Hex-Rated by Jason Ridler is a pulp, urban fantasy novel that’s the first in a duology called the Brimstone Files. It takes place in the 70s and follows a newly licensed PI of the strange and supernatural named James Brimstone, who was a former child magician and a vet of the Korean war. After attending his dead mentor’s funeral, Sir Brimstone signs his first client with an unbelievable story of sex, demons, and violence all taking place on the set of a pornographic film in the San Fernando Valley. Coppers think it’s a bad drug trip, but ol’ Brimstone knows better than those blokes. As he takes on the investigation, what he wasn’t expecting was for everything to get even more chaotic as he encounters the Hell’s Angels, a lost book of Japanese erotica, and some new villains with crazy ass powers fit for spraying the city with blood.
There were a lot of things about Hex-Rated that I thoroughly enjoyed and felt were rather well done, such as depiction of the cultural and political stewing pot of 1970s Los Angeles, a jaunty private eye who’s completely wearied by the life he’s had, an abundance of dry and eccentric humour, as well as some very strange plot elements that kept it from feeling mostly predictable and formulaic. However with the good, there are some things that I wished were better executed as a whole.
There are a lot of descriptions of the political and cultural climate that overwhelmed the ‘70s, especially as it pertains to post-war dissension. The racial tensions are very high as are the tensions separating neighbourhoods, social classes, civilians from the police, and much more. There was in increase in the belief of supernatural practises or at the very least the desire to turn a profit from those that believed. The depiction of this via extended, detailed monologues is actually very great in Hex-Rated. It makes the time period come to life in a way that allows all of this strife to become palpable in an intimate manner, sort of akin to a first-person exposé. It’s pleasant in an intellectually contemplative way, especially if one’s a history buff at all [and more so for people fascinated with post-war influences and (de)evolution of society].
All of these descriptives also help to create a wonderfully lurid, urban fantasy ambiance that is perfect for the sort of story that’s taking place within the book’s pages, which is an homage to the pulpy, gawdy and goofy detective stories of the day. There’s a lot of wit and creative quips along with plenty of dry (and occasional kind of on-the-nose) humour that is dark, crude, and just as inappropriate as one would expect from a character like James Brimstone.
Brimstone himself reminded me a lot of Harry Dresden, but without his misogynistic bullshite. There is some sexism, however, it’s a representation of the time period rather than a construction of just a godawfully written, anti-feminist old asstart like Dresden. Brimstone is very much aware of the prejudices and inequalities of his city and doesn’t make excuses for it or try to cover it up. In that sense, it was awesome to read about him calling out all of these harmful things, and also fit his “exhausted with life” demeanour. Yet, this can also create a big contrast as Brimstone is an egotistical ass who has difficulty accepting his own faults and keeping his genitals to himself.
Even with all of these fantastic things, I can safely say that Hex-Rated is not going to be for everyone, even if you’re the sort of reader that adores pulp urban fantasy that are tossbacks to yesteryear. The biggest reason for this is because of the lengthy, at-times painfully prattley nature of Brimstone’s harangues and walls and walls of descriptives. He digresses a whole fucking lot. He’ll begin by talking about cult practises, for example, and then switch topics along the way and keep switching it until five pages have passed by before he returns his focus back to the task (or plot) at hand. This uneven, meandering, muttering shtick can cause the reader to become disconnected from the story and characters quite fast, and it can also make the plot twists seem excruciatingly polluted with plot points (and I use this term very loosely).
Additionally, there some archetypical traits in Hex-Rated that is turning into common ground of the urban fantasy genre, such as a poor struggling private detective who seems to be constantly surrounded by gorgeous women that just happen to need his help and only his help specifically. Most of the obstacles that arise in Brimstone’s path are solved by either fisticuffs or some kind of sexual interaction (of which there are lots; I’m surprised his penis didn’t break from all the sex Brimstone was having within a very short amount of time). There’s a bunch more that I could probably gripe about here, but the gist is there.
Hex-Rated had the potential to be a great addition to the urban fantasy genre, particularly as an homage to pulp detective stories of the 70s. Instead, it takes that potential and shoves it into a woodchipper with its overambitious narrative reach, overtly saturated twists, turns, and terrors, and enough sex to fill a six month supply of pornographic magazines (which there’s nothing wrong with it, as we are talking about pulp here, but only if it isn’t solely used as paper filler fluff and a cheat out of complex cornered conflicts). I felt rather INDIFFERENT about this novel all-around and as such I have a difficult time recommending it. However, there’s definitely a small market of people who would get a thrill out of this, but just know that it’s far from perfect and much closer to frustrating than anything else.
Publication Date: August 2017
Publisher: Night Shade
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Satirical Fantasy
Series: Brimstone Files Book 1
Page Count: 304
Content Warnings: Graphic violence. Disturbing ritualistic practises including sacrifices. Strong language. Graphic sexual content and innuendo. Mention of sexual violence including child molestation. Mention of violence against animals. Animal deaths. Graphic descriptions of snake bites, body mutilation, and facial deformities/scarring. Anti-Japanese, antisemitic commentary (post-war WWII related). Human experimentation. Drug and alcohol consumption. Detailed descriptions of food and food consumption. Strong fatphobia. Harmful commentary against unattractive people. Deaths.
GoodReads: Hex-Rated by Jason Ridler
Availability: In-print; paperback and eBook formats available.