(this post is presented in conjunction with the R.I.P. VIII Reading Challenge)
There was once a great age of pulp horror and science fiction magazines here in the United States. Though that age is now long gone, I do often run across one of its revenants in my reading – particularly my short story reading. I encountered such a one yesterday in my early morning, pre-work reading ritual. I scanned the titles of my anthology “The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Tales” and stopped on A. Merritt’s story “The People of the Pit.” I had heard neither of this story nor this author, but I plunged “downward” nonetheless.
“The land of the Hand Mountain was accursed they said.”
Our narrator, Frank, and his companion, Anderson, are prospecting in the far north. They have specifically in their sights a region of the “lost five peaks,” from which legend said that “gold streams out like putty from a clenched fist.” They were unable to induce any Indians to go with them, though, because of the region’s cursed nature.
Making camp one night, the prospectors witness strange lights (not the known aurora) and hear odd sounds seemingly emanating from the peaks.
“From the North and high overhead came a whispering. It was not the rustling of the aurora, that rushing, crackling sound like the ghost of winds that blew at creation racing through the skeleton leaves of trees that sheltered Lilith. It was a whispering that held a demand.”
Not long after they see what appears to be a four-legged creature emerging from the surrounding wilderness and approaching their camp. As it grows nearer, they realize it’s a man – a crawling man. The man has been crawling so long and far that his hands are grotesquely bent and “worn to the bone.” That matters little to the man, a fugitive with a band of yellow metal around his waist that trails a small chain. He is just happy to be finally out of reach of his “pursuers.” Beside the campfire, he relates his story…
He, too, was searching for the five peaks but had the misfortune of approaching them from the opposite direction, discovering on his route the ruins of the gates of an ancient city and a road leading toward the five peaks. Passing through the gates he related that:
“Before me was – sheer space! Imagine the Grand Canyon five times as wide with the bottom dropped out. This is what I was looking into. It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world down into the infinity where the planets roll! On the far side stood the five peaks. They looked like a gigantic warning hand stretched up into the sky. The lip of the abyss curved away on each side of me.”
The man also discovers that there are steps(!) carved into the side walls of the pit and decides to explore downward…
The rest of the story I’ll leave you to discover for yourself (links below). I will say that I was less impressed with Merritt’s descriptive prose regarding the pit and its “inhabitants” than I was of his relating of the “natural” world above it. There were also a few distracting references in the story to an apparent mythology of which I knew nothing, but was perhaps expected to by the author(?) Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story, and its set up (narrator camping in the north is visited by a mysterious stranger) is coincidentally very similar to the Jack London story “A Relic of the Pliocene” which I also read recently.
(below: From Librarything – the cover of the 1918 issue of All-Story Weekly magazine that contained the first publication of “The People of the Pit”)
Listen to it here:
Or, better yet, read it here:
What about you? Have you ever heard of A. (Abraham) Merritt? (pictured below) In my quick, fly-by research I learned his writing is rumored to have greatly influenced the tv show “Lost.” He was also a world traveler who had reputedly accumulated over 5,000 books on the occult. In short, a perfect author to read for R.I.P. VIII!🙂