PG: The concept of the Merkabah Rider is unusual for a Western. Can you outline his background for new readers?
EE: The Rider (so-called because he hides his true name to prevent coming under the influence of malevolent spiritual forces) is the Hasidic son of an Ashkenazi grocer in San Francisco, who so excelled in his religious yeshiva studies, he was recruited by an ancient mystic Jewish order, The Sons of The Essenes. The Essenes’ doctrine is the exploration of the realms of heaven and hell by way of astral travel, a process so fraught with inherent danger that they are taught a dearth of protective rituals and formulas before they ever leave their bodies. The goal of a ‘merkabah rider’ is to rise through the various heavens and ultimately descend upon the Throne of God, thus achieving a greater understanding of the Creator, and a kind of enlightenment. But the Rider’s teacher, Adon, corrupted the Rider in the eyes of the other Essenes by introducing non-Judaic teachings to him, resulting in the Rider being turned away from the Throne by the angel Metatron. Ashamed of his failure and sensing the machinations of infernal forces in the impending American Civil War, the Rider quits his enclave and goes off to join the Union cause.
He returns home after the war to find every teacher and student of his enclave has been murdered in his absence, and the other members of his worldwide Order blame him and his teacher, Adon for the crime. After years of seeking Adon abroad in the hopes of clearing his own name and avenging his enclave, the Rider returns to America.
The series then follows the adventures of The Rider, now a mystic gunslinger, as he pursues Adon, across the demon haunted American Southwest of the 1880’s, coming into contact with angels, demons, outlaws, and entities out of the Lovecraftian Mythos. In addition to supernatural dangers, the Rider also encounters real-life figures from history like Doc Holiday, Geronimo, and Al Seiber. Despite the absurdity of the description, it’s not a tongue-in-cheek story, but more a modern pulp style dark fantasy/adventure series in the same vein as the weird westerns of Robert E. Howard and Joe R. Lansdale. In fact, the first three books are presented as collections of novella-length ‘episodes’in the character’s career, sort of the like the old Zebra and Lancer paperbacks of Howard’s pulp stories. Think of a Jewish Solomon Kane in a Kung Fu setting, with all the social and ethical concerns of the latter intact.
PG: Can you provide a brief synopsis of your new volume?
EE: Have Glyphs Will Travel is told in episodic manner like the others, so the first novella, The Long Sabbath, picks off where the cliffhanger in The Mensch With No Name left off, with the Rider and his companion Kabede being pursued across the desert by a horde of walking corpses led by three formers members of his order who have defected to Adon’s cause. After dealing with that, in The War Shaman, the Rider is called on to convince the Chiricahua Apache to refuse the dark offer of Misquamacus, the supreme Native American shaman, who has allied himself with dark chaotic powers in a bid to destroy the encroaching white civilization. In the third novella, The Mules Of The Mazzikim, the Rider sets out to rescue Nehema, the succubi who undermined the demon queen Lilith to help him in the first book. He comes face to face with the object of his long quest for revenge in The Man Called Other, and in the final novella, The Fire King Triumphant, travels to Tombstone to decipher the contents of the Sheardown letters and hopefully uncover the minutiae of Adon’s scheme to bring the Great Old Ones into our world.
This is the longest of the three volumes and contains I think, the most momentous turning points thus far. The Rider reluctantly gains a stable of steady companions too, something he hasn’t really had up to this point.
PG: Have you always been attracted to Jewish mysticism?
EE: No, not at all. I did grow up Catholic and I guess I had an affinity for ritualism and mysticism, and I was always interested in obscure folk beliefs. My Polish great grandmother used to slap my left hand when I reached for a toy with my left hand as a toddler – I grew up that close to folklore in practice. But the Judaic aspect came along with the concept for the series. I had always wanted to write a weird western stories, but never could come up with a compelling enough central character. Then one day I was flipping through a book on angelology and happened to come across the term ‘merkabah rider.’ The image of a Hasidic man with a gunfighter rig mounted on a rearing, flaming horse like the ones that carried Ezekiel to heaven kind of sprung up in my mind, and I dove into the research, which I found an extremely rewarding endeavor. Jewish myths and traditions are as rich as they are vast, and almost untapped in speculative fiction.
