Monday 21 December 2009

Strength of the Sea: The Ship of Ishtar on Dial P for Pulp!

Abraham Merritt is criminally underexposed to modern audiences. Considering his impact on the pulp juggernaut that is the Weird Tales Trinity, it’s a bewildering state of affairs: even Blackwood, Machen and Dunsany seem to have a greater following, with more recent reprints than Merritt. In addition, he was one of the select few to collaborate on the legendary round-robin tale, ”The Challenge From Beyond,” with Howard, Lovecraft, C. L. Moore and Frank Belknap Long. The most recent release I can find of Merritt’s work (apart from the aforementioned “Challenge”) is a reprint of "The Metal Monster" in “Lovecraft’s Library,” a series that seeks to hook the Lovecraft fan-base into reading the material which fired the Man from Providence’s imagination. As an aside, who else would like to see a “Howard’s Library,” featuring Lamb, Mundy, and other under-appreciated authors?

Luckily for Merritt fans, Paizo came to the rescue. Paizo’s Planet Stories series consists of some of the best pulp fiction of the early 20th Century, some of which hasn’t been reprinted in decades. From the redoubtable Robert E. Howard, to early stalwarts Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Otis Adelbert Kline and Leigh Brackett, to modern contributors Michael Moorcock & Gary Gygax. Future additions include Manly Wade Wellman and Piers Anthony, and hopefully even more in the years to come–especially more A. Merritt.

I first came across Merritt in a collection of fantasy stories, which included “The Woman of the Wood.” Even among the giants which comprised that tome–Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, Leiber, Moore, Anderson, Poe–Merritt’s story stood out. There was something really special about Merritt’s ideas that made me curious to seek out more of his work. Soon, I happily came upon some old paperbacks: The Moon Pool, "The Metal Monster," and The Ship of Ishtar.

While "The Metal Monster" is my favorite of the Merritt stories I’ve read thus far, The Ship of Ishtar is no distant second. In fact, I’d say it’s stronger as a novel: while "The Metal Monster"'s human characters are practically anemic next to the gigantic ingenuity of the setting and concept, The Ship of Ishtar‘s dramatis personae are strong enough to hold their own against the grand backdrop of a war between gods that forms the basis of the novel. I’d say "The Metal Monster" is Merritt at his most imaginative, while The Ship of Ishtar is Merritt at his storytelling best.

I’m not the only Cimmerian blogger to appreciate Merritt: Deuce Richardson is a fellow Merrit fan, and has been a vocal advocate for far longer than I. Probably his greatest contribution to study of Merritt has been the three part series on The Ship of Ishtar for “Dial P for Pulp!” This epic, over a year in the making, has finally reached its conclusion. I was worried it would never come, with the space between parts 3 and 4 being a long wait, but it was well worth it.

“Dial P for Pulp!” has always been a highly enjoyable podcast for me, and it would be remiss of me to omit mention of its quality features. The most recent cast, No. 11, starts off with Two Minute Danger Theatre, a very fun little parody of the classic radio pulp style: Mr Drage, please consider this a personal endorsement for future installments. David Drage’s review of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Lost Continent (the best edition using the original title, Beyond Thirty) puts me in mind to do my own pieces on my beloved The Land That Time Forgot and The Lost World, and the other reviews were informative and interesting. In particular, Drage’s review of Worlds of their Own was very illuminating: an interview with the editor James Lowder can be found here.

While I will provide start times for The Ship of Ishtar segments for expediency, I highly recommend listening to the entire cast: it’s a fantastic production all round, and I would hate for people to miss some of the wonderful sounds, music and voices within. First of all, I hope readers will indulge if I offer my thoughts on the first two parts, a year late they may be. Part One (starting about 20:55) starts off, surprisingly enough, with the beginning, as Deuce introduces the main players: himself, Chris “Rude Dog” Hale, and Brian Willhite. I have to say, it’s great to put a voice to a name: Deuce’s southern drawl, all Bourbon whisky and barbecue sauce, is made for podcasting.

After introductions are made, Deuce gives a brief overview of Merritt’s fascinating life: amateur archaeologist, and explorer of pre-Columbian ruins of Central America; collector of weapons and tribal paraphernalia, and a vast library of occult literature; cultivator of orchids and plants associated with witchcraft. By the end of his life, he was earning an annual sum of $100,000–incredible earnings in the 1940s, the equivalent of $4.8 million today! Merritt would have been, effectively, a millionaire. A life well-lived, all things considered, until his sudden death in 1943 from a heart attack at his winter home in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, at the age of 59.

The Warriors Three speak of how modern the prose is, the proto-Indiana Jones protagonist John Kenton (taking after his creator), and Merritt’s brilliance in concise character description, especially his women, which Deuce says manages to out-Howard Howard:

Her wide eyes were green as depths of forest glens, and like them they were filled with drifting shadows. Her head was small; the features fine; the red mouth delicately amorous. In the hollow of her throat a dimple lay; a chalice for kisses and empty of them and eager to be filled. Above her brows was set a silver crescent, slim as a newborn moon. Over each horn of the crescent poured a flood of red-gold hair, framing the lovely face; the flood streamed over and was parted by her tilted breasts; it fell in ringlets almost to her sandalled feet.

