The Black Wheel: A must for all Merritt completists

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Black Wheel by Abraham Merritt & Hannes BokThe Black Wheel by Abraham Merritt & Hannes Bok

When Abraham Merritt died of a heart attack on August 21, 1943, at the age of 59, the world lost one of the greatest writers of adventure fantasy of all time. He left behind a number of novels in various stages of completion, including the first quarter of The Black Wheel. Hannes Bok, an artist and illustrator who did almost 150 covers for assorted pulp magazines, starting with the December 1939 issue of Weird Tales, took on the formidable task of completing Merritt’s story. Bok was the first artist, by the way, to win a Hugo award, and went on to pen several other novels of his own. I must say that he does a rather good job at pastiching Merritt’s style; were it not for the copyright lines at the front of the book, one would never know that Merritt’s writing concludes at the end of Chapter 7, and that Bok then added Chapters 8 – 27. He admirably copies the densely written, hyper-adjectival purple prose of Merritt’s early period. Unfortunately, what he fails to do is get Merritt’s feel for pace and suspense. Much of this novel is overwritten, wordy and slow moving. The story is a fascinating one, but somehow Bok, despite all his $2 words and flair for language, doesn’t give the tale a sense of immediacy and creeping dread. Still, the reader’s interest IS engaged, for the most part, and the book’s final 50 pages or so are quite thrilling.

The story concerns a young doctor, Ross Fenimore, who tells us of his adventures after he signs on for a trip on the Susan Ann. This sailing ship is owned by a millionaire lawyer who has gathered an oddball assortment of friends and crew for a Caribbean pleasure trip. A hurricane maroons the lot on a deserted isle, where the wreck of a 200-year-old ship is discovered. The ship contains the mummified remains of a white man and half a dozen Africans, and before long, their spirits are (seemingly) inhabiting the various members of the Susan Ann. I say “seemingly” only because, despite the reader’s certainty that the strange occurrences have a supernatural origin, Fenimore insists on rationalizing everything away materialistically. These unwanted explanations eventually become tiresome (for this reader, anyway); like Dr. Lowell in Merritt’s Burn, Witch, Burn and Alan Caranac in Creep, Shadow, Creep, Fenimore refuses to accept anything that hints of the otherworldly, even when the evidence is overwhelming. The entire middle section of the book is taken up with the various characters telling of their dreams and visions, and Fenimore explaining them away.

There are some other problems that the reader will face, also. The eye color of one of the characters keeps changing from violet to blue and then back to violet. A Scottish woman on board speaks the pure Scot to the extent that a reader will need a good, UNabridged dictionary to follow her. Worse still is the inclusion of a Stepin Fetchit-like character, with all the embarrassing black stereotypes that one can imagine. I might also add that the McTeague character in the book, an Irishman with the gift of second sight, is a wee bit too much like the fey Irishman Larry O’Keefe in Merritt’s first novel, The Moon Pool, but that may be carping. Fortunately for The Black Wheel, things really DO pick up during those final 50 pages, which include another monster storm, a lost race of albino cannibals, and the deaths of most of the book’s characters (that last is NOT a spoiler; it’s mentioned on page 1!). But I still feel that this book, the longest of any Merritt novel, could have been edited down by at least 50 pages. There is one seemingly endless section, for example, in which Bok needlessly gives us what seems to be every bit of historical and cultural lore regarding the mystical uses of wheels and circles, from the Egyptians to the Druids to the Buddhists, all of which, despite its interest, will probably make most readers want to scream “get on with it!” Still, The Black Wheel IS an interesting read, and certainly a must for all Merritt completists.


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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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