Friday, May 22, 2015

A. Merritt Art Gallery-The Conquest of the Moon Pool

"The Conquest of the Moon Pool" by A. Merritt in
All-Story Weekly, February 15, 1919

Eight months after publishing "The Moon Pool," All-Story Weekly came out with "The Conquest of the Moon Pool," described on the cover as "An Amazing Sequel to an Unparalleled Adventure." It was Merritt's fourth published story and his first to be serialized. For the next six weeks, readers thrilled to the adventures of Merritt's heroes in a world found underground and beyond the ken of ordinary existence. "The reaction that followed the last of the six weekly installments," wrote Sam Moskowitz, "verged on hysteria." (1) Before the year was out, G.P. Putnam's Sons issued a hardbound edition of the saga, combining "The Moon Pool" with "The Conquest of the Moon Pool." In the ninety-five years since, the two stories have more often been reprinted in their combined form than individually.

"The Moon Pool"--I believe in the combined version--was serialized for the first time in Amazing Stories from May to July 1927. Merritt's name landed on the cover below that of H.G. Wells, but the illustration seems to be unrelated to his or their stories. The artist was Hugo Gernsback's mainstay, Frank R. Paul. Gernsback was of course a pioneer in radio. It's no surprise that radio equipment would figure so prominently on the cover. I'm not sure what the narrative is here. It could be that the woman is saying, "Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope." Or this could be the male fantasy projected by Gernsback or by science fiction in general, namely: Through science, you will get a woman. It's as true now as it was then, only now the woman is--though still miniature--two-dimensional and digital vs. three-dimensional and presumably real.

The original story "The Moon Pool" appeared in the first issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries in September-October 1939. "The Conquest of the Moon Pool" followed over the next six issues, from November 1939 to April 1940.

The March 1940 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries was the first with a pictorial cover. Virgil Finlay created the cover art. The April issue, in which the last installment of "The Conquest of the Moon Pool" appeared, had an uncharacteristic cover from Frank R. Paul. It seems to me that the publishers of pulp magazines had noticed the vast popularity of comic books and printed this and other covers in response.

Finally, "The Conquest of the Moon Pool" was reprinted in its entirety in Fantastic Novels Magazine in September 1948. The controversy over "The Shaver Mystery" had raged over the previous few years among readers of science fiction. It's likely that Raymond A. Palmer, in formulating the Shaver Mystery, drew some of his ideas from the scientific romances of the early 1900s, including "The Moon Pool" saga. The companion title to Fantastic Novels Magazine was of course Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Many fantasy and science fiction stories are essentially mysteries, "The Call of Cthulhu" for example. Even early superheroes were called "mystery men." So is it any wonder that Ray Palmer would call his new mythology of subterranean races of robots a mystery? That would have been a powerful attraction to readers. Unfortunately, the Shaver Mystery didn't pan out for Palmer and his sidekick, Richard Shaver. On the other hand, Palmer latched on to an even more powerful myth in the 1947 with the coming of the flying saucers.

The Woman of the Moon Pool
There are images from science fiction that stick in the head of every fan. This one--by the artist Lawrence--sticks. To me it represents a long-ago and utterly lost era in American culture, especially in art and science fiction. The draftsmanship and technique are flawless. They are the work of a master craftsman. The foreshortening of the arm, the handling of flesh and underlying bone, the shading, the positioning and rendering of the fingers--all are perfect. That takes nothing away from the figure as a whole or its accoutrements, which are beautifully and impeccably done. In our current age when everything is becoming miniaturized, weapons in science fiction and comic books have become ridiculously huge (as have breasts and biceps). The artists and designers of today could learn a thing or two in the economy of Lawrence's little derringer-like blaster.

The woman is of course beyond glamorous. She reminds me of those sweater girls from postwar Hollywood movies--Virginia Mayo, Janet Leigh, Ava Gardner. Not that she is an object, for the woman in Lawrence's painting is strong and determined. She represented a certain ideal of her time, I'm sure. Women like her worked in factories and flew airplanes during the war. The men who fought, fought in part for her and to return to her. Together they defeated tyrants and built the most prosperous society the world has ever known.

My feeling of nostalgia goes beyond the artist's ability or the woman's looks or femininity or strength. A pulp magazine is a magazine full of stories and art, but it's also an artifact of a previous era. (I have read a quote that magazines are the closest thing to a time machine we have.) In the 1940s, the future as represented in science fiction was going to be great. Having survived the onslaught of totalitarianism (a kind of science-fictional system of belief), Americans looked with confidence (though also with some anxiety) to the future. A cover of a science fiction magazine like this one is a kind of symbol of those prevailing feelings and of the era in which it was published. A movie from that time is called The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), an ironic title to be sure, but also true and un-ironic in its way. (The line is spoken by Virginia Mayo's character.) A history of the same period is called The Best Years: 1945-1950 by Joseph C. Goulden (1976). The titles are not boastful or prideful. There's more than a sneaking suspicion that they are true.

Now we have arrived in the future--an alternate future--in which we have stopped ourselves dead in our tracks. Science fiction, being essentially optimistic, is no longer our genre of choice. Fantasy, including the darkest kinds of fantasy, has taken its place. Instead of being an expression of her own life and character, a beautiful woman--so called--is now a concoction of Botox, collagen, silicone, artificial tan, and a plastic surgeon's skill with knife and suction tube. Depictions of beautiful women today are seen as symbols of patriarchy, oppression, sexism, and injustice. Men and women both seem to prefer ugliness to beauty. I won't linger over that. The ills of our society go far deeper. Instead I wonder, did the men and women of the 1940s fight and die and build and bring children into the world so that we could give up hope and the freedom they won, so that we could collapse in on ourselves and wallow in our most miserable self-indulgent and self-absorbed misery? I wonder, too, does it make any sense to feel a sense of nostalgia for a time of hope and optimism, in other words, to look backward to a time of looking forward, to remember so fondly a previous civilization that fought for freedom and was filled with hope but that, for all practical purposes and mostly by our own actions, now lies in ruins at our feet?

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Roger your comments on the Fantastic Novels cover. I also rather like the original All-Story cover.

    Thanks for doing this A. Merritt series. I discovered him as a teenager wandering the streets of downtown Milwaukee in the early 60s. On Wisconsin Avenue, I found a basement bookshop chock full of old paperbacks. I was already thoroughly hooked on SF. Perusing that section, I found "The Ship of Ishtar", "The Metal Monster," and "Burn Witch Burn." From that day forward, I was hooked on Merritt. At one time I owned just about all his books.

    Now, it's great to see all these old pulp covers and see just how many times some of these stories were published.

    1. Howard,

      Glad to be of service. I have read just one of his books and have only a couple more. They can be hard to come by these days.