A. Merritt - Some Ideas and Descriptions From His Stories
If you have not read this story TURN BACK NOW! or risk losing forever the unspoiled appreciation of A. Merritt 's prose.
Inspired by the rules and setting of the Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyberborea boxed set Forum I have begun sifting through my collection of A. Merritt for ideas.
1). The People of the Pit
Blue Shaft of Light - [MON]
The City in the Pit - [TWN]
Eblis - [NPC]
Fear Dust - [ITM]
Five Peaks - [MT]
Frozen Hand of Cloud - [ITM]
Gate of Ghouls - [PLC]
Gateway to the Pit - [GTE]
Ghosts of Winds - [MON]
Golden Band - [ITM]
The Green Stairway [PLC]
Lao T'zai - [NPC]
People of the Pit - [MON]
The Pit - [PLC]
Sanctuary Caves - [PLC]
Shan Nadour - [NPC]
Snaky Red Trees - [ITM]
Thick White Liquid - [ITM]
The Thing in the Pit - [MON][Deity]
Whispering - [SPL]
Blue Shaft of Light -
Five Peaks -
"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."
Fear Dust -
Lao T'zai -
"My mouth was as dry as though Lao T'zai had poured his fear dust down my throat."
Frozen Hand of Cloud -
Gate of Ghouls -
Shan Nadour -
"It makes me think of the frozen hand of cloud that Shan Nadour set before the Gate of Ghouls to keep them in the lairs that Eblis cut for them."
Ghosts of Winds -
"From the North and high overhead there came a whispering. It was not the rustling of the aurora, that rushing, crackling sound like the ghosts of winds that blew at Creation racing through the skeleton leaves of ancient trees that sheltered Lilith. It was a whispering that held in it a demand. It was eager. It called us to come up where the beam was flashing. It drew. There was a note of inexorable insistence. It touched my heart with a thousand tiny fear-tipped fingers and it filled me with a vast longing to race on and merge myself in the light. It must have been so that Ulysses felt when he strained at the mast and strove to obey the crystal sweet singing of the Sirens."
Golden Band -
""I was filing the band about the waist. It was gold, but it was like no gold I had ever handled. Pure gold is soft. This was soft, but it had an unclean, viscid life of its own. It clung to the file. I gashed through it, bent it away from the body and hurled it far off. It was - loathsome!"
"...I saw that around my waist had been fastened a yellow ring of metal. From it hung a chain and this chain passed up over the lip of the high ledge. I was chained to the altar..."
Gateway to the Pit -
People of the Pit -
The Pit -
""The people of the pit," he said. "Things that the Devil made before the Flood and that somehow escaped God's vengeance. You weren't in any danger from them - unless you had followed their call. They can't get any further than the blue haze. I was their prisoner," he added simply. "They were trying to whisper me back to them!""
""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 a sheer space! Imagine the Grand Canyon five times as wide with the bottom dropped out. That was 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 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.
"I could see down perhaps a thousand feet. Then a thick blue haze shut out the eye. It was like the blue you see gather on the high hills at dusk. And the pit - it was awesome; awesome as the Maori Gulf of Ranalak, that sinks between the living and the dead and that only the freshly released soul has the strength to leap - but never strength to cross again.
"I crept back from the verge and stood up, weak. My hand rested against one of the pillars of the gateway. There was carving upon it. It bore in still sharp outlines the heroic figure of a man. His back was turned. His arms were outstretched. There was an odd peaked headdress upon him. I looked at the opposite pillar. It bore a figure exactly similar. The pillars were triangular and the carvings were on the side away from the pit. These figures seemed to be holding something back. I looked closer. Behind the outstretched hands I seemed to see other shapes.
"I traced them out vaguely. Suddenly I felt unaccountably sick. There had come to me an impression of enormous upright slugs. Their swollen bodies were faintly cut - all except the heads which were well marked globes. They were - unutterably loathsome. I turned from the gates back to the void.""
