PSYCHROS, a CLASH Books novel by Charlene Elsby, reviewed by Alex Carrigan

When a person commits suicide, is it merely the final event of the victim’s life, or is it actually the first event in the remainder of the lives of those they left behind? The act of ending one’s life is never just a singular choice, but the result of numerous choices that doesn’t leave just one victim in its wake. And what does happen to someone who sees all of these choices and actions and realizes that there may actually be something more insidious in the act of suicide than one may imagine.

In her latest novel from CLASH Books, Charlene Elsby follows an unnamed narrator in the wake of her boyfriend’s suicide. The narrator of Psychros has to deal with the aftermath of their lover’s death, but it’s in the moments she has been left alone that her mind begins to go to new places, and she begins to do things she previously kept in the back of her mind. Elsby, a philosophy doctor, weaves this tale of loss and grief with existential dread and the slow breakdown of its protagonist, bringing her to new and deadly heights.

The descent we follow is one that begins like other tales of bereavement, following the narrator as she attends her lover’s funeral and deals with interactions from those who know her. However, the departure in Psychros is that Elsby’s protagonist tunes out virtually everyone around her, even her sense of self. We know virtually nothing about this character and the life she lived except for what she allows us to know and who she allows to enter her sphere. Even her dead boyfriend becomes an enigmatic “he” or “him,” blurring him with the male characters she does deign worthy of names and recognition.

Most of the narrator’s interactions with those around her are based on how she viewed them in relation to her former boyfriend, and even then, she breaks them down further based on the limited depth she gives them. Jeff, the person she hooks up with following the funeral, is characterized as “tall,” and it’s not until they’re at her home that she allows him to be more, primarily when she undresses him further and takes in his body during intercourse. Men who later enter the story are looked at primarily on the moment she sees them, and some are degraded further the longer she spends with them to the point that their names almost feel as arbitrary as characteristics like “tall.”

It’s as the story progresses that Psychros begins to reveal itself as a psychological horror story. Here, the terror is that the narrator has been confronted with a shocking presentation of death (having discovered her boyfriend’s body) and now has begun to see how minimal the difference between life and death is. Much like Descartes’ wax candle, the people around her may change their form, whether it be by the passage of time and the encroach of death, but she could easily wrestle control of that phenomenon much like her boyfriend did.

The narrator of Psychros’ reaction to the death of her boyfriend is fairly nihilistic, but the fascination comes from how this develops in the novel’s short tale. Hooking up with her boyfriend’s friend after the funeral is minor compared to when she gives strangers oral sex in a Starbucks bathroom and to when she progresses to bringing blood into the bedroom. Even then, how culpable in all of this is left for us to interpret. She at times wonders if this is an effect of her boyfriend’s death, as if his act of self-violence has cursed her to bring violence to others. Perhaps her constant thinking the phrase “fuck him” is more than just her cursing the man before her. Maybe all men around her are now her dead lover. Or maybe “him” has evolved into some nebulous force she has to destroy. And even then, does that mean she’s willingly making this choice because, like her boyfriend, she too longs to wrestle control over life and death away from nature?

Psychros is a haunting escalation of grief and trauma. The tale is terrifying because not only does it seem entirely plausible, but it’s worrying to think that this could also be a potential option for those dealing with this kind of loss. Psychros and Elsby look at what happens when one becomes unchained from morality as a response to an action they can’t fully understand. It’s a tale where just uttering “fuck him” can be both a calming action or one that precedes violence, and it makes you worried about who could become the person who chooses the latter.  

Psychros, by Charlene Elsby. CLASH Books, October 2021. 140 pages. $14.95, paper.

Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Virginia. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Empty Mirror, Gertrude Press, Quarterly West, Whale Road Review, Stories About Penises (Guts Publishing, 2019), Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear (Et Alia Press, 2020), ImageOutWrite Vol. 9, and Last Day, First Day Vol. 2. He is also the co-editor of Please Welcome to the Stage…: A Drag Literary Anthology with House of Lobsters Literary.

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