Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Ship Of Ishtar!

Recently had the great pleasure to read A.Merritt's wonderfully lush novel The Ship of Ishtar. This 1920's high fantasy novel appeared originally in serial form in Argosy.

The story begins with John Kenton, an amateur archeologist and World War I American veteran who has lost some of the flavor for life. In an attempt to placate somewhat his ennui he rummages around with an ancient Babylonian block which ends up containing an elaborate and beautifully ornate jeweled model of an ancient sailing ship. The ship serves as key, allowing Kenton to enter a timeless world in which the full-scale version of this ship sails the seas and has done for thousands of years.

The ship, the titular "Ship of Ishtar" has two distinct parts, one dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and the eternal home to the beautiful Sharane and her handmaidens dedicated to the ancient goddess. On the other end of the ship is Klaneth, a priest dedicated to Nergal and who is at war with Sharane and Ishtar herself. This struggle has collected an assortment of warriors over the centuries in particular to the story Gigi, a weird giant who has dwarfish legs but a giant heart, Zubran a lusty and hearty Persian pirate of sorts, and Sigurd a giant and powerfully loyal Viking. These three end up becoming strong allies to John Kenton as he finds himself enmeshed in the war between Nergal and Ishtar and discovers he is more closely linked to this weird sprawling neverland than he at first suspected.

The story is potent thanks to Merritt's wonderful writing style, which is at once elaborate and ornate but highly readable nonetheless. Merritt never comes across as writing in an antique style, but despite highly decorative language keeps the pedal to the metal throughout the narrative. John Kenton is a man who has lost his way in the modern world and finds both love and purpose in this ancient one on which he and his allies sail. During the course of the story he is periodically pulled away, back to Earth where time passes remarkably slowly relative to the passage on the Ishtarian seas. He finds himself changed more and more, and more and more removed from his modern identity. It's a fascinating transformation as John Kenton becomes "Jonkenton" and eventually just "The Wolf", a hardened warrior ready to do things a modern man would at best blink at.

Merritt was a big favorite and influence for H.P. Lovecraft, and there's no denying the inspiration. But on reading this potent and bloody saga, I couldn't help but imagine that Robert E. Howard hadn't read a Merritt novel. I detected more than a hint of Conan's prowling eyes in the transformed face of Merritt's Kenton.

The edition I read (see the top cover) featured a host of lush and beautiful Virgil Finlay images. See some of them below. 

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  1. Love Virgil Finlay. His stuff is always great.

    1. Finlay's work is always mind-blowing!

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