"I can't describe those carvings! No human being could - the human eye cannot grasp them any more than it can grasp the shapes that haunt the fourth dimension. Only a subtle sense in the back of the brain sensed them vaguely. They were formless things that gave no conscious image, yet pressed into the mind like small hot seals - ideas of hate - of combats between unthinkable monstrous things - victories in a nebulous hell of steaming, obscene jungles - aspirations and ideals immeasurably loathsome -"
"...the haze began to thicken and glow; the cylinders shine more brightly. I knew that it was dusk in the world above and I felt that with dusk my time of peril had come; that the thickening haze was the signal for the awakening of whatever lived in this pit."
"...There began to grow around me a murmur. It was everywhere - and it grew and grew into a great whispering. I peeped from the side of the stone down into the street. I saw lights passing and repassing. More and more lights - they swam out of the circular doorways and they thronged the street. The highest were eight feet above the pave; the lowest perhaps two. They hurried, they sauntered, they bowed, they stopped and whispered - and there was nothing under them!"
"... that was the terrible part of it - there was nothing under them. Yet certainly the lights were living things. They had consciousness, volition, thought - what else I did not know. They were nearly two feet across - the largest. Their center was a bright nucleus - red, blue, green. This nucleus faded off, gradually, into a misty glow that did not end abruptly. It too seemed to face off into nothingness - but a nothingness that had under it a somethingness. I strained my eyes trying to grasp this body into which the lights merged and which one could only feel was there, but could not see."
"...Something cold, and thin like a whip touched my face. I turned my head. Close behind were three of the lights. They were a pale blue. They looked at me - if you can imagine lights that are eyes. Another whiplash gripped my shoulder. Under the closest light came a shrill whispering. I shrieked. Abruptly the murmuring in the street ceased. I dragged my eyes from the pale blue globe that held them and looked out - the lights in the streets were rising by myriads to the level of where I stood! There they stopped and peered at me. They crowded and jostled as though they were a crowd of curious people - on Broadway. I felt a score of the lashes touch me -"
"...And now the reddish mottled gleam began to deepen. Outside arose the humming and through the circle that was the entrance came streaming the globes. They ranged themselves in ranks until they filled the Temple. Their whispering grew into a chant, a cadenced whispering chant that rose and fell, rose and fell, while to its rhythm the globes lifted and sank, lifted and sank."
"...All that night the lights came and went - and all that night the chant sounded as they rose and fell..."
"...The red glow faded, the lights streamed out; the whispering died. I was again alone and I knew that once again day had broken..."
"...the lights came again. All through the night the whispering chant sounded, and the globes rose and fell. The chant seized me. It pushed through me until every nerve and muscle quivered to it. My lips began to quiver. They strove like a man trying to cry out on a nightmare. And at last they too were whispering the chant of the people of the pit. My body bowed in unison with the lights - I was, in movement and sound one with the nameless things while my soul sank back sick with horror and powerless. While I whispered I - saw Them!"
"...Saw the lights?" I asked stupidly.
"...Saw the Things under the lights," he answered. Great transparent snail-like bodies - dozens of waving tentacles stretching from them - round gaping mouths under the luminous seeing globes. They were like ghosts of inconceivably monstrous slugs! I could see through them. And as I stared, still bowing and whispering, the dawn came and they streamed to and through the entrance. They did not crawl or walk - they floated! They floated and were - gone!""
The Green Stairway -
""A stairway led down into the pit..."
"...it seemed not so much carved out of the rock as built into it. The slabs were about six feet long and three feet wide. It ran down from the platform and vanished into the blue haze."
"...I went down the stairway..."
"The steps ran along the side of the rock at a forty degree pitch. As I went down I studied them. They were of a greenish rock quite different from the granite porphyry that formed the wall of the precipice. At first I thought the builders had taken advantage of an outcropping stratum, and had craved from it their gigantic flight. But the regularity of the angle at which it fell made me doubtful of this theory."
