1920s, 1924, A. Merritt, Argosy All-Story Weekly, Avon Books, classical mythology, fantasy, galley rower, Kieran Yanner, myth, Paizo, Planet Stories, pulp, Richard Powers, swashbuckling, sword and sorcery, time travel, Virgil Finlay, weird fiction
Abraham Merritt was another pulp legend, editing and writing “weird tales” and proto-science fiction during the 1910′s and the ’30s on the pages of Argosy, All-Story, and in the case of The Ship of Ishtar, in the magazine which combined the previous two, Argosy All-Story Weekly. He even managed to have his name on his own pulp magazine for a short time before the pulp market died out. To add even more pulp street cred, the interior art pieces are the original illustrations by pulp artist grandmaster Virgil Finlay. Paizo really outdid themselves this time.
The story focuses on John Kenton, wounded and disillusioned World War I vet, who starts off by receiving a package from an archaeological expedition he’d sponsored. Inside is a large block of stone, and inside that is a bejeweled toy ship. Soon enough, Kenton is sucked through both time and space to enter the ship itself, a golden Babylonian vessel upon which clergy of the black god of death Nergal and beautiful goddess of love Ishtar war eternally. It turns out Kenton is exempt from their rules, and could potentially break the stalemate between the priest and priestess, ending the feud forever. Kenton is enslaved as a galley rower, and must break free to claim the ship (and the beautiful priestess) as his prize.
The Ship of Ishtar was written in 1924, right in the middle of the swashbuckling Errol Flynn era. There’s plenty of that in here, amazing swordplay and bloody battles, adventure with an epic backdrop. But it also has this odd reflection of the “lost generation,” in that its protagonist just couldn’t exist in the post-World War society, almost like he was looking for a way out. He certainly doesn’t question the fantasy realm into which he is thrown with the ship, never worrying about his sanity or questioning reality. Some of the other sensibilities are very 1920′s as well, namely the treatment of women: there are warrior maids, after all, but Sharane, priestess of Ishtar, is horribly objectified, just another thing for Kenton to acquire, with a definite “the woman’s place…” attitude.
It’s a bit hard to fight off the “misogyny” label when you also factor the Finlay art, which includes a lot of (semi-)nude women with the important parts obscured by carefully placed locks of hair, smoke, sheets, dark shadows, butterflies, and the like. It’s pretty tastefully done, certainly not X-rated, but everyone has their own opinion on what exactly “smut” is. Though, outside the pubescent 13-year-old-boy market, I don’t think anyone’s really going interested enough to buy it for the lurid art.
While the first third of the book crawls along, it’s really just building up steam; soon enough, the blood flows in buckets, and the book really leaps into a stunning crescendo of swashbuckling action adventure. Merritt had a good handle on creating tension, and doesn’t just draw the reader in, but grabs the reader by the shirt and throws you at the action. Merritt uses (perhaps overuses) dashes, question marks and exclamation points to get this through, but it’s all part of the pulp charm. I should also note that while the prose is antiquated (again, 1924) and may be off-putting to some, it’s not as dry and antiquated as, say, Lovecraft, so if you can get through that you can read Merritt with ease. (Compared to E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, or William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland and The Night Land, this book was smooth as glass.) The Ship of Ishtar is a surprisingly smooth and pleasant read.
This. This is probably my favorite Planet Stories book that I’ve read and reviewed… due in no small part to the fantastic Finlay illustrations, which combine well with the second-gen Planet Stories format. Between format, graphics, and text, I consider this one the apex of the line. It looks, and reads, like a classic pulp, a good synthesis of form and subject. Since I read it, I’ve picked up a couple other Merritt books, though I haven’t got around to reading any of them yet; regardless, mad props to Erik Mona for bringing Merritt to my attention.
Merritt’s style is lush and florid, like most pulpsters, throwing epic swordfights and beautiful imagery across the page. It’s shallow, and a little too flowery and ornate, but it’s a solid example of pulp writing: entertaining thrills, fast-paced rollicking adventure, love and hate and cold, bloody war. Kenton is such an interesting protagonist to me, being a disaffected Great War vet; his escape into the fantasy realm of the past reads to me like an allegory for the post-war “Lost Generation.” For fans of pulp-era, Robert E. Howard-style heroic fantasy, it doesn’t get much better than this.