Black Hills, China Mieville's socialist wild west story Iron Council, Cherie Priest' steampunk westerns in the Clockwork Century and course Gemma Files' hexslingers in A Book of Tongues. I guess one way or another, I keep coming back to it.
Edward M. Erdelac adds to this stack of unusual westerns with Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter. It's a collection of four novella length pieces of fiction, following the adventures of The Rider, in true western style, a lonely traveller with a troubled past, eternally searching for the one who wronged him. What sets him apart from your average gunslinger is that he doesn't hunt bandits but demons. The Rider is a Jewish mystic, armed to deal with the most severe threats the supernatural world offers, among them his former master.
The novellas are set in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The Rider visits a number of isolated, dusty town, where life is hard and often short, the law has a tenuous hold on the community at best and fear of Apache raiders is still epidemic. Although he faces a different supernatural challenge in each of the novellas, the search for his former master is binding element in all of them. Each of the novellas begins with a scene that places the reader firmly in the western setting, sometimes even existing towns, before moving into what for most readers will be the less familiar terrain of Jewish mysticism.
While the setting is familiar, The Rider's peculiarities are not. He abides by Hasidic law and goes through a lot of trouble to make sure he eats kosher foods, something that in a region where Jewish communities are few and far between, can't be easy. There are lots of references to Jewish customs and text is riddled with Jewish concepts, often referred to by Yiddish or Hebrew words. The author has thoughtfully added an appendix explaining some of them and I must admit that although some of the concepts were not unfamiliar to me, I needed to consult it once in a while. Some readers may feel it complicates the text but personally I found it fascinating reading.The index even led me to read up on the influence of Yiddish on the Dutch language for a bit.
The Rider's beliefs are tied to the harsh god many readers will be familiar with from the Old Testament. A wide variety angels and demons show up in the stories and Erdelac chooses to portray them every bit as cruel and ugly as the more traditional sources describe them. Readers of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels, an author who draws partially from the same sources, will scarcely recognize the gentle version of Eisheth in the cruel creature The Rider meets in the final tale of this collection, The Nightjar Women. Where it is popular at the moment to try and fit these myths into a (sexually ) more liberal framework, such freedom is not an option for The Rider.
This last tale in the collection is definitely the one that made the biggest impact on me. It deals with lust obviously, a topic that is something of a minefield in both Christian and it appears, Jewish religious teaching. The Rider has been taught to view it as a sin and he is sorely tempted in this story. Erdelac walks a fine line in this story between lust as a sin and genuine human need for companionship. We know that The Rider's actions are partially lead by a demonic presence but he still challenges some of the more strict rules that govern his dealings with women. Whether or not you agree with The Rider's beliefs, the way he keeps his balance in what is a very difficult situation is a nice bit of writing.
The stories also gradually reveal more about The Rider's background and his motivations. Although the first two stories are well written, the collection does not really get going until the ties between these episodes and the main character's past become apparent. I think development of the Rider's story might benefit from a novel length approach at some point, if only to cut out the inevitable repetitions that crop up in the short stories. That being said, I enjoyed the four stories Erdelac presents in this volume a lot. There are a lots of interesting details in these books to be found for those familiar with the western genre (and, I suspect, fans of the the works of Robert E. Howard). The Rider's unusual perspective on the world around him prevents the stories from slipping into cliché. Erdelac has found a surprising combination, one I must admit I wasn't sure would work when I started this collection, but he pulls if off admirably. The author ends the final story in the collection with some information that makes The Rider's quest even more urgent. I can't wait to find out how this will play out in the second volume, Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name. For fans of a western with a twist, this book is recommended reading.
Title: Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter
Author: Edward M. Erdelac
Publisher: Damnation Books
First published: 2009