I’ve long been a fan of the works of Abraham Merritt (1884-1943), a talented and successful writer of weird fiction, and have blogged about many of his works. His 1920 novel The Metal Monster is one of my favorite works of weird cosmic horror of all time, which starts with its protagonists discovering a long lost tribe of Persian warriors and it gets even weirder from there.
A couple of months ago, I happened to think to myself that I needed to track down and read the few Merritt novels that I haven’t read yet, and as if he was reading my mind, that very day Wayne of Wayne’s Books put up a slew of lovely Merritt editions for sale. I bought quite a few, such as this four-pack:
The only one of this bunch I hadn’t read yet is Burn, Witch, Burn! (1932), which represents a significant departure from his earlier works. I just finished it this week and thought I’d share some thoughts on it.
Merritt is most famous for his stories of cosmic fantasy and horror, like the aforementioned The Metal Monster, his first breakthrough novel The Moon Pool (1919), and his most famous work, The Ship of Ishtar (1924). Burn, Witch, Burn! (exclamation point is part of the title) is a much more conventional horror novel in which the protagonists square off against an extremely powerful and murderous witch.
The novel is told as the written recollection of one Dr. Lowell, who shares his experiences facing off against the forces of darkness. The story begins as a patient is brought to his hospital late at night, in a catatonic state but with an expression of pure horror on his face. Nothing can be found medically wrong the man, and he dies not long afterward, with a diabolical laugh escaping his mouth after his dying breath.
The man, Peters, is the right-hand man of Julian Ricori, a criminal mob boss. Ricori and Lowell share an instant rapport and Ricori asks Lowell to find the cause of death of Peters. Soon they find that others have died throughout the city with similar symptoms, and clues eventually lead to the dollmaking shop of the sinister Madame Mandilip. Ricori assigns his men to put the doll shop under surveillance, but Mandilip is much more clever — and powerful — than they anticipated, and soon the bodies start to pile up. And Mandilip’s dolls turn out to be her animate and murderous assistants!
Burn, Witch, Burn! is not quite as creative or compelling as Merritt’s earlier works, but it does have its flashes of brilliance. The attacks of the dolls are well-written and terrifying, and anticipate later classic works such as the Chucky series of movies and TV shows.
I wonder if Merritt himself was inspired by an earlier classic story about animated murderous dolls, “The Wondersmith” by Fitz James O’Brien (1859). O’Brien’s story is about a sinister cabal of people who conspire to distribute murderous dolls to an unsuspecting public, only to find their creations turn against them. Merritt’s novel also features a doll that turns against its creator, though Merritt manages to avoid the heavy anti-Semitism of O’Brien’s tale.
One of the most compelling parts of Merritt’s novel is that it is, in essence, a battle between criminals (Ricori and his associates) and a genuine evildoer (Madame Mandilip). I hypothesize that Merritt may have been inspired by a story with a similar framing, the classic Fritz Lang movie M. In that movie, a serial killer of children causes the police to go on high alert, which in turn motivates the criminal underworld to track down the killer to get things back to normal. M came out in 1931, and Burn, Witch, Burn! came out the very next year; it is not implausible to thing that Merritt saw the film and was intrigued by the idea of “bad guys versus worse guys.” It should be noted that Merritt’s criminals are very sympathetic in the novel, and come through for Ricori and Lowell.
One of the distracting parts of the novel is that Lowell spends most of it steadfastly refusing to accept a supernatural explanation for anything happening, which ends up being quite frustrating as it become less and less plausible to find an explanation for things like animated murderous dolls.
To Lowell’s credit (and Merritt’s), once he finally becomes convinced that unknown powers are afoot, he takes a very rational approach to combatting them. He treats the supernatural as science that is not yet understood, and works hard to figure out the mechanisms by which Mandilip works her magic, so to better counter it. The novel in a sense becomes a “science versus sorcery” tale, though it never quite fully lives up to that promise.
So, overall I enjoyed Merritt’s Burn, Witch, Burn! It is not one of his best novels, but it is a fast and entertaining tale to read. Now again I am motivated to track down more of Merritt’s work that I haven’t read…