Abraham Merritt was born on January 20, in Beverly, New Jersey. He died in 1943. Merritt was arguably the most highly regarded fantasy author of his day, with a fantasy magazine named for him after his death. He was an assistant editor and later editor of The American Weekly, a position which apparently left him little time to pursue his own writing. Even so, his work cast a long shadow over the field and his influence is still felt today, although most readers are probably unaware of that influence.
Merritt’s writing tended towards lost civilizations, monsters, and other pulp trappings popular in the early Twentieth Century. He only wrote a handful of short stories, which were collected in The Fox Woman, along with several fragments.
We’ll look at two of them. The first is probably his best known short story, “The People of the Pit.” It concerns two explorers who are looking for a mountain in the Yukon from which gold is said to be found in great quantities. They are within sight of it when they see a strange set of lights above the peaks. Shortly afterwards a man crawls into their camp, barely alive. When he recovers, he tells a strange story of a deep pit. He followed a set of stairs down to the bottom, something that took several days, where he finds a strange city in a middle of a strange forest where the trees have branches that resemble snakes. Once there he’s captured by invisible beings and chained to an altar in a temple. The beings have globes of lights on their heads which are visible, and during the rituals in the temple, the beings themselves become visible. They look like giant slugs.
Obviously the man manages to escape. The story is very Lovecraftian in tone and execution, and I enjoyed it very much. I’ve seen references to Merritt’s purple prose, but in the case of “The People of the Pit”, I really didn’t find that an apt description of his writing. Merritt’s work is clearly from an earlier time, one where the style was richer and more descriptive.
“When Old Gods Wake” is a fragment. A man has financed an expedition to excavate a Mayan city in order to spend time with the archaeologist’s beautiful redheaded sister. A redheaded sister who likes him but isn’t interested in anything further. They’re in a temple looking at a painting of Kulkukan, which seems to be exerting an influence on the woman. She and the man have a spat over their relationship, and…that’s it. Merritt didn’t write anymore on this story. That’s unfortunate because he seemed to be setting up a situation in which the hero would have to rescue his love from an evil god.
I had a brief conversation online with Deuce Richardson a few months ago about Merritt. The gist of the exchange was that Merritt was a writer who was worth reading.
Other than a few short pieces, including the round-robin story he wrote with Howard, Lovecraft, C. L. Moore, and Frank Belknap Long, the only Merritt I’d read had been The Black Wheel, and I hadn’t finished it. I was in college, and I think I tried to read it just before the spring semester started and got sick a few chapters in. By the time I’d recovered, other things were demanding my time.
The Black Wheel was unfinished at the time of Merritt’s death, and his friend Hans Bok completed it. I enjoyed what I’d read of it. I’ll probably give it another go.
Merritt was one of the most influential writers of his generation. He is an important enough figure in the field that I want to read more of his work. He was an influence on Lovecraft, Howard, Kuttner, Edmond Hamilton, Moore, Brackett, the list goes on. Fortunately after my brief online conversation, I found an omnibus of his novels and short stories on sale at Amazon for 99 cents. It contains eight novels and eight short stories, although The Black Wheel and “When Old Gods Waken” aren’t included.