Merkabah Rider: Once Upon a Time in the Weird West (2013) – Written by Ed Erdelac.
Welcome back, everyone, for another installment of my Atomic Interview series. If you’re a regular reader of the Anxiety, you know I’m taking a break from writing reviews for the time being but I still hope to have a new interview up every week through the summer.
I’m pleased today to publish my interview with Ed Erdelac, writer of the acclaimed and popular MERKABAH RIDER series. I want to thank Ed for joining me and for providing such detailed, thorough answers. I’m always grateful when writers are willing to take a good bit of time to talk about their projects. The interview starts after the official description of the latest and last MERKABAH RIDER installment.
MERKABAH RIDER: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEIRD WEST
THE CONCLUSION OF THE ACCLAIMED WEIRD WESTERN SERIES. For years the Rider, one of the last of an ancient Jewish order of astral travelers, has sought his renegade teacher Adon across the demon haunted American west. Now it is 1882. The Hour Of Incursion is here. The Great Old Ones, beings of immeasurable power from the roiling chaos before the dawn of Creation, are stirring in their ancient slumber. It is high noon for the entire universe. Seeking to rouse the Old Ones, Adon has gathered together the Creed – an army of fallen Hasidic mystics – and a host of dark allies including skinwalkers, necromancers, an undead master gunslinger, Lilith the Queen of Demons, and the Angel of Death himself. The Rider and Kabede, in a last bid to stop Adon, recruit their own band, including an unstoppable preacher more steam engine than man, an alien entity from the dawn of time, a young witch, and the enigmatic Faustus Montague, an angelic being from another universe. But Lucifer the master of hell watches from his capitol city, ready to commit his legions to the winning side. And he has an agent among the Rider’s companions….
Mark Bousquet (MB): This month sees the release of the fourth and final volume of your acclaimed Merkabah Rider series and we’ll get to the fourth book in turn, but let’s go back to the beginning. Who is the Merkabah Rider and how did this character develop from your initial spark of inspiration to the character who eventually saw print?
Edward M Erdelac (EME): The Merkabah Rider is a Hasidic gunslinger, tracking the renegade teacher who betrayed his mystic Jewish order of astral travelers to the Outer Gods of the Lovecraftian Mythos. Picture a bearded Hasidic man (Adrien Brody has always been in my head) in long black coat and wide brimmed hat, with peyot curls, armed with a gold and silver chased Volcanic pistol covered with Kabbalistic symbols, and wearing a pair of blue glass spectacles mystically embossed with Solomonic seals that allow him to see in the spirit world. He clinks when he walks, but it’s not spurs – it’s dozens of talismans and bodyguards strung about his person beneath his clothes. Sort of a Jewish Solomon Kane in the Old West.
I had written a few weird western stories in high school, specifically, most of the novellas “The Dust Devils” and “Hell’s Hire Gun,” which appear in High Planes Drifter, the first Merkabah Rider book. But they were written with a completely different character, an ex-cavalryman with a magic buckskin shirt sewn onto his flesh by a Cheyenne medicine man that granted him the power to stop bullets. I got a little bored with the character. He wasn’t very compelling, and I shelved the stories for about twenty five years.
My wife picked up a book on angelology somewhere. It had an entry on “Merkabah Rider,” defining it as a Jewish ascetic who explored the heavenly realms via astral projection, and wore a bunch of talismans to ward off evil spirits. The term stuck in my head, and the Rider kind of sprang up as I described him above in my mind, riding a horse made of etheric fire like in the Biblical tale of Ezekial.
I started reading a lot of Jewish folklore and mysticism, and realized the whole thing was very rich and unique, and for the most part untapped in fiction. At the same time I got into Lovecraft pretty heavy, and in my research came across the notion in Jewish mystical thought of forbidden areas of study, namely the Olam ha-Tohu, the world of Chaos that preceded Creation, and references to God having defeated or bound over cosmic entities that refused to take part in Creation.
As with most good ideas, the more I read into everything, the more I found things falling into place. Not only did I have an interesting and unique central character I could go back and plug into those old stories, I found I had a greater arc. The series just grew up around him.
