Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Merkabah Rider series

Weird Western is a genre that I've held dear for a long time, a love that first bloomed with Joe Lansdale's treatment of Jonah Hex and that was strengthened by Stephen King's Dark Tower series.  While going through Dark Tower withdrawals, I stumbled upon the Merkabah Rider series and I'm very glad I did.

The titual Rider is a gunslinging Jewish mystic pursuing his former mentor and betrayer, another mystic named Adon, through the old west.  Only as the series progresses does the full scope become clear.  Edward Erdelac crafted a four volume love letter to the pulps that manages to weave Christianity, Judaism, and the Cthulhu mythos together in an exciting tapestry.

Merkabah RiderMerkabah Rider by Edward M. Erdelac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Merkabah Rider: Tales of A High Planes Drifter is a collection of four tales about a Jewish mystic gunfighter.

The Blood Libel: Fate draws The Rider to Delirium Tremens, a mining town where hostility is brewing between the residents and the Jews of nearby Little Jerusalem, who've allegedly turned away from God and kidnapped the daughter of the local preacher. Can The Rider find the cause of the trouble before the Angels of Death wipe out everyone in Little Jerusalem?

The Blood Libel does a great job of introducing The Rider and his world. The Rider's continuing quest is to find his mentor and betrayer, another mystic calling himself Adon. The world building is surprisingly deep for a 70 page novella. Erdelac introduces the Sons of the Essenes, a Jewish mystical society with branches in all parts of the world, as well as revealing parts of the Rider's history.

The story itself is a nice melding of western standards and Jewish mystacism. I'm looking forward to when The Rider goes up against The Great Old Ones.

The Dust Devils: An unending dust storm grips the town of Polvo Arrido as The Rider rolls into town. Can The Rider find clues to Adon's whereabouts and save the residents of Polvo Arrido from the bandits that have them under thumb?

While I didn't like this one as much as The Blood Libel, it was still pretty good. It reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom more than anything else. The Rider's past was fleshed out a little bit more and, once again, he took a pretty good beating and still came out on top. The one complaint I have is that he walked into an ambush a little too easily when he visited Scarchilli.

Hell's Hired Gun: The Merkabah Rider encounters an old preacher, who recounts the tale of Medgar Tooms, a gunfighter that killed an entire town after the death of his family and now stalks the prairie dragging chains and leading a pack of ravenous pigs. Can the Merkabah Rider put an end to his reign of terror?

Hell's Hired Gun was pretty good but didn't involve much in the way of magic from the Rider. The violence was well done and the subplot of the Hour of Incursion by the Elder Gods mention in the first story was elaborated on.

The Nightjar Women: The Merkabah Rider finds himself in a town where no children are born and three prostitutes seem to be in league with a dark power...

At last, The Rider gets a hint of Adon's whereabouts. More of The Rider's past is revealed, and more about the Hour of Incursion. Lots of Talmudic stuff in this one and The Rider seems more human than ever. The Merkabah Rider continues his transformation into one of my favorite weird western characters. That's about all I'm going to reveal for fear of spoilage.

Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No NameMerkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name by Edward M. Erdelac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Merkabah Rider is a Hasidic gunfighter well versed in Jewish mystacism, on a journey across the Old West in search of his mentor and betrayer, Adon. This is the second collection of his tales.

The Infernal Napoleon: The Rider is pursued by the minions of Lilith and they catch up with him in the tiny town of Varuga tanks. Can the Rider overcome half-breed demons and a cannon that was used in the war between angels to continue his search for Adon?

The Merkabah Rider's question resumes with a bang. The Infernal Napoleon was a great plot device. Both biblical and Lovecratian mythologies are references, most notably the story of Samson. By the time it's over, the Rider has been through the wringer yet again.

The Damned Dingus: The Rider is on a train that is robbed and looses his gun to the robbers. With Doc Holiday and Mysterious Dave Mather in tow, The Rider goes to reclaim his Volcanic pistol and gets a lot more than he bargained for...

