TENDING THE VOID: The GRB interview with author, Chris Kelso.

By John Peck

With a raw and uncompromising approach to story and language, Chris Kelso’s work has garnered both praise and controversy over the past decade. Perhaps best known for fiction such as The Dregs Trilogy and The Black Dog Eats the City, Kelso has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award and praised by forerunners including Samuel Delany and Dennis Cooper. He’s also an accomplished editor and essayist with numerous non-fiction titles on artists who explore similarly dark veins, as well as collaborations with authors and artists ranging from Brian Evenson to members of Sunn O)))

Photo credit: Graham Rae

Kelso’s newest book, Voidheads, is an illustrated novelette about small-town teenagers thrill-seeking by offering themselves to an autonomous, hungering void. The book is remarkably multifaceted for such a lean and minimal text and while it’s certainly a work of horror, it also has a good amount of pitch-black humour and occasional pulp and splatterpunk moments (like much of his previous work). Not all voids are empty; some, like black holes, are dense enough to bend light and language.

If Richard Brautigan, according to one critic, wrote unclassifiable works called ‘Brautigans’, perhaps Kelso writes ‘Kelsos’ – works that corrode and eat away at the soft, sentimental, and epiphanic until only the harder, truer stuff remains. His writing doesn’t say or mean so much as it is and does, and even if what it is and does may at times be abject, frightening, or self-negating, it nonetheless pulses and crackles with the possibility of invention and rebirth.

GRB: Voidheads is cut-up in extremis, with bodies dismantled and rearranged in place of texts. To me it crosses into true horror with the sudden introduction of the second-person ‘you’, after which a sense of disorder proliferates and characters lose their grasp on language. Do you find the breakdown of the self, and the corresponding breakdown of language, a fundamental source of horror?

Chris Kelso (CK): I do. It’s that boring old existential quandary ubiquitous among most sentient entities, isn’t it? It’s impossible for us to really imagine the breakdown of the surface reality around us. All we know are ourselves and the environments we’re given. I suppose the decision to introduce the second person is a bit gimmicky, like forcing a perspective on the reader, but at the time of writing Voidheads I believed that it was the only way to achieve true authentic, empathic terror—something our (limited) inbuilt radars of compassion for other consciousness cannot give. Not really.

Working with teenagers by day means I get unique insight into their particular malaise of cynicism and post-Covid apathy (and it’s the amputations as metaphor for a new brand of teenage nihilism that drive the story in a symbolic sense). But how else can readers who don’t have that close contact with the current generation of young people relate to their nihilism, cynicism, and apathy? They relate in that anyone can experience or inhibit these universal emotions, but the students I teach are so inured to the contemporary psychosphere of alienation that it takes a gimmicky forced perspective to pull in a mature reader. To force their spasms of empathy in the cheapest way, because they are literally being referred to by the narrator.  

One might take the Derrida approach to language, that there is no true meaning to our words anyway; everything is subjective and meaning is merely inferred by those who receive the words. But I think our grasp on language roots us to our own sanity, grounds us in the surface reality. Dennis Cooper discussed this in The Marbled Swarm – this notion that language can be deconstructed, rebuilt, and even weaponised.

If you imagine losing your sanity, the world makes little sense. The closest we get to a loss of our own senses occurs during moments of profound suffering. I remember getting dumped by an ex-girlfriend years ago and I went through what could only be described as a kind of global aphasia. I could not understand the words she was saying to me. They were void of meaning, structure. I could not form language or process straightforward transmissions either. It’s the closest to the edge of the curtain I’ve ever gotten. Oddly liberating, yet utterly terrifying.

GRB: In Burroughs in Scotland, Eva Kowalska quotes Burroughs’ line to Ginsberg: ‘I am going so far out that one day I won’t come back at all’. Do you think it’s possible for experimental authors to become so untethered from their own voices they relinquish authorship entirely? How do you balance keeping and losing control in your writing?

CK: That’s a good question. I’m so imprisoned by my own ego that I can’t offer much insight into what it must be like to transcend one’s self-identity, but having followed the work of Burroughs, I know some people get close to a pure consciousness where they become transmitters free of the petty distractions of conceits or self-image. I maintain that the better we get at separation, transition, and incorporation, the healthier the collective psyche will be. The less narcissistic we are, the better.