MB: In “The Blood Libel,” the first Rider story in your first Rider collection, you use his religion as a means of introducing the character to the readers. Please talk, if you would, about the role of religion in both the character and the series. Have you created a Jewish mythological structure and placed it onto the old West, or are these stories more concerned with a Jewish character making sense of a non-Jewish corner of the world?
EME: To an extent I took Jewish folklore and religious practices and adapted them into a fictional universe. There is no Sons of The Essenes sect that refuses to ride horses or anything. Their hierarchy and practices, some of the universe’s rules and the Rider’s astral abilities are stuff I made up, salted with a Jewish flavor. But it’s more a bit of a fish out of water story, like TV’s Kung Fu, which was a big inspiration. It is to an extent a misfit character making sense of the Old West, but also, a universe that turns out to extend well beyond his established belief system. When the Rider starts encountering the Great Old Ones and non-Jewish characters who are also engaged in fighting them, it challenges his faith. But I mean, you don’t have to be Jewish to relate to it, if I did my job right.
MB: The Merkabah Rider series is a Weird Western. What drew you to this genre? How do you balance the “weird” with the “west” in your books?
EME: My first weird westerns, and the ones I still consider seminal, were Robert E. Howard’s “Old Garfield’s Heart,” “The Horror From The Mound,” and “The Thunder Rider.” I read them in a collection in high school, and I think I had only recently got into westerns. I watched The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid as a boy, but western movies never appealed to me. Then I saw The Good The Bad And The Ugly and the other Dollars movies (which to an extent, are weird westerns), and High Planes Drifter (which definitely is). Westerns just opened up to me. I devoured everything I could, and started watching the older stuff, John Ford, John Wayne, Anthony Mann, and reading Louis L’amour, Larry McMurtry, etc. Also read Joe R. Lansdale’s “Rider Of The Worm And Such,” and “Two-Gun Mojo,” and for some reason the notion of putting the two genres together just appealed to me. You know, they were great on their own, but even better together.
I am very persnickety about weird westerns I read, and I hold my own work to the same standard. A lot of weird westerns, the authors don’t do the research and it shows. They’re into the weird, but they’re not really western fans beyond maybe a couple Eastwood movies. Just slapping a cowboy hat on a zombie doesn’t make for a good weird western. You’ve got to get the western part down right. Read primary documents, read and watch other non-ghoulie westerns, do the research. In Merkabah Rider, you can read “The Fire King Triumphant,” which takes place in Tombstone, and I mean, I had a street map of Tombstone for the year that story takes place. And there really was a fire that raged through the town, and Mrs. Fly, the wife of the guy that owns the photography studio the Rider talks to, she was a real person. And it may not even register to the average reader, but the western buffs will get it, and I want them to, because when I’m reading something, I appreciate that extra effort, that nudge and wink, that insider’s reference. It’s like a private joke shared between the author and the discerning readers. Conversely, the Lovecraftian stuff, the weird aspect, I try to pack Merkabah Rider with references readers of that stuff will appreciate too. I fill the series with references to other works I enjoy. And when you can make the fantastic and the real gel, that’s when I get giddy.
In the second book, The Mensch With No Name, in “The Damned Dingus,” the Rider meets a real gunfighter, Dave Mather, who was from New England and really was a sailor for a year with his brother. In the story he has an Elder Sign tattooed on his forearm by a shipmate, who he mentions by name, Zadok Allen. That’s the old drunken sailor from Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth.” So I try to find that balance of weird and western. In Garth Ennis’ weird western comic “Saint Of Killers,” there’s this splash page that references “Lonesome Dove,” Custer’s Last Stand, and “Unforgiven” in the same breath. I loved that kinda stuff. That’s what I try to do.
MB: Let’s turn to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEIRD WEST. What is this
volume of the Rider’s tale focused on?
EME: This is the big final confrontation. Adon, the Rider’s teacher, who has been trying to bring about The Hour Of Incursion, which will allow the Outer Gods access to our universe, is putting his plan into motion. There’s a ticking clock. The stars are right, it’s high noon for the universe. He’s gathered all his followers to him, including necromancers, this heretical order of Catholic monks that worships the angel of death, shoggoths, and Lilith the Queen of Demons. There’s an undead sort of mummy gunslinger that’s made from parts of various real life gunmen like Billy The Kid, Jesse James, etc.