PG: Your first volume could easily have been translated into the graphic novel format. Are we ever going to see a visual interpretation of the Rider or do you prefer to keep him within the realms of the imagination?
EE: I did start the concept as a comic book, but never could find an artist to collaborate with. If the opportunity ever presents itself I wouldn’t be against it, though the concepts and the internal conflicts in the later volumes might be a challenge to interpret.
PG: The Weird Western genre often delves into mysticism. Do you see the Rider as being an occultist or a seeker of spiritual truth attacked by dark forces?
EE: The Rider has always been a seeker of spiritual enlightenment, a devotee of the Torah. That’s why the assault on his faith from all these dark corners he never knew existed is so devastating to him. His learning has been insular, strictly Jewish for the most part. He was a student who had his mind opened to different ideas by his teacher, and when those ideas proved controversial, and when he failed an important spiritual test, he basically ran away and joined the Army. That decision is what makes him into this kind of reluctant champion later on. So he gathers this encyclopedic occult knowledge by way of his travels and necessity, and he becomes somewhat addicted to it, to the learning of new concepts. But he’s no Van Helsing or Duke deRichleau or anything, he just picks things up in the course of his adventures. He still cleaves to his Jewish faith, desperately at times.
PG: Has any person or persons influenced you in your writing?
EE: Robert E. Howard is the main inspiration behind Merkabah Rider, especially his weird western stories, Old Garfield’s Heart, The Thunder Rider, The Horror From The Mound, etc. I got into Howard at the perfect time, right around the end of middle school. In my mind nobody can match his descriptions of visceral action. I think had he lived and naturally evolved as a writer, he would’ve been in the same class as Cormac McCarthy today. Ambrose Bierce for mood. Joe Lansdale to some extent, reading him taught me a respect for the way people talk, and for region. Forrest Carter as well. Definitely Richard Matheson for his straight faced treatment of the fantastic, Stephen King just for sheer imagination, and Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove made me sit down and write the first full length novel I ever wrote, which is the one my Dad likes best, because as he puts it, there’s no ‘freaky’ stuff in it.
PG: Do you have plans for more volumes in the series?
EE: The series will be concluded with the next book, a full length traditionally structured novel. I wanted to bring the story to a close the same way Howard ended Conan’s run (unintentionally or not) with The Hour Of The Dragon. A lot of the time these stories take on a life of their own, and I’ve been kicking around the idea of a prequel collection of the Rider’s early adventures, sort of like a Comanche Moon for Merkabah Rider. The Rider in the Civil War, the Rider in the post-war west, the Rider in other parts of the world before his return. I’d have to see if anybody was interested in it before I’d tackle it, ‘cause I usually don’t see the point in prequels. I mean, you already know how everything ends up.
PG: You always write Westerns based on extensive historical research. What attracts you to the Western genre?
EE: I’ve always loved history, but in regards to Westerns, I think I perceive an honesty and a more clear cut freedom in Westerns that I don’t see in the modern world. Our lives are full of blathering politics and blathering sitcoms and relentless creditors and a thousand different petty concerns that induce a man to sink into his recliner under the weight of it all rather than fight, rather than to pursue a meaningful life of experience even. While I know frontier America had all these things, maybe I’ve romantically convinced myself they had a lesser influence back then, or you could pack up and just ride away from them. Anyway they don’t often come into play against the fictional characters that ride through Westerns. I think people in that time and place were necessarily more active (and proactive), and the characters in Westerns put up a physical resistance against whatever impedes them. Nowadays I think The Man With No Name wouldn’t even know who to shoot at.
I’m also really fascinated by the number of different cultures that came into close contact during that period, and the interesting ways they changed each other for better or for worse. There’s a wonderfully rich, relatively unknown history that Americans (and really all people everywhere) share, and I like blowing the dust off that. Every story has to be a learning experience to really get me interested in writing it, whether it be Western or age of sail or modern day gang culture, whatever. But I guess since I’ve read so much Western history already I tend to gravitate toward setting stories there because I really think at this point I know more about the Old West than I do about the present day. I remember Patrick O’Brian wrote something to this effect –
“Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene.”
That’s pretty much me. I didn’t know my cellphone could get on the internet till a friend showed me. But….I actually like rap. The older stuff, anyway.
Interview © Paul Green 2011.