Friday, January 01, 2021

Forgotten Books: Seven Footprints to Satan - A. Merritt


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 edition, however.

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.


dfordoom said...

Merritt is one of my all-time favourite writers. Especially for DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE. A great writer of lost world tales.

Spike said...

My favorite Merritt novel. Burn Witch Burn and Creep Shadow are both also really good. Short stories such as Three Lines of Old French are also really good.

Seven Footprints is a bit tacky but very atmospheric throughout. You are always fearful for Kirkham and Eve. Conclusion even makes Satan a bit sympathetic.

Fred Blosser said...

I read this one almost exactly 57 years ago during Christmas-New Years holiday from 8th grade. It was also an Avon edition, black cover with as I recall, a red devilish silhouette. I also read DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE and THE METAL MONSTER, but by and large Merritt never grabbed me the way REH, ERB, and HPL did.

Deuce said...

Merritt, along with ERB, was THE driving force in SFF from 1920 to 1935.

This novel is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, Merritt is trying out more of a "hardboiled" style that will be seen again in "Witch" and "Shadow". Second, Merritt cunningly exploited the absence of Rohmer's Fu Manchu from the market. Look at the date of publication and then look at when REH wrote "Skull-face". IMO, this was the catalyst, just as THE SHIP OF ISHTAR was a catalyst for the Kull stories and DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE was a catalyst for the Conan yarns.

Karl Wagner and Bloch both considered BURN WITCH BURN to be one of the best supernatural novels ever written. IMO, CREEP, SHADOW is one of the great pulp novels, in that it brings together mobsters, Texan gunslingers, reincarnated barbarian kings and Lovecraftian demons. VERY hard to pull off, but Merritt did it, IMO.

James Reasoner said...

Okay, with that description of CREEP, SHADOW, I know which Merritt novel I'm reading next!

John E. Boyle said...

I think that in Merritt's hardboiled novels (SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, BURN WITCH BURN, and CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP), there are echoes of a younger Merritt. As a young man, Merritt was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and he witnessed something on the docks of Philadelphia that was so dangerous his family had to get him out of Dodge and he spent the next few years wandering the tropics like some 20th century remittance man. I think some of what he saw as a reporter shows up in these three books.

Read more Merritt. It can't hurt, and the more you read of him, Burroughs, Haggard and Dunsany, the more you realize that they are at the root of adventure fiction in the English-speaking world.

Thanks for posting about a book that shouldn't be forgotten.