Fantasy specialist Abraham Merritt (author of classics like THE MOON POOL, THE FACE IN THE ABYSS and DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE) took a break from his usual extravagant lost-race fare for this excursion in straightforward horror. While not a masterpiece, BURN WITCH BURN! is an eminently readable book in the best Merritt tradition.
It begins with a forward by the first-person protagonist, a neurosurgeon who renounces his lifelong dedication to science in favor of “energies whose reality is recognized in folk-lore…which, to justify our ignorance, we label myth and superstition.” He introduces himself as Lowell but admits the name is a pseudonym, the reasons for which “will become increasingly apparent.”
Wasting no time, Lowell describes how he was confronted one day with a corpse whose face bore “the most extraordinary expression of terror I had ever seen.” Our insanely rational-minded protagonist undertakes an investigation which uncovers a number of other similarly afflicted murder victims, and eventually a small doll shop owned by a mysterious old woman.
Can it be that the coot is a witch using dolls for own nefarious purposes? Are the dolls animated killing machines that take on the likenesses of their victims? And what is the old woman’s true guise? Lowell eventually decides to pay a visit to the doll shop on his own, an experience that severely challenges his deeply held beliefs.
Merritt, as in his opulent fantasy tales, proves himself a lively and energetic storyteller. His narrative is absorbing, constructed in the manner of a good mystery. Unfortunately this extremely story-driven tale offers little in the way of characterization: the old woman’s origins are left hazy, while Lowell himself has little personality outside his determinedly scientific stance. This doesn’t deflate the book’s cumulative power, but does blunt it somewhat (as does the final chapter, a long-winded sermon on the shortcomings of Lowell’s worldview). Like all pulp fiction, in BURN WITCH BURN! the yarn is everything, with scant attention paid much else.
Incidentally, the 1936 MGM production THE DEVIL DOLL, starring Lionel Barrymore and directed by Todd Browning, was loosely--extremely loosely--adapted from BURN WITCH BURN! Impressive special effects make it worth seeing, but read the book first.