On the other end, the Rider is getting his own allies together. There’s his partner Kabede, who is an Ethiopian Jew that carries the staff of Moses, he’s been around since book two, and his old cavalry buddy Belden, and Faustus, who is a medicine peddler with a magic wagon driven by camels. But in this book they recruit this fanatical preacher, The Reverend Mr. Goodworks, who is part steam engine, and a Yithian scholar, among other things.
While the other books in the series are presented as collections of episodic novellas, Once Upon A Time In The Weird West is a straight, traditionally structured full length novel. I wanted to end the series the same way Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories ended, with a novel. OUATiWW is The Hour Of The Dragon of The Merkabah Rider series.
MB: Why end the tale now? Is it simply a matter of the character having run its course? Or are you, as a writer, ready to move on to a different project?
EME: Well, I don’t like when a series just drags on and on. It becomes like long term episodic television. You know nothing major’s going to happen to certain characters because well, they’re in the opening credits or their name is on the cover. I never saw Merkabah Rider as infinite. There was always a definite course, a definite end in mind. Of course, I could always go back and tell stories earlier in the Rider’s career. There’s his Civil War years with Belden, and his adventure with the shaman Misquamacus, and how he first met Goodworks, which have all been alluded to throughout the series. There is a standalone story out already, floating around in an anthology called The Trigger Reflex. The story is called “The Shomer Express” and takes place before the first book. But, you know, after four years, I’ve got other things I’d like to work on. If people want it, it could happen, but eh, prequels. I’m not in a rush. The thing about the Outer Gods too, they never really get defeated. They’re always on the edge of reality waiting to get in…
MB: One question that interests me from a writer’s standpoint is the extent to which we’re associated with a “signature” project. Your work appeared in seven separate books in 2012, yet I would imagine most readers think of you as “the Merkabah Rider guy.” Do you think it’s important for writers to have a signature series? Do you think it’s a mistake? Do you feel burdened by being “the Merkabah Rider guy?” And does this play in role in determining which short story opportunities you pursue?
EME: I don’t think it’s important for a writer to come up with a signature series. There are plenty who do just fine without one. But I don’t see anything wrong with it either. If I’m The Merkabah Rider guy, I’m fine with that. If I’ve created something people enjoy, I’m happy to be remembered. I do get some great appreciative fan mail once in a while. I cherish those, much more than any solicited review. You know, you hope people who like your popular stuff will go out and look at what else you’ve done, but who knows?
It doesn’t really affect what I seek out. I like writing weird westerns, and so, if I see markets for them I like, I do like to try to get in them, just as a personal challenge. I wouldn’t mind being “the weird western guy.” But I’ve branched out too, into other eras, modern day. I’ve written a couple things set in Japan now, I’ve got three non-western Lovecraftian stories out there, and some straight, no ghoulies westerns (the latest Coyote’s Trail, comes out in July from Comet Press). I’m working on a novel set during the Holocaust. Merkabah Rider has affected offers I get, I think. Professional offers I’ve gotten are unanimously because of it. Every once in a while people who are doing western or weird western related stuff come to me, and that’s cool. It means I did it right.
The personal papers of the enigmatic Professor Abraham Van Helsing are collected and presented for the first time by his longtime colleague and defender, Dr. John Seward. Texas, 1891 Following the defeat of Count Dracula, Abraham Van Helsing – suffering from violent recurring fantasies – checks himself into Jack Seward’s Purfleet Asylum. Once discharged, he volunteers to return the ashes and personal effects of the late Quincey P. Morris (the American adventurer who died in battle with the nefarious Count) home to the Morris family ranch in Sorefoot, Texas. Van Helsing arrives to find Quincey’s brother, Cole Morris, embroiled in an escalating land dispute with a group of neighboring Norwegian ranchers led by the enigmatic Sig Skoll. When cattle and men start turning up slaughtered, the locals suspect a wild animal, but Van Helsing thinks a preternatural culprit is afoot. Is a shapeshifter stalking the Texas plains, or are the phantasms of his previously disordered mind returning? The intrepid professor must decide soon, for the life of Skoll’s beautiful new bride may hang in the balance.
