High Contrast Fantasy: A. Merritt’s Burn, Witch, Burn!

Wednesday , 12, July 2017 25 Comments

The problem with post-Christian fantasy authors is that their works are inherently flat. Not being able to conceive of protagonists that are truly good, they settle for whoever happens to catch the spotlight. Not being able to conceive of monstrosities that can threaten the soul, they rely on gore, psychosis, and/or the demonization of their political opponents. Their worlds are predicated on there being neither good nor evil, so there can be nor significant thrill should the “sorta kinda good-ish” guys triumph.

They can’t imagine heroes and are contemptuous of anyone that does. It wouldn’t be so bad really, but they act like they are artistic geniuses when the contort their stories in such a way as to produce losers and goofballs that can somehow manage to save the day when the  day doesn’t really deserve to be saved in the first place. You have to roll things back a long way to get to some stories that are altogether untouched by this sort of diminishment. But gosh is it worth it. And the extreme contrasts are exactly what make it work.

Check out this top rank physician that is downright mortified when he is offered a little something “extra” if he’d only go out of his way to make sure his new charge will receive only the best medical care possible:

‘Ricori,’ I said, ‘you and I live in different worlds, therefore I answer you politely, although I find it difficult. I will do all in my power to find out what is the matter with your friend and to cure him. I would do that if he and you were paupers. I am interested in him only as a problem which challenges me as a physician. But I am not interested in you in the slightest. Nor in your money. Nor in your offer. Consider it definitely rejected. Do you thoroughly understand that?’

Meanwhile, the scary mob boss character…? You know the action is serious because he’s the one that’s frightened:

I have many enemies, Dr. Lowell. Peters was my right hand. If it was one of these enemies who struck him, he did it to weaken me. Or, perhaps, because he had not the opportunity to strike at me. I look at Peters, and for the first time in my life I, Ricori—am afraid. I have no wish to be the next, I have no wish to look into hell!

Even more astonishing for the average contemporary reader, this competent, tough, and efficient “kingpin” type is at the point where only the Almighty can really do anything for him:

He gripped my hand, then opened the door of the room. Another pair of the efficient-appearing retainers were awaiting him at the threshold. They swung in before and behind him. As he walked away, I saw that he was crossing himself vigorously.

This is what verve looks like.

A post-Christian author would struggle with all of this. He wouldn’t believe in integrity as being an objective thing, so the idea of establishing a scientist’s credibility in this way is outside of their repertoire. The invocation of faith here is not done in order to highlight the notion that boring, conventional, bourgeois religious values are cringe-worthy, naive, and often hypocritical. No, this element is here to enhance the suspense. The clinical skepticism of the doctor is in contrast to the faith of the mob boss. But these two elements are also in harmony– and both work together to establish just how weird and frightening every aspect of the situation really is.

This sort of cogency was the norm before about 1940, but it has gotten increasingly scarce since then. Authors that are just too darned “smart” to believe in anything really pay for it. In the service of their grim ideals (or the lack thereof, really), they waste valuable story beats establishing the fact that all of their characters have feet of clay. And rather than focus on telling a good story, they continually distract themselves because they always have an eye on the audience, thinking of how they can score points on whatever their hobby horse is this decade.

It’s tiresome, really. And every page wasted on such nonsense is necessarily going to focused on the temporal rather than the timeless.

It’s not so much that Christian authors and post-Christian authors have different aesthetics. It would be nice if we could judge them each according to their own standards, but that just isn’t possible. Post-Christian authors are in fact contemptuous if the very concept of an aesthetic. On a fundamental level, it truly offends them. So the sort of things that they think make them superior to everyone that came before them turns out to cripple them artistically.

They simply can’t compete with the sort of creators they sneer at.

Are you sick of garbage fiction about garbage characters…? Try reading something before 1980 instead! It’s only recently that medieval Christians in fantasy were portrayed as stupidly as they are now. In fact… real fantasy is inherently Christian. Learn more about writers like Lord Dunsany and Poul Anderson and how they contrast with authors like Michael Moorcock: read my book! Available now in hardcover!

