Readers of Abraham Merritt’s first four novels — The Moon Pool, The Metal Monster, The Face in the Abyss and The Ship of Ishtar — may feel a little surprised as they get into his fifth, Seven Footprints to Satan. Whereas those earlier fantasy masterpieces featured exotic locales such as the Pacific islands, the Himalayas and Peru; extravagant purple prose, dense with hyperadjectival descriptions; and living light creatures, metallic sentient cubes, a lost semi-reptilian race and battling gods, Seven Footprints to Satan takes place, for the most part, in good ol’ New York City and its suburbs, and tells an almost realistic tale of kidnapping and crime in direct, almost blunt prose.
Indeed, although Seven Footprints to Satan first appeared in Argosy magazine in 1927, and in book form the following year, it almost reads as if it had come from the pages of one of the crime pulps, such as Black Mask or Crack Detective Stories. In this fast-moving tale, we meet James Kirkham, an adventurer/explorer (and, with a name like that, future candidate for Star Fleet Academy!) who is kidnapped off the streets of downtown Manhattan by the minions of Satan, a crime lord/supervillain/evil genius. Kirkham is forced to play a game in Satan’s lair, during which he is made to tread on seven glowing footprints, four of which are “fortunate” and three “unfortunate.” Depending on the steps he lands on, he will either be killed, serve Satan for a year, be given a fantastic fortune, etc. I am not giving away too much by saying that Kirkham winds up a bond servant to Satan, and is compelled to commit various fantastic crimes while in his service. He is housed in Satan’s mazelike chateau with dozens of others, and falls in love with a fellow prisoner, Eve. (I suppose having Kirkham’s first name be “Adam” would have been forcing things a bit!)
Grotesque in appearance, vast of intellect, profound lover of beauty, and sadistic in the extreme, Satan makes for one terrific character. With his strain of Chinese background, he is reminiscent of Sax Rohmer‘s Fu Manchu, but also of the supervillains of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Indeed, for much of the novel, it is unclear whether Satan is or isn’t the actual article; Old Scratch himself. The scenes in which he is present are quite riveting. Merritt keeps things barely on this side of reality; nothing that transpires in the book — the museum theft, the slaves kept in bondage by the mind-altering kehft drug, the worldwide criminal organization, the high-seas piracy — is beyond the realm of credibility.
And, suiting style to story, Merritt, as I mentioned up top, writes in spare, wonderfully controlled, crime-pulp prose. Thus, we get a line such as “I shot from the floor, and …drilled [him] through the head.” The dropping of the aforementioned purple prose makes the book seem lean and streamlined; it really does move, and keeps the reader turning the pages. The finale of the book is thrilling in the extreme, and concludes most satisfactorily.
I have read that Seven Footprints to Satan was turned into a 1928 film starring Thelma Todd as Eve, but from the plot synopses on imdb.com, it would seem that this film is a very loose adaptation, at best. I’d love to see it one day, just for comparative purposes, but can’t imagine it equaling the suspense and excitement of the book. Seven Footprints to Satan may have been a change in direction for A. Merritt, but it still makes for marvelous entertainment.