Review: Have Glyphs, Will Travel

By J. Keith Haney

Erdelac, Edward. Have Glyphs, Will Travel. Damnation Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-61572-552-6.

As I look back at this final entry of the Merkabah Rider saga, I am reminded of the very first trailer for the upcoming film, The Dark Knight Rises: “Every hero has a journey. Every journey has an end.” It is to Mr. Erdelac’s great credit that, in spite of the fact that he could have stretched the story of this wandering Jewish mystic well into infinity, he decided to give the overall story a definite, if abrupt, ending. Of course, as much as I love the reference in the title (in private correspondence, Mr. Erdelac assured me that he is just as much a fan of Have Gun, Will Travel as I am), it strikes me as being a bit of a misnomer for this collection. It implies that the story will keep going after this and, for reasons I will not spoil, that is something of a coin toss.

When last we left our intrepid hero, the Merkabah Rider, he had just escaped Hell and found a solution to the whole being-tormented-night-and-day-by-the-Lilim problem. Actually, his Ethiopian counterpart, Kabede, had found it for him by ripping the page of the Book of the Life that contained the Rider’s real name right out. This is a problem for reasons other than literally rendering the Rider “a man with no name”. Unless he gets rechristened by a conclave of ten Jews in exactly one year’s time, he’ll die. His shadow is now missing a head to reflect that fact. Oh, and did I mention that the new students of his one-time mentor, Adon, are hot on his and Kabede’s heels, with an undead army of virtual zombies backing them up?

This last problem is the subject of the first chapter of our saga, “The Long Sabbath”. The Rider and Kabede manage to evade this inhospitable host long enough to make it to an army post in the middle of nowhere. Of course, when you’re on a wanted poster as “The Killer Jew of Varruga Tanks” and are dressing according to Hasidic traditions with talismans hanging off you like a Christmas tree, it’s not going to take very long for the army boys to clap you in jail. Good thing an old friend of the Rider is waiting for him. This late arrival to our tale is Dick Belden, a Tennessee boy who marched off to fight for the Union and served with the Rider in the Civil War (where he knew the Rider by the name of “Joe Rider”). Dick is in a similarly bad position, himself, at the moment, being clapped in the same jail for violation of the U.S. Army code of conduct. But he saw some strange things in the War with the Rider and is more than willing to help. Adon’s students would swarm over them all, immediately, but for one small detail: They catch up with their quarry on the day of the Sabbath (which, in Hebraic tradition, lasts from Friday evening until Saturday evening). The simple ritual of Sanba adma’I will help to fortify our heroes, but when the Sabbath is done, the battle truly starts. Then there’s the small matter of persuading the regiment that has them in custody what kind of trouble they’re in before they get slaughtered….

As you can imagine, given what Lucifer told him in our previous volume, the Rider is ready to just throw it all away. Everything he ever believed about God and his justice has just been rendered worthless by the nightmares he has seen. The sight of the reanimated corpse of the accidental Samson, Gershom, only makes those feelings of guilt even worse. Only Kabede and Belden are able to keep him going forward to meet these nightmares head on. Belden himself is a likeable character, a simple Tennessee man (I’m thinking he’s from my part of the world in East Tennessee, which was a heavily pro-Union area within the Confederacy and the birthplace of Union Admiral David Farragut), who is the epitome of the simple, steady friend who stays by your side. In some ways, he resembles the comic book character, Jonah Hex, another fictional veteran of the Civil War caught up in supernatural weirdness in its aftermath. When this is over, Belden agrees to join the hunt for Adon.

“The War Shaman” brings us face-to-face with the maker of the Rider’s horse talisman, a Cheyenne medicine man called “Misquamacus”. Sadly, his reunion with the Rider is far from a happy one. As told to the Rider and his companions by the shifty Faustus Montague (who is acquainted with Kabede and may be more than just a man, himself), the shaman is gathering the various free tribes of Native Americans together to argue for a coordinated strike against the whites…backed by the power of the Great Old Ones. Montague is accompanied by Piishi, the sole survivor of the Rider’s fight against Shub-Niggurath’s avatar, the Black Goat Man, to help make his case. The Rider decides to use Piishi’s body to infiltrate this conclave…only to run into the soul and messenger of Azazoth himself, Nyarlathotep.

This was probably my favourite part of this book for two reasons. One, it has Nyarlathotep, my personal favourite of all the Elder Gods that HPL and Co. created, and whom I have always considered the most dangerous of the bunch. Mr. Erdelac’s depiction of him here, and the follow-up info he provides in the subsequent chapters, shows that he agrees with me. But, more than just retreading old ground with the character, Mr. Erdelac actually places the Crawling Chaos in a surprising-but-logical point of Yiddish cosmology that I am amazed no one has ever thought of before. Two, Mr. Erdelac goes out of his way to portray the various tribes of Indians who gather for this grand conference as actual, separate tribes (readers of “Call of Cthulhu” may recognise certain degenerate tribes in the mix). One of the most common mistakes that have been made by too many Western writers is to lump all Indians into the same homogenous category and assume that they all get along with each other. No such mistakes here – the clear and unavoidable divisions between the tribes are so palpable that the addition of the legendary Apache warrior, Geronimo (whom the Rider pronounces a true mensch), is just icing on a rich cake.