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Jeff to

    How can regressing harder help writers and how far back should they regress. I’d be willing to go as far back as Aseop Odessey Illiad the chansons de gestes in different languages but is that an exaggeration or is it a helpful starting point?
    I think we need to pay out a cogent case with going have to the sources (ressourcement to borrow the VATICAN II term) is both necessary and salutary.


    • Jeffro says:

      One reason I think pulp is so effective is that people will go back and actually read it. Add to it the fact that the throwaway fiction of the twenties is like high art to us and the whole thing is sad and funny and sobering all at once.

      I’ve seen a lot of people pushing the *real* canon, the great books. I *don’t* see a whole lot of people go nuts and just plow straight through it all. Or even discussing it much. (But then… I read the D&D blogs and not the smart guy blogs. So what do I know?!)

      What I think would be effective would be take some of the best, most engaging pulp stories. And then look at what was inspirational to the authors that wrote just those pieces. This would give you sort of a practical, working man’s canon.

      Of course, delving into Dunsany and Lovecraft in this manner would take you straight back to the King James Bible. Which is why no “serious” commentator would ever take this route to begin with.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I would say that it IS a helpful starting point, for both readers and especially writers.

    Start with myth: in English, Bulfinch’s or Hamilton’s Mythology. (read both if you can, they each cover some things the other does not); don’t forget to read about the Norse, Celtic and Egyptian myths as well.

    If the reader has the taste for the originals, then try the Iliad, the Odyssey, the saga of Gilgamesh.

    For someone who is going to write dialogue in English, I would recommend reading (or better, listening to) Shakespeare, say two or three each of his comedies and tragedies.

    The old Greek plays echo through out Shakespeare’s work; they might provide the same kind of inspiration for someone writing today.

    • Xavier Basora says:

      John and Jeffro

      Thanks the advice is very helpful.
      Since very superficially writing and experimenting in Catalan, i also need to read the Iberian classics along with Renart le renard the troubadors along with Shakespeare
      I think the main goal is to delight and entertain the readers. That’s one of the lessons I learnt when reading Tirant lo blanc. It’s such a blast to read and the brazen plagarism that Martorell bettered is a tour de force.
      And that’s the goal i’d like to set for my stories. If i’m having a blast i think the readers will too.


  • deuce says:

    You can just go back to Haggard. He set a moral and imaginative example that inspired — to various degrees — almost everyone who came later. Doyle, Kipling, ERB, Merritt, HPL, REH, Clark Ashton Smith, ER Eddison, Mundy, JRRT, Lewis, CL Moore, Brackett… Dunsany seems to be about the only one from that time period who wasn’t influenced by HRH.

    A quote here from Dwayne Olson, an editor from the respected publishing house of Fedogan & Bremer. Like myself, he’s only gotten into Haggard in the last few years.

    “Just finished going through the galleys for the upcoming Fedogan and Bremer rerelease of DEAD TITANS, WAKEN!/INVISIBLE SUN from Donald Wandrei . Was struck by the scene in the first (Also included in Wandrei’s WEB OF EASTER ISLAND) of the ancient, and giant, bone mound in the cavern (as in SHE the bodies dropped down from above). Last I’d read this, I hadn’t read SHE. Now that I have the similarity is unmistakable.

    Can’t remember Wandrei ever mentioning Haggard in correspondence but it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have read him, at least in his youth. Can’t help but believe SHE was the inspiration for that chapter. Must have made quite the impression.”
    — Dwayne Olson

    In regard to Wandrei… We do know that Lovecraft admired SHE and that Clark Ashton Smith was a Haggard fan. It requires no big stretch of the imagination to see Wandrei reading HRH at some point. Haggard was probably second only to Poe — in some ways — as an influence upon weird fiction in the early 20th century, IMO.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Everyone should read Haggard, he’s the Father of the Adventure Novel.

      Who knows, deuce, maybe he DID influence Dunsany, and Dunsany him. Both Haggard and Dunsany were friends with Kipling around the same time.

    • deuce says:

      I’m not saying that Dunsany wasn’t influenced by/didn’t admire Dunsany, but there’s no written evidence that I know of.

