Illustration by Kieran Yanner

Set Sail with The Ship of Ishtar

Monday, November 2, 2009

This week we released the newest Planet Stories book, The Ship of Ishtar, by A. Merritt. Not only is this my personal favorite of the 22 books we have released since the launch of Planet Stories about a year and a half ago, but it's also an interesting look at the Planet Stories process, and how in many ways we here in the office are learning just as much about the history of the most important early authors and books in the science fiction and fantasy fields as our readers are.

I often received letters of thanks form Planet Stories readers for introducing them to authors like Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, or Henry Kuttner. Most of these authors began their careers in the 1930s and early 1940s, publishing their stories in the pre-war pulp magazines like the original Planet Stories, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and similar magazines.

In order to locate and restore the oldest, most complete texts of the tales we've published so far, I have accumulated a respectable selection of pulp magazines. One of my absolute favorites was called Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Along with its sister magazine, Fantastic Novels, editor Mary Gnaedinger culled the vast archives of the Munsey Magazines (primarily Argosy and All-Story in their various forms and spin-offs), collecting the best fantastic material for affordable reprints. In some ways FFM was the "original" version of our Planet Stories book line, only in this case they reprinted work from the first three decades of the twentieth century almost exclusively.

Two things strike me as fascinating about these magazines beyond the actual stories they contained (many of which were brilliant) and the fact that a woman was setting the original "canon" of science fiction and fantasy in an era when many other women had to hide behind pseudonyms to get their work published at all. Beyond those two substantive issues, the things I find most fascinating about these magazines are the art, and the reader letter column.

The art stands out particularly because most of it (especially early on) came from the peerless pen of Virgil Finlay, for my money the finest illustrator ever to work in the pulp field and one of the greatest American illustrators of all time, period. Finlay's distinctive scratchboard style, fine figure work, and juxtaposition of light and dark tones is breathtaking more than six decades after it was originally commissioned, and his work brings a continuity to the canon of Famous Fantastic Mysteries that might otherwise have been less clear, different as the stories published in the magazine may have been. Many of Finlay's works have been reprinted over the years (and a Google image search will turn up hundreds more), but like the authors whose work he illustrated, he was amazingly prolific. Many of his illustrations appear only in their original pulp form, so opening a "new" issue of FFM rescued from a used book or magazine shop can often feel like digging for visual treasure.

Beyond the stories and illustrations, tacked onto the ends of the magazines and presented in tiny type, came the letters to the editor, often dozens at a time. In the course of praising or criticizing a given issue's content, these letters often include praise of authors and stories that are nearly forgotten today. How many readers other than the most dedicated literary archeologists know much about authors like E. Charles Vivian or Charles B. Stilson? Beyond King Solomon's Mines and perhaps She, who can name the titles of further adventures of H. Rider Haggard's character Allan Quatermain or the dozens of other high-adventure fantasy novels he wrote in the late nineteenth century? FFM published many of them, and the letter columns are filled to bursting with suggestions on even more minor or forgotten works that were fading into obscurity (rightly or wrongly) more than 60 years ago. Of course, even back then, fantasy fans could agree on very few things.

One thing almost everyone seemed to agree on, however, was the overwhelming quality and beauty of language in the works of A. Merritt, particularly his groundbreaking fantasy The Ship of Ishtar.

Merritt's influential 1919 novel The Moon Pool has been in print more or less consistently since it was first published, and it was one of several stories in the very first issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries that solidified the magazine as a major success that would last more than a decade (not bad for a pulp focused almost exclusively on reprints!). He was a major stylistic influence on authors like H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner.

Prior to coming across praise for his works in the letter pages of FFM, I'd never really heard of him. I came to Lovecraft decades ago, and in subsequent works by the above-named authors I always identified the florid, lush description as particularly Lovecraftian. In fact, Lovecraft was a great admirer of Merritt, and it's clear that Merritt's style was a huge influence upon him.

Listen to what HPL said about Merritt in a letter to a friend, praising the Merritt novel The Metal Monster: "[Merritt] has a peculiar power of working up an atmosphere and investing a region with an aura of unholy dread... the most remarkable presentation of the utterly alien and non-human that I have ever seen. Merritt is certainly great stuff—he has a subtle command of an unique type of strangeness which no one else has been able to parallel."

In the early 20th century, Merritt was considered, if not the most popular fantasist (that honor probably goes to Edgar Rice Burroughs), certainly among the top two or three fantasy authors in America. A journalist by trade, Merritt edited the prestigious American Weekly for Willian Randolph Hearst, and was one of the best-paid journalists in the world, bringing in an annual salary of $100,000 at the time of his death in 1943.

His busy career left him relatively little time for fiction writing, limiting his output to fewer than a dozen novels and about the same number of short stories. All are infused with powerful, vivid imagery, an unparalleled sense of place, and unforgettable characters.

This month's Planet Stories release, The Ship of Ishtar, is considered by most critics the finest of Merritt's masterworks, a precursor of the sword and sorcery genre that would come to inform the birth of fantasy roleplaying, and one of the most important fantasy novels of the early twentieth century. Merritt was the late Gary Gygax's favorite writer, and up until the month of Gary's recent death, he kept pushing me to publish some of his works. I wish Gary could have survived to see us get to The Ship of Ishtar, but I know he would have been happy to have one of his favorite tales presented to the audience of fantasy enthusiasts he helped to create and maintain.

The Planet Stories edition of The Ship of Ishtar features Merritt's complete, preferred text for the first time in more than 60 years. It also includes 10 beautiful prints by Merritt's favorite artist and friend, Virgil Finlay, collected into a single volume for the first time ever. Prominent modern author Tim Powers provides a compelling introduction, and the book comes wrapped in a beautiful, pulpy cover by artist Kieran Yanner.

Illustration by Virgil Finlay

I am enormously proud of this book. Many of you have sent me letters of thanks and encouragement for introducing you to some of the classic authors we've covered so far in Planet Stories. And if not for Planet Stories, I may not have discovered this book, so I offer my own thanks to Gary Gygax, and my own invitation to all of you to order the book and give Planet Stories and A. Merritt a try.

One of the world's finest fantasies awaits!

Erik Mona, Publisher
At the World Fantasy Convention
San Jose, California
October, 2009

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Tags: A. Merritt Gary Gygax Kieran Yanner Planet Stories The Ship of Ishtar Tim Powers Virgil Finlay
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