Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, April 8, 2021


 The Face in the Abyss by A. Merritt (a fixup novel of two stories:  "The Face in the Abyss" from Argosy, September 8, 1923, and "The Snake Mother" from Argosy as a seven-part serial from October 25-December 6, 1930; published in book form, 1931)

I would have loved this one when I was thirteen.  Even today, I like it very much, warts and all.  Warts?  Well, for one, it's fairly dated.  And there's the purple prose, some racial stereotyping, the illogical and hard to swallow scenes, and the amazing creatures that abound and seem just thrown in willy-nilly.  SF writer A. E. van Vogt once explained his method:  throw in a new concept at lest once every twelve pages; he may have learned that from this book.

For those who enjoy Edgar Rice Burroughs and have often wondered how H. Rider Haggard would read were he on steroids, this book will do the trick.

Nicholas Grayson is a mining engineer who has travelled the would.  He is approached by a man named Starrett, who, with two others, have a map that leads to fabulous treasure somewhere in the Andes mountains of Peru.  All Starrett needs is an additional partner who can finance an expedition.  Grayson doesn't truly believe in the treasure but he is between jobs and feels that he might find some valuable ore deposits on the expedition, so he agrees.

It turns out that Starrett and his two partners are craven ne'er-do-wells and plan to kill Grayson when -- not if -- they find the treasure.  Then Starrett comes across a beautiful girl bedecked in jewels and tries to have his way with her.  (The cad!)  Grayson stops Starrett's advances and looks at the girl with wonder.  She is not a native, neither Indian nor Spanish.  Where did she come from?  Her name is Suarra, and she is from a race that originated in Antarctica long before the poles shifted.  They are led by Adana, the Snake Mother and the last of a race of people, half reptile and half human.  The snake people nurtured the humans over millennia, turning them into a race with highly advanced and sophisticated science.  Over the years, though, the great knowledge they once had has slowly devolved.

Starrett realizes that the girl has strong feelings for Grayson (romantic attachment are often instantaneous in pulp fiction) and threatens to harm him if Suarra does not show them where she got the fabulous jewels she is wearing.  She tells him of a large cave where jewels of many types cluster the walls like fruit and agrees to take them there, saying them they can take whatever they want if only they promise to leave the area afterward.  So off they go.  Along the way they come across dinosaurs chasing strange prey, winged snakes with rapier-like bills, and vicious lizard people.  The trek is long and dangerous, through valleys and caves until, they come across the jeweled cave, and it is everything Suanna had promised.  As Starrett and his cronies load up on gems, Grayson walks a bit further into the cave and comes across a large dark abyss.  One one side is a giant stone carving of a cruel but handsome face with large jewels for eyes.  A ray suddenly comes from the eyes and catches Grayson in a spell.  In a trance, he is about to go to the face in the abyss when the other three approach and are caught in a similar spell.  With the mystical help of the Snake Mother, Grayson breaks the spell and watches in horror as they other three begin to scale the giant carving, reaching the yes, then turning into mist.  The three separate mists then join and turn into liquid gold and drop into the abyss. 

Suarra comes from the fabulous hidden land of Yu-Atlanchi, where death has been conquered.  Eternal life has caused the people to stop their progress and is the reason that they have lost so much of their scientific knowledge over the years.  The population of Yu-Atlanchi is small -- only a few hundred people divided among rebels (outlaws), Dreamers (those who live in a trance and do not involve themselves with the affairs of the land), and followers of the status quo.  In a vision, the Snake Mother had told Grayson that he must approach her through his own wiles and courage.  With the aid of two soldiers who Grayson rescued from the lizard-people, he is taken before an outlaw leader and his girlfriend(?)/wife(?)/councilor(?); the woman, who is beautiful ('natch) turns out to be Suanna's great-great aunt (or something) and is thousands of years old because she has eternal life.  So how old is Suanna?  That question keeps dogging Grayson.  (Also, by this time, Suanna is back in Yu-Atlanchi.)  As an outsider, Grayson would be killed if found in Yu-Atlanchi, so a message is relayed that he and  Suanna meet under the statue of the Frog Goddess just outside the city.  Yeah, a frog goddess -- head of a frog but her human body?  Va-va-voom!)

A few other things are explained along the way.  Power in Yu-Atlanchi is held by the cruel dictator who is a follower of the Evil One (Nimir) who has been safely encased in stone behind the face in the abyss for thousands of years.  Nimir is now beginning to get loose; when that happens he will use his powers to take over the entire world.  Adana, the Snake Mother, is tired and really has nothing to do with the people of Yu-Atlanchi except for Suanna, whom she loves.  She knows that Suanna loves Grayson and approves -- as long as Grayson approaches her (Adana) with cunning and bravery.  I can't explain most of this, but be assured that it is all simply a means to keep the plot moving.  The outlaws want to eliminate eternal life so their race can begin to make progress again.  There's a war, with nifty fights with deadly rays, swords, and spears, As Grayson fights for the Snake Mother, all the time wondering, just how is this chick Suanna?

A. (Abraham) Merritt (1884-1943) was a hypochrondriac, a world traveler with an interest in the occult, and the assistant editor (1912-1937) and then editor (1937 until his death) of The American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement published by the Hearst Corporation.  These were highly paid posts -- he was making $25,000 a year in 1919 and $100,000 a year at the time of his death.  as a sideline he wrote eight complete fantasy novels, the  most famous, perhaps, was The Moon Pool (1919).  As a fantasy writer he was prone of hyperbole and he never met an adjective he didn't love.  Merritt's fervent imagination and his fast-moving action endeared him to his audience.  He was an influence on H. . Lovecraft's writings and (probably to his shame) the ravings writing of Richard Shaver.  Among his fans were Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Moorcock, and Robert Bloch.  

Merritt's specialization was in lost civilizations, fantastic monsters, noble heroes, and pure but scantily-clad women.  He was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1999, along with Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, and Jules Verne..  In 1983, science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz released A. Merritt: Reflection in a Moon Pool (1985) a collection of miscellanea by and about Merritt.

The prose may be somewhat clunky, but A. Merritt is essential reading for both fantasy and pulp fans

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