A summary of The Ship of Ishtar does not hint at the sheer fun that Merritt provides the reader who enters the imaginary magical world of the Mesopotamian culture of six thousand years ago. The novel was written in the mid-1920’s, when Merritt was at the height of his creative powers, and he is clearly in a playful mood. (A version with text restored was published in 1949.) It is the only one of his lost civilization stories that is set in the ancient past, and it is the only one that makes no effort to supply any kind of scientific/technological rationale for the eruption of the atavistic or premodern experiences into the historical present. The novel’s emphasis is strictly on simple physical adventure, on the romance of the encounter with truly strange and sometimes even bizarre creatures, and on the slightly veiled possibilities for eroticism always only barely hidden within lost civilization and magical world fictions.
Another feature of the novel is noteworthy. The contrast between the past, imagined to be necessarily heroic and adventurous, and the present, imagined to be inevitably and unchangeably mundane and boring, allows Merritt to indulge in some amateur philosophy that will be familiar to readers of his other, more complex, fiction works. Merritt’s was dualistic imagination, and he rather naturally presented his magical narratives (more so than his scientifically based ones) as encounters between antagonistic but equally powerful cosmic forces. This is seen as much in the story’s structure of opposites—between love and hate, life and death, good and evil, light and darkness—as in its creation and presentation of characters and events. Although this may seem uninteresting in outline, Merritt’s talent in creating vivid imagery and truly bizarre characters was so developed during this period that The Ship of Ishtar, though one of his least intellectually complex fictions, is one of his most successful. It richly deserved the fame that it achieved, even if only momentarily.