Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter
Edward M. Erdelac
My first ever encounter with author Edward M. Erdelac was via the publisher Dark Renaissance Press, now sadly no longer around. As a subscriber to their newsletter, a few months before they went out of business, I won a physical copy of Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name by Mr Erdelac. It took me some time to get around to reading it, but when I did I was deeply impressed; it was my first encounter with the Weird West genre, and I was enthralled by Erdelac’s tale of a Jewish mystic searching through the American West in the late 19th Century, trying to hunt down his former mentor who had betrayed him and butchered his fellow practitioners. Unfortunately when I went to try and purchase the rest of the series, including the first volume, they had fallen out of print and the only copies left were a few ridiculously priced copies on the second-hand market. I was left hoping that the series would one day come back into print, and perhaps even as ebooks; and therefore it was fantastic news when earlier this year the author announced on social media that he would be re-releasing the series. In fact, not only would the series be released and be made available as ebooks, but they would also have new introductory chapters, some additional short stories that had been published elsewhere, and new cover and interior art. As if the news couldn’t get any better, the interior art would be by none other than Wayne M. Miller, who I believe to be one of the most talented cover and interior art illustrators currently in the business.
When advanced copies of the first volume, Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter became available, I was one of the first to snap up a copy from Mr Erdelac, and eagerly set to reading. It became readily apparent as I started that this was not so much a rerelease as a complete overhaul of the entire book contents, and this is nowhere more apparent than the time and skill that has been lavished on the exterior and interior art and layout. The cover art by Juri Umagami is pure, distilled Weird West, with the Merkabah Rider and his eponymous tinted glasses and Volcanic revolver striding away from a shattered windmill, dust-storm roiling in the background, all perfectly complemented by cinematic-style fonts and layout by Shawn T King. If anything, the interior of the book is even more lavish – each chapter title page has fantastic Western-style fonts and suitably mystical-looking symbols, and even the text of the stories themselves looks like it’s been carefully chosen to evoke the same themes running through the narrative. The interior blackand white illustrations, by Wayne M. Miller are as evocative as always, providing striking character portraits that really bring the stories to life as you read them. It’s as close to a luxury book you can get without being provided with a slipcase and a signature sheet, and allows it to easily stand out amongst other titles in a library.
Moving to the written content of the title, we start with an Introductory chapter that lays out the inspiration behind the Merkabah Rider series (interestingly, they apparently evolved out of a desire to evoke the Jonah Hex graphic novels, which certainly ties into the themes present in The Rider’s narrative arc) and then moves onto the core of the title, consisting of four novellas and then a bonus short story, previously published in a rather obscure anthology and now available for a wider readership for the first time. The story is classic Western, the betrayed apprentice roaming the Badlands of the American West in the late 19th Century in a search for the mentor that massacred his friends and colleagues; the ‘weird’ element comes in the form of The Rider actually being a Jewish mystic skilled in mystical and spiritual arts that allow him to invoke spells, unleash demonic-killing weapons, and even ascend into a higher dimension or ‘plane’ (hence the pun in the title). It’s this mystical angle that really attracted me to the series, because from the get-go it becomes obvious that the author has done an incredible amount of research into Jewish lore and spiritualism and practically every element you could think of related to those subjects; every story is imbued with mysticism and folklore, with The Rider battling demons, spirits and evil men and women who would invoke them or otherwise make use of them.
These authentic details (a strange phrase to use in fiction, but nonetheless entirely appropriate) really drives the plot along and gives it a depth that most fiction in this genre cannot even begin to hold a candle (or lantern) to, and is often thought-provoking at the same time; by the time I had finished the last page, I felt like I had been subsumed in a culture in a way that has never happened to me with any book I can think of, fiction or non-fiction. It’s an incredible achievement, and one only bolstered by the level of writing shown in the featured stories. A lot of writing in the Weird West genre could probably be kindly described as ‘robust’ rather than anything else, valuing tropes and action sequences over anything else; but while Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter has both of those, in spade, Erdelac’s writing is stunning to be frank, every sentence reading as if has been lovingly constructed to flow into the next one, and the paragraph into the next paragraph. The descriptive prose is brilliant, and the characterisations full of depth that, again, just isn’t usually found in the genre; even bit-part characters, who might only appear briefly or be killed off by some errant demon or spirit, feel fully fleshed-out.
I don’t have any hesitation in calling Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter the pinnacle of the Weird West genre, and one that will be hard to surplant. The writing is some of the best I’ve ever come across; the action scenes fast-paced and hugely enjoyable; the characterisation deep and satisfying even for minor characters; and the knowledge of Jewish mysticism, spirituality and folklore deeply ingrained and fascinating to the reader. Encompassed in one of the most luxurious and painstakingly-designed books I’ve ever come across, this title needs and deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in the Weird West, Cosmic Horror or Western genres.