Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#3: A. Merritt

Abraham Merritt was one of the most successful pulp (and pulp-style) writers of the twenties and thirties. Think of him as the Stephen King of his day, though his audience was more interested in adventure than in horror. As with so many authors of that time, I can't think of any of his books that I would strongly recommend to a mature modern reader who's simply looking for a good read. Reading his books today, you can see their power, you can appreciate why they'd have been popular, but you can also see how they were written to appeal to a particular generation of readers. Still, if you like Haggard-style adventure, and if you can appreciate the genre fiction of a previous generation, you might want to give one or two of Merritt's books a try.

The comparison to Haggard was appropriate, as Haggard seems to have been one of his main sources of inspiration. Merritt's heroes, like Haggard's, are forever finding lost civilizations in obscure corners of the world. (They key differences are that Merritt left Africa to Haggard, and used the rest of the world for his sites, that Merritt's heroes tended to be American rather than English, and that Haggard was the better writer.)

"The Face in the Abyss" (***) is my favorite among Merritt's lost-civilization yarns. Nicholas Graydon is one of four adventurers who come to the Andes with an old map which they believe will lead to Atahuelpa's lost treasures. Instead, it leads to what is left of Atlantean civilization -- with dinosaurs and superscience thrown in for good measure. (Not to mention spider-people, lizard-people, snake-people, immortal Atlanteans, and the obligatory love-at-first-sight love-interest.) There is also the Face in the Abyss -- the imprisoned Satan-figure who brought down the original Atlantis. In the time that has passed, this figure has been gaining in influence, while the powers that defeated him have been waning -- and Graydon's appearance triggers open warfare.

"The Ship of Ishtar" (***) is structurally the same as many of Merritt's other novels -- an American finds himself in the remains of a bygone civilization, finds the love of his life, and proceeds to act heroically -- but the framework of tragedy gives it a power which his lost-civilization yarns lack. The ship in question is a six-thousand-year-old ship in a bottle (okay, they used blocks in those days instead of bottles), but when archeologist (?) Kenton examines it, he finds himself aboard an actual ship, which has been cursed to sail the seas forever, magically picking up the occasional sailor. (The priestess of Ishtar fell in love with the priest of Nergal, to the annoyance of both deities, and their punishment was one ship each -- in conflict -- and a very long cruise. Since then priest and priestess have both died, only to be replaced by their seconds in command.) Kenton, of course, falls in love with the current priestess, and is drawn into the eternal, and pointless, battle.

"The Metal Monster" (**) is noteworthy for being a lost-civilization tale with a vaguely science-fictionish twist. (The term "lost civilization" is a telling one. It's not as if any of the civilizations in question consider themselves lost.) Actually, there are two civilizations here: A group of four Americans traipsing through the Himalayas, flees a bunch of Persians who have apparently been isolated from the rest of the world since the time of Alexander -- and whose role in the story is relatively minor; Merritt mostly needed a way to get another alluring white female onto the stage -- and finds a valley inhabitted by inorganic life. It's a collective intelligence made of metal (there is a long expository chapter, with footnotes, as the characters convince each other that this is possible) and living on solar radiation. (This intelligence also seems to take an interest, which is never explained, in comely human females, but I digress.) Rather than make any serious attempt to communicate with this intelligence, our heroes go looking for a way to destroy it. I don't think Merritt really knew what to *do* with his science-fictional premise, so once he'd milked it for its wonder, he wrote much the same story that he'd have written had the metal entities been super-intelligent carnivorous butterflies.

Merritt's short stories have been collected in an anthology, titled "The Fox Woman and Other Stories". They're highly variable in quality. "The FoxWoman" (***+) -- the novella of the book's title is the best of the lot. It begins in northern China, with Jean Meredith fleeing her husband's murderers. She meets a vixen and -- through whatever impulse -- asks for vengeance. The vixen -- actually a fox-woman which, by the mythos of that place makes her a devil of sorts -- promises Jean the vengeance she seeks, and saves her life till her daughter can be born. In a way, the story is incomplete -- we see the setup for the vengeance (particularly the fox-woman's possession of the baby), but not the vengeance itself. I don't know whether this is deliberate or whether Merritt simply didn't live to finish the story, but it's probably more effective than it would have been had the details of the vengeance been spelled out.

There are other (lesser, to my mind) lost-civilization novels I haven't mentioned. Also, two of Merritt's most successful novels (if not *the* most successful of his novels) are the ones furthest removed from sf/f, so I'll only mention them in passing. "Seven Footprints to Satan" (**) is about an explorer who is enmeshed in the toils and coils of a strange criminal mastermind. And "Burn Witch Burn" (**) is a tale of witchcraft and horror, featuring a witch who sets animated dolls to committing murder. I can't say I cared much for either book.

I've compared Merritt to Stephen King and to H Rider Haggard, but perhaps I'd have done better to compare him to Edgar Rice Burroughs: Both, at about the same time, were writing very popular bad novels. While those novels don't stand up that well today, their influence upon the sf/f writers we *do* read today was considerable. And, in both cases, as long as we are willing to accept the books on their own terms, as the bad novels of yesteryear, they can still be fun to read.

Dani Zweig