Wow. The Damned Dingus was damned good. The Lovecraftian overtones get even stronger and the invisible creature was straight out of a Lovecraft tale. I geeked pretty hard when the stone bearing the Elder Sign made an appearance, as well as the mention of Hyperborea, The Necronomicon, and Al-Hazred. It appears The Hour of Incursion is growing near...

The Outlaw Gods: The Rider's travels pit him against serpent men, monstrous trees, and the Black Goat Man. Can even his allience with a Hindi mystic and a host of spirits help him defeat the Black Goat Man and his consort?

Astute Lovecraft readers will guess the identity of the Black Goat Man's consort but that doesn't make it have any less impact. The Rider's palaver with Chaksusa and Chaksusa's revelations about the nature of the universe or universes reminded me of Roland and the Man in Black in the Gunslinger. The scope of the Merkabah Rider's quest even reminds me of The Dark Tower. The same sense of urgency is building. If I didn't already know there are two more volumes planned, I'd be wondering how Erdelac was planning on wrapping things up in the next sixty pages.

The Pandaemonium Ride: With a new ally at his side, the Rider goes to hell to get some answers from Lucifer. He won't like what the ultimate betrayer has to say...

You know how some books are so good you can't talk about them without cursing?  Sweet. F#cking. Christ. The full scope of the Hour of Incursion is revealed in this tale and it's a f#cking whopper. I knew the saga of the Merkabah Rider was going to be huge in scope but this is even bigger than I was prepared for. I've never read anything that explained the relationships between the Lovecraft mythos and that of the Judeo-Christian one. Heave and hell united against the Great Old Ones? It's f#cking mind-boggling. Also, I really liked that the staff Solomon Kane uses is in the hands of Kadebe.

Merkabah Rider: Have Glyphs Will TravelMerkabah Rider: Have Glyphs Will Travel by Edward M. Erdelac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every reader eventually stumbles upon a book (or series) that feels like it was written with their particular tastes in mind. For me, one of those works is the Merkabah Rider series.

Volume three picks up where volume two left off, with The Rider, a Jewish mystic gunfighter in the old west, persuing Adon, his teacher and betrayer who means to bring about the end of the world.

The Long Sabbath: The Rider and Kabede ride into a remote camp with a horde of zombies on their trail, led by three rogue Sons of the Essenes. How can they survive when the soldiers throw them in jail on sight?

The Long Sabbath was a good reintroduction to the saga of the Merkabah Rider. The gore factor was high, both with the zombies and the other vile things, and more details of Adon's plans were revealed. One of the things that I love about the Rider is that he isn't a super hero and frequently takes quite a beating. Adon's renegades were formidable foes and I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of the same.

The War Shaman: Misquamacus is massing an Indian army to exterminate the Mexicans and white men and it's up to The Rider, Belden, and Kabade to stop him with the help of friends new and old. But can they stop Misquamacus from summoning one of the Great Old Ones?

The Rider didn't actually do that much in this one. It was more of an expository segment with the identity of Adam Belial revealed. Without giving anything away, I was not dissatisfied with the revelation in the least.

The Mules of Mazzikim: The Rider parts ways with Kabede and Belden to go to Yuma to find Nehema. But will he find her... or trouble?

Here we go! The Rider meets up with the succubus from then first book and chaos ensues. More details of the overall plot are revealed and the Rider winds up in a precarious predicament by the end.

The Man Called Other: The Rider winds up in the clink and meets up with...

Holy Sh!t! Revelations of a unbelievable magnitude are revealed when the Rider has a meeting that has been a long time coming. Much like the last stories in the previous volume, Erdelac turns everything on its ear. Man, the wait for the fourth and final volume is going to be torturous.

The Fire King Triumphant: The Rider and company return to Tombstone to get some answers...

There's not a lot I can reveal about this story without giving too much away. There are revelations, shocks, a cliffhanger, and Lovecraftian beasties.

