Dying suddenly of a heart attack in 1943 probably didn't help Merritt's career, but it's still almost inexplicable to imagine how the author of Seven Footprints to Satan, Dwellers in the Mirage, and The Moon Pool, never mind The Ship of Ishtar could be so obscure today. The Ship of Ishtar alone ought to merit (pun intended) its author more than throwaway mentions here and there, usually in reference to more well known authors whom he influenced, such as Jack Williamson, Walter Shaver, and H.P. Lovecraft. Clark Ashton Smith, whose birthday I commemorated just last week, was very taken with The Ship of Ishtar, explaining:
I enjoyed the rare and original fantasy of this tale, and have kept it longer than I should otherwise, for the sake of re-reading certain passages that were highly poetic and imaginative. Merritt has an authentic magic, as well as an inexhaustible imagination.High praise indeed.
The Ship of Ishtar was originally released as a six-part serial novel over the course of November and December 1924 in Argosy All-Story Weekly. These parts were then collected into a hardcover in 1926, but in abridged form, excising some chapters and rearranging the text. It's this incomplete version of the story that's been reprinted again and again over the decades, with only (I believe) a single 1949 edition including the full text of the novel. The recent Paizo edition follows that 1949 edition, making it the first edition in 60 years to give readers the book as Merritt intended it.
The Ship of Ishtar is the tale of Jack Kenton, a modern man who receives a package from an old archeologist friend. The package contains an ancient stone, inside of which Kenton finds a remarkable model of a ship. The ship is a magical creation and draws Kenton into it, pulling him backward in time to Babylonian times and into the midst of a struggle between the followers of goddess Ishtar and followers of the god Nergal -- the cursed inflicted because a priestess of Ishtar and a priest of Nergal dared fall in love with one another against the wishes of their respective deities. Now, the lieutenants of the priestess and priest, both of whom, for their own reasons, aided their superiors, is trapped on a ship divided between light and darkness and from which there can be no escape.
Kenton, not being a man of this time and not laboring under the curse of the gods, can move freely back and forth between the two sides of the ship. Having fallen in love with the beautiful Sharane, priestess of Ishtar, he offers to go to Klaneth, priest of Nergal, and attempt to find a means by which to end the conflict on the ship. In this respect, The Ship of Ishtar resembles many pulp fantasies of its time and after: a modern man, thrown into an unusual locale/time, finds himself able to go places and do things that those native to it cannot. What differentiates Merritt's novel, though, is its gorgeous prose and deep characterizations. Merritt is an author who takes his time in telling a story, presenting little details and nuances that other authors would rush past in an effort to get to the action.
This may be why Merritt fell out of favor in the years after the Second World War: he's not a "breezy" author. That's not to say his prose is slow going, because it's not. Indeed, I find Merritt much easier to read than, say, Lovecraft or even Smith, both of whose prose is every bit as adjective-laden and evocative. Yet, Merritt dwells on details, particularly the beauty or ugliness of characters, and it's possible that, for some, these details get in the way of their enjoyment. I think that's a pity, because, as I said, Merritt's text is not plodding and his descriptions and dialog are every bit as appealing as his action, but perhaps he is an acquired taste.
Regardless, Abraham Merritt is an important early fantasy author, one mentioned by Gygax in Appendix N, and The Ship of Ishtar may well be his masterpiece. Many thanks to Paizo for again making it available and for preserving the entirety of its text. With luck, Merritt may soon gain the wider admiration he so richly deserves.