On a recent pilgrimage to the great Mecca of independent bookstores–Powell’s in Portland, OR–I raided a whole section dedicated to books with awesomely pulpy covers, and one of the results was A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage. There’s just no way I could resist the half-naked Norseman defending a helpless maiden from a shadowy octopus monster. Originally printed in six parts as a serialized novel in the Argosy, this 1932 publication displays everything great about the era’s adventure genre and obsession with science.
Now, forego your judgement of this book by its cover. Iknow it’s difficult, but we can’t blame Merritt for the pulpy, entirely inaccurate depiction of events and characters depicted here. The cover shows some demure blonde being defended by a shielded warrior with rippling muscles. The lovely Evalie is actually dark-skinned with black hair. (Not to mention, Lief dual-wields.) In reality, DitM features a multiracial couple, relatively feminist warrior women, and a Cherokee BFF–progressive for its time, if you ignore what would today be considered racial slurs and sexist epithets.
Lief Langdon is a normal scientist who happens to have a penchant for picking up languages and being beautifully blonde and Norwegian. While on expedition in Mongolia, a strange series of encounters with a reclusive tribe called the Uighar awakens ancient memories in Lief, memories of a great conqueror name Dwayanu, warrior-priest of the almighty Khalk’ru. Lief’s identity wavers as his Dwayanu identity grows stronger and the warrior personality fights its way to take hold of Lief’s body. When Lief and his Cherokee blood-brother Jim become trapped in a strange phenomena they refer to as “the mirage,” Dwayanu takes full control and prepares to fulfill a prophecy to unleash the kraken Khalk’ru and resume his ancient throne as ruler of the land. Lief must struggle to hold onto his identity while battling the seductive wiles of the wolf-communing, witch-woman Lur, evading the deceitful plots of the jealous captain Tibur, avoiding all-out war with the noble Little People, and save his true love Evalie from the clutches of the kraken. All in a day’s work for Lief-Dwayanu.
Merritt’s writing is anything but subtle, and the journey Lief takes through the mirage world of Ayjirland is predictable at every turn. Dwellers in the Mirage takes advantage of every familiar adventure trope that would have been common even in 1932, thanks to writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard. None of this has any ill effect on the book’s pure value of entertainment. From sultry seductions to grotesque alien wildlife to brutal battle scenes, DitW has it all and then some. Nothing like a little conspiracy and fulfilled prophecies to spice things up a little, so much so that J.J. Abrams would be the only director who could possibly stomach a film adaptation.
While I have no trouble going with the flow of these prophecies and giant squid god from ancient Mongolia who eats pregnant women, I do have trouble reading the few character-development pet peeves that Merritt employs:
1) People falling in love with other people over a weekend. I get it. It happens. But sometimes authors want it to happen multiple times in a single novel, and I want to just slap some protagonists silly. Get a grip, man! Love takes time and communication!
2) Protagonists being emotionally and intellectually flawless. Lief Langdon is a victim of a kraken-god-driven multiple personality disorder. Every mistake he makes is at the direct hands of an external force. Literally, the devil made him do it. Well, that’s peachy.
Other than that, it’s totally fine. Nothing to see here.
Read this book if … you revel in the pulpiest of pulpy fantasy stock. This book is loads of fun if you’re a reader who can turn off the baby skeptic inside all of us readers and let the white waters of Nanbu carry you out into Ayjirland. Read Dwellers in the Mirage for some mindless escapism–perfect for a summer read on a beach or while curled up under a blanket, in front of a fire, ignoring all your worldly responsibilities.
Don’t read this book if … you’re too pretentious to be seen carrying books with half-naked, sword-wielding, blonde demigods on the cover. With all its coined, fantastical words, its witchcraft, and its high fantasy swordplay, DitW isn’t a book for everyone. Steer clear if you’re one of those mythological folks who can only read about “real” things. (No, but really, this book is kind of silly.)
This book is like … H. Rider Haggard’s She, and H.G. Wells, especially The Time Machine, and other sci-fi/fantasy novels written my authors who abbreviate one or more of their names. These were probably the books Merritt grew up on.