By Matt Neil Hill.
Chris Kelso’s latest book is a collection of reviews and interviews interspersed with poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction, all of them focused on the themes of transgressive art and the role it plays in exploring the human condition. As always, his love and respect for transgressive writing shine from the page. But Interrogating the Abyss is more than that—it’s a sleeve-worn heart, a confessional, a crie de coeur to likeminded souls trying to make sense of their lives through art. The concept of “safe fraternity”—paradoxically seeking personal connection with others who share a seemingly misanthropic worldview—runs throughout the book. Across an introduction and 22 pieces of varying length, six of which are new to this collection, Kelso interrogates the abyss both through self-reflection and dialogue with other creators in the genre. Overall, this is a darkly enjoyable exploration of transgressive art.
An early glimpse of Kelso’s fascination with the abyssal is explored in his thoughts on Buddy Giovinazzo’s bleak, low-budget horror movie Combat Shock. Part memoir, part review, part interview, the chapter reveals the seed planted in Kelso’s boyhood that would grow into the quest represented by this book—his twin desire for both understanding others and being understood by them. As Kelso reminisces:
My dad woke up, came into the living room and yelled at me just as Mike the starving junky started to open up a septic abscess in his arm with the end of a coat hanger so he could tap a vein. That was a heavy image. For both of us. I’m convinced that this must’ve been a watershed moment in our relationship together, that my dad’s opinion of me was shaped and fortified hereafter. You see, my dad has always considered me weird and wilfully morbid. He’s a great guy and a great father, but he doesn’t understand that part of me at all.
The chapter continues with a fascinating in-depth interview with Giovinazzo, one of the longest in the book. It’s clear that both his cinematic and literary work has had a big influence on Kelso’s career, and there’s an easy back-and-forth between the two. Their discussion ranges from the difficulties Giovinazzo and his guerrilla-style film crew had with special effects to the ostracization he faced in Hollywood for releasing such uncompromisingly nihilistic material. Being unfamiliar with the man’s work wasn’t a barrier to enjoying the hell out of this exchange by the way, in case, like me, Combat Shock wasn’t on your radar till now—it’s hard not to respond positively to the enthusiasm and confidence on show from two men who have immersed themselves in the sub-culture.
The essay that provides the beating heart of the book comes around a third of the way in, titled Desperately Seeking Aristotle’s Friendship of Virtue. It is a raw, personal piece of writing that investigates the apparent disparity between what one writes and what one might want from a connection with others. As Kelso points out, writing transgressive material is often a way to process one’s darker thoughts and preoccupations, an attempt to relieve some of the sadness they bring—which isn’t mutually exclusive of wanting acceptance or love. As he puts it:
But I want(ed) friendship. I always wanted a good job and the status that brought. I wanted a place in society. Self-fucking-actualisation. And Maslow was right when he outlined his tenets in the hierarchy of needs (although having critical ‘needs’ will make you inherently ‘needy’, and this is also unattractive). I want to believe in goodness and an afterlife. I want to believe in romance and meaningful connection. Alas, this is the loneliest I have ever felt… I need to make peace with another harsh truth: my own undesirable status as a fundamentally needy soul navigating the morgue of human indifference. Losing the optimist soul. Accepting the void.
I think Kelso might be pleasantly surprised by how many people feel a similar way. In the past, I’ve described the unflinching gaze of his fiction as brave, most notably in the eternal child-sacrifices, serial murder and cosmic horror of The Dregs Trilogy—and it’s a pleasant (non)surprise to find he’s equally brave about showing us what haunts him when the filter of the invented is removed.
The creative non-fiction-tinged collage of interviews in Voidness (10 Sessions: A Psychic-Intervention with Cosmic Guides) is similarly enlightening on how those who create at the darker end of the artistic spectrum feel about their place in the world. Writers such as Evan Isoline, Jeff Jackson, Matthew Stokoe, Audrey Szasz and Thomas Moore respond to the questions asked by Kelso’s astrally projected and queasily unwell mind, a slurry of thoughts and emotions that introduces itself:
A black watery sludge of consciousness sloshes around my head in loose bilge, ebbing and flowing with each panic-surge of electrical energy. The effects soon become psychosomatic: it’s an internal sensation that wets my palms, prickles my scalp with fear and fills the already-clogged neural funnels in my brain space with anti-natal thoughts. I wish I could stem the torrent of noxious bilge water, even for a moment. My head feels constipated.
