Burn, Witch, Burn! Analysis
A plot summary can suggest something of the excitement of the sequence of events, but it cannot suggest the novel’s finest feature: the excellence of its style. A fine example of pure gothic fantasy that uses the device of the superbeing as its chief interest, Burn, Witch, Burn! was written toward the end of A. Merritt’s career. A successful journalist, Merritt wrote fantasies of various types for relaxation in his hours away from his job. He was also a master of lost-civilization stories, such as The Face in the Abyss (1931) and The Dwellers in the Mirage (1932), following a style adopted by the much-better-known H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, authors who were his near contemporaries. In early stories, such as The Moon Pool (1919) and The Metal Monster (1946; serial form, 1920), and in his last novel, Creep, Shadow! (1934), Merritt produced some of the best macabre fantasies by an American writer of any period. Only Edgar Allan Poe is his superior in this genre.
Burn, Witch, Burn! appeared at the end of his career; only Creep, Shadow!, a horror story intended as a sequel, and a few other short pieces would be written in the remaining nine years of his life. This is to be regretted, because the story demonstrates Merritt’s mastery of the various conventions of gothic fantasy—the gloomy and fear-inducing atmosphere and the ageless and malignant superbeing or monster at the story’s center—as well as his firm grasp of the mechanics of plot. These elements are combined with a highly visual style that adds to the story’s suspense without detracting from the plot by calling attention to itself.
In this novel, Merritt successfully embodies the most important idea to be found in supernatural fantasy: that the reader has come to the novel in order to experience the idea that evil exists as an active, objective force, independent of subjective experience, in the world of physical existence. His early work taught him that the reader’s shock, on being introduced to the experience of the extraordinary, which is the supernatural story’s whole point, exists in direct proportion to the writer’s scrupulous attention to and incorporation of realistic detail. The power of a Merritt fantasy results from his creation of a believable primary or realistic world peopled, for the most part, by ordinary characters. Thus, the reader believes, when finally encountering the evil superbeing at the core of the work, that he or she is “shivering on [the] threshold” of the “door of an unknown world,” as Merritt himself states in this novel. Such sensations mark the most intense engagements that fantasy fiction can offer a reader. Burn, Witch, Burn! produces many such moments while demonstrating Merritt’s mastery of this timeless form of literary art.