by Pawl Schwartz
Chris Kelso is a writer whose words are as delectable as his subject matter is disgusting; as hyper-readable as he is indescribable. He is for readers seeking highbrow creep and literary splatterpunk; for Bret Easton Ellis and Samuel R. Delany fans alike. In a nutshell: an author I can’t help but pay attention to.
Kelso’s latest, Unger House Radicals, is destined to become a cult classic. It isn’t just a philosophical treatise on the future of film, but also Natural Born Killers with a scoop of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. After finishing it, I couldn’t just review it; I was left with too many questions. So I grabbed my trusty internet and poked at Chris with an interview. Surprisingly, he responded. The record is below.
UR Chicago: Can you define Ultra-Realism as a film genre? What is the difference between the Ultra Realists and someone making a plain old snuff film?
Chris Kelso: Ultra-Realism, in its essence, is the search for the truly authentic cinematic act. It’s a bit more political than that and somewhat more sinister. The authentic act in question involves the brutal murder of a young woman.
The characters in the book wanted to make this old crime scene — Unger House — their Grand Guignol. Their hope was that by creating a real snuff film they could attract a whole new breed of moviegoer, the kind only concerned with what’s visceral and real, people in search for the one true authentic, diasporic subject. Vincent Bittacker describes it as “a particular treatment of film-making as a form in such a manner as to emphasise its correspondence to the horror of every day actuality. Cinema without the artificiality, supernatural or forced exotic element — without any suspension of disbelief or stylisation; a cinema that never uses professional actors or mimesis; cinema that would avoid all the conventions ; where everything that’s implausible is eliminated except the unbelievable jolt of what you see unfolding before your very eyes.”
Really there’s no difference between this and a run-of-the-mill, senseless snuff film, aside from the strange nihilistic quasi-philosophy attributed to it by a couple of unbalanced maniacs. They might claim that the motivations are different, but I’m not so sure about that. There’s definitely some bloodlust going on. The idea that nothing is sacred, that anything can be cinema furthers this notion.
UR: As this novel has a lot to do with film, what movies were your biggest inspiration?
CK: I watched a lot of experimental cinema, short films mainly. I think movies like Begotten and The Seashell and The Clergyman were really making a point of pushing the envelope. It was interesting watching movies that obviously hadn’t been designed to entertain or satisfy the viewer. You get a real sense of an individual voice at play, one who is uncompromising and, usually, very angsty. All the movies I mentioned in the book, like Warhol’s Sleep and Lav Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family inspired me a lot.
I watched a lot of found-footage stuff too, as well as work by auteur moviemakers — people like Harmony Korine, David Lynch, Larry Clark, David Cronenberg and Andrei Tarkovsky. Rémy Belvaux's film Man Bites Dog was also omnipresent during the writing process. With auteurs you get a real insight into the director’s individual style, the aesthetics that are important to him and, sometimes, even his state of mind. I wanted the footage from Unger House to do the same for the characters in the book. It’s a deeper reveal of sorts.
UR: How much inspiration was drawn from amateur film and the darker corners of the internet?
CK: There was a lot of research into the dark web, into the opaque history of snuff films and the various mythology surrounding that subject. The closest I got to a real snuff film was Cannibal Holocaust, and I found the animal slaughter morally repugnant. I didn’t research too deep into it because I think that’s a dangerous road to set off down, but I immersed myself just enough to get the lay of the land. I think I was really trying to tap into our morbid curiosity as a species. Why do we want to look at beheadings of troops? Why would we want to look at a pileup on a freeway or a bunch of dead bodies? Why do people like the Dnepropetrovsk maniacs interest us so much? It could just be a curious peek into the unknown, but it’s more than that. What really interested me was this: what kind of sicko would see an act of brutal violence, replicate it and organise a crazy suicide religious doctrine around it? I’m interested in those people. I am repulsed by them, but undeniably fascinated.
UR: Define “The Great Isolation.”
CK: The Great Isolation is a worldwide act of surrender, a true nihilistic statement. The Ultra-Realists are determined to bring about the third and final act in the great play of humanity. I think “The Great Isolation” is what would happen should the fanatics and UR sympathisers dominate our population — we’ll be locked away in tower blocks until we run out of food and eventually die out. They’d say: this is what will happen if we let our conscience catch up with us; that it seems almost inevitable that we’ll crumble under the collective guilt of our mistakes. What’s wrong with accepting our punishment with dignity?
UR: You are a librarian by day. Is this the paradise I imagine it being, or it’s own kind of hell?
