"The Black Dog Eats The City" by Chris Kelso

"The Black Dog Eats The City" by Chris Kelso

Chris Kelso has written a number of acclaimed and prize nominated works spanning a variety of styles and genres, and yet it seems the critical reception of his writing has revolved around a misplaced categorisation of his style, and that this oversight ought to be addressed even if the short handed manner of doing so feels unavoidable within the conscripts of this review. In other words, there is as much Victor Hugo and Balzac and Alisdair Gray in Kelso’s vividly realised machinations of a society being digested by moral and economic decay as there is Ballard or Burroughs. 

 Of that aforementioned list, only Gray has an actual knowledge and understanding of the post-industrial working class and its psychological conditions. Kelso also knows and understands this. He advances it. In the city of Ersatz depression is real and rightly so, a creature stalking the material conditions of the city's inhabitants. This is a book of the contained and Ersatz is the world in the corner of the bourgeois eye, the poverty scratching itself into your pupil. There is a very real fear, and possibility, that in reading you might contract the blackdog from the text itself, so virulent is the hopelessness that Kelso’s work details. You can feel depression emerging, taking physical shape, from the ambient pervasiveness of this in his prose. A depressive nihilism is not the event in this work but rather the environment and the metaphysical horror of that, of being consumed by the mere toll of being, is the position that the reader must go through, must back themselves to go through, in order to experience the work. In many ways this book is the most accurate and affective rendering of clinical depression that I've read.    

There is as much Victor Hugo and Balzac and Alisdair Gray in Kelso’s vividly realised machinations of a society being digested by moral and economic decay as there is Ballard or Burroughs.

The Black Dog Eats The City is an early work in an oeuvre that spans twenty books of fiction, non-fiction and short stories at last count. The novella’s first printing was greeted with that classic, if somewhat reductive, stamp of approval: namely hatemail and the leaching of one reality into another as its transgressive content apparently endangered Kelso’s employment. As grotesque as such delimited horizons are, they point to literature’s continued ability to threaten the material world, to demonstrate the tenuous hold on reality of the normative.

Some of Kelso’s other notable releases among these twenty books include The Dregs Trilogy (Black Shuck Books), Children of The New Flesh (11.11 Press), Interrogating the Abyss (Apocalypse Party) and the Unger House Radicals (Crowded Quarantine Publications). The point being that Kelso is a writer who has not only paid their dues but who has produced a significant body of work that is ripe for critical appraisal. Rereleased by West Vine Press in a handsome hardback edition, having initially been published by Omnium Gatherum in the UK, and boasting an new introduction and afterword, The Black Dog Eats The City’s reprint speaks promisingly to the question of legacy and the literary underground’s willingness to cultivate its own fecund environment. Kelso is a fiercely independent writer whose work has never courted the mainstream, the willingness of this press to reprint a work such as this is evidence of what I’d have to consider a noble mission. This isn’t to say that the act of publishing a book is a sign of hope or anything as crass as that. Rather it’s to acknowledge that it demonstrates a willingness to test the world, its readers and to trust that those who encounter the book are willing to undergo an experience.  

In fact there is something of a survivors' testament or samizdat feel to The Black Dog Eats the City, as if it were paradoxically an archaeological fragment from the future transmitted by the last lucid witness of humanity's descent into the dark ages. Or like it were something illicit discovered in the woods, an abandoned car park, a hotel room. This is fitting because Kelso’s work is not strictly science fiction or future bound but is instead an interstitial literature severing the artery of its possibility within our moment. The sentences here poke out of the page like broken shins through their legs' petticoat covering of skin and there is always more going on than the novel’s brevity or unremitting bleakness might conventionally suggest. At the outset of Black Dog it appears that Lester, the ostensible main character, might be the last resistance, but Kelso complicates this by calling into question whether, in the form of his resistance, the gesture of it, he might be another narcissistic super spreader of the social disease. The novel then morphs into a critique of masculinity, picking apart the calcified ressentiments glueing that narrow identity to the body and thoughts of working class men. Kelso’s style skirts the edges of being consumed by disgust but skillfully avoids the overly prescriptive loss of control such a feeling tends to designate. There is real darkness here but it is Kelso’s eye for the mordant, as seen in the Android subplot and the broken heart of BabyGuts, that details his command of the subject. The humour of the work is the moment the text overcomes itself, creates a distance at which to breathe. 

The world Kelso presents is one that has lost any memory of the past or hope for a future. It presents the cosmic horror of a shadow without a sun. Clinical depression Kelso knows that a confrontation with a monster is always a transformation, and that this transformation is necessarily traumatic as the monster represents what was previously inconceivable to the self. When you realise the monster is everyday life, the joke is you’re already being consumed. Would you still then be capable of even the bitterest laughter? Kelso affirms the possibility. 

Get The Black Dog Eats the City at West Vine Press or Amazon

Thomas Kendall

Review by Thomas Kendall

Thomas Kendall is the author of The Autodidacts, released May 2022. Dennis Cooper called The Autodidacts ‘a brilliant novel — inviting like a secret passage, infallible in its somehow orderly but whirligig construction, spine-tingling to unpack, and as haunted as any fiction in recent memory.’ His work has appeared in the anthologies Abyss (Orchards Lantern) and Userlands (Akashic Books) and online at Entropy.

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