Seven Footprints to Satan: Marvelous entertainment

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSeven Footprints to Satan by Abraham Merritt fantasy book reviewsSeven Footprints to Satan by Abraham Merritt

Readers of Abraham Merritt’s first four novels — The Moon Pool, The Metal Monster, The Face in the Abyss and The Ship of Ishtar — may feel a little surprised as they get into his fifth, Seven Footprints to Satan. Whereas those earlier fantasy masterpieces featured exotic locales such as the Pacific islands, the Himalayas and Peru; extravagant purple prose, dense with hyperadjectival descriptions; and living light creatures, metallic sentient cubes, a lost semi-reptilian race and battling gods, Seven Footprints to Satan takes place, for the most part, in good ol’ New York City and its suburbs, and tells an almost realistic tale of kidnapping and crime in direct, almost blunt prose.

Indeed, although Seven Footprints to Satan first appeared in Argosy magazine in 1927, and in book form the following year, it almost reads as if it had come from the pages of one of the crime pulps, such as Black Mask or Crack Detective Stories. In this fast-moving tale, we meet James Kirkham, an adventurer/explorer (and, with a name like that, future candidate for Star Fleet Academy!) who is kidnapped off the streets of downtown Manhattan by the minions of Satan, a crime lord/supervillain/evil genius. Kirkham is forced to play a game in Satan’s lair, during which he is made to tread on seven glowing footprints, four of which are “fortunate” and three “unfortunate.” Depending on the steps he lands on, he will either be killed, serve Satan for a year, be given a fantastic fortune, etc. I am not giving away too much by saying that Kirkham winds up a bond servant to Satan, and is compelled to commit various fantastic crimes while in his service. He is housed in Satan’s mazelike chateau with dozens of others, and falls in love with a fellow prisoner, Eve. (I suppose having Kirkham’s first name be “Adam” would have been forcing things a bit!)

Grotesque in appearance, vast of intellect, profound lover of beauty, and sadistic in the extreme, Satan makes for one terrific character. With his strain of Chinese background, he is reminiscent of Sax Rohmer‘s Fu Manchu, but also of the supervillains of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Indeed, for much of the novel, it is unclear whether Satan is or isn’t the actual article; Old Scratch himself. The scenes in which he is present are quite riveting. Merritt keeps things barely on this side of reality; nothing that transpires in the book — the museum theft, the slaves kept in bondage by the mind-altering kehft drug, the worldwide criminal organization, the high-seas piracy — is beyond the realm of credibility.

And, suiting style to story, Merritt, as I mentioned up top, writes in spare, wonderfully controlled, crime-pulp prose. Thus, we get a line such as “I shot from the floor, and …drilled [him] through the head.” The dropping of the aforementioned purple prose makes the book seem lean and streamlined; it really does move, and keeps the reader turning the pages. The finale of the book is thrilling in the extreme, and concludes most satisfactorily.

I have read that Seven Footprints to Satan was turned into a 1928 film starring Thelma Todd as Eve, but from the plot synopses on imdb.com, it would seem that this film is a very loose adaptation, at best. I’d love to see it one day, just for comparative purposes, but can’t imagine it equaling the suspense and excitement of the book. Seven Footprints to Satan may have been a change in direction for A. Merritt, but it still makes for marvelous entertainment.

Publisher: A. Merritt’s Seven Footprints To Satan (1927) is a classic novel of exotic mystery with supernatural overtones, in which Satan is an obese criminal mastermind of monstrous appetites — and the evil genius to satisfy them. When art-thief and gambler Jim Markham falls foul of this Oriental beast, he must undergo the ordeal of the seven footprints in order to avoid slavery or death. If he fails, he will be forced to carry out Satan’s demonic bidding for the next year of his life. Merritt’s Satan remains one of the most memorable super-villains in pulp literature, and the complexity which the author endows his creation raises him, and the book, far above the standards of ordinary escapist literature. This new edition of Seven Footprints To Satan also includes the bonus of Merritt’s first published story, Through The Dragon Glass (1917), another ghoulish evocation of Yellow Menace devilry. Seven Footprints To Satan was filmed in 1928 by Danish director Benjamin Christensen, whose previous work included the classic witchcraft film Haxan.

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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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9 comments

  1. I dunno. “Seven Footprints to Satan” sounds like the title of one of the cautionary-tale novels they tried to get me to read in Catholic School — “Little did she know, when she sneaked out, that she had taken the first of Seven Footsteps to Satan!”

    And I know it was the 1920s/30s but I think I’ve hit my Asian Evil Crimelord threshold. Great review, but probably not a book I’ll seek out.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Don’t keep us guessing, Marion…just how many of those steps DID you take back then?

    • Well, more than three… but fewer than seven.

      • Merritt doesn’t stress the “Asian Evil Crime-lord” angle. At all. What is RUMOURED, within the story itself, is that he’s half-Chinese. Meanwhile, “Satan” himself is thoroughly urbane and Westernized. For all the “Asian” he is, he might as well be Fleming’s Blofeld. BTW, do you call Arabs “Asian”? What about blonde, blue-eyed Circassians that have been in the Caucasus mountains of ASIA since the Ice Age? What a crap, useless term “Asian” is.

        • Wha? Did I even use the word “Asian” once in this review? I think not….

  3. Brad Hawley /

    It’s funny to see how much my taste in comic books agrees with yours, Marion, but my taste in pulp fiction matches Sandy’s! I was reading this review thinking, “How quickly can I get my hands on a copy?”

    Great review.

    The only problem with your reviews, Sandy, is that you pick books that you love, and apparently, I have the same tastes: And then you write so lovingly about them that I feel compelled to read them immediately. If only I had enough time (and money and space and . . . ).

    • ” And then you write so lovingly about them that I feel compelled to read them immediately. If only I had enough time (and money and space and . . . ).”

      Brad, I think we all relate.

  4. Sandy Ferber /

    Never too late to take four more steps, Marion! LOL! Anyway, thanks so much for the kind words, guys. And Brad, maybe one day I will surprise you and write a review of a book that I can’t stand. But don’t hold your breath…life is too short, and most of the books that I read are ones that I have a pretty good feeling about before going in….

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