Burn Witch Burn by A. Merritt (Benediction Classics, 2011)
#9-“Best known for his lost-race fantasy novels, this time Merritt is equally brilliant at modern horror, in tale of murderous dolls animated by the souls of their human counterparts. Filmed as The Devil Doll.”
–KEW, 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels.
Abraham Merritt (1884-1943) was one of the highest paid writers of his day. Although many of his novels remain in print, much of what he has written is unread. Merritt wrote in a verbose form, not at all popular today with our short attention spans. I tried reading The Metal Monster years ago and never made it past the first few chapters. He was a great inspiration to many of the pulp writers.
Burn Witch Burn starts out sudden, but slow. Dr. Lowell is a distinguished physician working in New York City who suddenly has a new patient dumped on him. The patient, a confident of gangster Julian Ricori, is brought to him for treatment. The man, named Thomas Peters, is in a cataleptic state brought on by what appears to be fright. The man has been scared so bad he’s in shock. The gangster chief offers any help, any sum of money to find out what caused this to happen.
Puzzled, Dr. Lowell attempts to diagnosis the man’s condition by standard medical procedure. But he can’t figure out what has brought on the state. When Peters does die, all he can find is a tiny puncture wound, but no sign of poison.
Eventually, the trail leads back to a doll shop not far from Dr. Lowell’s hospital. After searching the records, he finds a number of similar deaths have occurred over the past few months which all lead back to the shop. Soon he finds the owner of the doll shop, Madame Mandilip, to be making very realistic dolls. And some of them resemble the murder victims.
The book starts to really take-off when Dr. Lowell realizes he may be dealing with something evil that is outside his experience or training. Although he continually brings up the concept of hypnosis (a popular excuse for many things before WW2), events occur in the novel which have no basis in normal reality. To Dr. Lowell’s credit, he understands there may be a set of laws at work outside his knowledge base.
Burn Witch becomes seriously creepy in it’s depiction of the animated dolls. Each one is unleashed to carry out an assassination, although we never know why the “witch” of the title is up to. We even see them “punished” for not carrying out the witch’s orders.
I dare anyone to read this book and look at a doll store again the same way.
First published 1/15/10