Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Forgotten Father

The tastes of one generation are not necessarily those of another and literature is no more exempt from the alienating power of time than any other form of art. Realizing this doesn't make it any less surprising when one encounters an artist wildly popular in his own day but largely unknown in the present. Such an artist was Abraham Merritt, who was born today in 1884. A journalist, editor, and writer, Merritt's short stories and novels were highly regarded before the Second World War. Among his ardent admirers was H.P. Lovecraft, who, in a letter to R.H. Barlow wrote of his having met the man in person:
I was extremely glad to meet Merritt in person, for I have admired his work for 15 years. He has certain defects — caused by catering to a popular audience — but for all that he is the most poignant and distinctive fantaisiste now contributing to the pulps. As I mentioned some time ago — when you lent me the Mirage installment — he has a peculiar power of working up an atmosphere and investing a region with an aura of unholy dread.
HPL would later, along with Robert E. Howard, collaborate with Merritt on a round-robin story called "The Challenge from Beyond." It's not a particularly noteworthy piece, for any of the writers involved, but it's evidence that, once upon a time, Merritt was at least as highly esteemed as Lovecraft and Howard, two writers whose literary stars have risen since their lifetimes, in contrast to their older colleague.

Today, almost no one, including aficionados of fantasy and science fiction -- genres he helped to develop -- talks much about Merritt. I knew his name, of course, since Gary Gygax included him in Appendix N and often noted that he was one of his favorite fantasy authors. Despite this knowledge, I hadn't read much by Merritt until comparatively recently. Part of it is that his stories are frequently out of print. At least some of them are in the public domain, but, being a stodgy old traditionalist, I like books, meaning that, if I can't find a physical volume of an author's works, I often don't read them. Many older authors, such as H. Rider Haggard, for example, are readily available in inexpensive paperbacks, making them much easier to obtain by those uninterested in trolling used book stores for obscure novels.

Even so, I don't think that fully explains why Merritt is so poorly known and appreciated in the 21st century. The real answer, I think, lies in his stories, which don't fall into neat, easily marketable categories. Whereas Lovecraft can be crudely called a "horror" writer and Howard a "fantasy" one, Merritt defies such facile classification. More often than not, his stories feature recognizably "pulp" heroes -- men of action and intelligence equally adept at problem-solving and fisticuffs -- but Merritt's style is ornate, even florid, marshaling a veritable army of adjectives, adverbs, and archaisms to describe scenes of remarkable power. Here's just one example from his Creep, Shadow, Creep in which he describes a sorcerer:
I saw that he was clothed in the same white robes. There was a broad belt either of black metal or ancient wood around his middle. There was a similar cincture around his breast. They were inlaid with symbolings of silver ... but who ever saw silver shift and change outline ... melt from this rune into another ... as these did? ... The servants had quenched their torches, for now the corposants had begun to glimmer over the standing stones. The witch lights, the lamps of the dead ... Glimmering, shifting orbs of gray phosphorescence of the grayness of the dead ... Now the buzzing began within the Cairn, rising higher and higher until it became a faint, sustained whispering.
It's not hard to see why Lovecraft was so enamored of Merritt's prose -- or why he accused him of "catering to a popular audience." Merritt's style is neither fish nor fowl, mixing many aspects of pulp literature into a unique elixir that's remarkably intoxicating. As Lovecraft notes above and, as I stated in my review of The Ship of Ishtar, Merritt is a master of atmosphere and setting a scene. He takes the time to describe the environment in which his fantastic tales of lost races and eldritch horrors occur and it's this tendency that truly set his stories apart from those of his contemporaries and successors. Moreso than most pulp writers, Merritt truly transports his readers into another world, using his prose to act as their eyes and ears.

I've still not read the entirety of Merritt's corpus and it may be some time before I do, but it's a project to which I am committed. Merritt's unusual style might not be for everyone. However, his ideas are without peer, which explains his great popularity in the years before World War II. I'm increasingly of the opinion that his stories could find an audience today if they were more readily available. I think he's no less accessible than Lovecraft and, given that his protagonists aren't bookish, mentally fragile antiquarians, they're probably more in line with popular tastes than those of the Old Gent. More than anything, what Merritt needs are some champions who'll do for him what others have done for Lovecraft and Howard: remind the current generation what past generations saw in these great artists.


  1. Recently a new paperback edition of The Moon Pool was released, featuring trade dress marketed toward fans of the television show Lost, and a cover blurb addressing Merritt's influence on the show.

    It's a start, at least.

    (Word Verification: slith. Pretty much a great word all around.)

  2. I've read four of Merritt's works:

    1. The Moon Pool haunts my imagination more than any of the others.

    2. The Metal Monster is an amazing work of describing the unhuman alien.

    3. The Face in the Abyss is simply amazing.

    4. Creep, Shadow, Creep I found disappointing. I think I missed the predominance of the Lost World theme found in the above three works.

  3. I went bonkers for Merritt when I was 17; his books were available in paperback from Avon at the time (most with Roger Deane covers, which only made them cooler). I think The Face in the Abyss and Dwellers in the Mirage are the best.

  4. I couldn't get into Merritt when I was younger, but I have a broader background in earlier novels now than I did then. I read The Moon Pool on my podcast a few years back, and it's a real joy to go at that kind of stuff out loud. It made me really sorry that I wasn't a better actor, because it's difficult to put across force of personality or extreme beauty without really compelling speech! But I think I put across the rhythms of his prose reasonably well. It's not just a matter of piling on adjectives, and a lot of people don't get that.

    Gamer content -- the prismatic wall in The Moon Pool. I could almost see the little sign "Gary was here". :)

  5. I wish one of the publishers like Wildside or Night Shade would do a comprehensive set like they've done for Hodgson, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, et al.

  6. I just went to Project Gutenberg and found some of Merritt's stuff, which I then started reading The Moon Pool with your praise for him in mind. I can see why Lovecraft liked him so much - heck Lovecraft's stuff sounds just like this one. Granted, I only read the first two chapters... but thanks for the hook up. I had never heard of this guy despite being into Lovecraft and Howard for so many decades. Thank you. Seriously.