Take it away, Ed!
This month saw the release of Merkabah Rider 4: Once Upon A Time In The Weird West, the last installment of my Judeocentric weird western series.
For those unfamiliar with it, it’s about a Hasidic gunslinger tracking the renegade teacher who betrayed his mystic Jewish order of astral travelers to the Great Old Ones of the Lovecraftian Mythos. Along the way, the Rider (so-called because members of his order, The Sons of The Essenes, assume a title to obfuscate their true names from malevolent spirits) encounters half-demon outlaws, a mystic cannon, a brothel full of antediluvian succubi, shoggoths, invisible monsters, Doc Holiday, zombies, an undead gunfighter constructed from the body parts of famous outlaws, and a pissed off animated windmill among other dangers.
Beyond the weirdness and adventure, it’s also a story about the testing of a man’s faith in the face of overwhelming cosmic horror and indifference, and, at its core, I like to think, the beneficial nature of tolerance.
The stories of the Rider started for me in high school. I had just read Robert E. Howard’s stories The Thunder Rider, Old Garfield’s Heart, and The Horror From The Mound, and I was thinking about writing weird westerns. I tried my hand at a few, two of which show up greatly expanded upon in Tales Of A High Planes Drifter (namely The Dust Devils and Hell’s Hired Gun). In their original incarnation, the hero of those stories was an ex-soldier, an objector to the heinous Sand Creek Massacre who was shot and left for dead by his comrades, and rescued by a Cheyenne medicine man who sewed a mystical hide shirt to his skin that allowed him to shrug off bullets. I wrote a couple more of these featuring that character “The Ghost Dancer,” but I lost interest after a bit as The Dancer’s mission was solely vengeance bent, and not really very engaging. I wasn’t ready yet to create a compelling central character.
I think my seeing the TV series Kung Fu when it was rerun on TNT in freshman or sophomore year of college planted the seed in my mind for a fish out of water individual traveling through the west, but it wasn’t till nearly ten years later, when I had moved to an orthodox Jewish neighborhood and my wife picked up an angelology book (Angels A To Z) that the Rider finally reared full blown into my mind.
I came across this entry –
Merkabah Rider – An ancient Jewish mystic who fasted and prayed to reach an ecstatic trance. While in this trance state, he sent his soul upward through the heavenly halls in an attempt to reach the Throne of Glory that is supported by the chariot of Merkavah (the fiery vehicle seen by Elijah). The objective of the Merkabah Rider was to join himself with the Universal Soul. During this journey, the Rider was constantly plagued by demons. The Merkabah Rider used prayer, magical talismans, incantations, and asceticism to enlist the aid of angels, who would protect him throughout his journey and ultimately defeat his antagonists.
Immediately my brain conjured this image of a Hasidic Jew in long black coat and hat, riding a horse made of flame.
I started tackling Jewish folklore and mysticism, reading everything I could. Little details began to fit into place. The Rider’s mystically embossed blue glass spectacles, etched with Solomonic seals that allowed him to look into the spirit world at its unseen denizens. His adorned Volcanic pistol (a favorite design of firearm for me – the protagonist of my straight, no ghoulies western novel Buff Tea carries one), the mystic symbols allowing him to carry it into the astral plane. Much of his asceticism I took from Jewish kashrut or kosher teaching, but some I culled from Kung Fu’s shaolin monks (the Rider’s refusal to ride a horse, for instance).
Only a year earlier I had discovered H.P. Lovecraft, and was thinking a lot about the deities of his indifferent universe. I needed a foe for the Rider to face, but the Jewish view of the Devil is quite different from Christianity’s. Satan is not directly opposed to God. He works for God, testing the souls of man and maintaining Sheol/hell as a crucible for the human spirit. He’s not the blasphemous entity popularized in horror films and books.
So I got to thinking, that in an ordered universe, the ultimate nemesis would be chaos. And in researching Jewish mystic thought, I came across another passage (in the fantastic reference The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth Magic and Mysticism) –
Rahav – A cosmic sea monster first mentioned in the biblical book of Isaiah….God slew him when he refused to help in creating the earth. The oceans conceal the lethal stink of his carcass, which is why the sea smells so strange.
Sounds like Cthulhu, right?
So then reading more, I found references to a forbidden area of mystic study, that which precedes Creation – the Olam ha-Tohu, The World of Chaos.
I had found my heavy for the Merkabah Rider series, and the more I researched and read, the easier things began to fit in with each other. That’s when I know I’m on to something – when I don’t have to force anything. When references just start making themselves known to me.
For a direct physical villain, again, the character just made himself known to me. I was watching a lot of Doctor Who and enjoyed the character of The Master – a diametrically opposed Time Lord and foil for The Doctor. I decided a failed Merkabah Rider who worships chaos might be interesting, so I came up with Adon (whose name means “Master” or “Lord”). When the time came to present a story for Adon, I happened to read the Jewish fable of the sages who entered Paradise.
Four men entered the pardes — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [that is, Elisha ben Abuyeh], and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher severed the root; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace.
In some mystic schools of thought, our souls or astral selves are bound to this world by an astral tether which reaches from the corona of our head.
In the world of Merkabah Rider, I had established that this tether anchored the soul to the body and thus the physical world. It was a root, and Elisha ben Abuyah had cut it. He had severed himself from his body, but because he had done so before the Throne of Glory, he had somehow gone on (perhaps due to Merkabah Rider training), a disembodied spirit, able to possess other’s physical forms.
But what had the Sages seen that had caused such drastic reactions?
I decided, the Outer Gods, slumbering in the world of Chaos that bordered the universe as created by God.
What would such knowledge do to the Rider? That became a central point of the series. Could the Rider maintain his faith? Would it change anything for him? Would he go the route of Adon?
In the meantime, I could let my imagination run wild, and I did, borrowing or adapting creatures and people from folklore and literature (Ambrose Bierce’s Damned Thing shows up as a servant of the Old Ones in The Damned Dingus) history, and the Bible, and exploring my love of the Old West at the same time.
It was a wonderful experience, writing Merkabah Rider, and the positive response it’s received from those who have read and enjoyed it are very dear to me – particularly the unsolicited reader reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, LibraryThing, and Shelfari.
I want to share just a few that I treasure –
“It is, quite simply, one of the coolest things I've ever read. It feels like something tailor made for me, and it feels genuine and sincere.”
“The best book I read last year. You don't need to like westerns to like his work--he is a genius. The Merkabah Rider Series is better than investing in gold. It will make you feel awesome inside---like maybe you finally read a book that meant something---he is that good.”
“This is great--no, stupendous adventure fiction, the kind that I often crave and rarely find.”
There are just a few, and I post them not to inflate my own ego, but because they mean a great deal to me, as all of them do. Even the negative ones. These are people that went out and bought the book on their own and got something from it, and in the age of file sharing and buying and selling reviews, that’s something to me.
Now I just hope nobody retracts their previous good opinions when they’ve read the last one.
In closing, it’s been a wonderful trip writing Merkabah Rider. There are still small stories about the Rider that can be told (one, The Shomer Express, has already appeared in anthology called The Trigger Reflex), and characters from the series might still appear here and there in related works, but for now, I turn my attention to other things.
The Rider and his onager walk off into the sunset.