"The Ship of Ishtar," a fantasy novel by A. Merritt first published in the mid-1920s, offers a world in which the Gods of ancient Babylon are real and palpable, if not necessarily Divine, and in which marooned voyagers from many times and lands encounter each other in furtherance of an ancient curse. It is probably to be counted as a version of "The Flying Dutchman," although no sailor on earthly seas ever caught a glimpse of the vessel of Ishtar on its unending voyage across a crystalline ocean. The this-worldly counterpart of the Ship is a relic of ancient Mesopotamia, sealed in a block with (long-unreadable) warnings since before the days of Hammurabi.
And the novel itself is a relic of a "modern" world now slipping into the past.
The King James Bible tells us that "There were giants in the earth in those days" (Genesis 6:4) -- the Hebrew can be understood differently, but the Dead Sea Scrolls show that it was once interpreted to explain Mesopotamian heroes like Gilgamesh ("Glgmsh"). And it sometimes seems that before radio dramas and movie serials, before adventure comic strips and science fiction magazines, and well before comic books, let alone television, Giants were roaming the Earth!
Or, at least, Giants were contributing to magazines like "Argosy" (Frank Munsey's pioneer all-fiction pulp) and "All-Story," "Adventure," "Golden Fleece," and the more general-interest "slicks" like "Colliers" and "The Saturday Evening Post." And some of their characters were Giants too -- prototypes of the superheroes of a slightly later day.
A few of these writers had star status, or at least their names had special drawing power (think of Lucas and Spielberg). A few of them are still widely remembered by name or by their creations, like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan. The westerns of "Max Brand" also have a following. (The name was the well-chosen pseudonym of Frederick Schiller Faust-- which looks even more like invention!)
Others, like Homer Eon Flint, are mostly (and sometimes deservedly) forgotten by all but a few. Their prose styles ranged from the workman-like to the florid and baroque, and sometimes sank to the barely intelligible (which helped some of them paper over plot-holes as large as a mammoth.)
Somewhere between still-famous and forgotten is the present author, Abraham Merritt (1884-1943), once instantly recognizable as A. Merritt, journalist and magazine editor, and, mainly in the period 1917-1934, occasional author of novels and short stories of suspense, the supernatural, and, above all, fantastic adventures in exotic places.
In those years, whenever he chose to write fiction, he was a Giant among Giants, inspiring younger writers, and providing a model for those trying to make a living in the pulp markets by meeting the demand he had created. And he was often reprinted in magazines, a common practice before paperbacks dominated the newsstands. But fiction was a side-line, and Merritt produced little in the following decade, although an unfinished novel and various fragments turned up after his sudden death from a heart attack.
His name still had enough selling power to be used for five issues of "A. Merritt's Fantasy Magazine" (1949-1950), just the market for fiction magazines was fading, but before the novels were picked up for mass-market paperback editions by Avon, which for years had a near-monopoly (although Collier Books did an edition of "Face in the Abyss" in 1961, and there were some earlier exceptions, including at least one edition of "Ship").
Merritt has been in and out of favor with readers or publishers in the years since, due in part to whether his lush romanticism and slightly purple prose style seemed exciting or merely unfashionable. (There are those who suggest that the possibilities for enticing cover art were originally more influential with Avon than the books' other qualities, pointing out that Raymond Chandler was the only other author of real merit on their early list, If true, this changed over the years, as the emphasis on exposed skin decreased considerably, although never quite abandoned. Unhappily, more decorous covers did nothing to correct a debatable choice of base texts for some of the books.)
He really didn't throw around adjectives and adverbs nearly as freely as both imitators and parodists would suggest, but he did prefer, for example, "emerald and vermillion" to "green and red" when describing jungle vegetation. He often used simple sentences, among the longer ones. Sometimes just one word. One! (He also liked exclamation marks! A lot!) Not to everyone's taste, but he was actually a skilled writer, and knew that a well-constructed story was more than a sequence of events.
Another factor in the decline of his popularity, if it was more than an accident of publishing policy as corporations consolidated, may have been growing discomfort with the latent (and sometimes explicit) racial overtones of many of the stories. By the standards of the early twentieth century Merritt was far from a bigot, and it is usually possible to distinguish the opinions expressed by the characters from those endorsed by the author, but the casual assumption of white superiority can be jarring -- and prevent readers from continuing to see whether it is borne out by the events. (He sometimes played with readers' assumptions. Watch out for the Frog-People! Or, wait, are they the Good Guys?)
Recognition of problems with his way of putting women on pedestals (they tend to be pagan priestesses, and often turn out to be actual goddesses or avatars of some sort anyway) probably came too late to make a difference.
Whatever the case, Merrit's novels were in print, mainly in those Avon paperbacks, in the 1940s and 1950s, when Burroughs seemed to be vanishing, and again from the 1960s through the 1980s, then alongside not only Burroughs but Tolkien and Howard. Most of his titles then disappeared from publishers' lists at some point in the middle or late 1980s.
He has been straggling back into print under such unfamiliar auspices as the University of Nebraska Press (the Bison Frontiers of Imagination Series) and the Wesleyan University Press (Early Classics of Science Fiction), with in one case an introduction by Jack Williamson, a now-venerable science fiction writer who as a teenager regarded Merritt as a literary god. (Merritt was impressed and flattered enough by Williamson's first published story, a transparent pastiche/homage, to ask for the manuscript.)
