The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Ship of Ishtar was published by Putnam’s after first appearing in serial form in Argosy All-Story; a few years later, it had the distinction of being voted the most popular story ever published by the magazine in its first fifty years. A. Merritt was in midcareer and at the peak of his powers.

The novel opens as the protagonist, John Kenton, a young and wealthy but deeply embittered World War I veteran, muses on his dissatisfaction with Western civilization and his romantic nostalgia to find a lost civilization uncorrupted by the mundane and unheroic modern world. All the action takes place in one night in Kenton’s New York City apartment and the ancient Mesopotamian world of adventure that he finds when he is transported in time to the magical Ship of Ishtar. Merritt’s use of the “locked room” convention invented by Edgar Allan Poe in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) is one of the novel’s most entertaining features.

An amateur scholar, Kenton has financed an archaeological dig in Egypt and, as the story opens, receives in his apartment a large block of stone from that expedition. The stone itself seems to compel him to examine it, and he chisels away its surface, releasing the magical power entombed for thousands of years within the granite. The block suddenly crumbles, revealing a wonderfully crafted toy ship, which acts as a bridge between the present that Kenton despises and the ancient past for...

(The entire section is 575 words.)