“A vampire, a Wandering Jew, and a Rabbi walk into a story …”

It’s no joke, it’s the premise of the linked short story collection, HebrewPunk, by Lavie Tidhar. I am late to the Tidhar party, writer of weird fiction in such places as SciFiction.com, Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, PostScripts and Aeon. With this second collection, he combs through Hebrew mythology to come up with a sort of League of Extra-ordinary Mythic Figures. These action-driven horror tales mine new, scratch that … mine ancient legends and mythic traditions unfamiliar to the majority of us.

Mixing pulp tropes and rich historical settings, not all the stories work equally well but did get progressively better. “The Heist”, a forgettable caper tale, was the weakest of the lot for me. “Transylvania Mission”, set in World War II Transylvania, pitted a vampire against S.S. werewolves. “Uganda” mixes alt-history with the unknown story of a proposal to settle Jews in East Africa in 1905 (and was a favorite). “The Dope Fiend”, set in the drug underworld of 1920s London, was a tour-de-force.

“The Old World was dying; its dark forces powerless in the face of what later philosophers would call the banality of evil. Humanity could provide more evil, more pain and suffering and humiliation, than any legend up in the Carpathians.” (51)

So often, the rules—both within genre literature and without—are defined by the dominant culture. After awhile, the tropes become stale thus it is great when they are interpreted through a different cultural lens. Crosses and holy water should have no affect on a Jewish vampire. Not all mages are going to speak Latin. Elves and dwarves are fine denizens, but not everyone lives in Middle Urth and other cultures have other tales to tell.

Like all great fantasy, HebrewPunk brings along and explores both a sense of history and identity. Its menagerie of characters—from the shape-shifting Rat to the Golem to the Tzaddik—live outside the realm of conventional norms and lead lives of rarely told stories. Yet, their stories are ultimately universal in what they convey and wrestle with.

“Devil, the dead kings were shouting, and Hell. It was as if they had finally encountered a kind of evil they couldn’t understand, a precise and tidy kind, one that didn’t gloat over its mutilated victims but rather sat down to note the fact in volume after volume of leather-bound ledgers.” (48)

Evil is universal and transcends both race and culture. Evil is failing to live up to what we were created to be, eikons/image bearers of God. To not live up to that or, more on point, to turn your back to that is evil. In short, evil is that which dehumanizes us and in so doing, allows us to dehumanize others. Evil has a variety of faces, both human and not. Everyone has to grapple with the Dracul, the Devil, in their respective worlds, be it a Mengele, spiritual heir to Tepes/the Impaler/Dracula, or other creatures that go bump in the night.

Steeped in Jewish culture and tradition and combined with pulp adventure, HebrewPunk makes for a thrilling ride. Its heroes, like the Rabbi “a man of arcane knowledge and appetites who evokes unsavoury stories from those who know him” like a Jewish John Constantine, are every bit as memorable as the Doc Savages of the pulp era. It certainly stands to breathe new life into the more tired conventions of the fantasy-horror genre and will hopefully inspire others to explore their own cultural history, culture, and stories and share them with us.

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