Thursday, October 17, 2019

"The People of the Pit" (1918)

A. Merritt comes from the dawn of pulp magazines, and it's not hard to believe he was an influence on H.P. Lovecraft and other world-builders (worlds lost, Lost, haunted, alien, or otherwise). Merritt's long story is blustery and thick with descriptions of fantastic landscapes, creatures, etc. It's set in unmapped regions of the North Pole and Yukon (compare Lovecraft's longest story, "At the Mountains of Madness," published nearly 20 years later, set in the unmapped Antarctic). The nominal pit is found within sight of Hand Mountain, whose five peaks appear to beckon or warn away, depending on vantage, time of year, weather, and other conditions. It looks like a hand, you see. This pit dwarfs the Grand Canyon (Lovecraft in "Mountains": "Everest out of the running"). A staircase leading down into it has been built on the side of a cliff. If you think it's a long way down, try coming back up.

One night, two explorers prospecting for gold see many strange sights and then happen onto a strange creature who turns out to be a man. He climbed all the way down, found himself trapped at the bottom—caught in some sort of soul and/or slave capture operation by weird creatures—and then somehow escaped by luck and wiles, though the climb out ultimately kills him. Even as he tells his story his limbs keep moving as if he is still crawling up stairs. I like some of this but the story is slow-moving and clunky. A fantastic landscape described in detail is not my idea of horror, but it does seem to be a main article for "weird" fiction, a separate but overlapping category. Indeed, as we've seen, horror overlaps with any number of genre labels: ghost, weird, science fiction, mystery, war, true-crime, and of course fantasy. I think, at some point, you have to quit the categorizing and move on a case-by-case basis, but the impulse often remains and anyway part of what I'm doing here is trying to figure out what "horror" is at all, at least in short stories.

Meanwhile, down in the pit, the cruel creatures that run the place—giant maggots, it appears, great white worms (the illustration above is not really accurate with my reading)—are powerful, telepathic in some way, and unheeding of human comfort. So it's plenty weird, and not surprising that I found it in The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, which prides itself on excluding ghost stories but does shovel a lot of stuff like this. In many ways Lovecraft really is the big kahuna in this realm. Many of the stories in the first quarter of The Weird cover about the first quarter of the 20th century and point directly to Lovecraft. I admit I am coming to appreciate more the ponderous style of these older writers, including Lovecraft, as opposed to the more typical style of 20th-century stories I still tend to prefer, driven by scenes and dialogue, often operating in medias res and with twist endings. They keep the action moving and depend on grasp of concept keeping up. Here it's the other way around, proceeding by description and piling on detail for further opportunity to get the idea. A more mainstream long story that works this way for me is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The action can stop entirely for additional sensory details, usually visual, or further instruction in concept.

Sometimes it's useful to look at these stories through the side-by-side development of other popular media, as horror stories have certainly felt the impacts of movies and TV, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone in the '50s and '60s, or the slasher movies that rose up in the '70s (emphasizing the overlap with sex crimes and serial killers that practically redefined horror for a time). In that way, "The People of the Pit" might be thought of as a kind of silent movie that put all its resources into the sets. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, for example, which came out two years before this story, approximates the bloat of the exhibition for effect. We are asked to inspect and ponder visual detail in similar ways in both. I would say "The People of the Pit" is not as good as H.P. Lovecraft, or even Algernon Blackwood, but if you love either or both of them it's probably worth a look.

The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

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