That said, I’ve always felt that, even those really self-righteous authors who claim they leave their egos at the door before writing, are kind of perjuring themselves. No one can really leave the ego behind, despite what Timothy Leary or Joseph Campbell sermonised. If you’re so dedicated to that premise then why bother including your name on the cover? Surely, ownership would be the first thing to go following a psychic death?

I also think there’s a danger that if you lose touch of reality and commit to the kind of writing that de-stabilises then you lose control and it becomes a kind of [ . . .] authentic nonsense? You might have tapped into a new frequency of language and thought, but you’ll be the only one who feels intimate with it. As a control-freak, I need to have some handle on the whispering muse. If we all surrendered to the hum of the collective frequency, all art would potentially turn out the same. It’s the distortions and deceits of our egos that make it unique.

Photo credit: Matt Venner

GRB: In your article SF in Scotland, you discuss the roots of speculative fiction in Scotland, including storytelling/poetic traditions and the contrast between post-industrial cities and wilderness. On one hand, an author’s origins fundamentally inform their writing; on the other, concepts like Mary McCarthy’s ‘stateless novel’ celebrate rootlessness. Where on this spectrum are you?

CK: I am helplessly, inescapably Scottish but I don’t think there’s anything about my writing that retains or utilises the stain of place. My experiences aren’t necessarily something exclusively ‘Scottish’ either, but the weatherbeaten social identity I’ve inherited from Scotland does inform my tastes, interests, and in some ways, my artistic drives. I don’t write about places that really exist. If I write about Glasgow, it is a heterotopic version of the city. So, to answer your question, I’d say I’m somewhere in between.

GRB: In comparison to fiction that utilises dream-logic, works such as The Dregs Trilogy and The Black Dog Eats the City use something I’d call ‘poem-logic’. These include Burroughsian elements of writing as ‘transmission’ (i.e. both ‘broadcast’ and ‘virus’), and older symbolist/surrealist tendencies: names dense with meaning, technology indistinguishable from religious ritual. Do you see a line between poetry and fiction, or is poetic language just one part of your storyteller’s toolkit?

CK: I think that’s an incredibly astute observation. I love the patterns and rhythms of poetry and I do attempt to stretch out the phonaesthetic qualities of the written word. I think the best writers use poetry in prose, McCarthy being a good example of this. I suppose when I’m writing I don’t use any notes or outlines, I tap into the euphony and cacophony of language and the story flows from there. It’s a strange way to write long-form – to let the language lead the story – but it’s how I’ve always worked. This might also be down to indiscipline as a writer. I lack the patience to plan anything creative and I get itchy if I leave a sentence unbeautified.

GRB: You’ve co-written stories with Carole Johnstone and Brian Evenson. Are these collaborations conversations, with a back-and-forth structure, or do you work through each aspect of the story together? How does this compare to collaborating with musicians?

CK: I suppose it comes down to your choice of collaborator. I’ve been lucky in that Carole and Brian are established litterateurs who are patient and inherently synergetic in their processes. I often send a half-formed story the way of a collaborator and they add to it or tidy it up.

I like a collaborator to bring that established quality to the work, which I lack – hence why I usually consort with writers who are my superiors (which is the best piece of advice I could offer anyone, writer or musician). I can imagine it being a frustrating experience with the wrong people. Writing is such an isolated act that it feels counter-intuitive to invite someone along to ‘imagine’ with. But when your vibes and frequencies are synergetic, the story takes care of itself.

I do the same with music – I surround myself with artists who are better than me and let them do what they need to do in order to elevate the art. Like a reinforced super-intellect. When you’re jamming with musicians it’s probably easier to find that cadence together. It’s more immediate and gratifying. But it also means you need to see people in real life which is often a draining ordeal. I’m definitely more of a writer than a musician. I like the introverts.

GRB: Your next book is on Zulawski’s Possession, which has seen a resurgence in recent years and is now firmly in the canon of classic horror films. Zulawski claimed the horror elements simply allowed him to tell the story he wanted to tell. What do you consider the ‘actual’ story of Possession? What was it about the film that inspired your book?

CK: To be honest, I wanted an excuse to analyse my own past behaviour. I think Possession is a film about the fragility of men and it’s as simple as that. It’s what I latched onto straight away. Essentially, it boils down to an unwillingness to leave behind the paradise of childhood—Von Franz’s Puer Aeternus: a bipolar man-child dependent on the mother, resistant to responsibility, terrified of being imprisoned, and unable to accept the roads to self-enlightenment that suffering and hardship might lead. I consider myself to once have represented this archetype, as well as Sam Neill’s Mark character and Zulawski himself. Our treatment of women is what’s being explored in the film and in my book.

