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Sally Rooney This Isn’t

By Laurence Thompson.

Chris Kelso, The Dregs Trilogy (Black Shucks Books, 2020)

From even a suboptimal perusal of contemporary novels, the suspicion that the literature of the last decade was characterised neither by moral ambiguity nor challenging prose is unavoidable. Maybe that’s why Chris Kelso‘s five-hundred-plus pager The Dregs Trilogy is such a breath of foul air — which is meant as a compliment.

As the title suggests, Dregs began life as a trio of novels — Shrapnel Apartments, Unger House Radicals, and Ritual America — but after a messy publication history the Black Shuck Books collation is the only way to read all three. Fortunately, Dregs is best treated as a single triptych anyway. A collage of multiple perspectives and tenses, personal reflections, coroners’ reports, letters, answerphone messages, newspaper clippings, ghostly photographs, unnerving black-and-white illustrations, and poetry fragments, Kelso’s work is awash with cannibalism, paedophilia, ritualistic murder, and nihilism. Sally Rooney this isn’t.

The book (I hesitate to say “story”) begins in the Effacer le tableau stage of the Second Congolese War. For readers unaware of this unlovely moment in our recent history, in 2003 MLC forces ethnically cleansed the Congo’s north-eastern region of between sixty- and seventy-thousand Bambuti pygmies by way of systematic rape, murder, and cannibalism. Kelso’s decision to begin the book here may invite comparisons with Conrad, but it’s William Burroughs — whose masterly Western Lands Trilogy is replete with Conradian segments in which an author surrogate chases down rare giant centipede flesh in South America or dodges AK-47 fire in some other dark place of the Earth — who serves as Kelso’s true whetstone here and throughout the book. Kathy Acker’s bleak experiments are another forerunner, especially Blood and Guts in High School‘s illustrations and appropriations.

The narrative shifts to the eponymous “Shrapnel Apartments” building, which appears to be a kind of Big Brother house for resurrected murder victims. Like Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition or Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Kelso’s Dregs invites us to remote-view into a space of ontological horror and corruption. The Apartment’s most important resident is Florence Coffey, a universal child victim and metaphysical scapegoat René Girard would have loved to write about. Beau and Jed Carson, perhaps distant relations of The Western Lands‘ Kim, are among her tormentors. The corridors of Shrapnel are also haunted by malevolent entities known as Blackcap and King Misery. The second section, Unger House Radicals, deals with the “Ultra-Realists,” two murderers who conceive of their crimes as a kind of arthouse film movement extrapolating into an infectious philosophy. Ritual America doesn’t so much tie everything together as explode it outwards in multiple dimensions.

Who are Blackcap and King Misery? It’s left deliberately unclear, and I won’t try to explain away the mysteries of Kelso’s mythology, but I propose they are fragments of the same dark deity as Lautréamont’s Maldoror, the “ugly spirit” that Burroughs called the catalyst for killing Joan Vollmer, and The King in Yellow from Robert W. Chambers’ cosmic horror fictions. (The latter perhaps refracted through True Detective season one. Kelso’s “You [humans] didn’t ask for sentience, which, I think, is a tragic misstep in your evolution” is a near-quotation of Rust Cohle: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” which in turn is a paraphrase of another writer in Chambers’ field, Thomas Ligotti: “human existence is a tragedy that need not have been were it not for the intervention in our lives of a single calamitous event: the evolution of consciousness.”)

I also thought of Judge Holden, which at first seemed a bit fanciful. However, at the end of the Unger House Radicals section, a child murderer apparently infected with one of these diseased phantoms quotes Holden directly: “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” The seeming immortality of the character also recalls the haunting, quietly distraught finale of Blood Meridian: “His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favourite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

That Dregs despite all its dark content boasts nothing so psychologically daunting as McCarthy’s coda merely places it alongside 99% of world literature. A deeper problem is how intertextual allusion bleeds into expropriation, making the work feel derivative and inauthentic. This is, of course, always an outrageous and unfair criticism of fiction. Nobody writes in a vacuum. And an author needn’t be Bill Burroughs, or even a junkie, to write about heroin, or Samuel R. Delany, or even queer, to pen an unconventional gay sex scene. However, when Kelso’s characters shoot smack, like Carson and Alfie McPherson in Ritual America, or fuck in public, like Vincent Bittacker and Brandon Swarthy in Unger House Radicals, this tastes of artificial flavouring after the integral obsessions of Burroughs’s and Delany’s respective works. (There is, of course, severe and unorthodox homoeroticism in Burroughs, but those scenes are frequently pederastic, uninterested in pleasure, and imagist, concerned with ejaculation and auto-erotica. Where Burroughs is uninterested, Delany and Kelso are disinterested; where he prioritises imagery, they prefer the sensation of taste, smell, and texture. All three are ironic, but Burroughs always coldly so, where Delany and Kelso are warm and even tender.)