"After I had gone perhaps half a mile I stepped out upon a landing. From this landing the stairs made a V shaped turn and ran on downward, clinging to the cliff at the same angle as the first flight; it was a zig-zag, and after I had made three of these turns I knew that the steps dropped straight down in a succession of such angles. No strata could be so regular as that. No, the stairway was built by hands!""
"...A few feet beneath me the stairway jutted out into a Titanic arch, unearthly as the span that bridges Hell and leads to Asgard. It curved out and down and straight through the top of the highest pile of carven cylinders and then it vanished through it. It was appalling - it was demonic - ..."
"...I crossed the span. I went down through the top of that - building. Blue darkness shrouded me for a moment and I felt the steps twist into a spiral. I wound down them..."
Sanctuary Caves -
"At regular intervals I had passed the mouths of small caves. There would be two thousand steps and then an opening, two thousand more steps and an opening - and so on and on. Late that afternoon I stopped before one of these clefts. I suppose I had gone then three miles down the pit, although the angles were such that I had walked in all fully ten miles. I examined the entrance. On each side were carved the figures of the great portal above, only now they were standing face forward, the arms outstretched as though to hold something back from the outer depths. Their faces were covered with veils. There were no hideous shapes behind them. I went inside. The fissure ran back for twenty yards like a burrow. It was dry and perfectly light. Outside I could see the blue haze rising upward like a column, its edges clearly marked. I felt an extraordinary sense of security, although I had not been conscious of any fear. I felt that the figures at the entrance were guardians - but against what?""
The City in the Pit -
Snaky Red Trees -
""There is a city you know. But not such a city as you have ever seen - nor any other man who has lived to tell of it. The pit, I think, is shaped like a bottle; the opening before the five peaks is the neck. But how wide the bottom is I do not know - thousands of miles maybe. I had begun to catch little glints of light far down in the blue. Then I saw the tops of - trees, I suppose they are. But not our kind of trees - unpleasant, snaky kind of trees. They reared themselves on high thin trunks and their tops were nests of thick tendrils with ugly little leaves like arrow heads. The trees were red, a vivid angry red. Here and there I glimpsed spots of shining yellow. I knew these were water because I could see things breaking through the surface - or at least I could see the splash and ripple, but what it was that disturbed them I never saw."
"Straight beneath me was the - city. I looked down upon mile after mile of closely packed cylinders. They lay upon their sides in pyramids of three, of five - of dozens - piled upon each other. It is hard to make you see what that city is like - look, suppose you have water pipes of a certain length and first you lay three of them side by side and on top of them you place two and on these two one; or suppose you take five for a foundation and place on these four and then three, then two and then one. Do you see? That was the way they looked. But they were topped by towers, by minarets, by flares, by fans, and twisted monstrosities. They gleamed as though coated with pale rose flames. Beside them the venomous red tress raised themselves like the heads of hydras guarding nests of gigantic, jeweled and sleeping worms!"
"...I was standing high up in - I can't tell you in what, I'll have to call it a room. We have no images for what is in the pit. A hundred feet below me was the floor. The walls sloped down and out from where I stood in a series of widening crescents. The place was colossal - and it was filled with a curious mottled red light. It was like the light inside a green and gold flecked fire opal. I went down to the last step. Far in front of me rose a high, columned altar. Its pillars were carved in monstrous scrolls - like mad octopuses with a thousand drunken tentacles; they rested on the backs of shapeless monstrosities carved in crimson stone. The altar front was a gigantic slab of purple covered with carvings."
"...I was out on a street that stretched on into dim distance between rows of the carven cylinders."
