The Ship of Ishtar, part two

Tuesday , 24, January 2017 2 Comments

Post-Christian authors struggle so when it comes to contrast. The bad guys are just misunderstood or else they had a hard time when they were growing up. The good guys…? Their flaws go well beyond quirks and shortcomings and veer into outright psychological damage. But who are you going to root for in a clash between unlikable protagonists and likeable antagonists? Is it really that satisfying to see someone that isn’t that bad of a guy really get his comeuppance?

The contrast between male and female is similarly lost on this generation. While precious emotional beats are wasted establishing that evil is sympathetic and good is damaged, storytellers take similar pains to establish that their women are “strong” and their men are uninspiring. Tossed these two stock characters together in a fast paced adventure and it’s almost a relief that they tend to stay at arms length these days.

Just these two things together account for the fact that practically everything produced these days is a cringe-fest. Times change, sure. But human nature hasn’t budged. That’s why the words of Agur the son of Jakeh ring true even after millennia:

There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

Given that that really is the shortlist of truly compelling things, it’s perfectly natural then that one of A. Merritt’s most beloved tales would involve two out of four.

So what’s the story behind the story in what at first appears to be a straight ahead pulp style “there and back again” adventure…?

Well I have to say, it’s actually more mind blowing than I imagined it could be. See, the priestess to the goddess of love has a thing for a priest of the god of death. This would be a run of the mill forbidden love scenario except for one thing. Their gods are real. And in the moment when they finally give themselves over to their mutual passion, they are each possessed by their respective deities.

The fantastic scenario that has been introduced in this tale is thus a consequence of both gods and mortals going astray. And as if that isn’t enough, the sort of transcendent love you might read about in Robert E. Howard or C. L. Moore is demonstrated to have a power over even the gods themselves. And the very elements that today’s writers are loathe to invoke are, in Merritt’s hands, a dynamo of wonder and awesome.

There is a problem with this, however. Just like undiluted epic-level heroism can get a little samey after a while, this sort of thing really is too wonderful for me…! While Tolkien dealt with the former by introducing hobbits to serve as intermediaries, Merritt brings in familiar pulp elements to the foreground for relief while relegating the epic fantasy elements off stage. It works.

Dream woman or woman meshed in ancient sorceries, there was but one answer for Sharane–the truth.

And tell her truth Kenton did, beginning from the arrival of the block from Babylon into his house; glossing no detail that might make all plain to her. She listened, her gaze steadfast upon him, drinking in his words–amazement alternating with stark disbelief; and these in turn replaced by horror, by despair.

“For even the site of ancient Uruk is well-nigh lost,” he ended. “The House of the Seven Zones is a windswept heap of desert sand. And Babylon, mighty Babylon, has been level with the wastes for thousands of years!”

She leaped to her feet–leaped and rushed upon him, eyes blazing, red-gold hair streaming.

“Liar!” she shrieked. “Liar! Now I know you–you phantom of Nergal!”

A dagger flashed in her hand; he caught the wrist just in time; struggled with her; bore her down upon the couch.

She relaxed, hung half fainting in his arms.

“Uruk dust!” she whimpered. “The House of Ishtar dust! Babylon a desert! And Sargon of Akkad dead six thousand years ago, you said–six thousand years ago!” She shuddered, sprang from his embrace. “But if that is so, then what am I?” she whispered, white lipped. “What–am I? Six thousand years and more gone since I was born–and I alive! Then what am I?”

Panic overpowered her; her eyes dulled; she clutched at the cushions. He bent over her; she threw white arms around him.

Is this a kissing book? Yes it is. Oh yes it is!

But it’s put together with the full palette: the mysterious, the weird, the thrilling, the tantalizing… it’s all here! And it’s also got action like you’ve never seen:

The warrior maids dropped their javelins, surged forward as one. They clung to him; twined legs and arms around him, dragged him down. Cursing, flailing with his fists, kicking–caring no longer that they were women–Kenton fought them. Berserk, he staggered to his feet. His foot struck the lintel of the rosy cabin’s door. Down he plunged, dragging his wildcat burden with him. Falling they drove against the door. Open it flew, and out through it they rolled, battling down the ivoried deck.

Okay, maybe that sort of thing is same old same old for you. Me? I’ve never seen anything like it!

That it exists within so many layers of the fantastic only makes it more astonishing.

2 Comments
  • deuce says:

    You can see later female fictioneers like Moore and Brackett very much following the Merritt example when it comes to man/woman relationships.

    The New Gatekeepers would call Merritt a raving misogynist, yet he was a major inspiration for Moore, Brackett, Norton and Cherryh. I guess they didn’t get the memo.

    BTW, Robert E. Howard borrowed several elements from TSoI for his own “Queen of the Black Coast”.

  • […] This post from Jeffro Johnson at Castalia House (in a review of A. Merritt’s The Ship Of Ishtar) sums up a lot of the problem with modern fiction: […]

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