      If Dunsany was the odd guy out, it’s barely a ripple compared to the wave of influence HRH exerted over the entire field. SHE is still one of the bestselling novels of all time. Dunsany doesn’t have anything remotely close to compare. I say that as a Dunsany fan.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      SHE is something else; that 3rd chapter, where Holly uncovers the Sherd of Amenartas and the trail of vengeance that goes back 2000 years? That is one of the best adventure hooks I’ve ever seen.

      Haggard’s influence is so pervasive, it shows up 3 or 4 generations later. That scene in the movie Conan the Barbarian where Valeria returns from the dead to save Conan by distracting his opponent? That’s out of Queen of the Black Coast by REH, which is inspired by a scene in the Ivory Child, where Mameena returns from the dead to save Alan.

      Read H.R. Haggard, folks, you won’t regret it.

  • JD Cowan says:

    This was the Merritt book that reeled me in. It was in how effortlessly he weaved in fantasy, horror, and science fiction, all while keeping a very clear moral battle throughout that impressed. You don’t get that with modern fiction.

    It’s only a shame that it was his last book.

  • deuce says:

    BURN, WITCH, BURN is a classic. However, it isn’t his last novel. That was CREEP, SHADOW!, which is a partial sequel to BWB. In some ways, I like it better. Merritt combines elements from the previous novel with past life memories of a barbarian king, a Texan gunslinger working for the Mob and the return of a Lovecraftian abomination. A pulpy tour de force, IMO.

  • castaliahouse says:

    I’m not a big pulp fan, but I’m quite liking Merritt’s SEVEN STEPS TO SATAN myself.

    • deuce says:

      Merritt’s Kirkham is like Indiana Jones’ more badass older brother…with a gambling problem. There’s also some nice probability stuff going on for math nerds regarding the “Seven Footprints”.

      It would appear that Merritt wrote the novel specifically with an eye on Hollywood. An SFtS movie got made, but it was highly unfaithful to the source. Imagine that.

      • Andy says:

        That was the first Merritt book I read because the premise sounded so cool to me. I should probably re-read it when I get a chance.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      “it was highly unfaithful to the source.”

      Because filmmakers always know better than any author. Idiots.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      – Calls John C Wright, author of Hodgeson pastiche Awake In the Nightland and pulp dripping Moth and Cobweb series, one of the greatest living writers.
      – Loves Lord Dunsany inspired Tanith Lee.
      – Writes counter epic novel series to the Pulp deconstruction Song of Ice and Fire series.
      – Is writing Alt-Hero comic on the premise of recapturing the heroism of Golden and Silver age comics and extending it Pulprev style for modern readers.
      – Liking Merritt’s Seven Steps of Satan.

      – Not a big pulp fan.

      U WUT M8?!?!

  • Hunsdon says:

    Just kindled some Haggard for reaquaintance purposes.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Yeah I love Allam Quatermain. I read The Mines of Solomon and she. I read another one thst I forget. A blast to read. The other one i luv is the Richard Hannity series. I bought thec3 ebooks in 1 from Penguin at a cheap price.
    What a blast. And the wife is a great female character strong without being a grrrl

  • MegaBusterShepard says:

    Beyond the Pole: Mystery of the Horror Dirigible…..

    I have got to find that companion story it sounds amazing!!

  • Tesh says:

    I’ve read that heroes and heroism are largely defined by the evils they vanquish or resist. I think there’s more to virtue than that, but it’s fair to note that the contrast between light and dark makes both easier to understand. When everything is a middling mushy grey, you have neither definition nor value. That’s true in many parts of life, hence the focus on chiaroscuro for painters, or the ancient principles of Yin and Yang.

    Moral relativism sits in the dingy, murky grey, always slouching towards darkness because it won’t look at the light. That sort of bitter cynicism kills stories and heroes, and it’s nice to see that articulated and see some alternatives.

  • deuce says:

    “[T]o Mr. Haggard I owe a debt of gratitude for having stimulated my youthful imagination and this I greatly acknowledge.”

    — Edgar Rice Burroughs

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