Merkabah Rider — A Robert E. Howard fan spins some weird tales
Friday, April 16, 2010
posted by Jim Cornelius
A Hasidic Jewish mystic roams the West, battling demons of the astral plane, relentlessly pursuing his renegade teacher. This is the premise of a new set of four novellas by Edward Erdelac, a screenwriter and storyteller who names Robert E. Howard as his “all-time favorite writer.”
The key to spinning a successful weird tale is for the author to “believe” the story he is telling. A hip, ironic, tongue-in-cheek approach might make for good campy fun, but it destroys any sense of the strange, the menacing, the macabre. By rooting his the mystical adventures of The Rider in actual Jewish folklore, Erdelac creates depth and resonance that no mere make-believe demonology an match. And he plays it straight.
The four tales in Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter have a skewed, bizarre Spaghetti Western feel — and that’s when they’re working in the “real” West. Things get really strange when The Rider abandons his body for extraplanar travel. The setting owes more to the Sergio Leone aesthetic than to the authentic West. However, there are a few obscure nuggets that make a Western history aficionado smile — like the True Name of Sadie in “The Nightjar Woman. And in the second novella in the collection, “Dust Devils,” there is a wonderful direct homage to Howard’s “Kelly the Conjure-Man.
Merkabah Rider will appeal to fans of the Weird Western genre, the only segment of that genre ghetto (sorry for the pun) that remains commercially healthy. It will also appeal to Steampunks. The Rider’s armament alone is a Steampunk’s dream. His Volcanic pistol is marginally effective for a mediocre gunfighter — but it is a deadly weapon on the astral plane.
In a Fantasy Book Critic interview, Erdelac traces the origins of Merkabah Rider to the horror stories of Robert E. Howard:
I’ve had an abiding love of westerns since a family vacation to Deadwood, South Dakota when I was in middle school and I had dabbled in weird western stories in high school after reading Robert E. Howard’s excellent “The Horror From The Mound” and “Old Garfield’s Heart,” plus Joe R. Lansdale’s Jonah Hex series “Two-Gun Mojo.” But, my own forays into the genre never really came together, so I shelved them. Then a couple years ago I came across the term ‘merkabah rider’ in an angelology book, and the image of a Hasidic man with blue glass spectacles embossed with the Seals of Solomon, riding a fiery ethereal horse and wearing a gun belt just jumped into my mind.
Erdelac’s discovery of Howard’s work follows a familiar track (and reinforces the importance of film adaptations in introducing new people to Howard’s characters). Erdelac told The Cimmerian:
I think I discovered Howard the same way a lot of people did, by seeing the Schwarzenegger Conan movie when I was in eighth grade or so. That led me to the fantastic Frazetta cover paperbacks in a local used book store. Reading them I found a character and setting superior to the movie, and eventually realized there was a subtle but noticeable difference in quality between the stories penned solely by Howard and those completed by other authors (DeCamp, Carter, etc.). Conan led me to Kull, which led me to Solomon Kane, and then Cormac Mac Art and Bran Mak Morn (and eventually Breckinridge Elkins, which is a marvelous and entirely different character). I read Howard ravenously throughout high school and early college, and although my tastes branched out to other authors in the interim, I’ve continuously found myself going back to him, my eye drawn to his name on the shelves, usually on some new collection of stories. Even though I’ve read a lot of what he has to offer (even the Fight and Oriental stories), I always seem to find a title I’m not familiar with.
Merkabah Rider, published by Damnation Books, is an enjoyable foray into a weird landscape of signs, seals, demons and angels. Howard fans might want to saddle up their white mule and follow along.