Merkabah Rider: Once Upon a Time in the Weird WestMerkabah Rider: Once Upon a Time in the Weird West by Edward M. Erdelac
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With a bullet lodged near his heart and the Hour of the Incursion just days away, the Rider and his small group of stalwart friends do everything in their power to stop Adon from rousing the Old Ones and ending existence. But whose side will Lucifer take in the conflict? And which of the Rider's friends is fated to betray him...?

Here we are, the ultimate volume in the best weird western series since the big daddy, The Dark Tower. Erdelac pulls out all the stops in this one. We are treated to such wonders as a steampunk cyborg created with Yithian technology, shoggoths, a scientist with an alien mind, an angel from another universe, and a golem made of pieces of dead gunfighters. Couple this with the Rider dying of a bullet wound, a sigil-covered train, and the manure hitting the windmill on every page and you have one book that is impossible to put down.

All the seeds Erdelac planted in the previous three volumes are finally bearing squamous, cyclopean fruit. Unlike the previous three volumes, this one is a single story, not a series of linked stories. It's the biggest book in the series by a hundred pages. Any doubts I had that Erdelac could weave a novel length tale have been put to rest.

Faustus Montague, Kabede, Dick Belden, The Reverend Mr. Goodworks, and Yates made worthy allies for the Rider on his final journey. As with the previous volumes, Erdelac does a fantastic job tying together elements from Christianity, Judaism, and the Cthulhu mythos.

The ending of the saga was all I could hope for. All the big payoffs were there, from the true nature of the onager, the tzadikim and the Tzohar to the final conflict between The Rider and Adon. I'd say it was the best volume of the series.

Special Bonus Feature - An Interview with the Merkabah Writer!

What was the inspiration behind the Merkabah Rider?
I can trace the Rider back to three definite sources. The first is Robert E. Howard, particularly his weird western stories ‘Old Garfield’s Heart,'‘The Horror From The Mound,’ and his Solomon Kane stories, a great weird adventure series about a grim Puritan swordsman battling evil wherever he finds it. As a nod to that, the Rod of Aaron which appears in Merkabah Rider is meant to be the same Staff of Solomon given to Kane by N’Longa, the African witch doctor. The second is the original Kung Fu television series, which featured a butt kicking fish out of water character (in this case a half-Chinese Shaolin monk) passing through the American West. The imagery of the series stuck in my head as a kid, and I always wanted to explore that sort of clash of cultures. Finally I would cite The Frisco Kid, a comedy western starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, about a Polish Rabbi traveling across the west to San Francisco. Merkabah Rider isn’t a comedy of course, but I think the various mikvah rules Wilder’s character was forced to abide by in his travels and the look of an Orthodox rabbi in the west (and the various reactions of stock western characters to him, including at one point mistaking him for a Dutch Reformed) come from that. I tried to write weird western stories as a high schooler and could never make an interesting enough protagonist. The ideas sat shelved for many years. I was reading an angelology book and came across the term ‘merkabah rider.’ The character just sort of sprang up in my mind, all in black with the beard and curls, riding a fiery horse. I was able to revisit the old weird western concepts then and plug in this more interesting character. It just clicked after that.

How did you research the mythology? Do you have a background in religious studies?
I grew up Catholic, and I always had an appreciation for ritual and hagiographies and the like, what saint was patron of what and all that. I think I wanted to be a priest when I was in first or second grade. The character of Abraham Van Helsing in all his incarnations always appealed to me too – I think especially seeing Peter Cushing in the Hammer movies employing all these religious artifacts and odd techniques to battle vampires (like lining the vamp’s resting place with consecrated hosts in the shape of a cross in one movie). I developed an appetite for folklore and obscure mythology. No formal training, I just read a lot. For Merkabah Rider I first approached books on basic Judaic practices, then started studying Hasidism and Jewish folklore, which is extremely rich and nearly untapped in fiction so far as I know. Geoffrey Dennis’ The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism is a book I can’t recommend enough. It’s a wonderful starting point. He runs a great blog too. I tapped a good deal of John Milton and Dante Allighieri. Lots of paintings of their works for visual inspiration. Gustave Dore, William Blake, etc, and of course Lovecraft. The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia by Daniel Harms was very helpful in chasing down Mythos info.

