Episode 20 – A. Merritt’s “Burn Witch, Burn!” with special guest Stephen Newton

Special guest Stephen Newton joins us to discuss A. Merritt‘s Burn Witch, Burn!

Abraham Grace Merritt (better known by his byline A. Merritt) has the odd distinction of being perhaps second only to Edgar Rice Burroughs in popularity as a writer of fantastic fiction during the first half of the 20th century, only to be largely forgotten today. Perhaps this is because Merritt’s relatively small body of work didn’t feature recurring iconic heroes like John Carter of Mars or Conan of Cimmeria, or it may be down to his prose style’s reputation for being more baroque and densely descriptive than is the norm nowadays.

Merritt came from a poor Quaker family, and financial difficulties forced his withdrawal from legal studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He landed a job at the age of 19 in 1903 as a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer and remained a journalist for the rest of his life. Early in his career Merritt experienced or witnessed something (political corruption? heinous violence? eldritch horrors?) of which he never spoke again. Merritt was forced to lay low for a year in Mexico and Central America, where he visited many pre-Columbian sites and befriended the indigenous peoples. Merritt’s Latin American exile sparked in him a lifelong love of travel to exotic locales and a keen interest in the rituals and legends associated with those places. This anthropological eye would inform all of Merritt’s fiction, from his first published story “Through the Dragon Glass” (1917) to his final uncompleted novella “The Fox Woman” (first published in 1946). Merritt’s powers of imagination and description would inspire generations of writers of fantastic fiction, not least the “Big Three” of Weird Tales, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard.

Unlike many of the Appendix N authors, Merritt did not need to survive on his fiction work since he was one of the best-paid journalists of his time–in 1912 he was tapped to be the assistant editor of The American Weekly and was earning $25,000 a year by 1919 (over $365,000 in 2017 dollars). Merritt served as the editor-in-chief of The American Weekly from 1937 until his death in 1943, by which time he was earning $100,000 a year (over $1.4 million in 2017 dollars). Merritt’s editorial responsibilities and his tendency to re-visit and rework his stories meant that he only completed 8 novels and 7 short stories in his lifetime. But regardless of whether Merritt’s commitment to The American Weekly limited his fantastic fiction output, his time there was well-spent as it also allowed him to champion and hire Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok, two up-and-coming artists who would become among the greatest of the pulp era. Both Finlay and Bok would go on to illustrate many of Merritt’s stories and Bok was given permission to complete and publish two unfinished Merritt novellas, The Fox Woman and the Blue Pagoda (New Collectors Group, 1946) and The Black Wheel (New Collectors Group, 1947).

Merritt’s second to last novel, Burn, Witch, Burn! was originally serialized in 6 parts in Argosy Weekly magazine in the fall of 1932 and compiled in hardcover the following year by Liveright, Inc. It’s a mark of Merritt’s literary respectability at the time that he shared the same publisher as Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, and E.E. Cummings among others. Burn, Witch, Burn! was reprinted in 1942 in Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine with a gorgeous Virgil Finlay cover:

famous_fantastic_mysteries_194206

That same year Avon Books first published Burn, Witch, Burn! in paperback. There were multiple re-printings through 1951, all featuring a cover and interior spot art by William Frost (no further information about William Frost was readily available, so any readers who are in the know, please drop us a note – Hoi):

BRNWTCHBRN0000

Gary Gygax did not specifically cite Burn, Witch, Burn! in Appendix N, which is odd since he did list its 1934 follow-up Creep, Shadow, Creep (aka Creep, Shadow!). Given Gygax’s known fondness for Merritt’s fiction, it’s unlikely that he hadn’t read Burn, Witch, Burn!, so why then was it left off the list? The less interesting answer is that it might simply have been an oversight, as it was out of print in the U.S. from 1952 to 1996. A textual answer might be that whereas Merritt works such as The Moon Pool (1918) and The Ship of Ishtar (1924) journey to hidden worlds or alternate planes of existence, Burn, Witch, Burn! takes place entirely in modern-day New York City and thus reads more as a mystery/horror novel than an epic fantasy. Nonetheless, the formidable Madame Mandilip makes for a memorable antagonist, and her arcane powers can easily be rendered by canonical Dungeons & Dragons spells such as Silence, Charm Person, Sleep, Hold Person, and Geas. The power of a great villain rests far more in their description and actions than their stat blocks of course….

Reading Resources:

http://freeread.com.au/@RGLibrary/AbrahamMerritt/AbrahamMerritt.html is an online public domain repository of all of Merritt’s fiction with the exception of a few unpublished fragments discovered in the mid-1980s.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries v04 n02 – this scan of the June 1942 issue includes a complete reprint of Burn, Witch, Burn! along with masterful interior illustrations by Virgil Finlay.

Additional Reading:

“The Marvelous A. Merritt” is terrific short overview and appreciation of Merritt’s writings and career by historian of science fiction Sam Moskowitz from Satellite Science Fiction magazine.

Gaming Resources:

Dungeon Crawl Classics #93: Moon-Slaves of the Cannibal Kingdom by Edgar Johnson features a key non-player character directly inspired by Burn, Witch Burn! and is available in PDF here (RPGNow affiliate link) or in print here.

Dungeon Crawl Classics 2015 Halloween Module: They Served Brandolyn Red (RPGNow affiliate link) is Stephen Newton’s Edgar Allan Poe-esque level 0 Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG adventure. Gruesome good fun, with a rich backstory. Play it or run it if you can!

Stephen Newton is also the main writer at Thick Skull Adventures and all of their DCC products can be found here. (RPGNow affiliate link)

 

If you are in Brooklyn and want to join the IRL book club, then come over here.

The list of books we will discuss are outlined within this link.

And finally, the in-print omnibus, anthology, and online resources are living over here.

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