In my last column, we spoke about Jack Williamson and his work in the science-fiction field. Early in his life, he was particularly inspired by one author, A. Merritt, a prolific author in the burgeoning speculative pulp field and a major journalist of the era.
Abraham Merritt was born on January 20th, 1884 in Beverly, New Jersey. Throughout his professional life, he worked as a journalist: first with the Philadelphia Inquirer before being hired to write for the Sunday American Magazine. Merritt proved to be an excellent reporter and writer, and quickly moved up the ranks to become the second person in command of the paper behind editor Morrill Goddard. As Goddard’s health failed, Merrill often took his place.
Throughout the 1910s, Merritt seems to have read a number of pulp magazines, through which he would have encountered a number of speculative authors. Sam Moskowitz, in his book on Merritt, A. Merritt: Reflections in the Moon Pool, noted that magazines such as All-Story Weekly published an incredible number of speculative stories, from authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Under the Moons of Mars), Francis Stevens (‘Friend Island’), Algernon Blackwood (‘The Man Who Found Out’) and many others. In particular, Merritt was impressed with Stevens’ work, and sought to imitate her stories. Moskowitz described Merritt as a man who “was a product of the pulp magazines, with far more highly developed literary skills and personal sensitivity to the elements of human feeling than others of his circle.”
His first story, “Thru the Dragon Glass,” appeared in the Nov. 24, 1917, issue of All-Story Weekly. Two further stories followed the next year: “The People of the Pit” appeared in the Jan. 5, 1918 issue of All-Story Weekly and “The Moon Pool” in the June 22 issue of the same publication. With “The Moon Pool,” Merritt made his mark. Reader reactions to the piece were widely positive, and soon, the magazine's fiction editor, Robert H. Davis, announced a sequel story: "He, we are glad to announce, is now engaged in the collection of further and conclusive data which he is putting into shape, and which as soon as we receive it, will be published as a sequel to 'The Moon Pool'!"
A novel-length sequel, The Conquest of the Moon Pool, soon followed in All-Story, published between February and March of 1919. Here, Merritt worked to ensure that his story fit within a scientific context, rather than a fantastical one. Moskowitz noted that "The extraordinary attempts made to explain both scientifically and logically the highly imaginative, fantastic, mystical and supernatural events that occur caused the novel to be included in the canon of science fiction by Hugo Gernsback, despite his desire to establish parochial boundaries for the science in his stories." Later, in 1927, Gernsback reprinted The Moon Pool between May and July in his own magazine, Amazing Stories.
From 1918 through 1934, Merritt published a number of stories through the pulp magazines. Among his notable works were “The Metal Monster,” serialized in All-Story between August and September of 1920, “The Ship of Ishtar,” serialized between November and December 1924, and “The Woman of the Wood,” published in Weird Tales’ August 1926 issue.
In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute and Peter Nicholls note that "Merritt was influential upon the sci-fi and fantasy world not primarily through his storylines, which tended to be unoriginal (he acknowledged the influence of Francis Stevens on his work), or through the excesses of his style, but because of the genuine imaginative power he displayed in the creation of estranged but hypnotically attractive alternative worlds and realities."
This is a particularly important point to recognize at this stage in the formation of the science-fiction genre. As we've seen, speculative works had been published for decades, but these works had only begun to set down the tropes that would be used to define science fiction. Merritt continued this tradition by placing his characters into fantastical situations but choosing to frame them within a scientific context.
Moskowitz observed that Merritt used his experience as a journalist to perpetuate a style of speculative fiction set down by his predecessors: "In the 19th Century there had been an entire school of American science fiction writers who deliberately framed their fiction so as to convince people their stories were true." American authors such as Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe had blended fantastic elements into otherwise realistic stories, often causing readers to think that they were reading real accounts. The same is true of Merritt’s works. In many ways, Merritt, along with other pulp-era authors such as Francis Stevens and Edgar Rice Burroughs, helped to establish the tone and expectations for much of what was to come from the genre: readers could imagine that the stories they were reading could take place. The application of modern science (science’s imagined directions or disciplines) helped in this effort, and was particularly useful as influential editors such as Hugo Gernsback of Amazing Stories and John W. Campbell Jr. of Astounding Science Fiction set expectations that their science-fiction stories would be as plausible as they were speculative.
In doing so, Merritt helped to influence the next generation of speculative fiction authors, from H.P. Lovecraft and Jack Williamson to game designers such as Gary Gygax. Beyond simply influencing the words put down to pulp paper, Merritt was one major author who helped to reinforce and set expectations for what a science-fiction story should be: realistic characters in a plausible world facing off against extraordinary situations that keep readers coming back week after week.