Great Scott!

There’s a lovely moment where Deuce names Sharane, and an awed hush issues from the lips of the group, like they were Trojan warriors upon hearing the name Helen. One thing that the group comments on was the issue of time distortion in the novel: time appears to run far faster on the ship than on earth, meaning one could spend hours there, but only minutes pass back home. Such an effect is most famous in Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve heard local folk stories of travel to the Fairy World where the reverse is the case: folk will visit the Realm of the Fair Folk, and upon their return, centuries have passed.

A favorite observation is Kenton’s confession, that he is not a messenger of Nabu, but merely a man, of 6,000 years in the future. Sharane is stunned by this revelation, she is faced by the immensity of its implications, and the world starts to fall from under her–however, she rejects it, and has him thrown onto the Dark Side of the Ship. Normally, this sort of plot of a stranger in a strange land would be based on one of two perspectives: that where the reader sympathizes with the stranger, or that where they sympathize to the natives. The Ship of Ishtar is one of those stories that takes on both elements. Initially, we are fully with Kenton, marvelling at the beauty and horror of the otherworldly vessel he alighted upon. However, with the insight into Sharane’s reaction, this incorporates the second side: we suddenly feel the shock, terror and fear of a world with the veil drawn back, to reveal an incomprehensible truth. It’s magnificently done, and something that I’ve seen in only a few science fiction stories since The Ship of Ishtar.

Part Two (29:00) starts off about Chapter 7, when Kenton is imprisoned by Klaneth. The lads talk about the fantasy plot seeming cliche, despite it being one of the very first, if not the first, novels to use them: an important thing to remember. References are made to scenes and archetypes similar to those in Howard’s “The God in the Bowl,” “The Lion of Tiberias,” Cormac Mac Art and others: I can certainly see a possible correlation between Kenton & Sigurd Trygg’s Son with Cormac Mac Art (like Kenton, nicknamed “Wolf”) & Wulfhere the Skull-Splitter. Though I’m sure Howard would’ve come up with this on his own, The Ship of Ishtar might have contributed a little inspiration. The nature of the sea the ship sails–where the opposing pantheons are kept apart, and only humans from the waking world can traverse through both realms–is certainly reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, and descriptions of the dark horrors do sound Lovecraftian as all get-out:

Dark was that cabin, the walls somber as dull black marble. Other shadows clung to the dark walls and clustered in the corners; shadows that seemed only to await command to deepen into substance.

Unholy shadows–like those that clothed the thing within the niche.

I’m delighted that they briefly comment on one of my favourite moments in the book, which I’ll let speak for itself:
He pressed Zachel’s dagger into the Viking’s hand.

“Use that,” he said, “until you have won a better weapon.”

“That! Ho-ho!” laughed Sigurd. “A woman’s toy! Nay, Kenton–Sigurd can do better than that!”

He dropped the dagger. He gripped the great oar; lifted it out of the thole pins. He bent forward sharply, bringing its shaft against the side of the port there was a sharp crackling, a rending of wood. He drew back, bringing the oar against the opposite side of the port. There was another crackling, and Sigurd drew the oar in, broken squarely in the middle, a gigantic club all of ten feet long. He gripped it by the splintered end, whirled it round his head, the chains and the dangling manacles spinning like battle mace.

If Howard ever got around to writing Kull’s freedom from that Lemurian galley, I wouldn’t be surprised if he or one of his steel-thewed companions performed a similar display of awesome strength.

A battle on the ship ensues, and the forces of Nergal and Ishtar collide. The introduction of those mystical warriors, by the way, being a fascinating and unforgettable scene that would make a very memorable sequence in a film adaptation. It’s thematically illustrated quite nicely on the cover of the Paizo book, and simply gorgeously rendered here by Virgil Finlay. The publisher Erik Mona endeavored to include all of Finlay’s illustrations from two previous editions for the Paizo edition.

Deuce then makes a very intriguing point, that of Emakhtila being a practical blueprint for The Hyborian Age, and it’s pretty easy to see how: it’s a microcosm of the ancient world. Babylonians, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Minoans, Romans, Carthaginians, all from different time-periods, all mixing together in one place. One sees echoes of cosmopolitan Messantia, Zamboula or Khoraja in the Sorcerer’s Isle. Also, like Howard, Lamb, Mundy and the better historical authors, Merritt’s descriptions are historically sound, in a time where any Middle Eastern people are described by lesser authors in terms indistinguishable from Arabs. Indeed, the moronic furore over the upcoming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time film shows that even modern culture seems woefully ill-informed about the ethnic makeup of the Persian people. No doubt those people who thought the dark-haired, blue-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal was “too Caucasian” to portray a Persian Prince would be scratching their heads in a Ship of Ishtar film adaptation’s Zubran–a blue-eyed red-head Persian warrior.