"Here and there the red trees arose. Between them rolled the stone burrows. And now I could take in the amazing ornamentation that clothed them. They were like the trunks of smooth skinned trees that had fallen and had been clothed with high reaching noxious orchids. Yes - those cylinders were like that - and more. They should have gone out with the dinosaurs. They were - monstrous. They struck the eyes like a blow and they passed across the nerves like a rasp. And nowhere was there sight or sound of living things."
"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..."
The Thing in the Pit -
""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!"
"Behind me was a circle of blue light. I ran for it. Something urged me to turn back, to climb the stairs and make away. It was impossible. Repulsion for that unseen Thing raced me onward as though a current had my feet.""
Thick White Liquid -
""...I saw beside one of the pillars a yellow bowl filled with a thick white liquid. I drank it. If it killed I did not care. But its taste was pleasant and as I drank my strength came back to me with a rush..."
I have already used some of these ideas in the post titled: Listener to the Sphinx, but there is so much material in this short story that I barely touched on what can be done with it.
In 'Listener to the Sphinx' I touched on the great stairway leading down into an abyss and the caves as both sanctuaries and portals to other times and places, other worlds, other dimensions. After sorting through all the ideas in 'The People of the Pit' I will be expanding on these for my campaign.
The great stairway will lead to the City in the Pit, the Slug-like creatures that can whisper and charm a man to be their slave, and the great Unseen Deity/Monster that they worship. The stairway acts as a portal and leads to a rift between dimensions that these Slug Beasts inhabit. They are constantly seeking slaves and sacrifices to their Unseen god but have been unable to ascend the stairway itself. The wards are fading though, and expeditions of these creatures will soon be seen on the surface of Hyperborea.
The Thick White Liquid is the sap from the Snaky Red Trees. It strengthen and heals any human but weakens their ability to resist the charmed whispering of the creatures.
The Golden Band is both an enchanted item and a living creature fashioned from the body of a living Slug Beast. It acts to enhance the enthrallment of their slaves so that they will do their bidding even at the cost of their own lives.
The Slug Beasts range in power according to the light of they emit from their heads. Purple is the weakest while Red light is emitted from the strongest of these monsters. They have the ability to float, though not at great speed unless close to a surface. They can even float quite fast across a liquid surface, but are very slow if flying above. Their main power is their ability to charm creatures and people. The more Slug Beasts who concentrate their power together, the stronger the charm. Otherwise they are able to conduct physical attacks with the whip like tentacles each possess. Damage is slight but these tentacles have the power to stun or paralyze an opponent. The weakest of the Slug Beasts require multiple strikes with their tentacles in order to stun. Those who project the purple light can only attack with 3 tentacles at a time, but the strongest can strike with 18 tentacles (they all possess 20 tentacles ringed about their body). These tentacles are surprisingly delicate and can be destroyed with very little damage.
Biting is also another attack form. The weaker Slug Beasts are also the smaller, the Purple creatures only 3 or 4 feet high and 1HD monsters. While the Red Slug Beasts are up to 15 feet high and are 12HD monsters, possessing several abilities, including the ability to cast spells.
They are intelligent creatures capable of using tools but they wear no armor and use no weapons except those they naturally possess. They are wonderful alchemists and produce potions and balms of all sorts as well as poisons. They normally keep these in vials made of bone (human and otherwise) or great golden metal storage jars they craft from the living bodies of the weaker Slug Beasts.
There are six known types of these creatures which project light along the primary color (Purple, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red from weakest to strongest), but it suspected that the Unseen Deity/Monster they worship projects a light that cannot be seen by human eyes, and their young project a light that is also invisible (Infrared and Ultraviolet respectively).
The Great City of The Pit is vast and rests on a plane of existence inimical to human life. There are no mountains but a vast jungle filled with living plants surrounds the massive city on most sides and a wasteland of mud and fens with some open expanses of thick yellow liquid are at its one edge. There are no vertebrate creatures in jungle or wasteland, but life of sorts abound, with abominable creatures of slime and plants that slither and wind like beasts through the distorted and abhorrent growth of the jungle.