The last of an ancient order of Jewish mystics capable of extraplanar travel, The Merkabah Rider roams the demon haunted American West of 1879 in search of the renegade teacher who betrayed his enclave. But as the trail grows fresher, shadows gather, and The Hour Of The Incursion draws near… Four novella episodes in one book.
In a town hungry for blood, the Rider encounters a cult of Molech worshippers bent on human sacrifice(‘The Blood Libel’). A murderous, possessed gunman descends upon a mountain town, and only the Rider stands in his way (‘Hell’s Hired Gun’). A powerful ju ju man with powers rivalling the Rider’s own holds a fledgling Mexican boomtown in his sway (‘The Dust Devils’). Finally the Rider faces the Queen of Demons and a bordello full of antedelluvian succubi (‘The Nightjar Women’).
I’ve been getting into weird westerns more as of late, thanks in part to “Deadstock” by Ian Rogers. But when I read the plot summary for Merkabah Rider, the notion of a character with such an obvious Jewish connection intrigued me, particularly with the juxtaposition of such a figure in the wild west. Although the image seems like something out of a Mel Brooks movie (imagine a guy who looks like a rabbi riding on a donkey lol), the author manages to make the Rider cool, and not at all comedic. I definitely took him seriously after the first few pages of the first story. In it, the Rider goes to a small town and immediately encounters racism, but despite that, manages to get a room at a tavern. There’s an angel waiting for him, who lets him know that one of his old enemies, the demon, Molech, is in town and that a former friend, Joseph Klein, is among the demon’s flock.
Although the Rider relies mainly on Jewish mysticism for his magic mojo, he incorporates the symbols and beliefs of other religions into his wards, including Tibetan and Hindu ones. It’s nice to see more Jewish influences in fantasy and horror, as Judaism and the Kabbalah have a lot of very cool elements that give works a unique world-building and magic system. As well, the Rider can possess people to get through to his targets of communication, like Joseph’s son, Eli, which provides a definite creep factor and establishes that the Rider means business, and achieves his goals by any means necessary, no matter how much he might struggle with it inside.
Far from bogging down the narrative, the Jewish cultural influences fuse well with what’s really a fast-paced, high stakes supernatural drama. There’s zombies, demons, and other creatures–just with a Jewish twist Our Rider finds what he was looking for, but tomorrow is a new days, and he always has new cases.
In Episode 2, “Dust Devils,” the Rider is at odds with a male witch, Kelly Le Malfacteur (or bokor in Haitian vodou) in another small town. Kelly makes people do what the antagonist, Scarchilli, wants. Kelly’s grandfather was one of the favourite “horses” of Kalfou, the darkest spirit in vodou. When we discover his troubled past, Kelly’s actions make more sense. He creates a storm djab to stop anyone from entering town but the Rider gets past his barrier.
I enjoyed Erdelac’s fusion of Haitian vodou with the Judaic demonology normally found in the Rider stories, particularly when Kalfou manifests as an altogether different creature than what the Rider was expecting.
Things switch up a bit in Episode 3, “Hell’s Hired Gun,” in which the Rider comes to a town with a high body count and travels to find the man responsible. On the way, he gets caught in a snowstorm and a stranger takes him in. Turns out the stranger is a preacher who knows a lot more about Rider than he thinks. A demon, Legion, is involved, and as with the lore, he has ways of multiplying his presence, often with disastrous consequences. Demons can make great use of someone like the Rider, and he has to keep his wits about him to persevere against such a slippery foe.
The last episode, “The Nightjar Women,” focuses on the Rider’s investigations in a small town where dead babies are turning up, which immediately sets off the Rider’s suspicions that the first woman, and queen of several big bads, Lilith, is responsible. While in town, he meets a Jewish woman, Sadie, who takes a shining to him.
Although mostly consistently with the traditional lore surrounding Lilith, Erdelac takes a few interesting creative liberties, mentioning that even though she’s the mother of all demons, she herself isn’t one, but she certainly is the most powerful creature the Rider has encountered. She knows how to play him like a violin, too, and uses this to her advantage. It works out interestingly in the end, and caps off the collection of tales about the Rider in a way that leaves the reader with a good resolution but leaves the window open for more Rider tales.
For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with some of the Jewish and Kabbalistic lore he uses and the terms, Erdelac has wisely included a glossary at the back.
If you haven’t read the Merkabah Rider series, I would urge you to pick it up and read through some of the wonderful stories featuring the captivating Merkabah Rider, certainly one of the most unique male leads in genre fiction.