Saturday, 23 July 2011

Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name (2010)

Edward M. Erdelac's Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter was a spot-on joy of a Weird Western novel. Written in episodic format like an old dime novel, it introduced us to The Rider, a gunslinging Hasidic mystic who fought the forces of the Adversary both in our world and the veil between this one and the next.

In my review of that book, I lauded Erdelac for mostly eschewing some of the usual tropes of Weird Westerns - like zombies and Great Old Ones - to explore the rich opportunities presented by putting old, old old school Biblical ass-kicking in a Wild West setting. The Rider fought the demon Molech and his cadre of Jewish heretics, a Voodoo man in unwitting service to the lustful fallen angels who mated with human women before the Flood, the Legion of demons who found a new host, and Lilith's succubi spawn making a nice home for themselves in a mining town's brothel. Moreso than those foils, he also deftly and sensitively articulated key spiritual concepts about Judeo-Christian beliefs in how intimately tied The Rider's power was to the holiness of his condition.

Our next four episodes in The Mensch With No Name very nearly tosses that completely out the window.

The climax of Tales of a High Planes Drifter have left The Rider effectively powerless against the demonic children of Lilith. No longer visible to The Rider's enchanted spectacles, invisible demons harass him day and night, robbing him of food and sleep. Meanwhile more deadly physical offspring of the Pit are chasing him across the West, leaving a trail of grotesque murder behind that eventually gets pinned on The Rider himself. As a consequence, "The Killer Jew" is not only hunted by Hell's minions, but by bounty hunters and lawmen across the territories. If all that was not enough, it is now at his most powerless that he becomes involved in The Great Insurrection, when Shub-Niggurath, Yig and all the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones are poised to rend Creation asunder.

It's a move that is daring in its conventionality. In past interviews, Erdelac explained the chain that led to the creation of Merkabah Rider, saying that he had these images and ideas in place but he needed a certain catch to make his Eastwood-like lone cowboy interesting. That catch was turning him into a Jewish mystic and everything that came along with it. Mensch With No Name dispenses with all of that, reducing him back to that ambivalent character archetype. For a goodly sum of the book, the protagonist need not even be The Rider.

In the first episode he is forced to deal with the direct consequences of the last book's climax as half-demon hunters confront The Rider who is only discovering his powerlessness. At least he enjoys the temporary help of a Samson-like Nazirite in one of the book's last overtly Jewish references. In the following episodes comprising the bulk of the novel, The Rider is in terra incognita as he learns about Great Old Ones and Elder Signs, monsters neither demon nor man and insane cultists who might once have been human. The spiritual concepts and themes of temptation in Tales of a High Planes Drifter are hereby replaced with a sense of cosmic dread as The Rider dwells upon the ramifications of the Great Old Ones' existence.

His angst is understandable as the terrors of Judeo-Christian metaphysical horror are not particularly compatible with the nihilistic cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Following Lovecraft's death, the Cthulhu Mythos as a marketing category was invented by his associate August Derleth, who went on to make his own contributions to this somewhat fabricated fictional continuity. His actions were controversial amongst Lovecraft fans, and still are, because of Derleth's own Christian worldview and how he attempted to conform Lovecraft's concepts to it. The essence of Lovecraft's stories were the unflinching insanity of a meaningless universe that was malevolently indifferent and casually hostile to human life. This Derleth reorganized into a mythology of Good versus Evil and elemental spirits. It was Derleth who invented the pentacle Elder Sign wielded like a crucifix against Cthulhu's shambling servants. Overall it's not a very comfortable fit that tends to water down either approach.

Erdelac's method of dealing with it is to let The Rider meditate upon the fact. The man has suffered a double-dose of existential doubt by losing his mystical powers on the one hand and being exposed to entities from entirely outside of any order of Creation and of everything he was taught about the ways and things of God. He is sent into the sort of paroxysms of doubt that a good monotheist might have were they to encounter Yog-Sothoth or Azathoth. How can such things exist in a cosmos ordered by a loving God? What is the point in continuing to exist in such a universe as consumed by these beings? If temptation was the theme of Tales of a High Planes Drifter, then doubt is the theme of The Mensch With No Name.

This novel is also the middle of a trilogy, the centre act in which the hero faces his greatest adversity and falls to his deepest depths. In this case, all the way to Hell, when The Rider goes to Lucifer himself to get some answers. It ends off on a grand cliffhanger that sets us up for the promised, full novel-length final act in the saga of the Merkabah Rider.

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