“[Kelso] weaves threads of each individual character, their complex histories, the overarching nightmarish theme of Ultra-Realism and the horror of being human together to create a bleak work of nihilistic art.”
Chris Kelso is a chameleon, literarily speaking. The young Scot has written fiction with wide-ranging genre tags, from bizarro to science fiction, horror to transgressive, and almost all combinations possible. He has collaborated on fiction and a graphic novel, and has edited anthologies, as well as working on his own work. The Slave State is his creation of a bleak, horrific alternative reality that has been the setting for much of his work. All of this is to say he is an incredibly accomplished and hard-working author, but his work tends not to fit neatly into any one genre box. And his latest book is no exception.
The Dregs Trilogy is the culmination of a major element of Kelso’s fiction work which began in 2016 with the publication of Unger House Radicals and continued with the second book, Shrapnel Apartments, published in 2017. Always intended as a trilogy, Steve Shaw at Black Shuck Books stepped forward to publish all three stories in a single book, concluding with the third part, Ritual America. The finished article, along with interior artwork by Shane Swank, S.C. Burke, Michael Salerno and Don Noble, as well as an eye-catching cover by the ever-reliable Matthew Revert, and an introduction by Jim McLeod, head honcho of Ginger-Nuts-of-Horror, is a wonderfully hefty hardback that any fan of Chris Kelso’s particular brand of transgressive horror would be proud to display on their bookshelf.
The framework for the three separate parts within involves the gradual deterioration of humanity through the uncompromising Ultra-Realism movement and the influence of extra dimensional beings called Blackcap and King Misery. Part one, ‘Shrapnel Apartments’, opens with a brief introduction by Blackcap, addressing the reader as “Sweet, innocent Viewer”, a reference to the idea of a horrific reality television show shown on the internet where five humans are imprisoned in the extradimensional Shrapnel Apartments and their struggles are televised for the enjoyment of a sadistic audience. At the same time, in Amber Acre, Louisiana, the youngest member of the troublesome Carson family is suspected of the abduction and murder of local children. Unfortunately, the detective assigned to the case, Bobby Reilly, has a terrible secret that gives him a unique insight into the mind of Beau Carson.
This is not an easy read. It isn’t for the faint of heart. It concerns human horror of the worst possible kind; violence toward children. Kelso has never been a writer to shy away from the more disturbing aspects of human nature. He explores the darkness where most would fear to tread, but it is essential for the telling of this story. Through the exploration of these characters, Kelso examines the very real question of man’s inhumanity to man. Are we losing the sense of togetherness, our empathetic ability, our love for our fellow human? We do seem to be distancing ourselves from each other, isolating ourselves behind locked doors and internet connections, seeing more and more divisions every day. In ‘Shrapnel Apartments’, Kelso asks if this is simply the way society is naturally progressing—through movements like Ultra-Realism—or is there a much larger, unseen and unimaginable, sinister hand guiding our suffering for their own sustenance? While these cosmic elements never fully materialise in an alien invasion or attack by a giant monster, by merely hinting to them and including brief monologues from Blackcap and King Misery, Kelso maintains a subtle sense of the grandiose horror that lies (mercifully) just out of our reach. Yet, the horror of human suffering is expertly portrayed.
The story of Ultra-Realism continues in ‘Unger House Radicals’. Although presented as part two of the trilogy, the events of this story predate ‘Shrapnel Apartments’. Main characters Vincent Bittaker and Brandon Swarthy are actually the founding members of the movement. Vincent is a young filmmaker who only wants to change the world. He wants to create something that will spawn a movement. Swarthy is the older man with whom he instantly becomes infatuated. But there is a darkness not-so-deep beneath Swarthy’s skin; violence is an everyday occurrence for him, and he gets off on it. Tired with modern filmmaking and the falseness of Hollywood, Vincent longs to make something real. Real-er than real. Ultra-Real. Swarthy convinces him that they need a victim, someone they can film as they experience ultimate suffering. Toward the end, Vincent begins to question their mission, and reality itself. Who—or what—is Swarthy, really?
While the depictions of violence are truly violent, they are never gratuitous. Every scene serves the purpose of developing the characters or furthering the story. It is bloody and visceral, but it never detracts from Kelso’s wildly unique storytelling style. It is non-linear and jumps between the different characters’ points of view but, rather than distracting, this only adds to the compelling nature of Kelso’s writing. It is gripping and enthralling to the end.
Which, of course, is not the end of the trilogy. Part three, ‘Ritual America’, is the only section that is previously unpublished. Taking place after the events of the previous parts, we explore the more cosmic side of Ultra-Realism, but not with Blackcap or King Misery. At least, not by name. It is more of their influence. A sound is infecting the human race, possibly permeated through the music of Ultra-Realism followers, and seemingly spreading the message of human suffering. A couple living in New York, Rob and Kathy, are living their seemingly banal lives when Rob’s brother, Steven, appears at their door. Rob is critical of Steven’s zealotry belief in strange followings, including Ultra-Realism. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for “the sound” to infect their lives. Told alongside this, and providing a more tangible connection to the previous parts, previous Amber Acre resident (and victim of the Carson clan), Alfie McPherson tells his story of encountering the sound, and the music of Ultra-Realism. As a teenager, he was abused by Jed Carson, and, along with another victim, took a gruesome interest in death.
The shortest part, it is a fitting end to Kelso’s trilogy devoted to the darkest recesses of the human soul. If, indeed, there is such a thing. As with his many other books, The Dregs Trilogy is not straight forward. He tends to sacrifice ease of reading for a more challenging and, ultimately, rewarding reading experience. But just because a story is easy to follow and tells the story from one point of view and follows a natural progression of scenes, does not mean that it is a “good” story. With The Dregs Trilogy, Kelso jumps between multiple narrators within each individual part, he utilises techniques such as epistolary, poetry and stream of consciousness among others to deliver an epic and transgressive tapestry. He weaves threads of each individual character, their complex histories, the overarching nightmarish theme of Ultra-Realism and the existential horror of being human together to create a bleak work of nihilistic art.
Publisher: Black Shuck Books
Hardcover: 461 pp
Release Date: 31 January 2020
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