The Ship of Ishtar, one of Abraham Merritt’s finest fantasies, first appeared in the pages of Argosy magazine in 1924. An altered version appeared in book form in 1926, and the world finally received the original work in book form in 1949, six years after Merritt’s death.
In this wonderful novel we meet John Kenton, an American archaeologist who has just come into possession of a miniature crystal ship recently excavated “from the sand shrouds of ages-dead Babylon.” Before too long, Kenton is whisked onto the actual ship, of which his relic is just a symbol. It turns out that the ship is sailing the seas of an otherdimensional limboland, and manned by the evil followers of the Babylonian god of the dead, Nergal, and by the priestesses of the Babylonian fertility goddess, Ishtar. A force barrier of sorts prevents the two parties from coming into contact with each other, and they have been sailing thus for … nobody knows how long. It seems that, centuries ago, a priest of Nergal and a priestess of Ishtar had been guilty of the sin of falling in love; this eternal cruise is the punishment that has been meted out by the gods. Kenton becomes embroiled in this ages-old strife; falls in love himself with Sharane, a Babylonian princess; eventually takes over the ship; and then goes in pursuit of the Black Priest of Nergal, after Sharane is kidnapped. He is aided in his quest by a sword-swinging Viking, a hugely strong and mace-wielding man of Nineveh, and by a scimitar expert from Persia. The quartet makes for one formidable team, lemme tell you!
This is high fantasy done to a turn, and Merritt is at the peak of his game here. While The Ship of Ishtar does not boast as much of the purple prose and hyperadjectival descriptions as his first two books, The Moon Pool and The Metal Monster, there is still quite a bit, and in places the descriptions of various isles and temples almost reads like prose poetry. The story moves along briskly and builds to a pair of splendid set pieces: Sharane’s rescue from the Temple of Seven Zones, in which each floor is dedicated to another Babylonian god and is decked out with its own color scheme, shrines and so on; and a very tense sea battle between the Ship of Ishtar and the Black Priest’s bireme.
The novel really is a stunning feat of imagination. I wonder if Merritt was perhaps influenced or inspired by the excavations at Uruk (now in southern Iraq, and one of the original cities of Ishtar worship) that had commenced in 1912. He may have also been inspired here by H. Rider Haggard‘s seminal fantasy work She (1887), in which Ayesha, head priestess of Isis, is given an eternal punishment for her own love dalliances. Whatever the inspirations, though, Merritt makes it all work, with great detail, color, action and character.
The Ship of Ishtar is a fantasy classic, but still, Merritt makes some small booboos. Thus, the gold bracelet on Kenton’s left arm is on his right arm several pages later. Kenton is said to have disappeared from his NYC apartment at 8 PM, while later Merritt tells us that is was 9 PM. Sargon of Akkad (an ancient Mesopotamian ruler) is said to have ruled 6,000 years ago, whereas in actuality, it was more like 4,300. Merritt, in the course of the book, is also guilty of some fuzzy writing. But these little glitches should in no way interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of this rousing tale. I should perhaps mention here that The Ship of Ishtar has been included in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s overview volume Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, and that I personally have no problem with that inclusion. It really is a fantasy for the ages.