Forgotten Fantasy: The Face in the Abyss by A. Merritt

Face in the Abyss wrap-around cover by Rodney Matthews

Edgar Rice Burroughs opened up the world of the pulps in the ‘teens, and the field of fantasy and science fiction (the latter of which didn’t even have that name yet) attracted new voices. One of the most successful to follow Burroughs was A. (Abraham) Merritt, a magazine editor and part-time speculative fiction author. Merritt specialized in the Lost Civilization tale. He lavished an imaginative perspective onto this sub-genre unlike anything seen previously. In novels like The Moon Pool (1919), The Metal Monster (1920), and Dwellers in the Mirage (1932) he created science-fantasy vistas as astonishing as they were verbose. And “coruscating” and “scintillating,” two words Merritt passionately loved.

Although Merritt was one of the most popular SF&F authors of his time, today he’s almost forgotten except in corners of pulp fandom. The Face in the Abyss, like Merritt’s other novels set in otherworldly hidden civilizations, has fallen into the out-of-print, out-of-mind limbo. Avon books published a top-selling paperback for years, but eventually they allowed their rights in it lapse. Today, it’s available again as an ebook or print-on-demand—if people even know to look for it. (Which is why this post is here in this first place.)

The Face in Abyss originally appeared as the novella “The Face in the Abyss” in Argosy for September 8, 1923, and the serial “The Snake Mother” that ran in seven parts in the same magazine in 1930. These two parts separated by seven years were melded together as a single novel for a 1931 hardback publication.

The book begins with American miner Nicholas Graydon, a standard two-fisted Merritt hero, receiving an enticing offer from an adventurer named Starrett: he knows the location in the Andes of a hidden treasure, the ransom originally intended to free the Incan Atahualpa from the conquistador Pizarro. When Pizarro killed his prisoner, the treasure was placed out of his reach—but Starrett claims he knows where it’s hidden.

This is straightforward Indiana Jones material and similar to what the pulp magazine Adventure offered readers monthly. It’s far away from the wild science-fantasy landscape where The Face in the Abyss eventually goes, with dense paragraphs of alien beauty and hordes of bizarre races. This was Merritt’s usual structure; The Moon Pool follows a similar pattern of archaeological hunt prologue and phantasmagoria body.

The events move fast from the opening: 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. When Starett attacks Suarra, the chivalrous Graydon knocks him unconscious and allows Suarra to return to her people. The other three men on the expedition tag Graydon for a traitor; they tie him up and threaten to torture him unless he reveals what deal he made with the strange woman. Suarra returns, not with an army, but 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, still suspicious of one another, follow.

The travelers enter the 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 are sent into the great treasure chamber of Yu-Atlanchi, where they witness gems beyond counting and a massive 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 seeing 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 an almost documentary feel. Mystery and slow revelations entice the reader along. The culminating scene with the face is filled with wonder and horror, and promises the even more epic and fantastic canvas for the rest of the story.

The serial first published as “The Snake Mother” starts as Graydon seeks to return to Yu-Atlanchi and 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. Even if readers don’t need an explanation, they get one anyway.

From this point on, The Face in the Abyss shifts between Merritt’s two favored styles. The first is tough, fast-moving action, similar to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his more direct imitators.

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 could turn down, had a passionate love affair with the exclamation mark, and stops story momentum 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.

If this feels like Clark Ashton Smith to fans of Weird Tales, well it does. The difference is Smith’s baroque descriptions are the entire point of his stories, while Merritt embellishes a fantasy adventure with an enormous dollop of adjectival nuttiness. This restrained compared to some of Merritt’s work, such as The Metal MonsterIf you gotten this far reading about Merritt, then you won’t mind these forays into arabesques. This the magic of a period in popular literature we may never see again.

The novel now moves into a panorama of creatures, races, and super-science masquerading as magic—quintessential “science fantasy.” Invisible winged serpents, trained dinosaurs, immortal races, lizard and spider-men, vanished treasures, weapons of fire and darkness. Merritt sometimes lays this on too thickly, and he often gives 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 …

Uhm, have you got all that? If so, hold on, because there’s 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 desires to possess. Also prepare for confusing diversions into overly detailed ceremonies, 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 readers, it’s impossible not to feel the thrill, and his imagination has few limits. Once the story reaches the final quarter tipping point, the sweep carries  readers all the way to the appropriately titled penultimate chapter, “Ragnarok in Yu-Atlanchi.” Nothing is held back in enormous climactic battle filled with more colorful spectacle than an IMAX screen could hold it. (And real IMAX, too, not that digital stuff.) 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 creates an authentic aura of mystery and tragedy around her by the conclusion; she’s the first Merritt character who truly stands out in my memory separate from the plot.

Although I recommend The Face in the Abyss for its sense of wonder and adventure, the idiosyncrasies of Merritt’s style make it a risky starting place for a someone who hasn’t read much pulp of the ‘20s and ’30s. It’s better to try out Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard before sampling Merritt’s collision of styles. But Merritt-land is worth an eventual visit, and The Face in the Abyss is as good a starting point as anything, although you can’t go wrong with The Moon Pool either. Later, you can move on to The Ship of Ishtar, which I think is his masterpiece.