7 Footprints to Satan – A. Merritt

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Orbit/Futura – 1974

About a year ago, I was in a second-hand book-store when I came across a little black book titled 7 Footprints to Satan. It looked fucking deadly, but it was 30 dollars and I thought that was a bit much to spend on a book I hadn’t heard of. I came home and found a copy online for less than a tenner. The seller provided no image, and I presumed the cover would be the same as the one I had seen in the shop. Can you can imagine my absolute joy when the package arrived and I first saw the above cover?

Look at that thing! It’s some kind of snakey, arachnid alien holding some jewels, a bloody heart, and a hot drink. Book covers do not get much better than that! Now a person who has not read it might presume that the entity on the cover is the Satan referred to in the title of the book, but a person who has read it will have absolutely no fucking idea of what that thing is supposed to be. I doubt that the artist who drew the spiderbaby had actually read the book. Unfortunately, the story didn’t quite live up to the cover, but the cover lives up to itself even after having finished the story. Just looking at it now makes me want to read the book again even though I know how little they have to do with each other. Take a moment there to scroll back up and really soak that image in. Fucking deadly.

So, the book starts off with a lad being kidnapped by a bunch of weirdos who manage to convince the police that he’s a mental patient. They take him to a mansion owned by a chap who claims he is Satan, and that’s where the fun begins. Satan runs a weird culty mafia thing, and he forces his followers to gamble with him on his 7 footprints game. Like all good cult leaders, Satan is a massively tall freak with an enormous head who can’t be killed by bullets. He knows everything about everyone, and he has a seemingly infinite amount of power and wealth. It’s never made definitively clear whether or not he’s really the Devil, but every time that you think that he’s actually just a fat Chinese drug dealer who picked a cool name for himself, something weird happens that suggests he at least has some connection with the archfiend. It wouldn’t be accurate to describe this as supernatural horror, but it does feature individuals with superhuman strength,  doppelgängers, and even telepathy.

It also features plenty of casual racism, but this seems to have been a trend in early 20th century horror. I’m sure that there were plenty of racist authors outside of the horror genre in that era, but I think that the ways in which race is presented within the texts written to frighten people is quite telling of the real fears of the readers of the day. (Maybe some day I’ll write a blog post, if not a master’s dissertation, on that topic.) Some of the stuff in here is pretty rough; there’s a passage that reads:
There was a Hebraic delegation of a half-dozen on their way home to the Bronx, a belated stenographer who at once began operations with a lipstick, three rabbit-faced young ‘sheiks’, an Italian woman with four restless children, a dignified old gentleman who viewed their movements with suspicion, a dumb-looking black…
Pretty good right? Within the space of a single sentence he’s managed to be nasty about three different ethnicities. At another stage, he refers to a black guy as an ‘ape-faced monstrosity’, and at the point when Satan admits to having killed his daughters, the protagonist has an Ah-Hah! moment and explains that Satan must be Chinese. Oh! and there’s also a scene featuring the most offensive stereotype of all! In the second chapter, Officer Mooney appears. He’s a New York cop with a ridiculous Irish accent that is made visible in the text; “Sure,lad. Ye’re in no danger, I’m tellin ye. Would ye want a taxi, Doctor?’ (Admittedly, that accent is entirely accurate.) The thing is though, that I wouldn’t even call this is a racist book; it would be more accurate to call it a book with some racist parts, and that’s actually worse when you think about it. The racist parts don’t add anything to the story. I’m not saying that it would be excusable if the racism were a motivational force in the plot, but that would at least give an understanding of the author’s purpose. As it stands, it looks like Merritt was just throwing his bigotry in for a laugh. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t pay for a book that contained that kind of nastiness if I thought the author was going to get any of my money, but my copy is second-hand and the author died 70+ years ago.

I read this in two sittings, and I had a dream about being stuck in Satan’s mansion after reading it. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it. Merritt wrote some other books with equally cool titles, and I doubt that this is the last book of his that will appear on this blog.

 

 

 

 

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7 Footprints to Satan – A. Merritt

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