In “The Mules of the Mazzikim”, the Rider parts ways with his companions to go on a personal mission of rescue. Lucifer had clued him in to the fact that the one Lilim who had aided him in Tip Top, Nehema, was being punished by her mother, Lilith, for that crime. Of course, it also is worth pointing out that the Rider’s reasons for this mission are not strictly noble. He longs for her the way a man longs for a woman, in spite of the fact that Nehema is no woman at all and that her true form is a hideous thing that would repulse most men without three shots of tequila in them. With his faith now in tatters and certain death looking him right in the eye, he no longer sees a reason to deny his feelings. A line from a recent Rolling Stones song rings in my head when I think of the misadventure that follows: “But I think I just made/The biggest mistake of my life.”

Nehema is now married to a former boat captain in Yuma, a good man with two children, a teenage boy and a little girl. Good enough for mere mortals, but for a creature who gets her jollies by means of seduce-and-destroy, it’s Hell on Earth. Oh, she’s been trying to seduce her teenage stepson, but her powers are constrained by the marriage vow. She can’t stand it and she wants the Rider to break her out of it. Then Mama Lilith shows up with a few more of her children…and things start to go bad.

It seems to me as though Mr. Erdelac is commenting, not just on romantic illusions (and delusions), but also cultural differences, as well. One of the most arrogant things that any culture can assume is that what is good for it is good for everyone outside of it. From such myopia the wars, genocides and colonialism that mark the human race at its absolute worst can be found. Mr. Erdelac deserves extra credit for pointing out that this may be especially true for non-humans. If we ever do run into an alien race in my lifetime, I fear such a short-sighted response as the Rider’s approach to Nehema may be what occurs.

“The Man Called Other” finds the Rider in prison, stripped of all his Hassidic trappings – even his long hair and beard – for the murder of the family that Nehema had been a part of. The authorities that have him are unaware that they also hold “The Killer Jew of Tarruga Tanks”, but it’s only a matter of time. Now that he has fallen as far as he has, two old friends come by for unexpected visits. The first is the guardian angel we met in the very first book. The Rider loudly complains about his circumstances to said angel, who, in turn, gives him an earful over his overblown expectations on what God is supposed to do for him. The capper of the angel’s argument is a good rule of thumb, regardless of your faith: “You Israelites never change. Must the Lord clear every obstruction for you to earn your faith?”

After giving the Rider some vague warnings and a final bit of advice, the angel departs and Adon steps into the picture at long last. Using the body of the prison commandant as his vessel (The mechanics of his being able to possess bodies are particularly ingenious), Adon lays all his cards on the table about his plans, how he came to be what he is (No surprise that Nyarlothotep had a hand in it), and what the Hour of Incursion is actually all about. He even has a novel, if twisted, take on God and how he fits in with the Great Old Ones. How much of it is true is left for the reader to ultimately decide. Kabede and Dick Belden ride to the rescue, but there may be no escaping Adon in the long run.

Finally, our tale comes to an end in “The Fire King Triumphant”. As I had long suspected, the Rider has found his way to Tombstone. However, contrary to my expectations, the infamous events of the OK Corral and the subsequent vengeance ride of the Earps is a thing of the very recent past. The town is still bitterly divided over the ugliness that is left over. John Behan still serves as Cochise County Sheriff (if, by ‘serve’, you mean, gets himself so liquored up that you wouldn’t give him a salad fork, let alone a gun) and Sadie AKA Josephine Marcus is on her way out of town to spend the next 47 years of her life with Wyatt Earp. Mr. Erdelac apologises at the front of this volume for the glaring historical inaccuracy, acknowledging that Marcus had likely long since left Tombstone by this point. Still, I also agree with him that it makes sense, from a dramatic standpoint, for the Rider to say his goodbyes, so I am willing to forgive the lapse.

It seems almost criminal of me to speak more of the ultimate revelations that the Rider and his companions finally uncover regarding the great master plan of the Great Old Ones. I will say that Mr. Erdelac makes good use of many Lovecraftian references, from Keziah Mason in “Dreams of the Witch House” to a beautifully crafted connection between Cthulhu and a certain dragon of Hasidic tradition to the novel step of having the various tomes of the Mythos serve as separate puzzle pieces that form a great whole in the area of mystic incantations. There’s also a body-possessing imp (the “Fire King” of our title) and certain creatures he keeps in barrels that anyone who has ever read “At the Mountains of Madness” should recognise (I’ll even give you a hint: “Tekeli-li”). The ending at Fly’s Photography (which overlooks the OK Corral) is as unexpected as anything I ever read in literature. Of that, I will only say this: You’ll never see it coming.

The writing this time is more contracted and focused. Mr. Erdelac had spent a great deal of time in his previous collections focusing on all the major and minor characters in the mix by frequently switching POVs. This time, while such switching does still occur when appropriate, most of the focus is on the Rider and his companions as our eyes to the world. Maybe it is due to the fact that the story is coming to an end and Mr. Erdelac wants his writing to be as clear as possible. But it does lend itself to a very different feel than the previous two volumes.

For a reviewer, it is always a pleasure to find the unexpected trinket of treasure somewhere in the pile of dreck that too many novels of any genre tend to indulge in. The Merkabah Rider series has been exactly that, combining the Weird West mystic overtones of Joe R. Lansdale with the commitment to historical accuracy of Max Allan Collins. Having picked up on Mr. Erdelac’s work in “Crawling Chaos Blues” for the first time and loved his unique, historically based take-off on the Mythos, I can honestly say that I am looking forward to the next work that comes from his pen.

You can buy Have Glyphs, Will Travel from Amazon.com or your favourite bookstore.