MB: Previous to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEIRD WEST, your last full-length book was TEROVOLAS, which takes a post-Dracula Abraham Van Helsing into the west. How does this book compare to the Merkabah Rider series? What drew you to taking Van Helsing into the west?
EME: I loved the epistolary structure of Dracula, and I like the way writers like Nicholas Meyer in his Sherlock Holmes pastiches and George MacDonald Frasier in his Flashman series wove fiction and history together using the found document framework. Richard Matheson did that with his Journal Of The Gun Years and The Diary of Wild Bill Hickock, too. I’ve always found Van Helsing to be both the most interesting and the most misinterpreted character in Dracula. He’s not a vampire hunter. Nowhere is that stated. He’s just a scholar with a lot of obscure knowledge that he puts to use. He’s not a fanatic either, as a lot of people like to portray him nowadays. I liked the character so much I felt like I wanted to defend him, and I got the notion of uncovering these personal papers that would vindicate him to the world. I felt like I might be a little in over my head though, trying to do a book set in 1890’s Europe. Quincey Morris, the guy who dies fighting Dracula in the novel, was established as being from Texas, so I latched onto what was familiar to me and ran with it. I figured Quincey had kin that would need to be told about his demise, and I figured his aristocratic friends would be reluctant to divulge the nature of his death. But Van Helsing wouldn’t be. So I came up with him taking Quincey’s personal effects and remains back to Texas.
Comparing Terovolas to Merkabah Rider, while both take place in the real world of the late 1800’s, I think Terovolas is a little bit more grounded. There are fantastic elements of course, but in Terovolas the supernatural menace is even more mysterious, more hidden, necessarily because Van Helsing is really the only character that believes in this stuff. He’s thrust into the company of a lot of ranch hands and Missourians (“show me”), and he’s already doubting his own sanity. So not only does he have to convince the muggles of what’s really going on, he has to convince himself. It never gets as cosmic and wild as Merkabah Rider does. It’s really more of a detective novel than a fantasy adventure.
MB: What’s life like for you away from your stories?
EME: Mundane, but busy. I work at home, a real eight hour job, so I can take care of my three kids, and put my eldest through college. We travel when we can.
MB: What’s next for you now that the Merkabah Rider’s story has been told?
EME: Merkabah Rider has landed me a couple of opportunities that I don’t wanna jinx by discussing overly, but they involve leveling up my writing career a bit, which is a great and right now not entirely believable thing. Gah, I hate to be that vague guy. Sorry, but you know, if you trumpet something to the hills and then it doesn’t come true … I saw Stan Lee do that a lot in his Soapboxes in the 80’s. Adrien Brody’s not making a movie or anything, not that great, but a nice quantifiable step upwards.
I’m also working on some cool little projects. Like I said, I’m finishing up a World War II era novel, and I’m doing another story for the next volume of Mechanoid Press’ Monster Earth, which is a fun series about the various nations of the world fighting the Cold War with giant monsters instead of nukes. Working on an RPG supplement too, steam powered giant mechs in the old west.
I’ve got that western coming from Comet Press in July. Coyote’s Trail is about an Apache kid who uses a Mexican prostitute to lure the soldiers who killed his family out of their post. It’s dark, dark stuff. I call it a psycho-sexual revenge western.
On the ghoulie front, I’ve got stories coming out in a couple of books from Chaosium and Innsmouth Free Press some time this year, as well as a few others that haven’t yet been contracted but look like they’ll go through.
MB: And finally, where can people go to learn more about the Merkabah Rider and your other works?
I’m on Facebook, but the best place is my Delirium Tremens blog. If you click on the book covers on the right there you can read excerpts from everything I’ve done.
And that’s it for the latest Atomic Interview! Thanks to Ed Erdelac for joining me, and remember, if you like an author’s work, there’s nothing you can do to help spread the word better than leaving them a review at your bookseller of choice!
When he’s not talking to other writers, Mark Bousquet is doing some writing himself. He is the author of multiple novels and collections, including the recently released The Haunting of Kraken Moor, Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.