:: Article

The Dregs

By Matt Neil Hill.

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

Before this review starts rambling (which it almost inevitably will) here’s the short version: this book is an incredible achievement, and hats off to Chris Kelso for inhabiting this grim, relentless world of visceral and existential horrors for as long as he did, and with such a pure vision. The book can be disorientating — much of what transpires occurring in parallel dimensions and time-loops — but you’ll be rewarded if you stick with it. Tenfold.

The Dregs Trilogy comprises the previously published Shrapnel Apartments and Unger House Radicals (presented here in their originally intended chronology) and the final part, Ritual America, new to this edition. Each part is quite different in its approach, although numerous characters recur throughout, as do the themes of art, ultra-violence, reality TV, serial killers, murder, suicide, misogyny, rape, child abuse, complicity, identity, possession, death cults and the inter-dimensional gods Blackcap and King Misery who thrive on it all. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but there’s a deep examination of the human condition at the core of all the degradation and nihilism.

The central conceit of the trilogy is the rise of the Ultra-Realist movement, a project at the intersection of performance art and serial killing intended to lead eventually to a mass murder-suicide pact involving the whole human race.

Shrapnel Apartments is perhaps the most fragmented of the three books, jumping around between numerous viewpoint characters, many of whom are trapped in the strange afterlife panopticon of Blackcap’s reality TV show. There’s a mesmerising sort-of prologue set in the Democratic Republic of Congo that introduces both the child-devouring nightmare god Blackcap and the Ultra-Realists, reminiscent (and not for the last time) of William Burroughs’ archetypal traveller experimenting with and losing himself in transgressive alien cultures. Then we relocate to America, Blackcap now the traveller ready to make his mark on the new world.

There’s a lot going on in Shrapnel Apartments, most of it revolving around the eternally recurring murder of a young girl, Florence Coffey. Kelso’s approach to the subject matter is unflinching as he creates a kind of interactive limbo for a small group of people reliving the abuses they’ve both suffered and committed. There is not a single morally uncompromised character on display here, and death seems to offer no possibility of escape (most chillingly realised in the repeating motif of characters remembering/reliving their own autopsies). The seeds are sown for the concept of the human race as a spent force that deserves an unpleasant end it may be too tired and beaten down to resist.

There is a tangential section towards the end of the novel that features a running spat between a science fiction writer and a critic, including interactions with William S. Burroughs on a trip to Scotland — Kelso clearly has a huge fondness and admiration for Burroughs’ work (as do I) and his spirit is often to be found within the Dregs Trilogy‘s pages, but the writing never feels derivative.

Unger House Radicals begins with the relationship between an avant-garde film maker and his serial killer muse — one that will ultimately birth the Ultra-Realist movement. Deeply rooted in both narcissism and nihilism — as of course many cults are — its creators see Ultra-Realism as an updated (and distinctly non-faked) version of Grand Guignol theatre. Events get increasingly surreal when Kelso throws strands of multiple personality disorder and/or possession into the mix, and from this point forward conventional chronology is frequently abandoned. Without revealing too much, the cast of characters expands from here on in, as does Kelso’s exploration of various philosophies and the role that dreams and nightmares play in everybody’s lives, along with individual and societal complicity in an endless parade of atrocities.

As with Shrapnel Apartments, the closing vignettes of Unger House Radicals are heavily infused with the spectre of William Burroughs at his most inter-dimensionally science fictional, and I had a big smile on my face throughout this part. Don’t get me wrong, the content remains genuinely horrifying, but I found it hard not to be captivated by such a loving homage.

I’m unsure how much to say about Ritual America, as I’d hate to give away anything about how Kelso wraps up his magnum opus. Extremely minor characters from earlier parts take centre stage now, taking us deeper and deeper into the minds of the abusers and the abused, often difficult to tell apart. There’s a lot to examine about love and family and the effect that cults have on both, and while there’s always a backdrop of the cannibalistic cosmic horror of Blackcap and King Misery much of what’s on display here is seen through the lens of humanity’s decline and the infinite and awful mutations of its artistic culture.

It was a weird experience reading this book during a global pandemic, with daily protests and riots against the established order of things — at times it felt like the world was mirroring the urge to self-destruction on the page, the willingness of some to sacrifice members of their own species, and the glimmer of hope that exists in those who refuse to surrender to authoritarianism and cultural nihilism. There are tiny moments of hope within the world of The Dregs Trilogy, but they are as heartbreakingly rare and fragile as they are seemingly eternal.

I think it’s worth mentioning the bravery inherent in writing material like this, especially at a time when an increasing number of people seem to think that documenting the worst excesses of humanity is somehow akin to condoning them. There’s nothing here that glorifies the subject matter. Rather it’s an unflinching examination of the human condition, and a bleak prophesy of where we might be heading as a species.

It’s not pretty, but damn is it powerful.


Matt Neil Hill lives in London, where he was a psych nurse for many years. His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various publications including Vastarien, Weirdbook, Syntax & Salt, Splonk and Shotgun Honey. @mattneilhill

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 27th, 2020.