The Metal Monster by A. Merritt (1946)
I may have met my match.
Have you ever tried to read a book, one that you are actually interested in, and found yourself slogging through it? For the past week and a half, I have been doing that with Merritt's The Metal Monster, and I'm still only about half-way through this fairly short book. Turgid prose has never stopped me before, but this may be a first.
Merritt (1884-1943) was one of the most popular early science-fantasy writers out there. His output was not great -- only eight novels and a handful of short stories -- but much of his work remains classics of the imagination. His most famous book was The Moon Pool (1919), a fix-up of the eponymous short story and its six-part sequel from All-Story Weekly in 1918 and 1919. The Moon Pool was one of the first important "lost world" stories (following Conan Doyle's The Lost World) and has thrilled readers for almost a century about the adventures of Dr. Walter Goodwin and Larry O'Keefe among the strange beings in an underground world.
Goodwin returns as the narrator of The Metal Monster, as he decides to go on a solitary botonical expedition in the Himalayas. In Tehran, he picks up a servant and confident, the Chinese cook Chiu-Ming, and off they go into the Himalayas. After three months of trekking through this lonely landscape, they run into Dick Drake, a recently de-mobbed Brit who had decided to go walkabout around Turkestan, Tibet, Hindu-Kush, and the Trans-Himalaya. Thus begins Merritt's execise in coincidence theatre. Drake, it turns out, is the son of an old colleague of Goodwin's. They join forces and soon they find themselves in a valley where a strange aurora draws their attention. There are strange noises. They come upon a strange (and very, very, large) footprint, which Chiu-Ming thinks is the foot of Shin-je, the lord of Hell. In the distance can be seen the ruins of an ancient city, but as they make their way there, a poisonous miasma of despair almost destroys them. Somehow, they make it to the city, only to find **coincidence, coincidence** Ruth Ventnor, a beautiful young scientist friend of Goodwin's. Ruth is there with her scientist brother Martin, trapped in the city by the strange miasma. To make matters worse, a maurading band of Persians, lost-race survivors of the age of Darius, are about to attack.
And attack they do. Defeat is all but certain for our heroes when there appears a beautiful woman cloaked in light and floating in the background. (Understand, Ruth is a beautiful woman, but this other gal is beautiful in spades -- a goddess in human form.) The woman is Norhala, one who has a supernatural control of the elements. Metals become alive and form weapons, killing the Persians while saving our heroes. Norhala motions for the group to join her, while paying special attrention to Ruth. Along the way, Norhala kills Chiu-Ming without a second thought or any remorse. (This part disturbed me because it had seemed that Chui-Ming was being set up for an important role in the story. Oh, well. What's one more dead Oriental in the pulps, anyway?) Norhala uses her powers to forge metal platforms for out heroes to follow her into a large mountain cavern, through more turgid prose, to her home where we meet the Metal Emperor. The Metal Emperor is just that, a living being of metal (with a crunchy chrystal core). The Metal Emperor controls Norhala, using a sort of psychic brain-washing that makes her his willing slave -- the same technique he uses to begin to control Ruth.
Seeing what is happening, Martin fires his gun at the sentient metal being only to be zapped by an energy blast. Only Ruth's pleading saves Martin from death, but her brother is in a coma, teetering on the edge of death. Well, not a coma, really...Martin's mind is in another place where he has some insights into what the Metal Emperor is; the problem is in communicating that to Goodwin and Drake who remain on our psychic plane.
We also meet Yuruk, an ageless wrinkled enuch who is Norhala's loyal servant. He has hypnotizing hands, it seems.
And that's about where I am in the book right now. I'm interested, really interested. But, Sweet Mother of Jesus, that clunky prose...
It wasn't that long ago that Merritt was considered on of the very best fantasy prose stylists. His work has influenced fantasy writers for generations, from H. P. Lovecraft on. Times, at least for me, have changed.
Although The Metal Monster was finally published in book form in 1946 (as an Avon paperback), it first appeared as an eight-part serial in Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1920 (All-Story Weekly had merged with Argosy that year). Seven years later, Hugo Gernsback changed Ruth's name and published the story as an eleven-part serial in Science and Invention under the title The Metal Emperor. Mary Gnaedinger dropped the first two chapters and printed the story in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in 1941. (Gnaedinger's championship of Merritt's work actually lead to the creation of the short-lived magazine A. Merritt's Fantasy Magazine (1949-50). Sam Moskowitz reprinted the book in his Hyperion Classics of Science Fiction series in 1974. The novel was also published as part of the Lovecraft's Library series from Hippocampus Press in 2002. The book has fallen into the public domain and is now available online.
I'm willing to bet that a number of you have read this book years ago and were suitably thrilled and impressed by it. And I bet that many of you would enjoy it today. And probably a few would find it as clunk as I have. So, while I can't recommend the book, I certainly can't dismiss either.
Meanwhile, I'll keep plodding along. Maybe the book won't defeat me, after all.
For links to today's less-plodding Forgotten Books, go to Davy Crockett's Almanack where Evan Lewis (as he says) tries to fit into Patti Abbott's size 7 pumps this week.