Allow me to test a loose theory.
Imagine a speculative fiction graph with “Distance in Time” along one axis, and “Distance in Space” along the other. Classic science fiction, indisputable science fiction, the Platonic form, if you will, of science fiction, lives on the far right corner of this graph: distant in both time and space. A galaxy, far, far away, a time beyond our own, Asimov’s Foundation novels, or the future-histories of Olaf Stapledon. Of course, there’s ample science fiction which is distant only in time, not space; Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, or some such other Terran dystopia. Some, too, takes place in the current moment, or even the past, in extrasolar space — say, Star Wars. And still yet more is so psychedelically transcendent that it takes place nowhere and nowhen. Still, the sweeping tendency with sci-fi is the desire to get the hell off the planet and the hell away from now: it’s designed to relieve the anxiety of present existence, or to sublimate it into art through de-familiarization. More can (and has been) said on this subject, but I digress.
The graph. If science fiction flies to the top right-hand side, then what dwelleth on the lower left-hand side? Writing that is grounded on Earth, or below it. Writing that is about the present, or even the past. While it may offer us estrangement, it is rooted to our time and place in a profoundly physical way. In my opinion, it’s horror.
Look at H.P. Lovecraft, who essentially defines the genre: everything important in Lovecraft is both terribly ancient and terribly below ground. In horror, the shock of difference doesn’t come when we launch ourselves out of the solar system and into the arms of waiting little green men; it comes when incomprehensibly ancient monstrosities come bellowing out of the black maw of our very own planet. It is the compounded hideousness of our own past and place embodied. One could say that the difference between science fiction and horror is simply a question of direction: while they both speak to a fear of the unknown, science fiction deals with the unknown above us, and horror with the unknown below us. Metaphysically, y’know…
A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool lives on the lower left-hand side of that graph, nestled right up to Lovecraft’s canon. It takes place not only on Earth, but within it, in a moon-formed chasm populated by an ancient, advanced race that has developed deep within the planet’s core, a classic “Lost World” scenario. It’s a beautiful book, full of bogglingly detailed passages about iridescent rocks and filmy curtains of mist-laden light, ebon bulwarks of mighty stone and cyclopean pillars of indefinite ancientness. Sample sentence: “The many-coloured rays darted across the white waters and sought the face of the irised veil; as they touched, it sparkled, flamed, wavered, and shook with fountains of prismatic colour.” But it’s complex, too. Forces of dark and light, of above Earth and below it, battle in grandiose style, and the central monster — a created spiritual entity called the Dweller — is characterized as striking its victims with a grotesque combination of rhapsodic pleasure and terror. Merritt calls this the “unhuman mingling of opposites,” a combination of “ecstasy unsupportable and horror unimaginable.” As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote, “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are still just able to endure.” This, too, seems distinctly and classically horror: like the call of the sirens, the call of Cthulu, Lovecraft’s The Tomb, the impossibility of turning away from something frightful once discovered, the compelling quality of true awfulness, the rapture of fear. Fantastic.
A. Merritt is not widely read today, but his baroque fantasy capers were really popular in the 1920s and 30s. In my estimation, there’s no real reason his work can’t stand up in the canon against his better-known contemporaries. It has the highfalutin lyrical stuffiness of H.P. Lovecraft, or the Gothics, and the same ambitious earnestness about science that you see in H.G. Wells — a quality that, if it wasn’t so pre-Modernist, would seem designed for comedy, especially when Merritt’s characters size up, say, giant mutant frogs with unflappably prim scientific curiosity. Because it’s so invested in science, The Moon Pool is usually categorized as very early science fiction novel (for the record, 1919).
But its place on the graph — underground, and forgotten by time — makes it patently horror.