The Kelso-Mind often asks his interview subjects if they’re optimists—to which the hybrid answer of all those given seems to be “Yes… but.” The artists interviewed are no strangers to the weirder and darker sides of life, and often their optimism springs from the act of creation itself, even if—or perhaps because—the expression in that art is determinedly nihilistic. Experience of death and trauma has led to the desire for escape: from geographical backwaters and dead ends, from genetically self-destructive bodies, from class structures, from the limitations of language and the pacifying influence of increasingly pervasive technology and, more recently, the isolating disconnect forced on us by a global pandemic. These artists are a drop in the ocean of transgressive work, but it’s hard not to feel the undertow of their words and the undocumented words of others like them pulling you towards the abyss—not to drown, but to share the experiences that have helped them survive it. As Thomas Moore says at the end of his interview: “I don’t know how people who don’t have art can cope.”
The poetry and short fiction in the collection speak again of darkness, of the void. Contiguity to Annihilation is an especially effective example of Kelso’s love of cosmic horror. Presented initially as a handful of authentic-looking music press articles about an ambient/noise/rave band’s evolution, the cracks appear with separate accounts of one band member’s search for sonic oblivion in the lost spaces of North America. The fact that it’s placed immediately after an interview with Steve Finbow cataloguing some of his adventures in the worlds of Beat poetry, experimental literature and industrial/noise rock/punk/post-punk gives the story an added thread of veracity.
There are two more mainstream big-name interviews towards the end of the book that were more removed and business-like, standing in contrast to Kelso’s engagingly personal style on display elsewhere. He includes a disclaimer at the beginning of the Iain Sinclair chapter about the impersonal feature of interviewing while being physically distanced. While Sinclair’s thoughts on London, publishing, poetry, and writers from various time periods from the Beats onwards are interesting, the lack of personal engagement shows. Similarly, the interview with horror and weird fiction editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow is very no-nonsense and doesn’t have quite the flow of most of the other interviews—maybe because it wasn’t focused solely on transgressive material but on the mechanics of editing in general.
The final two interviews—one with Dennis Cooper and one with his biographer Diarmuid Hester—act as a perfect summation of the subject of fraternity in the transgressive art world present in the rest of the book. In much the same way as Kelso’s recent Burroughs and Scotland book was suffused with admiration for a literary hero, these two interviews have an infectious warmth about them. It doesn’t hurt that Dennis Cooper is both an interesting subject and a gracious interviewee, but Kelso’s combination of enthusiastic fan and insightful investigator allows for relaxed and productive interactions.
The interview and appraisal of Diarmuid Hester’s highly praised Cooper biography Wrong have Kelso again exploring ideas of “safe fraternity” and how doomed this enterprise can feel. Both Cooper and Kelso have used extremely transgressive subject matter to make sense of their place in a lonely world as sensitive and imaginative souls drawn inexorably to darkness. Connection and destruction often go hand in hand, as inseparable in their philosophies as birth and death. And yet they are both enormously generous in their interactions with other writers and artists, not in search of any payback because there is always the hope of meeting a kindred spirit.
It’s refreshing that so much of the interview with Dennis Cooper himself focuses on his recent film work. Alongside his blog and gif novel, Cooper’s move into cinema reflects a desire to avoid stagnation—Kelso makes a similar point in his earlier essay Creatively Mourning the Novel about needing to evolve as a storyteller as attention spans shorten around the world. It also circumvents the problems he’s faced with adaptation by writing directly for the screen. And it feels right somehow, in the way that he talks about his new home, that these celluloid endeavours are taking place on the streets of Paris rather than the expected Los Angeles. Cooper sounds happy there.
Parenthood has shifted my relationship with transgressive art recently, along with, I suppose, an increasing awareness of my own and others’ mortality. There are new limits to how long or how deeply I stare into the abyss before I retreat, but writers like Chris Kelso and his interviewees are so passionate and erudite about the role this type of art plays in society that this book makes me want to linger there longer. There’s hope in the darkness, even if one may feel bloody and bruised by the time one reaches that soft glow. Tolerances to extremity almost invariably change over time, but Kelso has an innate quality of making me want to know more—the book is littered with references and recommendations to niche and unknown works —and reading his non-fiction often ends up with me adding more books and films to the already dizzying list I’ve compiled.
It’s not uncommon these days to hear Chris Kelso say he’s close to retiring from writing, but I hope this isn’t the case. But even if he never types another word, I feel like he’ll always be out there somewhere, searching for meaning in the places where the light is cold and almost gone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Neil Hill lives in London, where he was a psych nurse for many years. What he is now is anybody’s guess. He’s married with cats and one miniature human. His weird/crime/horror fiction has appeared in various publications including Vastarien, Weirdbook, Splonk, Shotgun Honey and the Dark Peninsula Press anthology Violent Vixens: An Homage to Grindhouse Horror, with non-fiction at 3:AM Magazine and Invert/Extant. He is working, glacially, on at least one novel. You can find him on Twitter @mattneilhill.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 23rd, 2021.