I think Berlin is an important facet of the film, and I spend the second half of the book analysing similar haunted spaces. In Thomas Ligotti’s story Purity, a character explains to his son that he needn’t fear spirits haunting the family home, because it was in fact the mind of the inhabitants haunting the space, not the reverse. The father says, ‘The attic is not haunting your head – your head is haunting the attic.

Some heads are more haunted than others, whether they are haunted by ghosts or by gods or by creatures from outer space. These are not real things. Nonetheless, they are indicative of real forces, animating and even creating forces, which your head only conceives to be some kind of spook or who knows what.’ If we observe our cities as spaces, instead of an amalgam of landmark-loaded, historically-burdened cultural iconography on a map, then we can better understand the significance of Berlin in a film like Possession. Berlin is haunted, for sure, but the people populating that space are the ones changing it, projecting onto it. It is not the dead who haunt but the living.

Zulawski haunted Berlin with his broken marriage, and Possession presents us with a frightening Zulawski-haunted city. Even the fictional Anna haunts the city with her journey to the edges of sanity, sadness, and sexuality. Mark haunts it with his heart-sick desperation. The book is about how I have haunted spaces with my negativity, but it’s not as self-flagellating as it might sound.

GRB: Your Children of the New Flesh is a multi-genre anthology about the films of David Cronenberg. Other than the clear body-horror similarities, do you see parallels between Cronenberg and Zulawski as storytellers?

CK: I’d call both masters of the ‘poetry-logic’ you mentioned earlier. I think they possess an intellectualism and flare for the symbolic that run tandem with each other. Cronenberg’s films are replete with imagery, pregnant with meaning. Zulawski’s work is the same. Every frame says something. Both are provocateurs in the field, both have overcome censorship and personal adversity (although The Brood might be as close as Cronenberg came to putting his own heartbreak onscreen). I also feel they both have a bleak literary quality which is typical among smart 70s artists. I get the feeling both are well-read, not just cine-literate.

GRB: What do you have on the horizon?

CK: I just edited a book with Preston Grassmann called The Mad Butterfly’s Ball which is being released by PS Publishing. It’s devoted to insects and has some huge/talented names from horror. There’s the Possession book I mentioned, Possession: Dreams of Sanity and Suffering, which I’m greatly looking forward to moving forward with. I’m also in a new band with some exciting people. I can tell you that the project is called Vantablack and features Nick Hudson (ASVA) and Stuart Dahlquist (Sunn O)))), but that’s about it. I feel hugely out of my depth with the other musicians in the band.

Elle Nash and I have been collaborating on a screenplay, which is always a tremendous delight and I always snatch any opportunity I can to work with people of her calibre and talent. I’m quietly curating a project for Anxiety Press called Five Without Honour which collects some of my favourite new Scottish writers.

Previous volumes have featured Graham Rae (an underrated writer bordering on genius), Callum McSorley (one of the most consummate and impressive young scribes working in the country today), Christopher Young (a unique voice destined for truly great things), Thomas Joyce (a writer I wish would write more, but when they do it’s frequently wonderful), John Paul Fitch (a writer with a long history of genre work I’ve admired for a while), Ryan O’Connor (whose The Voids left me genuinely floored), Genevieve Jagger (an author who, if there’s any justice in the world, will be a future Booker nominee), Andrew Coulthard (a semi-retired writer who should be better known), Kirkland Ciccone (a hard-working, highly poetic artist who brings a much-needed freshness to the whole literary landscape), and R.G. Robertson (another writer who produces work sparingly, but whose talent is unquestionable). These people should be celebrated and deserve their share of the limelight.

Chris Kelso was interviewed for the GRB by John Peck. You can learn more about Chris Kelso’s past and current projects at chris-kelso.com.

About our contributor

John K. Peck is a Berlin-based writer, musician, and letterpress printer. He is a regular contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and has appeared in two McSweeney’s anthologies. His fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in a diverse range of print and online journals including Interzone, Pyre, Cold Signal, Salon, The Toast, VOLT, Jubilat, SAND, and Slow Travel Berlin. He is also the editor of Degraded Orbit (degradedorbit.com), an online journal devoted to unusual architecture, abandoned places, and analog and digital games. (Photo credit: Julius Schaeper)

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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