Five Questions With Jason Ridler, Author of Hex-Rated
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Jason Ridler's wild and fast-paced occult noir, Hex-Rated. Then we did an interview. I think his answers offer a really good glimpse of what the book is all about. It's a wild, smart ride through 1970 Los Angeles with magic, sex, and a noir sensibility that will appeal to a lot of readers.
The thing that impressed me the most about Hex-Rated was the way you seemed to evoke 1970 Los Angeles. Is it weird to say I felt like I was there? Because I totally did. Was this something you really had to craft intentionally, or was it just organic to the story (either way, I’m totally impressed)?
Oh, I had to do my homework. I only lived in LA for a brief period (Long Beach) so have ZERO claim to being an expert. But I also knew I couldn't treat the books as historical fiction like Patrick O'Brien and have very ounce of the historical verity on every page. So I recreated the LA of 1970 with real history (Watts Riots, Hollywood, racial tension and daydreams of celebrities), as much real geography as I could muster, and infused it with the LA of pop culture, from rock and roll to pornography to literature. So it's the LA of John Fante's fiction and Ed Wood's movies and the LA of the Zoot Suit Riots and The Strip. I read once that Kazuo Ishiguro basically soaked in as much as he could learn about British butlers and class in the 1930s England and then in a storm of fury and talent and executed Remains of the Day. I did that with 1970s adult film (The Other Hollywood was essential reading to know what kinds of cars porn people loved), LA film history, carnival history, Fante's Ask the Dust, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, the birth of heavy metal and proto punk. I devoured this stuff and tried to infuse it into a story about the death of the sixties, the birth of the seventies, and all through the story of a carney PI who abandoned the world of real magic to help the casualties of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll when creepy dark magic begins to return.
The book hit a sweet spot for me in that it was all told through a certain noir sensibility while still feeling fresh and wild because of the fantasy elements. Talk about how you balanced the two.
It was fun as hell. There's a stoicism and coldness to much noir that I love, or a nihilism about value and purpose that is explored as the protag faces bizarre and tense circumstances. But it can get a little atonal. My master is Jim Thompson, who had a wild imagination and sense of humor and gothic sensibilities as well as the dark needle he was jabbing into the human condition. The Alcoholics is a hilarious and terrifying book. I did not want Brimstone to be another Grim Whisky Drinking Detective with a Rough Past. I have nothing to say in that world, at least not yet. So, Brimstone has a very large sense of humor about the human condition. His catch phrase? "Smile, it could always be worse!"
The humor helps cut the darkness, as does the fantastical elements (thanks for noticing). I wanted the fantasy stuff to be more akin to comic book fantasy than is more typical of the the genre I'm playing with: big, wild, powerful, emotional and gripping. I wanted it in technicolor and what the gang at Marvel Comics call Kirby Perspective: the fantasy, when it shows up, punches you in the face like a NUKE!. And yet at the same time, I keep the biggest fantasy stuff off stage. Brimstone knows there are deep worlds of magic. His mentor, Edgar, was deeply invested in it. But his goal is to help the underclass struggling with its tendrils. He is the anti-Elric in that regard. It helps that I find stories about powerful people fucking boring and a form of class-worship of some kind! Give me the dimestore hood who IS NOT the chosen one and I will follow him into the mouth of hell.
You may hate this question, but how would you pitch Hex-Rated to a reader who says they like fantasy but not mystery?
First, all fiction is mystery. Sorry. You want to know what happens next, right? That's a mystery! It's the Uber Genre. And unlike most mysteries the fun is in the encounters as Brimstone finds himself in worlds of dark magic, with berserkers and demons, and undead hitmen whose consciousness live in brain jars but who remotely operated corpses to wreck vengeance! So, that's more monsters per page than a lot of stories about elves and busted swords! Plus, as I said, my magic is more fun than most systems-based fantasy magic and more akin to Lovecraftiean and weird fiction uses of the sublime as well as other cultural folklore and supernatural elements (FUN FACT: I have an admiration for Filipino folklore)
What’s the best review you’ve received so far? What about the worst?
Jason Heller at NPR gave me a stunning review, and he saw what few others have caught. Yes, it is a pulp fantasy novel written for fun and enjoyment. I'm a commercial writer and I want you to love the story. But believe it or not there is also a deeper meaning beneath the magic, sex, and monsters. The masters who emerged from pulp fiction, folks like Patricia Highsmith, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, Philip K. Dick and Jim Thompson, could captivate you with dark and weird tales of astonishing stuff . . . but there was ALWAYS a deeper theme. I work with a similar guerrilla warfare attitude and if you scratch a little deeper you'll find me discussion reality and illusions and the nature of identity. In a place like Hollyweird, should we be surprised if monsters appear on porn sets? If these monsters are gods, as Donald Westlake and Harlan Ellison argue in stories like "Nackles" and The Deathbird Stories, is it our worshipping of them that makes them real? Heller caught what I was playing with and loved it, and for that I'm so grateful.
The worst? It's a three-way dance between a minutia troll who didn't like that Brimstone (who is always poor) had plastic bags (too expensive in that era!), a fellow who hated that Brimstone was progressive for his era (as if being anti-racist was the REAL fantasy element for 1970s LA), and a lady who couldn't stand my love of rude language!
Your bio says you’re not only a writer, but also a historian and actor. How have those two roles informed your writing?
Well, I'm an improv actor (very different breed than scripted). So I enjoy creating things on the fly. I plotted out HEX-RATED but allowed myself to invent as I went, too, otherwise it would be a mechanical book with few surprises. I love tangents and divergence and my skills as an improv actor have sharpened my ability to follow strange stories to neat conclusions.
And yes, by day I'm a historian who works for Johns Hopkins University. I've got pretty solid research chops, so I can do detailed academic and popular research on stuff going on in LA in the era, which has been helpful. For years, i wouldn't TOUCH historical fiction because, if I may be frank, writing history is harder than fiction. It has a demand in terms of research, support, and execution that by necessity make it slower and less inventive because you are re-creating the past. Without that rigor, you're distorting the past. And that's evil.
So fiction was always where I let my imagination run wild. But these days I'm taking skills from one to the other. I'm using narrative techniques from fiction to help write history (always with ample evidence!). And in my fiction I'm using my research skills to infuse stories with some historical essence while still allowing me the freedom to wander where my imagination goes. I read a lot on the Hells Angels to make sure they came off right in the book, and Hunter Thompson's book was instrumental (example: they were usually filthy and covered in cuts and wounds more than ink and badges). Research helps you find visceral details that help make moments come alive. I try to follow that logic when creating scenes, be it clothes, songs, booze. I won't get it perfect (as Dr. Minutia let me know about plastic bag!), but remember: I'm not recreating LA. I'm creating one that's full of demons and sex cults with magic that works! In this fake universe, the poor have access to Big Macs and Paper Bags!
Find Jason online at https://ridlerville.wordpress.com