A. Merritt’s The Face in the Abyss

I’ve been continuing my reading of the works of A. Merritt (1884-1943), which began with his first serial novel The Moon Pool (1919), continued to his masterful The Metal Monster (1920) and most recently visited The Dwellers in the Mirage (1932).  I was originally planning to step away from Merritt for a little while, but one other volume caught my eye: Merritt’s 1923 serial novel, The Face in the Abyss:


I have to say that I really enjoyed The Face in the Abyss (to be referred to henceforth as FIA)!  Though not as brilliantly otherworldly as The Metal Monster, it tells a great adventure story filled with wonderful and haunting imagery, all set in a science fiction world of appreciable complexity.  Though the hero of the tale is still more or less a pulp-fiction stereotype, several of the other main characters have a surprising amount of complexity to them.

It is worth noting that, like many of his other works, Merritt’s FIA began as a short novel in an issue of Argosy All-Story, which appeared in 1923.  This was expanded in 1930 into a full-length novel with the addition of a sequel, The Snake Mother, which together now comprise the complete FIA story.

The tale begins in the wilds of the Andean Mountains, where hero Nicholas Graydon is searching for the lost ransom of the Incan king Atahualpa.  With him are three companions: Starrett, a West Coast adventurer, and Starrett’s two companions Soames and Dancret.

While returning from a hunting expedition, Graydon hears a woman’s cry, and finds Starrett drunk at camp and assaulting a beautiful native girl he has just captured.  Graydon intervenes — with a fist to Starrett’s jaw — and lets the native girl Suarra go free.  Graydon’s trio of companions turn upon him and subdue him in turn, and things look extremely bad for him when the native girl Suarra returns unexpectedly, leading a llama laden with treasure and accompanied by a mysterious silent old man in a red and yellow robe.

The first part of the novel is an interesting game of cat-and-mouse: Suarra offers to lead the men to an unlimited supply of gold and jewels as ransom for Graydon’s safety.   Graydon’s captors agree, but are planning an inevitable doublecross of both of them.

Suarra leads the men deeper into the mountains towards their goal.  Along the way, they hide from  a hunting party consisting of a pack of man-sized dinosaurs (one immediately pictures raptors), led by a man riding an even bigger creature (presumably a tyrranosaur).  Their prey is an even more unusual creature:

The scarlet thing jumped up out of the grasses.  It swayed upon four long and stilt-like legs, its head a full twelve feet above the ground.  High on these stilts of legs was its body, almost round and no bigger than a half-grown boy’s.  From the sides of the body stretched two sinewy arms — like human arms pulled out to twice their normal length.  Body, arms and legs were covered with fine scarlet hair…

Over the edge peered a face, gray as the hands.  Within it were two great unwinking round and golden eyes.

A man’s face — and not a man’s!

A face such as he had never seen upon any living creature… yet there could be no mistaking the humanness of it… the humanness which lay over the incredible visage like a veil.

Despite the near-encounter with the hunting party and the strange spider-like creature, greed pushes Starrrett, Soames and Dancret onward.  The men are lead into the heart of the hidden land known as Yu-Atlanchi, where a lost civilization lingers. (Obviously, “Atlanchi” is supposed to evoke images of a well-known legendary lost civilization.)

I don’t want to spill too much detail about the early events in the novel, as such spoilers could make some of the scenes lose much of their power.  The bulk of the novel, however, focuses upon Graydon (motivated by his love for Suarra) becoming an active player in the struggle for the fate of Yu-Atlanchi, which could have implications for the rest of the world as well.  Ages before, Yu-Atlanchi had been ruled by Seven Lords and a being known as Adana, the Snake Mother.  These Lords, and Lady, were extremely wise and powerful, and had successfully made people undying, though at the same time forbidding them to have children.  One Lord, however, Nimir, sought to overthrow the others and make himself God on earth.  Nimir the Lord of Evil was cast down by the others, but could not be slain; his spirit was cast into a prison of stone:

From where he stood a flight of Cyclopean steps ran down into the heart of the cavern.  At their left was the semi-globe of gemmed and glittering rock.  At their right was — space.  An abyss, whose other side he could not see, but which fell sheer away from the stairway in bottomless depth upon depth.

