Monday, August 1, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Creep, Shadow!

Of the authors listed in Gary Gygax's Appendix N, one of the most obscure to contemporary readers is no doubt Abraham Grace Merritt (or A. Merritt, as he was known during his lifetime). That's why, more than a decade ago, I dubbed him a "forgotten father" of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Much like his contemporary, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Merritt has exerted a huge, though frequently unacknowledged, influence on much of the popular fiction that came after him (and the popular culture that it, in turn, inspired). 

Gary Gygax was quite consistent in his praise for Merritt's works, placing them on par with those of other more well known authors. In the Dungeon Masters Guide, for instance, he states that Merritt is one of "the most immediate influences upon AD&D," alongside such greats as Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, and H.P. Lovecraft, all of whom, I'd wager, enjoy much higher profiles in the 21st century. In Appendix N, Gygax singles out three of Merritt's stories for particular mention: The Moon Pool, Dwellers in the Mirage, and Creep, Shadow, Creep. Though I've listed Creep Shadow! last (and under its later title, as Gygax did), it is, in fact, the first of Merritt's titles in Appendix N and for good reason, as I hope to explain.

Like many of Merritt's tales, Creep, Shadow! was serialized in the pages of a weekly periodical, in this case The Argosy, the premier pulp magazine of the early 20th century. Creep, Shadow! appeared in seven consecutive issues between September 8, 1934 and October 20, 1934. The following year, the serial was collected into a single volume and released as a stand-alone novel, under the title of Creep, Shadow, Creep!, which is how many later readers, including Gary Gygax, would come to know it. So far as I know, there are no significant differences between the two versions of the story, other than their titles. In the decades since its original publication, the story has appeared under both titles.

Creep, Shadow! is a sequel of sorts to Merritt's earlier tale, Burn, Witch, Burn! (which might explain why the title was later changed). I say "of sorts" because, while Dr. Lowell reappears, he is a supporting character rather than the protagonist. Instead, the story focuses on a different man of science, in this case Dr. Alan Caranac, an ethnologist, who, like Dr. Lowell, is interested in "those fields which [his] medical and allied scientific brethren call superstition—native sorceries, witchcraft, voodoo, and the like." Caranac travels widely across the globe in the course of his work, so much so that he tells the reader that his colleagues attribute

my wanderings to an itching foot inherited from one of my old Breton forebears, a pirate who had sailed out of St. Malo and carved himself a gory reputation in the New World. And ultimately was hanged for it. The peculiar bent of my mind he likewise attributed to the fact that two of my ancestors had been burned as witches in Brittany.

Regular readers of Merritt will almost certainly know that comments like this are included not just for color, but because they have relevance to the story. 

All that aside, the action of the novel begins with an investigation into a series of mysterious deaths. In this case, the deaths are in fact suicides and the suicides of wealthy and influential men at that. One of these men is Richard "Dick" Ralston, a friend of Caranac, who had inherited $5,000,000 two years prior, following the death of his own father, a copper magnate. More ominously, Ralston's suicide note mentions Caranac: "If only Alan were here. He knows more–" 

The suicide note is addressed to Dr. Bill Bennett, a brain surgeon and mutual friend of both Ralston and Caranac (and Dr. Lowell of Burn, Witch, Burn! we also learn). Unsurprisingly, Bennett comes to see Caranac. He implies that, as Caranac himself suspects, there's more to this story than the police realize.

"What do you know that the police don't know, Bill?"

He said: "That Dick was murdered!"

I looked at him, bewildered. "But if he put the bullet through his own brain—"

He said: "I don't blame you for being puzzled. Nevertheless—I know Dick Ralston killed himself, and yet I know just as certainly that he was murdered."

Later, detectives call upon Caranac, along with reporters, all of whom are eager to discover what he might know about Bennett's suicide or why his name was mentioned in his suicide note. During the course of his interview with a reporter, Caranac talked about his travels and the superstitions of the various places he'd visited. One of them concerned the belief that measuring a man's shadow with a string and then burying the string in a box would result in his death. The reporter liked this superstition enough to mention it in his article about Caranac, much to the consternation of Bennett.

"What put it in your head to talk to that reporter about shadows?"

He sounded jumpy. I said, surprised:

"Nothing. Why shouldn't I have talked to him about shadows?"

He didn't answer for a moment. Then he asked:

"Nothing happened to direct your mind to that subject? Nobody suggested it?"

"You're getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice puts it. But no, Bill, I brought the matter up all by myself. And no shadow fell upon me whispering in my ear—"

He interrupted, harshly: "Don't talk like that!"

Bennett asks Caranac to join him at the home of Dr. Lowell for a party. There he hopes to discuss his latest thoughts about Ralston's suicide – or murder. One of Lowell's guests is a famed French psychiatrist named De Keradel and his daughter, Dahut. De Keradel is an expert in hypnosis and holds some unusual notions regarding the transmigration of souls. About De Keradel, Caranac says:

I began to feel a strong interest in this Dr. de Keradel. The name was Breton, like my own, and as unusual. Another recollection flitted through my mind. There was a reference to the de Keradels in the chronicles of the de Carnacs, as we were once named. I looked it up. There had been no love lost between the two families, to put it mildly. Altogether, what I read blew my desire to meet Dr. de Keradel up to fever point.

Even those who have not read any of Merritt's other works will discern where the story is going, especially in light of Caranac's earlier comments about his ancestry. Past lives and ancestral memory play major roles in several of Merritt's works and Creep, Shadow! is no exception. De Keradel repeatedly suggests that, through the medium of ancestral memory, passed down from generation to generation, one might gain access to ancient wisdom that would otherwise have been lost. Indeed, he implies, as does his daughter, that this wisdom might grant one mastery over powers no man has seen in centuries.

It's a given that all these various threads – Ralston's death, shadows, atavisms, ancient wisdom – eventually come together. It's similarly a given that Merritt weaves them all into a single tale with remarkable verve. Though written nearly a century ago, Creep, Shadow! nevertheless manages to capture the imagination and hold one's attention. In particular, the elements of past lives, ancestral memory, and the transmigration of souls are used compellingly. Also noteworthy are the titular shadows, which so left an impression on Gary Gygax that he not only included a monster inspired by it in OD&D but wished to explore the concept of Shadowland itself. If you've ever wondered why the original presentation of the shadow in Dungeons & Dragons was not an undead being, look no further than this novel.

There's a great deal going on in Creep, Shadow! and I don't feel I've done it sufficient justice in even this somewhat long post. This is Merritt at the height of his powers, elaborating on the themes that have filled his stories since the start of his fiction writing career. His characters are compelling and his descriptions vivid. Most importantly, he presents an engaging mystery filled with terrific twists and turns (and not a few genuine frights). To call Creep, Shadow! Merritt's masterpiece might be a slight exaggeration, but it is nevertheless one of his greatest works and well worth one's time.

1 comment:

  1. I think that all of Merritt's books are worth one's time, but this is one of his best. Thanks for putting a spotlight on one of the Fathers of Fantasy.

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