Monday, June 18, 2012

A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage

Abraham Merritt (1884-1942), usually known simply as A. Merritt, was one of the more interesting American pulp writers of horror and fantastic fiction. Dwellers in the Mirage was one of several “lost world” novels that he wrote and as usual he gives the sub-genre his own distinctive twists.

Leif Langdon is an engineer and with his yellow hair and huge build he’s a genetic throwback to his family’s Viking forebears. He’s more than simply a physical throwback however as will soon become evident. On an expedition to the Gobi Desert he discovers that he has a kind of race memory of his distant ancestors and with his Viking blood he shares a racial ancestry with the Uighurs of the Gobi.

The Uighurs, like Leif, trace their ancestry back to the Asiatic ancestors of the Vikings. An encounter with an Uighur high priest reveals to him that he is in fact Dwanayu, a warrior king from the distant past. He is not a reincarnation of Dwanayu as such but he shares Dwanayu’s memories of his glorious past and like Dwanayu he has the power to call up the god of all gods, the dreaded Khalk’ru.

Khalk’ru is the source of the myths of the Kraken, the twelve-tentacled octopus god-monster. Khalk’ru is the god of the void, the eternal nothingness, the enemy of all life. Khalk’ru turned against his people and made their world a desert but the ancestral race not only survived, they migrated. And not just to Scandinavia.

On a later expedition to Alaska with his Cherokee companion and blood-brother he discovers a strange lost world, the world of the dwellers in the mirage, the Shadowed-Land. A hidden valley reveals an eerie mystery. Freak atmospheric and geological conditions have cloaked this valley in a mirage. Leif and his companion see a glacial valley and a lake, but which is the reality and which is the mirage? In fact both are mirages. Underneath a layer of green mist  is a lost world.

It is a world inhabited by several races - the golden pygmies known as the Rrrllya and a tall red-haired warrior race known as the Ajvir who are their sworn enemies. Leif will meet two women, the beautiful Evalie who is a kind of queen to the Rrrlyya although she is not of their race, and the equally beautiful but cruel Witch-Woman Lur of the Ajvir.

He will discover his destiny as Dwanayu but is it a destiny that Leif Langdon can accept? And can he accept the awful Sacrifice on which this works depends? He will find war, and love. But can two men inhabit the same body, and can two women share the same man?

Merritt’s lost worlds are more than just lost worlds of prehistoric creatures. He had the ability to create strange and alien civilisations and to portray the clash of conflicting civilisations. 

Published in 1932 the book draws on many of the ideas that were popular at the time - the unconscious, hypnotism, race memories and civilisations in deadly conflict. Merritt was also a skilled and entertaining story-teller. He could create memorably strong female characters and there is more than a tinge of destructive and obsessive eroticism.

The book also has some affinities with sword & sorcery genre. There is action and there is magic, there are strange gods and stranger beliefs.

Fans of both weird fiction and sword & sorcery will find much to enjoy in this brilliant and adventurous tale. Highly recommended.

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