After jumping face-first into old pulp novels this year, my personal standout (and author I've been most angry about never hearing of before) is Abraham Merritt. His 1918-1919 debut The Moon Pool was mind-blowingly fun and 1924's The Ship of Ishtar is a bona fide fantasy masterpiece. Seriously. Read it. Read them both. They're great.
In 1920, Merritt wrote The Metal Monster as the sequel to The Moon Pool featuring the same narrator/protagonist, Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, off on another exotic adventure. Originally serialized in the Argosy All-Story Weekly, it was later edited into a full-length book and published in 1941.
In it, Goodwin is traipsing around Central Asia near the Himalayas where he meets Dick Drake, adventurer son of an old acquaintance of Goodwin's. Then, investigating a strange aurora, they discover Martin Ventnor and his sister Ruth. Then they're chased by a group descended from a lost city of Persians (who war full battle armor and use spears and bows). With their guides dead and most of the pack animals run off, things look bad until a strange but beautiful and very, very powerful redhead named Norhala rescues them. Human, but also something else, Norhala can command electrical and magnetic forces and is connected to a bizarre city made up millions of ever-shifting living metal Things.
It should work, and in many places it does, such as in Merritt's specific style of beautifully grotesque action sequences. The beginning sets a remote and bleak mood fitting for the setting and the ending is wonderfully apocalyptic.
Unfortunately, its all the stuff in the middle that doesn't quite click.
The Metal Things are suitably weird, and possibly an alien hive mind. Its difficult to tell, since they can't speak human languages. Their origins are vague, as are their motives, but they're capable of draining direct energy from the Sun and causing sunspots (in a fun scene that actually takes into account the speed of light). The Things themselves can move and combine and shape themselves into various forms, including flying cubes, lumbering giants, and the very structures of their city.
They're weird and wonderful and predate John von Neumann's 1948 theory by 28 years and John Bernal's 1929 lecture “The World, the flesh and the Devil” anticipating self-replicating machines by 9 years. (Suck on that, Commies!)
They also have a staggering visual and “sociological” similarity to D&D Modrons, 63 years before their first appearance. And a full 94 years before Knack!
Seriously, they form up and move around like Knack
The bad part is that Merritt spends a staggering amount of time trying to explain how wondrous this is. The characters spend four full chapters on a flying cube trying to wrap their heads around what's going on. That's...not great pacing for an ADVENTURE story. There are great ideas being played around with, but the closer it gets to Hard Sci-Fi, the more it bogs down and frankly, starts to get boring.
Pacing issues give way to a very clear demonstration that Merritt likes to use certain stock characters: There's two intellectuals, except Martin Ventnor spends most of the book either worrying about his sister or in a coma. There's the two-fisted, upright man of action, except Drake is a pale shadow of the quirky Larry O'Keefe from The Moon Pool. There's a hunched, ugly but surprisingly strong servant figure, only Yuruk is more treacherous than The Ship of Ishtar's Gigi.
Then there's the elephant in the room: This is the third Merritt book I've read that prominently features an exotic, beautiful, immensely powerful redhead. Lakla, Sharane, and now Norhala.
Merritt clearly likes what he likes, and I'm more than fine with that.
Unlike the other two, Norhala is destructively ferocious when roused (as the Persians eventually learn) and never fully becomes a hero or a love interest. There's the barest hint of a connection between her and Goodwin, but that's all.
Ruth is no slouch either, despite being off-camera taking care of her comatose brother for most of the book. When it comes to shooting, she's got the biggest body count out of the four protagonists.
I'm beginning to suspect Merritt didn't know how to write weak women.
Finally got the hair right on this cover
For me, the biggest problem with the book is that the main characters remain observers throughout. Goodwin and Drake set out to try and find a solution to the predicament, but merely end up going on a Scooby-Doo chase through the Metal Monster city as they try to figure out what the hell's going on.
The plot carries on whether they get involved or not, and the climax is spent on a hill watching the fireworks.
I can see how this would impress H. P. Lovecraft (who crowed about the story in a letter) with its unfathomable alien beings dwarfing human understanding, but the characters don't glue the whole thing together. Its difficult to care and Goodwin's dry personality works better in The Moon Pool where he has the hot-blooded O'Keefe to bounce off of. There's no real antagonist to speak of. The Persian leader shows up for one chapter near the end and he's dealt with handily by Norhala (in one of the best sequences in the entire book)
The Metal Monster isn't bad. The Metal Monster is a great concept and Norhala is a scene-stealer. It just grinds itself to a halt describing the Metal Monster's mechanics and Merritt does action/adventure/romance much better in other stories.
This one's optional.