by Ron Breznay
[The following is a reprint of a column which originally appeared in Hellnotes on July 5, 2006.]
A. Merritt was a popular pulp writer whose works are primarily categorized as fantasy or science fiction, but they also contain elements of horror. His stories and serialized novels originally appeared in the 1910s through the 1930s. He enjoyed a resurgence of popularity with a new audience when his stories were reprinted in the 1940s. However, as he had written for the audience of his time, his fiction has become dated.
Abraham Grace Merritt was born on January 20, 1884, in Beverly, New Jersey, the son of William Henry and Ida Priscilla Merritt. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1894. In the 1910s, Merritt married Eleanore Ratcliffe, with whom he raised an adopted daughter, Ida Eleanor. They resided in Queens, New York. After Eleanore died, he married Eleanor Humphrey Johnson in the 1930s.
Merritt attended law school but dropped out for financial reasons. Instead, he pursued a career in journalism. In 1902, he became a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and eventually moved up to night city editor. He was assistant editor of The American Weekly, a Sunday supplement published by Hearst, from 1912 to 1937. Then he became its editor-in-chief, a position he held until his death. Merritt’s journalism took precedence over his fiction-writing, possibly accounting for his small output of stories and novels. As editor, he discovered illustrator Virgil Finlay, who would collaborate with all the great names in science-fiction, producing interior illustrations and hundreds of covers for all the pulp magazines, including illustrations for Merritt’s published fiction.
Merritt saw his first publication in 1917, when his story “Through the Dragon Glass” appeared in Argosy All-Story Weekly. This story tells of an adventurer in China who finds a secret room with a magical mirror which leads to a Chinese fairyland. “People of the Pit” followed in 1918 and “The Moon Pool” in 1919, both in All-Story. He next published two serialized novels in All-Story: The Conquest of the Moon Pool (1919) and The Metal Monster (1920). They, as well as other serializations, were eventually published in book form. Among his other short stories are “Three Lines of Old French” (1919), “The Whelming of Cherkis” (an excerpt from The Metal Monster) (1920), and “The Face in the Abyss” (1923), all in All-Story; and “The Pool of the Stone God,” published under the pseudonym W. Fenimore, in American Weekly in 1923.
The Moon Pool, as a novel, is a combination of the short story “The Moon Pool” and the sequel novel, The Conquest of the Moon Pool. The short story tells of Professor Throckmorton, who encounters a non-material, glowing, tinkling monster while exploring ruins in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. The monster attacks and kills his family. Throckmorton escapes to tell his tale, but the monster follows him and kills him. In the sequel novel, Dr. Walter Goodwin and his companions find and open the monster’s door and pass into a hidden land beneath the ocean of Micronesia, where they come upon a lost race and other groups of mysterious inhabitants. Soon after the good doctor and his friends appear on the scene, a civil war breaks out when one of the groups wants to ascend to the surface and conquer the world.
The Metal Monster, which takes place in the Trans-Himalaya mountains, has Dr. Goodwin and companions encountering a gigantic creature that is made of millions of pieces of living metal. These pieces combine and re-combine into any number of configurations, from a huge city to small animal-like things, and are bent on taking over the world.
As with The Moon Pool, the novel The Face in the Abyss (1923) is a combination of a novella, “The Face in the Abyss” (All-Story, 1923), and a sequel novel, The Snake Mother (1930). The story tells of an ancient, very wise, almost extinct, semi-reptilian race. An American mining engineer stumbles across the handmaiden to the Snake Mother while searching the Andes for Incan treasure and is drawn into their world of invisible winged serpents, spider men, and dream machines.
The Ship of Ishtar (1924), which some say is his best novel, is about a man who travels into a magical world and falls in love with a beautiful woman. The ship, which exists in a parallel world, is the setting for a cosmic duel between gods. The novel is an adventure of battles, chases, captures, and escapes.
His other novels include Seven Footprints to Satan (1927), a horror/detective mystery; Dwellers in the Mirage (1932), another lost-race novel and one of his best; and Burn Witch Burn! (1932) and its sequel, Creep, Shadow! (1934), which are about witchcraft, animated dolls, and horror detection. Published posthumously in 1947 was The Black Wheel, an unfinished novel which was completed by Hannes Bok.
A couple of Merritt’s novels were made into movies: Seven Footprints to Satan (filmed in 1929) and Burn Witch Burn!, which was filmed as The Devil Doll (also known as The Witch of Timbuctoo) in 1936.
Merritt participated in a couple of “round-robin” stories. “The Challenge from Beyond” was written with Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long, and C.L. Moore and was published in Fantasy Magazine in September 1935. Merritt wrote Chapter 11 of “The Last Poet and the Robots,” a round-robin story that appeared in Fantasy Magazine in April 1934. He also wrote a number of poems and a non-fiction book, The Story Behind the Story (1942), which is about the articles in The American Weekly that he found most interesting.
Among Merritt’s hobbies was the study of mythology and religion. He also had a passion for exotic plants, especially rare, poisonous, and psychedelic specimens. He had “one of the strangest flower gardens in the country,” according to the Associated Press, including Peruvian daffodil, Mexican shell lily, African trumpet, datura, mandrake, and monkshood. Through this hobby, he wrote numerous articles on botany. He also wrote articles on archaeology and modern survivals of ancient cults.
Merritt owned a housing development in Indian Rock Beach, Florida. He arrived there on August 20, 1943, for a combined vacation and business trip. The following day, he suffered a heart attack and died.
Among his honors was having a magazine named after him, A. Merritt’s Fantasy Magazine, which had a five-issue run from December 1949 through October 1950. In 1999, he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Many of Merritt’s books and stories are readily available. Reflections in the Moon Pool by Sam Moskowitz (Donald M. Grant, 1985) is the first full-length biography and critique of Merritt; it also contains a selection of Merritt’s poetry and letters and a previously unknown short story. Grant also published an illustrated edition of The Face in the Abyss (1991). Hippocampus Press published The Metal Monster (2002) as part of the Lovecraft’s Library series.