While I’ve been aware of A. Merritt’s work for decades, I’ve
never read much of it. But I finally got around to reading SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO
SATAN, only the third novel of his that I’ve read (the other two being DWELLERS
IN THE MIRAGE and THE SHIP OF ISHTAR). This novel was serialized originally in
ARGOSY in 1927, reprinted in ARGOSY a dozen years later, and then went through many
hardback and paperback reprintings. For many years I owned the Avon edition
from the Seventies, which has the great cover pictured here. I read an e-book
Instead of the rip-roaring adventure yarn that cover looks like, SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN is really an oddball tale, part crime novel, part Sax Rohmer-like thriller, part romance. It begins with down-on-his-luck explorer and adenturer James Kirkham being kidnapped and forced to join the criminal organization of an evil mastermind who calls himself Satan. But is he really just an earthly criminal? Could he actually be the Devil himself?
As part of a ceremony in which the members of the organization take part, they climb a set of stairs ascending to the throne of Satan, and some of the stairs have glowing golden footprints on them. Some of those footprints mean freedom, others mean subjugation to Satan or even a gruesome death. They reset with each ascent. This bizarre ritual gives the novel its title.
Our narrator Kirkham falls in love with one of Satan’s female sujects, of course, and makes friends and enemies among the organization as he sets out to topple Satan and end his reign. Along the way there’s a museum robbery and a few murders, but by and large, SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN is a pretty talky tale. Merritt was a master of vivid settings and images, though, and could put his characters through quite an emotional wringer. All that’s true in this book, and toward the end, it almost does become a rip-roaring adventure novel, although there are no shirts torn in Doc Savage fashion as the cover would have you believe.
One of the most interesting things about this book to me is wondering whether or not it was an influence on other authors. When Satan is first introduced, after reading his description and the way he talks, I immediately thought "Casper Gutman!" Did Dashiell Hammett read this book? It came out a couple of years before THE MALTESE FALCON. Even though the circumstances are very different, as I read about how James Kirkham was recruited by a mysterious mastermind, I thought about Harry Vincent and how The Shadow recruited him in the opening chapters of THE LIVING SHADOW four years after SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN was published. Did Walter B. Gibson read this book? And going back to Satan's description and his position as the almost all-powerful head of a crime ring, I was reminded right away of the Kingpin. Did Stan Lee read this book? The answer to all those questions is that we don't know. Maybe. But I found it fascinating to speculate about the possibility, anyway.
This book wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed it and I think I need to read more of Merritt’s work. It appears to be in public domain, judging by the number of e-book and POD versions that are readily available, as are used copies of the many reprints.