Another interesting parallel is made between Narada’s Wooing of Bel, and the Dance of Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast”–the case for Howard having read, and enjoyed, The Ship of Ishtar becomes ever more solid. Once again, this scene is beautifully depicted by Virgil Finlay.

And now we come to the final part, a year in the waiting: Part Three (9:00) was a wait all the more difficult, knowing that it ends on a cliffhanger. Still, the timing ended up rather fortuitous, since it coincides with the Planet Stories release. Deuce & company take a minute to praise Merritt’s descriptions of the Temple of the Seven Zones. I notice that Merritt uses the descriptor “Cyclopean” for the great ziggurat, a favorite adjective of Lovecraft’s (and mine).

The ziggurat itself is a fascinating construction: several terraces, each level a different color. Silver, a rich orange, jet black, scarlet, blue. It’s a unique creation in a novel filled with them. Within, Merritt’s descriptions of the Babylonian pantheon–the Seven Zones being the districts designated to each deity– are evocative and atmospheric. Deuce compares the imagery to Howard’s “The House of Arabu,” and recites the eerie poetry as Kenton passes the altar of Nergal. So as not to spoil the pleasure of listening to Deuce’s recitation, I’m going to give an example of my own favorite, as Kenton passes the altar of Ninib:

“Lord of Spears! Lord of the Battle! Master of the Shields! Master of the Hearts of Warriors! Ruler of the Strife! Destroyer of Opposition! Breaker of the Lock! The Smiter! Whose Color is Scarlet, Whose House is the Fourth of the Zones! Of shields and of spears are builded the altars of Ninib and their fires are fed with the blood of men and the tears of women, and upon the altars of Ninib burn the gates of fallen cities and the hearts of conquered kings! He goes by the altars of Ninib. He sees threaten him the crimson fangs of the boars of Ninib whose heads are wreathed with the right hands of warriors, the crimson tusks of the elephants of Ninib whose feet are ankleted with the skulls of kings, and the crimson tongues of the snakes of Ninib which lick up the cities!”

Crom. Eat your heart out, Khorne and Arioch!

After heroic sacrifices and theological confrontations, the final reckoning comes between Kenton & Klaneth, and the final moments of the novel–a bittersweet denouement, to say the least–are both tragic and affirming. Generally, fantasy novels involving travel from the mundane to the supernatural fall into one of two traps: either the protagonist rejects the supernatural, and returns to the mundane; or the protagonist rejects the mundane, and remains in the realm of the supernatural. The ending of The Ship of Ishtar avoids both, preferring the third option. As a result, it’s somewhat ambiguous, in that it’s filled with death and sadness, but also a deep sense of triumph.

Though Deuce, Rude Dog and Brian were not working from Paizo’s edition, Deuce speaks highly of it, and considers it to be the best print of The Ship of Ishtar yet. High praise! Even though the gang go into “spoiler” territory, there’s still so much to discover and enjoy, that it’s worth reading even if you know the ending. Given the choice, it’s usually better to read something with little knowledge, but I’d still strongly recommend giving Deuce and company’s discussion a listen.

Paizo’s The Ship of Ishtar is a very important volume: if it proves a success, that could open the door for more Merrit from Paizo, and some long-awaited reprints of other great Merritt tales: Dwellers in the Mirage, The Moon Pool, "The Metal Monster," and others. In an age where Wikisource and Project Gutenberg provide public domain text on the internet, some would question the point of reprints. A simple look at Paizo’s edition answers that question: the beautiful cover illustration by Kieran Yanner, the exquisite interior illustrations by Virgil Finlay, the superb introduction by Tim Powers, and the tactile sensation of holding a book in your hands. That’s more than enough reason for me to fork over the cash.

I encourage everyone with even a passing interest to give Deuce & company’s voyage into The Ship of Ishtar a listen. If that doesn’t convince you to give Paizo’s latest print a chance, then I can’t imagine what will. Surely, though, the fact that Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith all had Merritt in their personal libraries, suggests that fans of those authors could do far worse than read the works of an author who inspired them all.

In a time when bookshops are groaning with indistinguishable, second-rate, Tolkien-”inspired” door-stoppers, we need more original fantasy, in both meanings of the word: more of the fantasy that made the genre what it was before Tolkien and Howard came on the scene, and more of the fantasy that is not attached at the hip to a twisted and hackneyed misunderstanding of the Tolkien/Howardian formula. More importantly, we need more people to seek out this original fantasy, to cast away the cloying comfort of the generic, safe, tame offerings of Quests and Chosen Ones and Dark Lords.

The Ship of Ishtar is bursting with classic, timeless elements which impacted the fantasy novel template. Today, with only a fraction of the page-count of a contemporary fantasy tome, it is still more original, refreshing, and filled with more wonder and excitement than any amount of the modern drivel that now suffocates shelf space. Space that should be rightfully reserved for the true greats of the genre.

Greats like A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar.

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