Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Seven Footprints to Satan: Review

Abraham Grace Merritt wrote under the name of A. Merritt.  He was extraordinarily popular during the 20s and the 30s--especially for fantasy and horror.  His novel Seven Footprints to Satan was first published as a five-installment serial in the 1927 Argosy-All-Story Weekly and then published in book form in 1928.  It has been billed as mystery, horror and thriller--and I'd say it's quite a mix of all three, leaning more towards the thriller with a bit of mystery and horror thrown in for flavor.  The super-villain reminds me of Fu Manchu mixed with Moriarty.  For the period, the racial stereotypes are not nearly as prominent as the Fu Manchu books, although they are still there.

But down to cases...James Kirkham, world traveler and adventurer who seems to be a precursor to Indiana Jones, has returned to New York City after his latest exploit.  One in which he relieved a rather nasty fellow of some priceless jade tablets.  During his short time back in the City, he has felt as though he has been under constant surveillance. All of his adventurer's senses are on the alert, but he can never see anyone suspicious about.  When he begins to feel the unseen eyes upon him in even the secluded confines of his club, he decides to draw his pursuers into the open by deliberately walking through the most deserted parts of the city.

Just when he thinks his plan has failed, he finds himself neatly abducted--without violence and right under the nose of a friendly (but totally unhelpful) policeman as well as a member of the marines.  He finds himself conducted by subway and then by car (with curtained windows so he can't see where he's taken) to the sprawling estate and fortress-like home of a man who goes by the name of Satan.  Satan claims to be the most powerful man in the world--with hundreds of willing servants at his beck and call, ready to kill when asked and to steal the treasures of the world at a moment's notice.

Kirkham has drawn Satan's attention with his daring exploits around the world and the evil mastermind is determined to make Kirkham one of his minions.  But he claims to be a fair evil genius--he will gamble with Kirkham for his life, his freedom, or eternal servitude. In his throne room there are two thrones--one in which Satan sits and one which holds a jeweled crown and scepter.  On the steps leading to the crown are seven footprints.  Four are "good" prints and three are "evil"--the positions of good and evil are not static.  There is a mechanical device that is spun and randomly assigns the footsteps their good or evil status.  Anyone gambling with Satan must trod on four of the prints.  If he steps on one "evil" print, then he must perform one service of Satan's choosing.  If he steps on two "evil" prints, then he will owe Satan a year of service.  If he steps on all three "evil" prints, then he is Satan's to do with as he pleases--lifelong service, to kill in what ever horrible way he chooses, anything.  On the other hand, if he manages to step only on the "good" prints, then Satan and all his minions and all his wealth (and he's got a TON of that) is the victor's to command.

Kirkham is always ready for a gamble--but his task is made more difficult by the presence of the lovely Eve, a woman for whom he will do anything to save her from Satan's clutches, and Harry, a cockney mechanic whose life Kirkham once saved and who is looking to return the favor.  The story revolves around Kirkham's gamble and seeing how our hero will manage to escape from Satan and all his devoted servants.

This was a fast-paced thriller that was easily read in single evening.  I was surprised at how much fun and how engaging this little trip into a fantastic pseudo-cult could be.  Satan really is quite nasty and the delight he takes in destroying those who fail him is really diabolical--and all with without the blood and gore that is prevalent in more recent thrillers.  There are also interesting questions to consider--is Satan as supernatural as he claims or is he just an incredibly intelligent and persuasive human master criminal.  Merritt doesn't necessarily answer that question--and if Satan is really "the devil" as Harry puts it, then the story itself makes you willing to believe it.  Three and a half star for a very entertaining read.

This book fulfills the "Spooky Title" square for the Golden Vintage Mystery Bingo card.


fredamans said...

Fab review. All of these books that I would otherwise never hear of, you make me want to read.

Bev Hankins said...

Freda, I love me some vintage mysteries!

J F Norris said...

I've read two of Merritt's creepy mystery novels that involve witchcraft. BURN, WITCH, BURN is a really good one. It was turned into a movie called DEVIL DOLL with Lionel Barrymore playing a woman in drag. Very strange casting there! CREEP SHADOW is the other witchcraft book but that one didn't excite me as much as the first one I read.

Bev Hankins said...

Darn it, John. I still haven't found someone that you haven't read. I'm going to keep trying though. :-)

Charlie (The Worm Hole) said...

The use of the name 'Eve' is interesting. I like the sound of the themes you've mentioned.