CK: I love working in a school library. It’s tremendously rewarding, and I love the students and staff who I work beside. I’ll never make enough money writing, so it’s the closest I can get to making a living while still being surrounded by books! It’s a pretty sweet deal to be honest.
UR: I’m 99% sure that this book marks the first literary appearance of one of my favorite bands, Cave In. Why did you choose the song “Dark Driving” in particular?
CK: You could be right about that. I listen to a lot of Cave In and Hydra Head bands; they’re as influential on my style as the literature or experimental cinema inherent to the genetic makeup of Unger House Radicals. “Dark Driving” is my favourite song off the Tides of Tomorrow EP. It’s so moody and dreary; the song rumbles on like a lonely car journey through the outskirts of a nameless city. I much prefer their shoe-gazer stuff actually, but there are a lot of Cave In songs that compliment the tone of this novel nicely.
UR: Any trouble with people confusing the twisted morals of Unger House Radicals with your own?
CK: I did receive an angry e-mail from a woman who read The Black Dog Eats the City. She said the book was “pro-suicide” and that I shouldn’t write about subjects I’m not qualified to discuss. Apart from it being a ludicrous notion that someone could be “pro-suicide” (isn’t that just pro-choice?), this person had completely misinterpreted the morals of the book. She took the content literally, which is just silly really. The truth is, I think that always happens when a book falls into the hands of an idiot. People struggle separating the art from the artist a lot of the time, but I’m as soft as they come — I’m often told I’m far too nice to people! If you read a book and make the assumption that the content reflects the author’s own ideologies then you’re probably a reactionary moron — but I’ll still buy you a pint and fix your leaky faucet for free.
UR: Why is it important or necessary (in my head) to explore even the most taboo and sociopathic of headspaces?
CK: Because art will never progress unless we plumb the darkest depths of what make us human. It helps us get a better sense of who we are as individuals and as a species at a particular stage in our development. We need to push art as far as it’ll go, otherwise you’re just treading water.
Also, it’s a cliché to say it, but the world isn’t black and white either; it’s mainly rendered in shades of grey. I don’t believe evil exists on its own terms, I think people have experiences and traumas that shape who they become. Sometimes who they become is a raving lunatic.
UR: A large bit of the book takes place across the American south. Why?
CK: It’s a place I’ve always been fascinated by. I think I’d like to visit there at some point. There’s something really sinister and mysterious the further south you go. It’s got a great tension to it and a history it can’t outrun, and doesn’t really want to either. The combination of religious fanaticism and racial segregation with all that unique, creepy architecture makes it an interesting setting for a horror story. I also really wanted to write a southern gothic novel. Things like True Detective and Truman Capote were a big influence on me.
UR: “The savior of mankind will be suicide and its prophets are all serial killers and film makers.” Can you expand on this quote in terms of Unger House Radicals and explain how this idea catches on so easily with the general public in the book?
CK: This quote really sums up the thought processes of the novel’s main characters, Brandon Swarthy and Vincent Bittacker. It reflects Swarthy’s misanthropic hatred for humanity, his anarchist desire to watch the world burn, and Bittacker’s more artistic, philosophical justification for murder. We are presented with a two-sided coin. The serial killer, like a drug addict, is the ultimate individualist. In the context of Ultra-Realism, the serial killer is the man at the top, the one playing god. He decides the fates of his victims. The film-maker is merely the conduit, the documenter who engraves the serial killer’s work on the parchment of humankind. The resulting snuff film acts as a sort of bible; it’ll be referenced by other followers of the movement.
If you’re of the opinion that humanity has gone as far as it can go and you want to take action, the people you’ll want on your side are the fearless serial killers imbued with the demon of nihilism and the filmmakers who bring it all together into a coherent whole, so that it can be communicated effectively to the disciples of Ultra-Realism.
Freud talked about us all having a “deathdrive” — a subconscious desire to die. I think we all have this but try our best to tune it out. In the book people become more attuned to their deathdrives.
UR: Do you consider yourself a “bizarro” writer?
CK: I don’t. Bizarro was what got me into writing initially, but I don’t think anything I’ve ever written could be defined as bizarro as such. There is a healthy dose of the surreal, the macabre — the bizarre, but my stuff has more in common with experimental or genre fiction. It’s strange because a lot of my publishers have been closely associated with bizarro. I read a lot of Dennis Cooper and Peter Sotos; those guys are well-acquainted with the morbid and profane, but they’re not bizarro.
Although, I recently collaborated on a project with Tom Bradley that is pure, deliberate bizarre. It’s an homage to the genre actually. I think with Tom’s help, I finally cracked the formula.