A. Merritt was one of the big names in fantasy fiction from the Twenties and Thirties, when his novels and stories were first published in the pulps, through the Seventies, when his books were still readily available in paperback reprints, mostly from Avon. However, while I’ve been aware of his work for years, I’ve actually read very little of it. I recall reading his novel THE SHIP OF ISHTAR many years ago, and I think I liked it, although at this late date I’m not sure anymore. A few years ago I read the original pulp version of the novelette “The Moon Pool” (Merritt had a habit of revising his stuff as it went through later editions) and liked it as well.
Now I’ve read his novel DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE, and I can see why his books were popular for so long. There’s a lot to like here: a modern hero who’s the unknowing reincarnation of an ancient warrior-king; a lost civilization located in an isolated mountain valley in Alaska, which due to volcanic heating is actually tropical; a couple of beautiful women, one good, one evil, who have a habit of running around in few, if any, clothes (I told you the weather was tropical); a couple of evil high priests; a tentacled, otherworldly horror from a different dimension; castles, strongholds, and epic battles. Just my kind of book, in other words.
What sets Merritt apart from most other heroic fantasy authors, especially the ones from the pulp era, is his leisurely, highly descriptive style. It takes a little getting used to, but I found myself being drawn into the prose. Merritt comes up with some really striking images in this novel. The drawback to this is that despite all the conflict going on, there’s really not much action. The few battle scenes are very well-done, though, and the big showdown at the end between the hero and one of the villains is a great, bloody, hand-to-hand fight.
I enjoyed DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE quite a bit. Merritt’s no Robert E. Howard, mind you – Howard would have compressed the plot of this novel into a novella, probably to great effect – but I definitely plan to read more of Merritt’s work. I’ve already picked up a copy of his novel THE METAL MONSTER, and I also have a reprint of the pulp versions of “The Moon Pool” and “Conquest of the Moon Pool”, which were combined into the novel THE MOON POOL. With any luck, I’ll get to them soon. In the meantime, I have an extra copy of DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE, a fourth printing of the 1967 Avon edition. If anyone wants it, the first person to email and ask for it gets it.