Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Merrill, James

Entry updated 20 July 2020. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1926-1995) US author and poet whose two novels are nonfantastic, as is most of his poetry, which is of the highest calibre, and justifies his ranking as one of the most important American poets of his century. He is of indirect but significant sf interest, and may be deemed a central figure of twentieth-century Fantastika, for The Changing Light at Sandover (omni 1982) [see checklist for details of component parts], a sustained 17,000 line verse narrative describing several years of occult communication via Ouija board between Merrill and his partner with a wide range of entities: now-dead human figures including the first-century-AD Ephraim, personal friends and lovers and widely-known figures like the poet W H Auden; plus ascending hierarchies of spirits up to and including angels who utter resoundingly something like the Word of the presiding deity, God B (for Biology). The gradual increase in the importance of Merrill's informants, and the increasing scope of the Cosmology they unfold, transform Sandover from a serious but sometimes spoofingly expressed game into a gravely meditated architectonic ascension (see Dante Alighieri), with the order of the universe increasingly perceivable as the books climb to God B, a hymn that can only be understood if it is read as literally as any ambitious work of the fantastic: judgements as to the gullibility and/or inspired seriousness of the author's presentation of the text are, though an inevitable part of any sustained reading, secondary to a transfixed apprehension of the tale told. The diction of the whole varies widely from po-faced Infodumps to seemingly scatty scuddings of table-talk amongst the various levels of being, this "chatter" being in its multiplexity (and poetic power) deeply unlike the cozy rodomontade found in the kind of Afterlife fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] typical of John Kendrick Bangs or his many imitators over the past century. The closest analogue to the conversaziones that interpellate Merrill's tale may be the slangy but similarly dead-serious debates between the Anchorites and the Horologists in David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks (2014).

The cosmology unfolded is of nearly inextricable complexity, and at times the deities of Sandover closely resemble the Secret Masters of more conventional works, especially in sequences narrating their long and perhaps patient attempts to create, monitor, and Uplift Homo sapiens (see Evolution), sequences which, often dramatizing messages conveyed between two adjacent rooms, evoked for Merrill, in an interview with Helen Vendler (New York Review of Books,3 May 1979), the suggestion that the poem's structure reflected the bicameralism speculatively described in Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). As the narrative advances from primeval ooze up into organized civilizations like Atlantis (and other realms and layers evocative of the backstory of Theosophy), and beyond (Black Holes seem to be residential), Merrill's presentation of his complex experience – as a medium who receives and transmutes messages that are of great import but which are at the same time silly – becomes increasingly easy to obey. It is clear by the end that this intricately unpacked epic is a work of imagination, an epic fiction intricately composed; it is also easy to recognize, at least aesthetically, that something message-like has been dancingly conveyed. [JC]

James Ingram Merrill

born New York: 3 March 1926

died Tucson, Arizona: 6 February 1995

works (highly selected)



about the author


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies