Today's guest is Edward Erdelac, writer of the two Merkabah Rider books, Tales of a High Planes Drifter and The Mensch with No Name.
What was the inspiration behind the Merkabah Rider?
I can trace the Rider back to three definite sources. The first is Robert E. Howard, particularly his weird western stories ‘Old Garfield’s Heart,'‘The Horror From The Mound,’ and his Solomon Kane stories, a great weird adventure series about a grim Puritan swordsman battling evil wherever he finds it. As a nod to that, the Rod of Aaron which appears in Merkabah Rider is meant to be the same Staff of Solomon given to Kane by N’Longa, the African witch doctor. The second is the original Kung Fu television series, which featured a butt kicking fish out of water character (in this case a half-Chinese Shaolin monk) passing through the American West. The imagery of the series stuck in my head as a kid, and I always wanted to explore that sort of clash of cultures. Finally I would cite The Frisco Kid, a comedy western starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, about a Polish Rabbi traveling across the west to San Francisco. Merkabah Rider isn’t a comedy of course, but I think the various mikvah rules Wilder’s character was forced to abide by in his travels and the look of an Orthodox rabbi in the west (and the various reactions of stock western characters to him, including at one point mistaking him for a Dutch Reformed) come from that. I tried to write weird western stories as a high schooler and could never make an interesting enough protagonist. The ideas sat shelved for many years. I was reading an angelology book and came across the term ‘merkabah rider.’ The character just sort of sprang up in my mind, all in black with the beard and curls, riding a fiery horse. I was able to revisit the old weird western concepts then and plug in this more interesting character. It just clicked after that.
How did you research the mythology? Do you have a background in religious studies?
I grew up Catholic, and I always had an appreciation for ritual and hagiographies and the like, what saint was patron of what and all that. I think I wanted to be a priest when I was in first or second grade. The character of Abraham Van Helsing in all his incarnations always appealed to me too – I think especially seeing Peter Cushing in the Hammer movies employing all these religious artifacts and odd techniques to battle vampires (like lining the vamp’s resting place with consecrated hosts in the shape of a cross in one movie). I developed an appetite for folklore and obscure mythology. No formal training, I just read a lot. For Merkabah Rider I first approached books on basic Judaic practices, then started studying Hasidism and Jewish folklore, which is extremely rich and nearly untapped in fiction so far as I know. Geoffrey Dennis’ The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism is a book I can’t recommend enough. It’s a wonderful starting point. He runs a great blog too. I tapped a good deal of John Milton and Dante Allighieri. Lots of paintings of their works for visual inspiration. Gustave Dore, William Blake, etc, and of course Lovecraft. The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia by Daniel Harms was very helpful in chasing down Mythos info.
What was the catalyst for combining the HPL mythos with Biblical myths and stories?
I knew I wanted to incorporate the Mythos as it’s such a great and pervading concept in genre fiction. Then, in the course of my reading into Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, I started coming across references to the primordial dimension that existed prior to proper Creation, how it was a forbidden area of study. I started feeling echoes of Lovecraftian tropes. Forbidden study?! There are instances in mystic biblical and pagan thought of God as being the force that brings chaos to heel, wills order upon it, defeats a personification of it (usually a dragon) to enact Creation. Marduk vs. Tiamat, Zeus vs. Typhon, etc. Then, in Dennis, I came across the entry for Rahav –
‘A cosmic seas monster first mentioned in the biblical book of Isaiah….Talmud called him Prince of the Sea, echoing the Canaanite name or their sea god, “Prince River.” God slew him when he refused to help in creating the earth.’
Sounded like Cthulhu to me…I don’t know if Dennis has ever read HPL, or likewise, if HPL ever read Talmud, but the connection seemed neat, and that’s where fitting biblical and Mythos cosmologies together began.
The Merkabah Rider is clearly a love letter to all things pulp. Who are some of your favorite pulp authors and characters?
Like I mentioned, Solomon Kane. Howard is my favorite of the pulp writers. When I need to get in a writing mood, I pick up anything by Howard. He had a great imagination, a great knack for infusing the weird into unlikely settings. If Joe R. Lansdale is the father of the weird western, Robert E. Howard is the grandfather. As a writer of visceral action I really believe he's unequaled. Robert J. Hogan’s weird World War One stories featuring G-8 and His Battle Aces are tops. E. Hoffman Price wrote some great "Oriental" fantasy stories, like The Devil Wives of Li Fong. I like a lot of crimefighter pulps. The Avenger by Paul Ernst is my favorite. A very progressive cast of characters for it’s time, including a pair of highly educated African Americans and a petite, female jujutsu expert, with a wonderfully strange hero to lead them. Norvell Page’s The Spider is fantastic. Somebody described it as Robert E. Howard writing The Shadow. That’s a good way of putting it. The Spider is a madman. He sometimes lets criminal’s schemes play out longer just to make their end more spectacular – how great is that? Of course the prolific Walter Gibson’s The Shadow. I recently got into Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars/Barsoom novels featuring John Carter. I admit that I like Lovecraft’s concepts a little more than his actual writing, though I really like The Music of Eric Zann. It was a big influence on my Lovecraftian blues short story The Crawlin’ Chaos Blues. Going back even further, Ambrose Bierce (particularly his Civil War stuff which is harrowingly real and yet at times supernatural) is responsible for some of the best weird stories ever written.
Will there be more Merkabah Rider in the future? A full length novel, perhaps?
The third installment, Have Glyphs Will Travel, should be out by the end of this year. This’ll be another episodic novel, meaning it’s like a novella collection, same as the other two. I try to invoke the old Zebra Conan paperbacks, but they’re really sequential, like novels with extra-long chapters. However, I intend to complete the series sometime next year with a full length traditionally structured novel, yeah. I wanted to end it that way, like how Conan’s career unofficially ends with The Hour of The Dragon. The Rider’s also going to appear in a one-off short story called The Shomer Express in Pill Hill Press’ forthcoming monster hunter anthology, The Trigger Reflex. That should be out this year. I’ve been kicking around the idea of a collection of Civil War-era stories, featuring the Rider’s weird war adventures, and some of his travels in the west immediately after his discharge. That’d be down the road though, after the proper series ends.
If there was going to be a Merkabah Rider movie, who would you want playing The Rider?
Adrien Brody’s who I picture when I write him, mostly unrecognizable beneath the beard and payot. I was impressed with him in Hollywoodland.
Was there a book that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
It’s gonna sound weird, but the first book that made me want to write was Simon Hawke’s novelization of Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives… I had never seen the movie (I don’t think I have seen it all the way through yet), but I bought it off the rack when I was in seventh grade and read the thing cover to cover in the same day. It was the first non-comic book, the first non-illustrated book I ever read and I was amazed at how intense and graphic it was. I don’t know if it was a good book (I lost my copy), but it fired up my imagination I guess. To bring me out of the gutter a bit, the second book was Jack London’s Call of The Wild, which Sister Marie read to our class the same year.
Who are some of your non-pulp influences?
J.R.R. Tolkien, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy. He taps into a darkness that’s hypnotic. I’ll read anything by him. Richard Matheson is great. He’s done the Twilight Zone, I Am Legend and The Incredible Shrinking Man, but he’s also written these great westerns like By The Gun and The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickock. Larry McMurtry, Stephen King of course, especially his short stories and novellas. Mickey Spillane, Mishima Yukio. Moby Dick has always been a favorite of mine. Peter Pan and Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In comics Alan Moore (especially From Hell) Kazuo Koike and Frank Miller. I like John Ford films, Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, George Romero, Sergio Corbucci, Michael Mann, Peter Weir, Anthony Mann…the screenwriters Paul Schaefer and David Mamet. Frank Frazetta’s art. Norman Rockwell. John Martin. Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash.
What's your favorite book?
Blood Meridian or, An Evening’s Redness In The West by Cormac McCarthy.
Who's your favorite author?
I can’t seem to stop mentioning Robert E. Howard! Probably McCarthy would be my favorite living author.
What's the best book you've read in the last six months?
The Fortunes of War by Patrick O’Brien. One of the Aubrey-Maturin sea adventures. He was a great, clever writer. The characters are realistic and occasionally very funny. Good action, and though you wouldn’t expect it, all the maritime stuff never feels repetitious or too daunting.
What's your favorite western?
Winchester ’73 starring Jimmy Stewart, Millard Mithell, and Shelly Winters. directed by Anthony Mann. Jimmy Stewart is hunting Stephen McNally, who stole his prize Winchester rifle. The rifle changes various hands, and we follow it as if it were a character. Jimmy Stewart is great in it. Dan Duryea has a nice turn too as badman Waco Johnny Dean.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Don’t get discouraged. It’s very hard getting started and even then it’s still a big uphill battle the whole way. Don’t take criticism too hard, but be open to it when it’s constructive. Don’t try to write something you hope somebody will like. Be your own audience. Write the kind of thing you’d like to read. Write what you know you love.
What's next for Edward M. Erdelac?
I’ve got a straight, no-ghoulies historical western novel coming out in print and probably Kindle from Texas Review Press this year called Buff Tea. It’s a coming of age story about a kid from Chicago who joins a buffalo hunting outfit in 1874. I think it’s due out in September. I'll announce it on my blog (emerdelac.wordpress.com). Before that, my son August Victoriano Erdelac is set to make his debut in July.