Still, whenever you see a story about dolls which come to life and commit crimes (remember Chuckie?), or about ill-assorted explorers stumbling on a lost civilization of humans and non-humans menaced by both the outside world and its own ancient powers (say, "Atlantis -- The Lost Empire," or "Dinotopia"), chances are that a Merritt story is lurking in the background. Even if the authors themselves never read "Burn Witch Burn" (1932) (filmed as "Devil Doll"), or "The Moon Pool" (as "The Moon Pool" and "The Conquest of the Moon Pool," 1919; book version 1919), "Face in the Abyss" (1923, 1930, revised for book, 1931; author's ending restored in some later editions), and "Dwellers in the Mirage" (magazine and book versions, 1932). Not that Merritt invented the themes, but his versions of them dominated American imaginative literature for much of the twentieth century.
And, partly by way of Williamson and other writers of his generation, any grotesque-looking alien life-form who wins your sympathy may owe something to Merritt as well. (As will be understood by those who have read "Face in the Abyss," many are the progeny of the Snake Mother!)
Merritt made his greatest reputation among lovers of fantastic adventure with slightly more archaeologically plausible and somewhat science-fictionalized versions of the "Lost Race" novel, made popular in the nineteenth century by Bulwer-Lytton and H. Rider Haggard. He added some creepy super-beings who may have contributed more than a little to H.P. Lovecraft's Old Ones, and, when editors allowed, a rather pessimistic view of human nature (its real gods being Greed and Folly).
In 1924, however, Merritt had moved all the way into what would later be recognized as alternate-world heroic fantasy, with "The Ship of Ishtar," originally published in "Argosy All-Story Weekly." (A combined version of two older titles -- "Argosy" would survive the death of its rivals, only to spend its last years as a "Men's Magazine," finally, mercifully, dying in 1978.)
Instead of an archeologist or explorer stumbling into an underground world, or through a Veil of Illusion, this time the archeologist, John Kenton, examining an inscribed block from ancient Babylon, falls from his mundane twentieth-century New York penthouse right onto the deck of a model ship on a crystal ocean -- and finds himself in a world as material and dangerous as the one he has left. He finds that he is acting out (as mentioned) a sort of implied prototype of every Flying Dutchman yarn ever written, along with other castaways in time, such as Sigurd the Norseman, who recognizes the Irish-American Kenton as a Man of Eirinn.
Kenton is caught up in a struggle between Ishtar, Goddess of Love and Beauty, and Nergal, the God of War and Death, as decreed by Bel-Marduk, King of the Gods. (Yes, Ishtar herself was an often-nasty war-goddess -- but Merritt was mostly dressing up his story with Assyriology, and taking a lot of material from Herodotus rather than cuneiform texts. And the interpretation of the gods wasn't implausible, circa-1920.) Of course, this being a Merritt novel, Good is represented by an incredibly beautiful woman, who takes a liking to the Mysterious Stranger who appears and disappears from the Ship she has sailed on since the days of Sargon of Akkad, believing him to be a messenger of Nabu, God of Wisdom. (Again, Nabu emerged later in history, as did the routine designation of his father Marduk as Bel [The Lord], but never mind.)
Or possibly Kenton really isn't doing any such thing, and Sharane, Priestess of Ishtar, Klaneth, Priest of Nergal, Gigi, Sigurd, and all the others on the Ship, aren't really there -- and neither is the Ship.
In the full text, as published in the magazine version, the reader was carefully informed that wealthy young John Kenton had passed up the excavation in Mesopotamia he had funded in order to join up in 1917, and had returned from the war a victim of "shell shock" -- close enough to post-traumatic stress disorder to make little difference.
In this context, Kenton's initial reaction to his unexpected experiences, shifting from passive acceptance to violent action, and back, made perfectly good sense, and allowed the skeptical reader to wonder if Kenton really was finally cracking up completely, as he himself suspects, until persuaded otherwise.
In the 1926 book version from Putnam, the text used by Avon in numerous reprintings, and by far the most widely-read version, the opening paragraphs were truncated, and Kenton's behavior can become rather a puzzle, as does the attitude of his servants back in New York to "the Master's" odd behavior. There are several discussions of the book, some available on-line, which stumble over just this incomprehension. (The reverse situation befell "Face in the Abyss," in which the magazine tampered with the ending.)
The full text of "Ishtar" (and the difference in wordage is not large) was restored after Merritt's death, in the undated "Memorial Edition" from Borden (1948, 1949, and 1951 are all given). It was beautifully illustrated by Virgil Finlay, one of the best of the many artists inspired by Merritt. This was reprinted in hardcover in 1990, and reproduced in the Collier Nucleus Fantasy & Science Fiction series paperback edition in 1991, apparently after the Avon option had finally lapsed.
However, the Avon edition is perfectly satisfactory on most counts; and, with a couple of decades of reprintings, usually the easiest to find. It had various covers over the years; the 1960s-era Douglas Rosa portrayal of Kenton and Sharane, with a glimpse of one of the supernatural battles fought in and around the Ship, is particularly lovely.
(Note: although presently unavailable new in English, "The Ship of Ishtar" has been translated into, among other languages, French and German, and these versions seem to be in print. -- see Amazon.fr and Amazon.de. The French editions appear as "La nef d'Ishtar," a literal translation. The German translation for some reason is called "Insel der Zauberer." Although Chapter Twenty-One is indeed entitled "The Isle of Sorcerers" [plural], this is a curious choice for the book title, and changes the focus away from the Goddess, and the Ship and its destiny, for no clear reason. To add to the confusion, the very attractive cover art of "Insel" suggests that someone either doesn't know the difference between Babylonia and Egypt, or Isis and Ishtar, or just doesn't care.)