28 October 2008

Classic Science Fantasy: The Face in the Abyss

The Face in the Abyss
A. Merritt (1931)

I’ve had some recent dealings with the classic “Lost Race” trope, first in the ordinary thriller novel The Charlemagne Pursuit, and then in the interesting but flawed 1935 film version of H. Rider Haggard’s She. The pulp magazine authors would embrace lost civilizations, and Edgar Rice Burroughs found one under practically every stone in his stories.

But the lost civilization was also the specialty of A. (Abraham) Merritt, a journalist and novelist who was one of the most popular science-fiction and fantasy authors of the first half of the twentieth century. Today, he’s almost forgotten, even though his conventions continue to appear in popular fantasy-adventure stories up to… well, The Charlemagne Pursuit.

Merritt lavished an imaginative perspective onto his lost civilization novels that no one had seen previously. Novels like The Moon Pool, The Metal Monster, and The Ship of Ishtar created science-fantasy vistas as astonishing as they were sometimes verbose. His steel-jawed heroes, archetypes if there ever were any, would battle for love and life across worlds of the weird. The Face in the Abyss is yet another of his once-popular novels of adventurers in an otherworldly hidden civilization that has fallen into the out-of-print, out-of-mind limbo.

Just doing my job, bringing it up.

The Face in Abyss originally appeared as the novella “The Face in the Abyss” in the pulp magazine Argosy for September 8, 1923, and the serial The Snake Mother that ran in seven parts in the same magazine in 1930. The two parts separated by seven years were melded together as a single novel for 1931 hardback publication. For years, Avon books published a top-selling paperback of the novel, but they eventually let their rights in it lapse. It is currently available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle.

Events start fast and with minimal fuss. American miner Nicholas Graydon, a standard two-fisted A. Merritt hero, receives an enticing offer from an adventurer named Starrett:
Starrett came to the point at once. Graydon had heard the legend of the treasure train bringing to Pizarro the ransom of the Incan Atahualpa? And that its leaders, learning of the murder of their monarch by the butcher-boy Conquistador, had turned aside and hidden the treasure somewhere in the Andean wilderness?

Graydon had heard it, hundreds of times; had even considered hunting for it. He said so. Starrett nodded.

“I know where it is,” he said.
Straightforward Indiana Jones material, and much different from the wild science-fantasy landscape we will encounter later, filled with dense paragraphs of alien beauty and hordes of bizarre races.

For moment, we’re off and running . . . a few pages later, in the wilds of the Andes, Graydon encounters the beautiful light-skinned woman Suarra, decked with jewels, who claims to come from the lost civilization of Yu-Atlanchi. Chivalrous Graydon knocks Starrett unconscious when he attacks Suarra, and then he allows her to return to her people. The other three men on the expedition tag Graydon for a traitor who made an arrangement with the strange woman, and tie him up and threaten to torture him unless he reveals what “deal” he made. But Suarra returns, not with an army, but with a strange cloaked man and a llama laden with gold. She promises to lead them to the source of the treasure, and the four men, all suspicious of one another, follow.
The travelers enter the hidden land of Yu-Atlanchi. Suarra regales Graydon with the history of her people, who came from the polar regions ages ago: the Old Ones, along with their great lords and a saurian race. Graydon’s three avaricious partners try to seize Suarra and her treasure, but her robed attendant Tyddo, who she terms “The Lord of Folly,” paralyzes and controls them with his staff. All four men are sent into the great treasure chamber of Yu-Atlanchi, where they witness gems beyond counting, and a great stone face:
It was a man’s face and the face of a fallen angel in one; Luciferean; imperious; ruthless—and beautiful. Upon its broad brows power was enthroned—power which could have been godlike in its beneficence, had it so willed, but which had chosen 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 within himself, answering it, Graydon felt this lust stir and awaken, grow swiftly stronger, rise steadily like a wave, lapping and threatening to submerge the normal barriers that had restrained it.
Only Graydon survives witnessing the Face in the Abyss, for Suarra asked the Snake Mother Adana, the last of the Serpent-people who taught her race long ago, to intervene and save him. But Graydon cannot stay after he survives the Face, and an Indian in the Snake Mother’s service escorts the American beyond the boundaries of Yu-Atlanchi.

This completes the novella, the first six chapter of the book, and like many of A. Merritt’s works, it moves with a brisk and almost documentary feel. Mystery and slow revelations entice the reader into the story. The culminating scene with the face is filled with wonder and horror, and promises the even more epic and fantastic canvas on which Merritt will paint the rest of the story.

The serial originally published as The Snake Mother starts as Graydon quests to return to Yu-Atlanchi and his beloved Suarra. He spends his recovery time giving improbable scientific explanations for all that he has seen, keeping within the boundaries of the “scientific romance” that was Merritt’s specialty.

