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.