What was the catalyst for combining the HPL mythos with Biblical myths and stories?
I knew I wanted to incorporate the Mythos as it’s such a great and pervading concept in genre fiction. Then, in the course of my reading into Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, I started coming across references to the primordial dimension that existed prior to proper Creation, how it was a forbidden area of study. I started feeling echoes of Lovecraftian tropes. Forbidden study?! There are instances in mystic biblical and pagan thought of God as being the force that brings chaos to heel, wills order upon it, defeats a personification of it (usually a dragon) to enact Creation. Marduk vs. Tiamat, Zeus vs. Typhon, etc. Then, in Dennis, I came across the entry for Rahav –

‘A cosmic seas monster first mentioned in the biblical book of Isaiah….Talmud called him Prince of the Sea, echoing the Canaanite name or their sea god, “Prince River.” God slew him when he refused to help in creating the earth.’

Sounded like Cthulhu to me…I don’t know if Dennis has ever read HPL, or likewise, if HPL ever read Talmud, but the connection seemed neat, and that’s where fitting biblical and Mythos cosmologies together began.

How much forward planning did you do for the Merkabah Rider series? Once Upon a Time in the Weird West seems like you had a clear picture of how the end was going to shape up even in the first book.
I think I figured out the ending about midway through writing the second book. The character progressions almost wrote themselves. There was one last minute change. Belden was supposed to die at the end of book three, but I decided I liked his secular interactions with the Rider and Kabede, and it made sense to have him there at the end.

Were there any Westerns in particular that inspired Once Upon a Time in the Weird West? 
Definitely the titular Once Upon A Time In The West had an impact. I think I got the idea for the train's inaugural run as a central event from that. Blue Moon Fugate probably came from Henry Fonda's character a little bit too, as well as a character in Richard Matheson's Journal Of The Gun Years. There is a scene in the cantina when the mariachis are playing, I had characters from maybe half a dozen different westerns and movies that had an influence on the series pop up in the background.

Was there a reason you decided to ride solo and publish through Createspace for the final volume in the series?
I wasn't really happy with the quality control of the publisher. Things I had caught in editing kept making it through to the final product as well as plenty I missed. The second book, I edited almost entirely myself because the guy they assigned me just flaked. I also wanted to regain all the rights to the series. The first book's contract expires next year, and then the other two in subsequent years. I didn't want to tie up the rights to the last installment with a brand new contract. I don't know that I will self publish again if I can help it, but a couple different authors I really respected suggested I go that route if I wanted to finish the series without waiting three years for the other contracts to expire, so I gave it a shot. I ran it through two editors besides myself, so hopefully it turned out alright. It was originally supposed to have eight interior illustrations but the artist pulled out on me the month before it was due.

Any plans for a return to the Merkabah Rider universe?
I've thought about writing prequels that have been alluded to in the series - the Rider's war years with Belden, his adventure with Misquamacus which is plotted out and could probably make a novel or novella, and his first meeting with the Rev. Mr. Goodworks, but I'm not in a rush. I was approached by somebody about pitching a modern day version of Merkabah Rider to a major publisher and I came up with a way to pick up the story in the same universe with different characters (mostly - some of the immortal characters might return) in the present, but I probably won't write that unless they go for it.

If there was going to be a Merkabah Rider movie, who would you want playing The Rider?
Adrien Brody’s who I picture when I write him, mostly unrecognizable beneath the beard and payot. I was impressed with him in Hollywoodland.

