Every now and then you read a book and are immediately struck by its cinematic qualities. Novels like Stephen King’s IT and Josh Malerman’s Bird Box seemed destined straight off the press for the big screen and, indeed as it has come to pass, both have ended up there with King’s piece almost ready to release to the blu-ray and DVD crowd and Malerman’s in production even as I write this. But is it possible for a book to be so vividly cinematic as to be impossible to translate well–if at all–from print to film? I believe so, and I believe that Chris Kelso’s short novel, Unger House Radicals, is just such a work.
At the onset of the story, Vincent Bittacker, a young filmmaker, falls in love with serial killer Brandon Swarthy and together they relocate to the infamous Unger House, the location of several brutal serial killings that happened long ago but which seem to have permeated the walls and foundations and seeped into the house’s “personality.” It’s here that they sub-culture called ultra-realism that will eventually become the main foundation for Chris Kelso’s bizarre and wonderful story premise.
Unger House Radicals is a strange and enthralling amalgamation of grindhouse and arthouse style visuals presented in a series of vignettes composed of prose, liquidly sonic lyricism, and stunning artwork, toned down in style yet somehow deeply, viscerally disturbing in its apt darkness and brooding style. Opening with this less than enigmatic yet intriguing passage, Kelso wastes no time demonstrating to us that this is likely going to be something different than anything most of us have read before:
“The two men drag Janice’s half-dissected body out to the front porch and drop her on the wild lawn. She disappears beneath a sea of unploughed yellow strands and broom straw. The sky has a milky hue, Vince realises that he can no longer appreciate the beauty in anything except violence…“
And the book as a whole delivers marvelously on the promise of this one starkly violent but hauntingly poetic paragraph, taking what at first seems to be a simple premise and building it steadily, layer by layer, into a complex, surreal fever dream.
Now before I get too far into this and forget to mention it, when I say that this book, in spite of its arthouse/Grindhouse leanings wouldn’t translate well to cinema, I don’t mean that in a bad way. I simply mean that there’s such a large percentage of the book that takes place more on an internalized psychological landscape that any attempt at filming it would be quite likely to fall on its face, losing much of the original intent and almost certainly becoming a different story entirely. It’s a multilayered, complex tale akin to a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and, as such, wouldn’t be complete without every single one of its components.
I’ve seen a lot of authors and filmmakers take on the concept of the snuff film and convert it to something more than just murder porn for twisted minds, but I’ve seldom seen it handled well or successfully. In the case of Unger House Radicals, Chris Kelso has elevated it to nihilism become grisly, visceral societal norm, transcending the merely philosophical on it’s way to transforming both the mental and physical human landscapes into–as a whole–an apathetic, anesthetized entity heading down a grisly path of murder and self-destruction with a potentially apocalyptic outcome.
Kelso’s first novel in what we now know to be at least a two book series, the second being the soon to be publicly released Shrapnel Apartments, has the odd distinction of being both depressing and darkly enthralling at the same time and I found myself mesmerized from that very first passage all the way to the final page. It took me a shamefully long period of time to get around to reading this one but when I did, I shot through it like a bullet and then turned around and read it again immediately, something I’m glad I did because there’s so much going on in this slight 150pp novel that it’s easy to miss a thing or ten along the way. There are starkly disturbing reveals at almost every turn and you don’t want a single nuance of this remarkable allegory to modern society and pop culture. If you haven’t read Chris Kelso’s work yet, I strongly recommend that you address that problem. Start right here with Unger House Radicals.
Buy Unger House Radicals Here and watch for my review of Shrapnel Apartments coming soon.