Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Face in the Abyss

Like a lot of early pulp fantasy novels, Abraham Merritt's The Face in the Abyss originally appeared in a shorter form. First published in the September 8, 1923 issue of Argosy All-Story Weekly, the novelette "The Face in the Abyss" was followed up seven years later with a seven-part sequel (called "The Snake Mother") that picked up where the original left off. Then, in 1931, Merritt combined the two stories under a single cover. It was in this form that I encountered the story sometime in the 1980s, having read that Merritt was an important influence on H.P. Lovecraft.

The Face in the Abyss tells the tale of Nicholas Graydon, who, along with some companions, is on an expedition in the Andes, where they seek to recover the legendary ransom offered to Pizarro for the release of the Incan king Atahualpa. Graydon is a fairly typical Merritt protagonist, upstanding and heroic, while his companions are much more morally dubious, a fact made clear when one of them, Starrett, assaults a native girl they find while seeking the ransom. Graydon, of course, stops him with a swift punch and frees the girl, whose name is Suarra and whose appearance startles him:
Her skin was palest ivory. It gleamed through the rents of the soft amber fabric, like thickest silk, which swathed her. Her eyes were oval, a little tilted, Egyptian in the wide midnight of her pupils. Her nose was small and straight; her brows level and black, almost meeting. Her hair was cloudy, jet, misty and shadowed. A narrow fillet of gold bound her low broad forehead. In it was entwined a sable and silver feather of the caraquenque--that bird whose plumage in lost centuries was sacred to the princesses of the Incas alone.

Above her elbows were golden bracelets, reaching almost to the slender shoulders. Her little high-arched feet were shod with high buskins of deerskin. She was lithe and slender as the Willow Maid who waits on Kwannon when she passes through the World of Trees pouring into them new fire of green life.

She was no Indian...nor daughter of ancient Incas...nor was she Spanish...she was of no race that he knew. There were bruises on her cheeks--the marks of Starrett's fingers. Her long, slim hands touched them. She spoke--in the Aymara tongue.

Already, the reader can see where this novel is going but one must remember that, while clichéd now, Merritt was among those who helped to found and popularize the pulp convention of the "lost race," conventions that other authors later adopted as their own. Suarra explains that her people are called the "Yu-Atlanchi" and she is a servant of a being she calls "the Snake Mother." Yu-Atlanchi is ancient, perhaps ancient enough to have co-existed with the dinosaurs, or at least knowledgeable enough about the past to know much about them, as Graydon discovers. Indeed, the Yu-Atlanchi seem to possess very impressive scientific knowledge, far beyond that of 20th century Western civilization.

Suarra further explains that her people were once ruled six lords and a higher lord over them, but now only the Snake Mother rules -- "and another." This other is Nimir, the lord of evil, who was once a lord of Yu-Atlanchi but seized power and attempted to make himself a god. Though he failed in fully achieving his dream, he was successful enough that he could not be slain and so his vanquishers trapped his spirit in a stone prison.

From where he stood a flight of Cyclopean steps ran down into the heart of the cavern. At their left was the semi-globe of gemmed and glittering rock. At their right was — space. An abyss, whose other side he could not see, but which fell sheer away from the stairway in bottomless depth upon depth.

The face looked at him from the far side of the cavern. Bodiless, its chin rested upon the floor. Colossal, its eyes of pale blue crystals were level with his. It was carved out of the same black stone as the walls, but within it was no faintest sparkle of the darting luminescences. It was a man’s face and the face of a fallen angel’s in one; Luciferean; imperious; ruthless — and beautiful. Upon its broad brows power was enthroned — power which could have been godlike in beneficence, had it so willed, but which had chose instead the lot of Satan.

Whoever the master sculptor, he had made of it the ultimate symbol of man’s age-old, remorseless lust for power. In the Face this lust was concentrate, given body and form, made tangible…

And now he saw that all the darting rays, all the flashing atoms, were focused full upon the Face, and that over its brow was a wide circlet of gold. From the circlet globules of gold dripped, like golden sweat. They crept sluggishly down its cheeks. From its eyes crept other golden drops, like tears. And out of each corner of the merciless mouth the golden globules dribbled like spittle. Golden sweat, golden tears and golden slaver crawled and joined a rivulet of gold that oozed from behind the Face, to the verge of the abyss, and over its lip into the depths.

Even trapped, Nimir exercises great influence within Yu-Atlanchi, whose people have become decadent over the centuries. Their current leader lives a debauched existence, caring little for his people, and entertaining them with blood sports and other cruelties. Suarra and others like her in "the Fellowship" -- a resistance movement against Yu-Atlanchi's present regime -- believe that Nimir is rising and may soon be able to escape his prison and assume more direct control over the kingdom he once sought.

It's a terrific set-up for a surprisingly good pulp novel. As I noted above, one has to be tolerant in reading this today, since so many of its plot points might feel dated and unoriginal to a contemporary reader. At the time of its writing, though, Merritt was blazing new trails and, despite the hackneyed nature of some of the novel's elements, they nevertheless feel fresh in Merritt's hands. Graydon himself is not particularly interesting, I'll grant, but Suarra, the Snake Mother, and even Nimir are fully realized characters that stand head and shoulders above what one usually gets in novels of this kind. Likewise, Merritt's skill at depicting the wonders and horrors of decadent Yu-Atlanchi is superb and I found myself quite enthralled. The Face in the Abyss is definitely a cut above other "lost race" novels and well worth reading, if you've never done so.


  1. Nice! Merritt is on my reading list for this year, both this and 'The Moon Pool', though it's too bad all his work seems to be out of print. Amazon used sellers to the rescue.

  2. @Beedo:
    There are a couple of his books on gutenberg.org, and 'The Face In The Abyss' is at http://manybooks.net/titles/merrittaother06abyss.html

    "The Face in the Abyss originally appeared in a shorter form."
    I miss the sci-fi and fantasy tradition of doing short stories first then combining or expanding them, as opposed to planning the epic chronicle from the get-go.

  3. Never read the story, but the lost city, lost race, the snakes and the yu-atlanchi name makes me believe that this is where D&D's yuan-ti came from...

  4. I miss the sci-fi and fantasy tradition of doing short stories first then combining or expanding them, as opposed to planning the epic chronicle from the get-go.

    This has been my battle cry for a while now.

  5. Maybe I should give this a go. I read my first Merritt novel, "Burn Witch Burn" last week and I thought it was DULL. I have heard a lot about his influence and was expecting a lot more, this sounds more to my tastes.

  6. BWB is a snoozer and not indicative of Merritt's work. Try any of the novels mentioned (Face in the Abyss, Moon Pool), Dwellers in the Mirage or The Ship of Ishtar for more "pulpy" fun.