The Merritt Monster

“And all the valley was carpeted with the blue poppies in wide, unbroken fields, luminous as the morning skies of mid-June; they rippled mile after mile over the path we had followed, over the still untrodden path which we must take. They nodded, they leaned toward each other, they seemed to whisper—then to lift their heads and look up like crowding swarms of little azure fays, half impudently, wholly trustfully, into the faces of the jeweled giants standing guard over them. And when the little breeze walked upon them it was as though they bent beneath the soft tread and were brushed by the sweeping skirts of unseen, hastening Presences.”

merritt

Abraham Merritt was one of the most popular and influential writers of the twentieth century, which goes to show how strange and fleeting fame can be. According to Sam Moskowitz’s introduction in my copy of The Metal Monster, A. Merritt’s books had sold roughly four million copies by the late 1950s, and that does not take into account the incredible success he earlier experienced when his fiction was serialized in the long-running story magazine Argosy. Merritt was so popular that his The Ship of Ishtar was chosen by reader poll to be reprinted in a 1938 series of Argosy issues, beating out Edgar Rice Burroughs and Erle Stanley Gardner, amongst others. A newspaper man professionally, Merritt worked high within the Hearst organization, made an excellent living, and only wrote fiction because he enjoyed it.

And so did just about everyone else in the country enjoy Merritt’s writing, it seems, from how popular he was during his lifetime (the opposite fate of many writers who achieve posthumous fame). After his passing in 1943, his writing continued to sell in book form at least through the end of the fifties but at some point this leveled off. Few writers could have the longevity of Tolkien, and while Merritt is still read now, the audience is smaller and what most seem to notice about Merritt now is his overwriting. The word “tedious” is often thrown around, and it’s true that the man loved to describe. Someone somewhere noted that it’s incredible that he could detail so elaborately, and yet not repeat himself. His command of $100 words is amazing, as I found myself puzzling now and then over a word’s meaning (and in most groups I’m the one who knows the weird vocabulary words without hesitation).

The Metal Monster is not ranked as Merritt’s best by most readers, but it seems that none of his published fiction was actually bad. I went through a phase of picking up all of his books decades ago, largely because references to him in history-of-science-fiction books built him up as a touchstone to the bizarre and wonderful. I’ve yet to get through more than a couple so far, which I hope to remedy in the near future, but a little Merritt goes a long way and it would be hard to read multiple Merritts in a row. (As I’m mostly writing these days, I wish I had time for more reading, period. And I know that writers need to be readers for the sake of their writing . . .)

While Merritt’s style would stick out like a sore thumb among current writers, it’s also true that his style would never have developed today at all. For what made him cross the line from poet to verbal onanist was that he was describing things that no one had seen in the real world, and that probably no one had described in fiction either. With an extremely vivid imagination, he simply put down specifically the bizarre things he must have seen play out in his mind. And writing in a time when fiction was still closer to the elaborate 19th century than the clipped Hemingway style that became the 20th century norm, readers would not have minded. They also likely did not mind as they read his writing in serialized, weekly doses, and lived in a time without TV and where movies mostly lacked believable special effects.

The paragraph quoted above is representative of the Merritt style, with some truly beautiful descriptions and a hint of foreshadowing. But even as the story kicks into gear and its assemblage of adventurers get caught in the hidden world of an ancient kingdom of a godlike being and the living metal creatures that serve her, the sense of awe continues but becomes strained with just too much of it. (Awe-fullness, really.) But as archaic as Merritt’s style is, it’s amazing that he thought of a concept that would still seem radical at the end of the century when Terminator 2 unleashed its liquid metal bad guy. Here, there is a whole exotic land of metal things, composed of basic shapes and combining and recombining in various patterns according to their collective will.

And altogether, the upshot of this experience is that Merritt becomes tedious and yet remains exhilarating and exotic by the end. So without too much future rolling by, I’m going to have to dive into more Merritt and report back here, like one of his recurring characters.

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