All novel writers are, to different degrees, compelled by their subjects – it couldn’t be otherwise. Only a few, however, are possessed by them, and fewer of those still are working today.

Without counterbalancing one’s own passions, summoning these individuals into your creative world is unwise. Burroughs, whom Kelso is invoking when he writes dope-addled Americana infected with stygian grotesques, had to write Naked Lunch. Delany, who comes to mind when Kelso describes with detachment Bittacker’s sensations upon violently receiving Swarthy’s penis, had to write The Mad Man. I never suspect Dregs so bedevilled its author. Rather than being incidentally transgressive like its forebears, Dregs strikes me as self-consciously so.

The Congo section, for instance, only seems relevant to the novel in so far as the book seeks to be a compendium of humanity’s horrors, or to establish a continuum between the violence of the developed West and the developing world. As neither are clear objectives, the scene smacks of mood-setting. This is an effective technique, like the opening shot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer that shows a live, beating heart to properly discomfort us in ominous preparation. But an image of a cardiac bypass is of a magnitude proportional to Lanthimos’ narrative, which does after all concern a heart surgeon; genocide is of quite another degree, and perhaps not harmonious with anything that does not adopt it as its subject.

Of course, applying Apollonian standards like proportion and harmony to a collage of Plutonian horrors like child abuse and murder may be futile. That’s a problem common to experimental fictions — by what bar are we to measure them? Dregs is full of abstract sketches that achieve wonderfully disturbing effects, but a few — like the introduction of Jonathan Fulton, a 29 year old child murderer whose father was a jazz drummer until he became a born-again Christian and repented of the Devil’s music — seem aimless. (When it comes to juvenicidal maniacs, The Dregs Trilogy boasts an embarrassment of riches.)

A conventional analysis turns up plenty of good writing in Dregs: we can picture the “beads of spittle” on a character’s “impotent moustache,” and while “a spindletop of green saliva” took a minute to reach me, I couldn’t quite wash it off once it had. “Darkness sets upon the evening like a silent god snatching hope from one of its disciples,” however, was a little too on-the-nose. But style is less the aim than tone, which Kelso mostly achieves throughout.

Another word for “dregs” is “lees,” the gritty residue left over when the wine glass is all but drained, and I was reminded of a bleak Cioran epistle: “Having verified all the arguments against life, I have stripped it of its savours, and wallowing in its lees, I have experienced its nakedness. I have known post-sexual metaphysics, the void of the futilely procreated universe, and that dissipation of sweat that plunges you into an age-old chill, anterior to the rages of matter.” Dregs‘ objective may be to allow us to experience that nakedness of existence, Burroughs’s “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” If it succeeds less forcefully than its forerunners, that’s perhaps a problem of preoccupation. While the great transgressive authors were haunted by their own caliginous predilections, Kelso seems haunted only by the fictions those predilections produced. The Dregs Trilogy is, indeed, what’s left over once literature has been accelerated past its intended purpose by dark visionaries. But there are processes by which pomace may be reconstituted into brandy, or lees might become ripasso. While Kelso seems potentially capable of a comparative literary alchemy, I’m not sure this book was subjected to it.

An excerpt from The Dregs Trilogy appeared in 3:AM Magazine. Read it here.


Laurence Thompson is a writer and independent scholar from Merseyside. His essays, poetry, and short fiction have appeared in Burning House Press, minor literature(s), The Fight City, and Paraphilia Magazine. He is the co-author of Wilfred Owen biopic The Burying Party (2018), for which he was nominated for Best Screenplay at the London Film Awards, and is the artistic director of the upcoming Liverpool Underground Film Festival.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 2nd, 2021.