Happy Birthday, Mr. Merritt

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Way too many cool authors were born in January. In fact, there are so many it’s hard to keep track at times (my abject apologies to the shade of Jack London). I would advise any prospective parents wanting to produce an author-child of exceptional talents to strive mightily in the months of April and May.

Luckily for The Cimmerian, James Maliszewski reminded us all that today is the birthday of Abraham Merritt. Using his Grognardia blog as a bully pulpit, Maliszewski once again preached the gospel of A. Merritt.

In his “Forgotten Father” essay, Maliszewski notes that H.P. Lovecraft was an avowed fan of Merritt’s, but that HPL had some reservations about certain elements in Merritt’s fiction. Lovecraft specifically cites Merritt’s “catering to a public audience” as a reason.

What HPL was getting at is fairly easy to discern once one knows that he considered The Metal Monster to be, perhaps (with the possible exception of The Moon Pool), the pinnacle of  Merritt’s oeuvre. The Metal Monster was the least (for want of a better term) “romantic” of all of AM’s tales. It would appear that the same things Lovecraft held against Merritt were also the same that he disliked in some of Robert E. Howard’s yarns. To HPL, mood was everything in a tale, and the introduction of any sort of romance was a distraction from the creation of an atmosphere of awe and/or horror. Mixing together sex, adventure and horror never seemed to bother Abraham Merritt.

Maliszewski also mentions Merritt’s collaboration with (amongst others) Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft on the round-robin tale, “The Challenge From Beyond.” While James uses “Challenge” as an example of how Merritt was once ranked comparatively equal to his (now) better-known collaborators, I’ve always looked upon Merritt’s participation as an indicator of his lack of conceit and sheer love for sci-fi/fantasy fiction. By the early ’30s, AM (by way of his editorship at the Atlantic Monthly and also from sales of his fiction) was making the equivalent of what would now be a high six-figure income (if not more). Merritt had no need whatsoever to write a chapter for a small sci-fi/fantasy fanzine. Yet, he did so anyway.

In his essay, Maliszewski ponders the question of why Merritt is so little-known now in the twenty-first century. I think his idea that Merritt is hard to categorize and market is valid. I also think that the American educational system’s lofty goal of shooting for the lowest common denominator incurs some small responsibility. Someone using the Urban Dictionary as a primary reference will probably not attain full appreciation of Merritt’s prose.

I think it’s worth noting that Abraham Merritt enjoyed a very long run in the sun before his present obscurity. From 1918 through about 1978, hardly a year went by without the publication of Merritt’s fiction. In fact (please correct me if I’m wrong), the only fantasy author to equal Merritt’s sixty years of near-continuous in-print status would be Tolkien.

Maliszewski ends his essay with a call to arms:

More than anything, what Merritt needs are some champions who’ll do for him what others have done for Lovecraft and Howard: remind the current generation what past generations saw in these great artists.

We’ll see what we can do about that.