The Merkabah Rider is clearly a love letter to all things pulp. Who are some of your favorite pulp authors and characters?
Like I mentioned, Solomon Kane. Howard is my favorite of the pulp writers. When I need to get in a writing mood, I pick up anything by Howard. He had a great imagination, a great knack for infusing the weird into unlikely settings. If Joe R. Lansdale is the father of the weird western, Robert E. Howard is the grandfather. As a writer of visceral action I really believe he's unequaled. Robert J. Hogan’s weird World War One stories featuring G-8 and His Battle Aces are tops. E. Hoffman Price wrote some great "Oriental" fantasy stories, like The Devil Wives of Li Fong. I like a lot of crimefighter pulps. The Avenger by Paul Ernst is my favorite. A very progressive cast of characters for it’s time, including a pair of highly educated African Americans and a petite, female jujutsu expert, with a wonderfully strange hero to lead them. Norvell Page’s The Spider is fantastic. Somebody described it as Robert E. Howard writing The Shadow. That’s a good way of putting it. The Spider is a madman. He sometimes lets criminal’s schemes play out longer just to make their end more spectacular – how great is that? Of course the prolific Walter Gibson’s The Shadow. I recently got into Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars/Barsoom novels featuring John Carter. I admit that I like Lovecraft’s concepts a little more than his actual writing, though I really like The Music of Eric Zann. It was a big influence on my Lovecraftian blues short story The Crawlin’ Chaos Blues. Going back even further, Ambrose Bierce (particularly his Civil War stuff which is harrowingly real and yet at times supernatural) is responsible for some of the best weird stories ever written.

Was there a book that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
It’s gonna sound weird, but the first book that made me want to write was Simon Hawke’s novelization of Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives… I had never seen the movie (I don’t think I have seen it all the way through yet), but I bought it off the rack when I was in seventh grade and read the thing cover to cover in the same day. It was the first non-comic book, the first non-illustrated book I ever read and I was amazed at how intense and graphic it was. I don’t know if it was a good book (I lost my copy), but it fired up my imagination I guess. To bring me out of the gutter a bit, the second book was Jack London’s Call of The Wild, which Sister Marie read to our class the same year.

Who are some of your non-pulp influences?
J.R.R. Tolkien, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy. He taps into a darkness that’s hypnotic. I’ll read anything by him. Richard Matheson is great. He’s done the Twilight Zone, I Am Legend and The Incredible Shrinking Man, but he’s also written these great westerns like By The Gun and The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickock. Larry McMurtry, Stephen King of course, especially his short stories and novellas. Mickey Spillane, Mishima Yukio. Moby Dick has always been a favorite of mine. Peter Pan and Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In comics Alan Moore (especially From Hell) Kazuo Koike and Frank Miller. I like John Ford films, Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, George Romero, Sergio Corbucci, Michael Mann, Peter Weir, Anthony Mann…the screenwriters Paul Schaefer and David Mamet. Frank Frazetta’s art. Norman Rockwell. John Martin. Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash.

What's your favorite book?
Blood Meridian or, An Evening’s Redness In The West by Cormac McCarthy.

Who's your favorite author?
I can’t seem to stop mentioning Robert E. Howard! Probably McCarthy would be my favorite living author.

What's your favorite western?
Winchester ’73 starring Jimmy Stewart, Millard Mithell, and Shelly Winters. directed by Anthony Mann. Jimmy Stewart is hunting Stephen McNally, who stole his prize Winchester rifle. The rifle changes various hands, and we follow it as if it were a character. Jimmy Stewart is great in it. Dan Duryea has a nice turn too as badman Waco Johnny Dean.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Don’t get discouraged. It’s very hard getting started and even then it’s still a big uphill battle the whole way. Don’t take criticism too hard, but be open to it when it’s constructive. Don’t try to write something you hope somebody will like. Be your own audience. Write the kind of thing you’d like to read. Write what you know you love.

What's next for Edward Erdelac?
I've got a very very dark themed western novel called Coyote's Trail coming out from Comet Press in July. It's about an Apache kid who survives a massacre and enlists the aide of a Mexican prostitute to lure out the soldiers responsible and kill them en flagrante delicto. Kind've a psycho-sexual revenge story, almost noire-ish, with no fantasy elements. I'm finishing up a novel set in World War II involving the Holocaust and Frankenstein. A couple other short story projects, and I'll be in three different Mythos-themed books this year. Nothing else really definite yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment