Getting close to the end of my run of invisibility in fiction posts! Hope you’ve been enjoying them!
Here we take a quick look at a story by one of my favorite weird fiction authors: Abraham Merritt, who went by A. Merritt in most of his printed work. The story in question is “The People of the Pit,” which first appeared in the All-Story Weekly Magazine in January of 1918; it can be read here. I happened across a reprint that appeared in the first Amazing Stories Annual, published in 1927.
A. Merritt would regularly include invisibility in his fiction. In his 1923 The Face in the Abyss, he introduced invisible winged serpents that effectively had cloaking devices to make themselves invisible. In his 1932 Dwellers in the Mirage he introduced an entire invisible city hidden in a valley protected by a mirage.
“The People of the Pit” is one of Merritt’s early works, and it begins with two gold prospectors in the wilds of Alaska spotting an unearthly beam of light at night:
North of us a shaft of light shot half way to the zenith. It came from behind the five peaks. The beam drove up through a column of blue haze whose edges were marked as sharply as the rain that streams from the edges of a thunder cloud. It was like the flash of a searchlight through an azure mist. It cast no shadows.
As it struck upward the summits were outlined hard and black and I saw that the whole mountain was shaped like a hand. As the light silhouetted it, the gigantic fingers stretched, the hand seemed to thrust itself forward. It was exactly as though it moved to push something back. The shining beam held steady for a moment; then broke into myriads of little luminous globes that swung to and fro and dropped gently. They seemed to be searching.
This ominous and mysterious sign is followed by the arrival of an injured and dying man named Sinclair Stanton, another prospector. Stanton followed the signs to the mountain shaped like a hand, rumored to contain massive quantities of gold. What he finds, however, is pure horror, beginning with an unexpected hidden chasm in the earth.
“And now I saw that what I had thought to be the low rock range at the base of the peaks was a thicker litter of ruins. The Hand Mountain was really much farther off. The road passed between two high rocks that raised themselves like a gateway.”
The crawling man paused.
“They were a gateway,” he said. “I reached them. I went between them. And then I sprawled and clutched the earth in sheer awe! I was on a broad stone platform. Before me was—sheer space! Imagine the Grand Canyon five times as wide and with the bottom dropped out. That 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 to the sky. The lip of the abyss curved away on each side of me.
This idea, of a city hidden in the depths of a chasm, is strikingly similar to the later Dwellers in the Mirage. I cannot recall if I read this explicitly somewhere, but it seems that Merritt built Dwellers on the ideas he had only touched upon in “The People of the Pit.”
The Pit is not the only form of invisibility in the story. Descending into the pit, he finds an unnatural city, and within a temple of that city, he finds something monstrous — and invisible:
“And as I stood I grew aware of something that lay behind the lip of the altar fifty feet above me. I knew it was there—I felt it with every hair and every tiny bit of my skin. Something infinitely malignant, infinitely horrible, infinitely ancient. It lurked, it brooded, it threatened and it—was invisible!
“There were circular openings in the cylinders like the circle in the Temple of the Stairway. I passed through one of them. I was in a long, bare vaulted room whose curving sides half closed twenty feet over my head, leaving a wide slit that opened into another vaulted chamber above. There was absolutely nothing in the room save the same mottled reddish light that I had seen in the Temple. I stumbled. I still could see nothing, but there was something on the floor over which I had tripped. I reached down—and my hand touched a thing cold and smooth—that moved under it—I turned and ran out of that place—I was filled with a loathing that had in it something of madness—I ran on and on blindly— wringing my hands—weeping with horror—
Stanton finds himself captured by the people of the pit, ethereal beings with translucent bodies and glowing heads– apparently a third form of invisibility in the story! When he manages to break his chains and flee the pit, he finds himself stalked by the glowing inhabitants of the city, and psychically drawn to return by the glowing lights that they send into the sky.
The story is an early form of the sort of cosmic horror that H.P. Lovecraft would later champion — humans struggling to survive in the face of alien, incomprehensible beings. Merritt’s 1919 The Moon Pool was in fact an influence on Lovecraft’s writings. With that in mind, Merritt has no inclination to explain the physics of the invisible horrors his character faces — Stanton just gets a glimpse of the unfathomable secrets of the universe.
I’ve been meaning to get back to reading all of Merritt’s work, and recently picked up copies of the few remaining novels of his that I haven’t read. Expect more in the future! His 1920 novel The Metal Monster is one of my absolute favorite stories of weird fiction.
One last note: that 1927 annual of Amazing Stories was a bit invisibility obsessed! Not only did it reprint “The People of the Pit,” it also reprinted Merritt’s The Face in the Abyss as well as A. Hyatt Verrill’s “The Man Who Could Vanish.” Truly 1927 was a good year to see some invisibility.
Right now I’m reading the Metal Monster….
An amazing story!