[Today, we sit down for an interview with historian and author, Jason Ridler. Here, he discusses his occult detective series, The Brimstone Files; the mythological, crime noir, and horror aspects of his work; and his upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: What roles do mythology, occultism, and folklore play in your stories? Do you find yourself drawn to any one particular mythos, or does it vary by the story?
Jason Ridler: With The Brimstone Files, I wanted a world where all of world mythology existed, but had been largely banished or muted. I wanted James Brimstone’s adventures to be able to go anywhere. Thus, in Hex-Rated, Japanese myths, Filipino folklore, and Western folktales all play a role in shaping the story because they are the ones I have studied the most. For Black Lotus Kiss, I was obsessed with Mesopotamian mythology, among the earliest written, and especially the dragon/ocean god Tiamat — but I must admit that unlike, say, Neil Gaiman, who studied the great literature of mythology as a child, I came to most myths through Dungeons and Dragons books like the Monster Manual, Deities and Demigods, and my favorite — The Fiend Folio. They were the spark for my love of myths.
ev0ke: Most of your stories deal with the darker, grittier aspects of life, whether in the form of noir crime thrillers or pulp horror. What draws you to these mash-up genres? What do you find so compelling about these sorts of stories?
JR: Largely class bias. I noted that in fantasy and sf, especially highly successful ones, much of the fun involves hanging with Very Powerful People. As an historian, I don’t view VPPs as heroic and, in fact, I find most of the rich and powerful vile, ignorant, and destructive. Crime, horror, and even mystery to some extent do not share these defaults (I know there are many exceptions, but that’s what they are). I want to be with regular people in extraordinary affairs. Especially if their enemy is the 1%. I don’t write fiction that champions the status quo, even if I do come from a place of great privilage. Thus, I am always on the side of the underdog. Someone said that I’d find it impossible to write about “an elf prince of great power who was good.” I said I would if they could find me their human analog. I’m still waiting!
ev0ke: In addition to earning a doctorate in War Studies, you have also worked as a punk rock musician and a cemetery groundskeeper. How do your academic studies and work history influence your writing? Do you find that bits of things that you picked up in school, at concerts, and in the graveyard appear in your stories?
JR: Of course! I came from a middle class background, but did not get a middle class life until I was in my 40s, so employment experience and my life as a professional historian give me a range of things to draw on that, say, graduating from an MFA right after undergrad might not. I’ve set stories in graveyards in daylight, and I can tap into very detailed histories of the west and it’s often ugly history. But it also allows me to write in different voices. I have about three modes I’m known for — academic and objective; punk rock attitude; and smart ass humor. The Brimstone books allowed me to tap into many of them via different characters (though the novels are before punk rock as we know existed, but there are characters that riff on the iconic stance of people like Iggy Pop or the MC5, who were the godfathers of that stuff). And Brimstone himself is a well-read smart ass with a groovy attitude.
ev0ke: The Brimstone Files is set in Los Angeles in 1970. First, why that time and place? What about it made that time and place a good setting for a supernatural noir tale?
JR: Because that’s what the editor wanted! Plus, 1970 is a very fraught time. The Watts Riots. Vietnam nowhere near over, let alone in the US and South Vietnam’s favor. The death of the Love Generation. The corpses of rock and roll icons piling high by the end of the year. Drug culture is getting vicious, and idealism is headed toward nihilism and consumer culture. I like periods of history where the moment of the past crashes against the future. It is a fantastic place to write about dreams and realities, be it with magic or the mundane.
ev0ke: James Brimstone is unusual among occult detectives in that he can actually taste magic. Without spoiling too much, how does that ability play into the story? Do different kinds of magic taste different?
JR: It’s his Spidey Sense. Also, of all the senses, taste is not nearly used enough in making a scene come alive. I wanted him to have some kind of detection ability to help . . . his detective ability! The idea that magic has a flavor . . . screamed 1970s — dropping acid and all of a sudden the air tastes like vapor and hamburgers are eating you! Now that is fun to write.
ev0ke: Brimstone drives around LA in a Dodge Dart he affectionately named Lilith. Why Lilith?
JR: In Jewish mythology, Lilith is the first woman and can be viewed as a demon. She’s not a good girl. She’s a shit disturber. Brimstone has an ex-girlfriend (many, actually!), and while I didn’t get to delve too much into the backstory, there is a very good and cosmic top secret reason for the car being named that and it is not because she’s a male symbol of possession. But that will have to wait for Book three.
ev0ke: Your collection Knockouts includes ten stories which combine boxing with noir, fantasy, or horror. That is not a mix that I would have considered. How did you come up with that idea, and which story was the most difficult — but satisfying — to write?
JR: As Jeanne Cavelos taught me, innovation comes from combining things you love in ways that people will not expect. I have been a die-hard pro wrestling fan forever. It is rife with real drama as well as what you see on stage. Thus it is rife for stories of crime, abuse, horror, hope, economic abuse, racial injustice, and more. So I explore those themes through the lens of wrestling, boxing, punk rock, and more.
The most difficult I wrote was “Blood that Burns so Bright,” about a Japanese cage fighter in a world of vampire athletes where humans are cannon fodder. The lead is a Japanese woman, her trainer an African American who served in Vietnam. I had to do a lot of research not to abuse these cultures that I am familiar with, but that are not my own. It was bought for an anthology called Evolve about future vampire stories, and became the seed of my novel, A Triumph for Sakura.
ev0ke: What sort of research goes into your writing? Big piles of books? Trips to the library? Long hours online?
JR: Depends on the project. I just wrote a novel involving conspiracy theories that required a lot of research to understand how they function. I am forever indebted to Kevin Young’s book Bunk, about hoaxes and controversies in US history and their often racist roots. But my last one is an autobiographical affair so the research was my fairly good memory for about 50% of it, which I wrote in two weeks. The rest required detailed research on a range of topics, from the history of feminism and its stances on pornography, the Silicon Valley sex-cults, the new age movement, and the history of Buffalo, New York, in the 1990s! Research is often fun because, since you are ignorant of these topics, you get to be surprised. And so, too, will be many of your readers (unless they are from Buffalo).
ev0ke: Where can curious readers find your work?
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
JR: History-wise, a detective story about ideas of American violence from the military that bled into Law Enforcement (with awful results). Fiction, the most recent is a short novel about suicide and stand up comedy (together at last for the book you’ve been waiting for). My agent is shopping other stuff, but more on that soon!
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]