The face looked at him from the far side of the cavern.  Bodiless, its chin rested upon the floor.  Colossal, its eyes of pale blue crystals were level with his.  It was carved out of the same black stone as the walls, but within it was no faintest sparkle of the darting luminescences.  It was a man’s face and the face of a fallen angel’s in one; Luciferean; imperious; ruthless — and beautiful.  Upon its broad brows power was enthroned — power which could have been godlike in beneficence, had it so willed, but which had chose instead the lot of Satan.

Whoever the master sculptor, he had made of it the ultimate symbol of man’s age-old, remorseless lust for power.  In the Face this lust was concentrate, given body and form, made tangible…

And now he saw that all the darting rays, all the flashing atoms, were focused full upon the Face, and that over its brow was a wide circlet of gold.  From the circlet globules of gold dripped, like golden sweat.  They crept sluggishly down its cheeks.  From its eyes crept other golden drops, like tears.  And out of each corner of the merciless mouth the golden globules dribbled like spittle.  Golden sweat, golden tears and golden slaver crawled and joined a rivulet of gold that oozed from behind the Face, to the verge of the abyss, and over its lip into the depths.

As ages passed, the people of Yu-Atlanchi, freed from concerns of life and death, became decadent and docile.  The lord of the city, Lantlu, rules cruelly over the people and even runs bloody gladiator-type matches for his amusement.  A resistance group, known as the Fellowship, has broken off from Lantlu and plot against him from hidden caverns outside the city.  And soon before Graydon’s arrival, rumors began to spread that Nimir had reappeared amongst the Yu-Atlanchi, though as yet only as a Shadow without material form.

Graydon gets involved in the struggle between the Lord of Evil Nimir and The Serpent Mother Adana.  The tale involves numerous twists and turns, and sacrifices, culminating in a titanic battle between Good and Evil in which both sides employ the devastating ancient technology of the Yu-Atlanchi Lords.

As I have noted, several of the characters are more intriguing than those of a typical pulp novel.  The Serpent Mother in particular stands out as a melancholy remnant of an otherwise vanished race, who is saddened by the decline of the Yu-Atlanchi people she had hoped to elevate to wisdom and greatness.  The Lord of Evil shows personality beyond being a simple “I will rule the WORLD!!” villain, and shows a very human side in his vanity.  Late in the novel, a non-human character unexpectedly plays a central role in the story and becomes extremely sympathetic.

As in previous Merritt novels, science makes a number of notable appearances in FIA.  In particular, after being faced with servants of the Serpent Mother, winged snakes which can turn invisible at will, Graydon rationalizes their ability as follows:

The winged serpents — the Messengers?  There, indeed, one’s feet were solidly on scientific fact.  Ambrose Bierce had deduced in his story “The Damned Thing” that there might be such things; H.G. Wells had played with the same idea in his “Invisible Man”; and deMaupassant had worked it out in the haunting tale of the Horla, just before he went insane.  Science knew the thing was possible, and scientists the world over were trying to find out the secret to use in the next war.

Yes, the invisible Messengers were easily explained.  Conceive something that neither absorbs light nor throws it back.  In such case the light rays stream over that something as water in a swift brook streams over a submerged boulder.  The boulder is not visible.  Nor would be the thing over which the light rays streamed.  The light rays would curve over it, bringing to the eyes of the observer whatever image they carried from behind.  The intervening object would be invisible.  Because it neither absorbed nor threw back light, it could be nothing else.

