Burn, Witch, Burn! Creep, Shadow, Creep!: Merritt proves himself

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBurn, Witch, Burn! / Creep, Shadow, Creep! by Abraham MerrittBurn, Witch, Burn! / Creep, Shadow, Creep! by Abraham Merritt

Having conquered the field of fantasy (with such classics as The Moon Pool, The Ship of Ishtar and Dwellers in the Mirage) as well as the field of the bizarre yet hardboiled crime thriller (with his wonderful Seven Footprints to Satan), Abraham Merritt went on, in 1932, to prove that he could master the field of supernatural horror, as well. That he succeeded brilliantly should come as no surprise to readers of those earlier works. His first foray in the occult, Burn, Witch, Burn! first appeared in the pages of Argosy magazine in 1932, and was then expanded into book form the following year.

In it, we meet Dr. Lowell, an eminent neurologist who becomes curious when a series of mysterious deaths comes to his attention. Men and women in the NYC area have been dying of no apparent cause, but with horrible grimaces on their faces and with very rapid onsets of rigor mortis. Lowell is aided in his investigation by Ricori, a mobster chieftain, as well as by Ricori’s very efficient gang. The trail of bizarre deaths leads to one Madame Mandilip and her doll shop, and before long the reader is immersed in a world of supernaturalism and escalating tension. Lowell, hardheaded man of the 20th century, is hard put to explain the unfolding creepy events by the lights of his mundane science.

Merritt writes simply in this book; one would never recognize him as the author of The Moon Pool and The Metal Monster, with those books’ lush, purple-prose passages. All of our questions regarding the strange events in Burn, Witch, Burn! are not answered by the tale’s end, and this only seems to make what has transpired seem all the more mysterious. This is the type of book that a reader may feel compelled to gulp down in one sitting, and with its short, 160-page length, that could easily be accomplished. This tale was loosely adapted for the screen as The Devil-Doll (1935), but this film has little to do with its source novel. (Incidentally, the movie Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), also known as Night of the Eagle, has absolutely nothing to do with Merritt’s book, but is rather based on Fritz Leiber‘s novel Conjure Wife, another tale of modern-day witchcraft that I highly recommend.

Good as Merritt’s Burn, Witch, Burn! is, however, its successor, Creep, Shadow, Creep!, is even better. Creep, Shadow, Creep! also saw the first light of day in the pages of Argosy magazine, in 1934, and was released in book form later that year. This novel is a direct sequel to Burn, Witch, Burn!, and is longer, more detailed, more stylishly written and scarier than the earlier work. Readers will delight to find Lowell and Ricori back to fight the supernatural once again, but this time, these characters play only subsidiary roles.

The action mantle in Creep, Shadow, Creep! falls mainly on a young ethnologist named Alan Caranac, who becomes involved in the investigation of the apparent suicides of a number of wealthy NYC men, one of whom was Caranac’s old friend. He is soon drawn into the schemes of one Dr. Keradel and his daughter Dahut, who are attempting to conjure into existence one of the elder gods; a god that was worshipped in the legendary city of Ys.

In Creep, Shadow, Creep!, Merritt’s last completed novel, the author revisits several of his old favorite themes. As in The Moon Pool and Dwellers in the Mirage, we have two women — one good and virginal, the other evil and lustful — fighting over the book’s protagonist. As in Dwellers in the Mirage, the hero is subject to atavistic memories that tend to submerge his present-day personality, while at the same time aiding him in conjuring up a monstrous entity from beyond. And as in The Moon Pool, The Metal Monster, The Face in the Abyss, The Ship of Ishtar and Dwellers in the Mirage, in this novel we are given a glimpse of a vanished, lost civilization (in this case, Ys, in ancient Brittany) and see that, in many real ways, it survives in the present day.

Creep, Shadow, Creep! is not for the squeamish reader, containing as it does some truly horrible passages of pagan sacrifice and torture. It also contains some surprisingly risqué sections, in which Dahut and Caranac’s girlfriend, Helen, appear mother-naked. How these passages must have impressed 80 years ago! Despite the truly frightening goings-on in this book — the shadow people, the Gatherer in the Cairn, the atavistic memories, the visions and so on — Merritt insists on offering rational/mundane explanations for all this… but the reader, as well as Caranac by the tale’s end, knows better.

Creep, Shadow, Creep! is a wonderful tale, a perfect sequel, and one of Merritt’s finest accomplishments. Despite Merritt’s occasional inability to adequately describe geography so that it is clear to the reader (this reader, at least), and despite one or two minor glitches (such as when he describes Dahut’s eyes as being green, after having long established that they are violet), the book succeeds on many levels. Taken together, the two books make for one thrilling little series. I heartily recommend them both to all readers.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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