place, but like you said, that place is not “compared to a masterwork.”)
Can I just say what a sucker I am for “found documents” stories? I know it is an easy trick, but it works on me every time—just toss in a little frame story wherein someone says “oh, the mad professor was never found, but this is his diary!” But The Moon Pool starts out with a double framestory, with the mad scientist confessing his story to his confederate plus a letter from the President of the International Association of Science testifying to its veracity, saying that it has been novelized for the layman. Laying it on thick but like I said, that hits the sweet spot for me, I’m all about it.
One more thing, before we actually start talking about the book. I have had night terrors and sleep paralysis before, and I couldn’t help but think of that when Merritt was talking about everyone’s sudden narcolepsy at the door of the Moon Cave. The hypnagogic terror struck home in a way that made me wonder about the author’s own sleep history. In the same vein, we were talking about H.P. Lovecraft before; his creations the nightgaunts are faceless flying monsters that...tickle your toes. It sounds, on the face of it, absurd—but to me it sounds horrifying, and makes me convinced that old Howard Phillip suffered the same malady.
TC: The frightening unreality of dream—and the line between dream and imagination and wakefulness and reality—that’s the stuff that’s clearly in play with The Moon Pool. I’d be surprised if Merritt didn’t pull from his own personal experiences with terrors of the sort you’re talking about, particularly early in the book when the unreality of the island and the portal into the bizarre world seems so eerie and unsettling.
It’s one of the aspects of the novel I like best: the trope of the passage to another realm filled with strange creatures and a mystical civilization is so banal in fantasy fiction and role-playing game adventures that it’s often presented like just going to a strange bus stop or something. But Merritt really pushes the weirdness of the experience, and when he wrote this book, it wasn’t as much of a cliche as it is now. But even now, if it happened in real life next time you were on vacation to a tropical island, it would be absolutely horrific. We wouldn’t even be able to process what we were seeing if we really had this kind of contact with green dwarfs and nameless tentacle creatures and underground princesses.
Speaking of all that stuff, were you able to make sense out of the mythology in The Moon Pool. Can you map out the relationship between the Dweller and the Three and the Shining One? Because I will admit that I lost track of the hierarchy of supernatural beings by the time I got to the last third of the novel. I felt like I needed to go back and diagram it out, but maybe I just missed the key to the pantheon somewhere along the way.
MK: Oh yeah, the novel can be a little gloriously unclear. It is sort of your basic John Carter of Mars tale of white guys in an alien land, but filtered through some Dunsany-like prose, just florid as get-out. It made me really long for the academic footnotes. Anyhow, here is how I think it played out. On the proto-Earth—or well in the center of it, anyhow—the Tuatha de Danaan-esque Taithu evolve. Bird-lizard-angel-people. Three of them are like the cream of the crop, and they create the Shining One, because they see life evolving on the surface and they want a toy of their own to play with. The Shining One is a tool that surpasses its makers—basically their artificial intelligence that eclipses them. During all of this, maybe during the age of dinosaurs, some frog-apes find their way into the cavern, and they are allowed to live there, until they evolve into the sentient frog-people of the Akka. The rest of the Taithu sort of disappear—maybe actually to actual Ireland—while the tensions between the Silent Ones and the Shining One mount. Eventually, they make contact with the surface of the Earth, where humans finally exist. There is a caste system—most people have dark hair, but blonde people are moon cultists and red haired people are sun cultists. They are brought into the hollow of the Earth and their breeding patterns create the three sub-races of humans.
Wow that is...listen, that sounds like a lot of exposition but it isn’t needed, because like Tim says, the book really capitalizes on the feeling of the alien. This isn’t some dungeon of ten by ten stone hallways. This is a whole weird social system, internally consistent but not consistently revealed. You know what it really reminds me of? The classic adventure, The Lost City (Module B4). Weird costumes, masks, drugs, the whole thing, all topped off with a strange monster ruling it all. I had a ton of fun playing that adventure.
TC: I am still playing that adventure. I ran The Lost City as a solo adventure for my son when he first started playing, and when a bunch of kids wanted me to run an adventure for them after school this year, I kicked off an expanded version of The Lost City for them—more underground city crawl and warring factions and the psychedelic weirdness of the Cult of Zargon than the meandering around the temple passageways. I love that module the most, mainly because it gives the players a great starting point and offers a lot of possibilities for adding depth and substance and...well, you could run an entire campaign beneath that buried temple.
Your explication of the Moon Pool mythology makes sense to me, given what I was able to piece together as I read the book, but i definitely didn’t get that much out of the way Merritt crafted the mythology in the prose. But I suppose that’s kind of the point—that the mechanics of the unknown aren’t as important as the way the characters interact with the unknown—and there’s something wonderful about how far Merritt goes with his underground cosmology even though none of it really matters in a story sense. But it adds a crazy wall of texture to provide more than just background for the adventure. It provides an entire unsettling context.
Really, though, the whole thing is totally a dungeon crawl with odd NPCs and surprises and even a love story of the type you might find in a classic D&D adventure where one of the characters falls for the daughter of the alien king.
Moon Pool feels like an ur-text for Dungeons and Dragons, more than most of the books in Appendix N. It’s even full of bad accents!
MK: Okay, so we both liked this book, but lets put on the brakes for a minute—this book is part of the same misogynistic and racist context as a lot of the other books we’ve read. The big difference is that it is fun, but that shouldn’t keep us from being critical about it. So let’s knock that out a little bit. First: the Madonna/Whore dichotomy could not be clearer. I mean, wow. While the two women of the story—apart from a few sex slaves, which, ew—make a lot of noises about being dangerous, with their ray guns and poisonous flowers, in the clutch of things they are, you know, overcome by raw masculine energy or some such rot. Not to mention the usual swath of civilized white people, savage brown people, and magical super white people. Not a fan of that, either. Still, I think you can be critical of something you like; in fact I would say it is crucial to be critical of things you like!
TC: Moon Pool is just as misogynist and racist as almost all the other sci-fi romances of the first half of the 20th century, sure. And that’s the problem. That I can just wave my hand and say, “well, it’s just like everything else” and kind of ignore those problems because they are endemic to the genre at that time in history. But, at the same time, I don’t know that we can do much more than point it out and say, “that’s wrong.” Well, I suppose we could do more, but I don’t think this is the forum for it. Part of me thinks that we should just provide a blanket statement that addresses the fact that most of these books in Appendix N are problematic in their portrayals of race and gender and act as white male power fantasies more often than not, but by offering such a statement, the implication is that, “yeah, yeah, we know this stuff’s corrupt at a moral level, at its depictions of actual humans, but we’re going to mostly ignore that because, hey, rayguns and underground cities and monsters!”
In other words, I’m conflicted, but I’m easily distracted by rayguns and underground cities and monsters.