This passage is remarkable, because it anticipates the explanations of optical invisibility which are now at the forefront of scientific research!  Consider this explanation given about the invisibility theory reported in 2006:

Instead, like a river streaming around a smooth boulder, light and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation would strike the cloak and simply flow around it, continuing on as if it never bumped up against an obstacle.

I’ve discussed the principles beyond modern ‘invisibility theory’ in a previous post, for those who are interested.  I also really need to come back and do a post on the history of scientific invisibility in fiction in the near future…

In explaining the existence of the feathered serpents, Merritt also draws upon some evolutionary theory:

Ah yes, thought Graydon — the winged Messengers were not hard to understand.  And as for their shape — is not the bird but a feathered serpent or feathered lizard?  The plumes of the bird of paradise are only developments of the snake’s scales.  Science says so.  The bird is a feathered serpent.  The first bird, the Archeoptrix, still had the jaws and teeth and tail of its reptilian ancestors.

This explanation is not quite correct  — birds are thought to be the descendants of dinosaurs, which are distinct from reptiles — but the statement is pointing vaguely in the right direction!  ‘Archeoptrix’ is clearly a different spelling of Archaeopteryx, which is considered the earliest bird species known to have existed, and a transitional form between modern birds and dinosaurs.

Outside of science, one other aspect of FIA really caught my attention:  the rough similarity between elements of Merritt’s tale and Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of The Rings.  I was first struck in Merritt’s tale by the “Fellowship”, an eclectic band of resistance members who gather together to decide the best course for defeating the evil Nimir.  Nimir himself, an incorporeal shadow  who manipulates his servant Lantlu and wages massive battles from behind the scenes, sounds a lot like Sauron.  An immortal race of beings, once wise and powerful but now dying out and rather corrupted, sounds a lot like Tolkien’s tale of the elves.  Graydon, much like the Hobbits, in LOTR, is sent late in the novel on a mission into the heart of the Lord of Evil’s lair, and the entire war hinges upon his success.

A final parallel lies in the statement of the Serpent Mother to Graydon, when Graydon observes that he himself is insignificant in the conflict compared to Nimir and Adana:

“Nor are the rest of you as negligible as you think.  I may rest upon that quick eye and steady hand of yours at the last.”

This, to me, sounds a bit like the significance of the Hobbits in LOTR.

Do I think that Tolkien was inspired by Merritt?  I don’t really have any evidence for that, nor do I have any strong impression that this is the case.  But for those wondering what sort of story FIA is, a good description is, “pulp-lord-of-the-rings-lite”!

I should note that the Donald M. Grant Publisher edition of the book, whose cover I present above, is a lovingly-produced hardbound volume which includes a number of wonderful color illustrations which help bring Merritt’s world to life.  Of course, it can also be read online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

In conclusion, The Face in the Abyss is a charming, imaginative adventure novel and one that I have no trouble recommending.

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3 Responses to A. Merritt’s The Face in the Abyss

  1. Alan Levine says:

    I’ve always thought “The Face in the Abyss” Merritt’s best lost race novel — interestingly, it was also the only one intended to end happily, though many editions of “Dwellers in the Mirage” have the happy ending forced on Merritt by his publishers.
    Reportedly Merritt planned a sequel to “The Face in the Abyss” but never did more than write the fragment “The White Road” which was published in a collection of Merritt’s short works, “The Fox Woman and Other Stories.”
    Does anyone know anything about this?

    • Alan: I agree that FIA is his best ‘lost race’ novel — as long as I exclude The Metal Monster, which I don’t consider such a novel, even though it includes a lost race! The worlds in ‘Dwellers and The Moon Pool seemed to be less coherently developed than FIA.

      I haven’t heard about Merritt’s unfinished sequel; that will be worth looking into! A quick search shows that ‘Fox Woman can be read here, along with a short speculation about The White Road…

  2. Abhilash says:

    This is the only Merritt novel which I did not finish. I absolutely loved the first part ending with Graydon’s encounter with the Face but got bored with the second half. There was too much talking and less action.

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