The Face in the Abyss: Another fine fantasy from Abraham Merritt

The Face in the Abyss by Abraham Merritt fantasy book reviewsThe Face in the Abyss by Abraham Merritt

Abraham Merritt’s The Face in the Abyss first appeared as a short story in a 1923 issue of Argosy magazine. It would be another seven years before its sequel, “The Snake Mother,” appeared in Argosy, and yet another year before the book-length version combined these two tales, in 1931. It is easy to detect the book’s provenance as two shorter stories, as the first third of the novel is pretty straightforward treasure-hunting fare, while the remainder of the book takes a sharp turn into lost-world fantasy, of the kind popularized by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In this novel we meet Nick Graydon, an American miner, who is searching for lost Incan loot with three of the nastiest compadres you can imagine. In the Peruvian wastes, they come across a mysterious girl, and are led by her toward Yu-Atlanchi, the so-called HiddenLand. Graydon’s cohorts suffer a mysterious fate, but Graydon himself goes on to discover Yu-Atlanchi’s many wonders. He meets the Snake Mother, one of Merritt’s finest creations: a half snake/half girl entity who is countless aeons old and possessed of ancient wisdom. The Snake Mother is similar in nature to the Silent Ones of Merritt’s first novel, The Moon Pool, but is a much more fleshed-out character. It seems that Graydon has stumbled into Yu-Atlanchi just as civil war is about to break out there. Nimir, an evil lord whom the Snake Mother had imprisoned ages ago, has returned, and is intent on using his weapons of mind control and superscience to rule the world. Merritt does ultimately treat us to a nifty battle between the forces of Nimir (aided by his lizard men, dinosaurs and various weapons) and the Snake Mother (aided by her invisible flying lizards and assorted way-out armaments). But before we get to that battle, Merritt also dishes out a dinosaur hunt, a dinosaur race, a tour through the Cavern of Lost Wisdom, a garden of evil, mind control, spirit possession, spider-men (and NOT of the Peter Parker variety!), and some fascinating history of and philosophizing by the Snake Mother. It’s all wonderfully pulpy and improbable stuff, but Merritt throws quite a bit into the book to keep the reader well entertained.

On the down side, The Face in the Abyss does not feature as much of the wonderful purple prose that made earlier Merritt works such as The Moon Pool and The Metal Monster so special. This book seems to have been written more quickly and, in some places, almost carelessly. For example, in one scene, the moon is said to be rising from the west! In another, Graydon is said to have only one pistol, under his arm, although the pistol he’s had at his waist is never mentioned again. That Cavern of Lost Wisdom seems so easy to come across that it’s impossible for the reader to believe that it has been undiscovered for thousands of years. Merritt is also guilty of occasional fuzzy writing in Face (such as when he refers to a “three foot parapet”; is that three feet high or three feet wide, or what?), and much of the geography of the incessant tunnel crawling that takes place in the book is hard to follow. But perhaps this is deliberate on Merritt’s part. Not all of our questions are concretely answered by the novel’s end, and Graydon’s theorizing is apparently meant to suffice. But I suppose that this is all nitpicking. What The Face in the Abyss ultimately does succeed at is in providing action-packed escapism, constant imagination and colorful wonders. What an incredible Hollywood blockbuster this would make! Anyway, as it is, this is yet another fine fantasy from Abraham Merritt.


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SANDY FERBER 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 is 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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3 comments

  1. I read this many, many years ago as a teenager because I was into John Carter of Mars at the time and this sounded like a similar type of novel. I remember it being decent but the writing was a bit uneven. Sounds like a should have read The Face in the Pool or The Metal Monster instead. Thanks for the review and bringing back old memories!

  2. Paul Connelly /

    The chapter with the festival of the Dream Weavers was a good projection of how the visual media such as motion pictures (still fairly new when Merritt was writing this) and television (still in the future) would develop in the US. Initially as a vehicle for pleasant but relatively unsophisticated productions, then, as the population grew jaded, more manipulative, violent and tasteless, but with a high level of technical sophistication, creating an ever more jaded audience which demanded even more explicit cruelty and “transgressive” material. The downward spiral of the culture was captured very concisely.

  3. Sandy Ferber /

    @ Ray: You’re very welcome…and glad to have revived those old, pleasant memories.

    @ Paul: An interesting insight there!

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