Edward M. Erdelac's Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter is without reservation one of the best Weird Westerns to roll into town in the last decade, if not the best. As unsolicited review copies go, it's the most impressive book I've read since Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series, which is to say the only impressive book I've read since Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series. An originality of concept with an excellence in execution launch Erdelac into the same stratosphere as his prime influence, Robert Howard, making for a equally pleasing and disturbing old fashioned Pulp adventure.
Though citing H.P. Lovecraft as an influence and idol, Erdelac manages to steer clear of too heavy a reliance on the Cthulhu Mythos that often seems to be the go-to for genre writers. That is when they're not falling back on zombies and vampires, which Erdelac also mostly avoids. While the Great Old Ones do pose a looming threat through the four novella-sized episodes of Merkabah Rider, he instead finds the most fertile material in the mythology and demonology of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
A quick mental survey turns up practically nothing that does utilize such a rich tradition. One might be tempted to assign blame to the Abrahamic traditions being passe even amongst those who follow them. Often it seems that the only people who want to touch it are Evangelical apocalyptics with their gibbering, ahistorical end-of-the-world revenge fantasies, or Hollywood producers with no evident comprehension of Church tradition and the Biblical canon (or art history, or genetics for that matter). That works sufficiently, unfortunately, given the general lack of interest in the subject. I can't forget the person who tried to stir up a debate by saying that the scenario in Dan Brown's novels were more credible than what was actually in the Bible but who, when probed on the matter, admitted to not even having read the Bible. Most are more cognizant of more seemingly attractive cosmologies, like the Cthulhu Mythos or religions that were already long dead before Christ was born.
Erdelac rediscovers how wild and horrifying all that Old Testament stuff can be when played straight and not diminished as some kind of mere metaphor. The conflict between the followers of YHWH and Molech isn't some ancient geo-political struggle between opposing theocratic regimes: it's a Hasidic gunslinger blowing holes in an honest-to-gosh demon named Molech invoked by a cult of child-sacrificing Jewish heretics. Zombies do turn up in Merkabah Rider, but they are good, old-fashioned Voodoo zombies folded into a Judeo-Christian cosmology relating back to the slovenly, lustful fallen angels who begat the Nephilim. The Legion of demons cast out by Jesus find a new home in a psychologically shattered man and his herd of hogs. And Lillith appears with her daughter succubi not as a feminist icon of vilified feminine autonomy, but as the mother of demons who parlays with our Jewish mystic/demon-slayer while monstrous creatures continuously flop out of the swelled bellies of her children.
His capacity for folding this mythology culled from Scripture, Talmud and folklore into the wild and weird West is highly skilled. Where else are succubi going to go to get the seed of men than a whorehouse in a male-dominated mining camp? Erdelac takes us across the border into Mexico to fight a demon in a sandstorm, and into the realities of an ethnic minority enclave on the fringes of a suspicious and trigger-happy Protestant frontier town. Having spoken of angels, they are not plump cherubim or winged waifs: Merkabah Rider's angels are weapon-wielding, blood-and-guts Biblical warriors duded up as unkillable Pinkertons ready to take out the trash if the Rider can't get the job done himself. A few figures from real Western history make surprise appearances as well.
Most admirable about Merkabah Rider is its sensitivity to the subject matter. In many works of occultic drama, perhaps by virtue of the source material, the goings on are treated fairly superficially. Magic is a tool wielded by those merely skilled enough to use it, the Great Old Ones merely ultra-powerful creatures to be slain. Erdelac draws the necessary correlation between the spiritual state of the mystic and the efficacy of their actions. Ordinarily the doctrine of "as above so below" is used to justify a vision of the afterlife or the next life as a self-justification for one's behaviour now. For the Rider, "as below so above" becomes a critical truism when being divested of his assortment of talismans or neglecting to say his proper evening prayers leaves him open to attack in the Yenne Velt, or space between worlds.
Erdelac's sensitivity goes deeper than such direct physical correlations however. At one point the Rider grapples with the loneliness imposed upon him by Hasidic sexual laws. Desire for the total physical, intellectual and spiritual companionship of another person is a powerful drive prone to manifest itself in pathological ways when it gets the better of a person's reason, exemplified when the Rider goes on a conscience-conflicted cruise of the red-light district. These laws exist, however, to protect human dignity from human beings. The Rider meditates on how he not allowed to touch a woman he does not intend to marry because a touch is the sacred beginning of greater and deeper intimacy. When we succumb to the temptation to use others as means of physical gratification, then we open ourselves up to being used by demonic impulses (which in metaphorical terms means pathological states of the psyche or, in Merkabah Rider, a slobbering, pustule-laden creature of Hell). As C.S. Lewis' Screwtape suggests, the demonic interpretation of "love" is to consume. To forget this law or the kosher dietary laws or his daily prayers cost the Rider his spiritual and psychological health, which in turn could cost his life in the middle of a battle with a demonic being who would exploit it.
Temptation is the primary theme of Merkabah Rider. It is the primary weapon used by the hordes of Hell, the primary failing of the human cast. The Rider is himself a wandering Jewish mystic from an order slaughtered by his own teacher, Adon. This teacher was a gifted mystic with a fatal narrowness that saw God as a metaphor for enlightenment and personal power. Adon gave into this temptation and destroyed his fellow mystics in the Sons of the Essenes. The Rider - who follows the rule of names being powerful by utilizing an alias - is tracking him across the West to atone for so great a sin. He was a good pupil who was able to ascend nearly to the Throne of God Himself but was turned away for an unspecified sin... Was it corruption by Adon's teachings? Or his service in the American Civil War? He does not know, but hopes that destroying Adon will somehow atone for it. Along the way he meets many a person who gave into fear and self-preservation, from Jewish carpenters who built a golden bull for the Molech worshippers to Pentecostal ministers who barred up the church doors during an otherworldly massacre to good Jewish girls who only take money for handjobs. In this harsh Biblical West, those who meet temptation head-on usually get killed. It is abundantly clear, however, that death is not the end.
All of these themes are conveyed with an incredible quality of writing that one must simply relish. Erdelac is masterful with good pulpy turns of a phrase that never come across as corny. One of my favorites was a women whose voice sounded like whiskey poured into a cracked china cup. I have no idea what that is even supposed to sound like, but it well conjures the image of coarseness and delicacy. Merkabah Rider is a joy to read for anyone who savours the art of language.
The story of the Merkabah Rider does not end with Tales of a High Planes Drifter. The structure is episodic in deliberate echo of the pulp novellas of yore, and continues in Merkabah Rider: The Mensch with No Name.