From this point on, The Face in the Abyss shifts between Merritt’s two favored styles. The first is tough, fast-moving action, much like you would expect from an Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novel or any issue of Adventure:
There was but one thing to do, and Graydon did it. He pointed at the Emers and launched himself at the Yu-Atlanchan. He ducked beneath a vicious thrust of the sword, and the next instant had caught the noble’s right wrist in one hand while the other throttled him. It was no time for niceties. Up came his knee, and caught his opponent in the groin. Under the agony of that blow, the Yu-Atlanchan relaxed, his sword dropped. Graydon pinned him through the heart with Regor’s dagger.
Then there is the other A. Merritt, the writer who never met an adjective he didn’t like and who had a passionate love affair with the exclamation mark, and who stops story moment to paint enormous pictures of his strange settings:
At his left was a garden! A garden of evil!

There a narrow stream ran over the floor of the cavern in curves and intricate loops. It was crimson, like a stream of sluggishly running blood. Upon its banks were great red lilies, tainted and splotched with venomous greens; orchid blooms of sullen purple veined with unclean scarlets; debauched roses; obscene thickets of what seemed to be shoots of young bamboo stained with verdigris; crouching trees from whose branches heart-shaped fruits of leprous white; patches of fleshy leafed plants from whose mauve centers protruded thick yellowish spikes shaped like hooded adders down whose side slowly dripped glistening drops of some deadly nectar.
Anyone else having a Clark Ashton Smith hallucination? The difference, of course, is that Smith’s baroque descriptions are the point of his stories, and here Merritt is embellishing a fantasy adventure with an enormous dollop of adjectival nuttiness. Fortunately, it’s more in check here than in the disappointing The Metal Monster.

And honestly, I don’t mind Merritt’s forays in arabesques. I’m a pulp fan, and this sort of writing often comes with the territory.

The novel now moves into a panorama of creatures, races, and super-science masquerading as magic. Invisible winged serpents, trained dinosaurs, immortal races, lizard and spider-men, vanished treasures, weapons of fire and darkness. Merritt sometimes lays all this on too thickly, and his has a habit of giving characters too many titles, such as villain Nimir, also known as the Lord of Evil, the Shadow, The Dark One, etc.

Nimir was once one of the Lords, but rebelled and was imprisoned inside the Face in the Abyss. But now he walks free as the Shadow, and with his lieutenant Lantlu, the master of dinosaurs, wages war against Adana the Snake Mother and her band of outlaws. Graydon comes to Yu-Atlanchi in the middle of this growing conflict, and fights alongside Suarra, the Spider-Man Kon, the heroes Regor and Huon.

Have you got all that? If so, get ready for a spectacular fight in the dinosaur arena, a journey into the Cavern of Lost Wisdom, Graydon on a desperate quest to rescue Suarra from getting wedded to a lizard man, and a battle to control Graydon’s body which the Shadow of Nimir desperately wants to possess. Also get ready for the confusing diversions into overly detailed ceremonies, odd and inexplicable occurrences, and Merritt’s sometimes jumbled geography. If you don’t pay close attention, you might get lost in the caverns.

But when Merritt throws all the pulp excitement he can muster at the reader, it’s impossible not to feel the thrill, and his imagination has few restraints. Once the story reaches the final quarter tipping point, the sweep carries the reader all the way to the appropriately titled penultimate chapter, “Ragnarok in Yu-Atlanchi.” Nothing gets held back in enormous final battle filled with such colorful spectacle that you’d think only an IMAX screen could hold it. Merritt even adds a touching and bittersweet coda after the epic finish.

Characterizations aren’t a strong point in this kind of pulp tale, but two of the nonhuman characters, Adana the Snake Mother and Kon the Weaver, rise above the heroic brawlers and beautiful maidens. Adana does create an authentic aura of mystery and tragedy around her by the conclusion; she’s the first Merritt character who truly stands out in memory separate from the plot.

Although I recommend The Face in the Abyss for its sense of wonder and adventure, the idiosyncracies of Merritt’s style make it a risky starting place for a someone who hasn’t read much genuine pulp of the ‘20s and 30s. It’s better to go to the more familiar faces of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard first before sampling Merritt’s strange mixture of styles. But Meritt-land is worth an eventual visit, and The Face in the Abyss is as good a starting point as anything he wrote.

The University of Nebraska Press rescued The Moon Pool from obscurity, so perhaps they will one day do so for the equally worthy The Face in the Abyss.

Update: My favorite Merritt novel of all, The Ship of Ishtar, is now available from Paizo Publishing. You can also read my review of it.

Update 2: The Face in the Abyss is now available in hardcover and for only 99¢ as a Kindle edition.