Book Review : Chris Kelso - Shrapnel Apartments (2017)
I have a love/hate relationship with the work of Scottish author Chris Kelso. He's a creative and ambitious guy who isn't afraid to think outside the box, but his writing is so balls-to-the-walls fragmented and experimental that sometimes it's missing the necessary nuance to work. His new novel Shrapnel Apartments (which only exists in twenty-six hard cover copies as we speak) promised something slightly different from Kelso's trademark surreal horror and it...kind of delivered? I'm usually on the fence whenever I finish something by Chris Kelso, but not here. Shrapnel Apartments is not perfect, but it's a challenging and unpredictable horror novel.
Technically, Shrapnel Apartments is the sequel to Unger House Radicals, which I was ambivalent on. I thought it failed at exploring the parallels between art and murder like many other works of art that came before, but that it worked as a study of how ideas travel and become cultural phenomenons. Shrapnel Apartments is only loosely tied to it. There's a new cast of characters, notably Bobby Reilly, a corrupt policeman; a child killer named Beau Carson and a recurrent victim named Florence Coffey. Their stories are linked and they aren't. They seem imminently linked when introduced like this, but Chris Kelso's fragmented and elusive writing style leaves more question than it answers as to how their individual narratives are actually interwoven together. And it works, this time.
I guess Shrapnel Apartments is my favorite Chris Kelso novel, so far. The narrative in this one adds up to more than the sum of its parts, unlike for Unger House Radicals. Our three protagonists represent archetypes that are crucial to understanding the story: Florence Coffey is the victim, Beau Carson is the monster and Bobby Reilly is the law, ultimately in charge of deciding who's who and how the sotry is going to play out. The overarching message of Shrapnel Apartments is that your fate is depending on whatever people want to do with you and you'll have to fight powerful and hostile outside forces for self-determination. In the context of this novel, involving violent murders and a disinterested system, it's fucking terrifying.
Shrapnel Apartments has a bizarre, circular structure that makes its reading quite challenging. It's not a bad thing, but you do have to be up for a puzzle to enjoy the experience to its fullest. And it's the first time I feel Chris Kelso' fragmented, multiple POV style really suits the story he's trying to tell. His influences are also quite clear here. Adrian Lyne's seminal horror movie Jacob's Ladder perhaps being the most important. There are allusions to Jungian psychology and Nietzschean philosophy, and I thought the latter was gracefully inserted in there. Friedrich Nietzsche isn't exactly a subtle philosopher and authors who are into him usually try to shove him down our throat, but it's not the case here. Chris Kelso's allusions to the eternal recurrence don't exactly call attention to themselves.
It's always difficult to read Chris Kelso in a vacuum. I've enjoyed Shrapnel Apartments considerably better than other novels I've read of him, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to read the flawed, but ambitious Unger House Radicals beforehand. There's a logic to how Chris Kelso writes and perceives the world and you need a baseline to appreciate the scope of what he's trying to do in Shrapnel Apartments. Kelso is definitely an oddball writer with its own thing going. Shrapnel Apartments is his most cohesive and atmospheric project to date where the majority of ideas have enough breathing room to work. Not an easy read by any means and you should contort your way in by reading the first book in the series, but this one is worth your time if you're looking for freaky and original existential horror.