What is the abyss?
Several years back, I went hiking in the Catskills with my now-wife, my childhood best friend, and his then-girlfriend in search of some unmapped swimming hole cliffjumps we’d heard about. The first one we came to was quite high, and quite narrow—a slim, deep canyon enclosing a complexly tiered waterfall. There was a large rock at the bottom, on the near side, that you would have to clear, and an even larger rock jutting out from the opposite cliff-face that you would essentially have to angle under midair in order to hit the water safely—a formidable bit of real-time spatial reasoning to be sure.
The girls bowed out immediately and climbed down to explore the rocks below. My friend—a friend whom I’ve always looked up to, always competed against, rarely bested at anything, and if I’m being honest, whose friendship I have, at times, put entirely too much on with regards to my own sense of self-worth—carefully picked his way down the cascades and ensured that the water at their base was in fact deep enough for a high-dive plunge. He too declined to come back up and jump.
That left only me, still standing at the unmarked trail’s highest point, examining all the angles, weighing the odds of success vs. failure (failure, in this instance, almost certainly being death). I asked my friend for reassurance that the water was deep enough. He said that it was. I asked him to throw a stick down to mark the spot I should aim for. He obliged. I looked to my then-serious-girlfriend/now-wife, (by this time stretched out and sunning on the very rock I needed to clear in order to hit the water) to throw a wet blanket over the proceedings and bail me out of my bravado. She smiled behind her sunglasses and said it was my call.
This was the moment I thought about during much of Chris Kelso’s achingly personal and uncommonly sincere Interrogating the Abyss, a collection of stories, poems, essays, and interviews about that ineffable, impassable space that I think it’s fair to say everyone on Earth has, at some time or another, both wanted to, and felt unable to cross over. The abyss is a multitude of things, both huge and infinitesimally small, and Chris Kelso has some questions to ask of it.
His investigation kicks off with the abyss in its most common, relatable form—a choice most of us likely make every day: to go out and brave the perilous ego-jeopardies of social interaction, or return home to our ever-cozier media cocoons where we can better control how much we do (or don’t) connect with other people. Post(ish)-COVID, this has become, in many ways, the question of our times. Why do I need to go anywhere? Or even, why should I have to? Why, exactly, can’t the world do without me? What do I have to gain by continuing to take this risk? Is any job/relationship/destination/experience worth getting sick for—worth potentially dying for—when I can increasingly do almost anything I want (or a reasonable facsimile) from the comfort of my own home? Why, Kelso’s brief introduction asks us (and pretty clearly himself ) is even this narrowest abyss one I should bother to cross?
Having quickly established the inclusive, warmly endearing tone he’ll maintain throughout the entire book—a tone that, even as it plumbs the depths of depression and anxiety, never fails to reach out and remind us that he doesn’t have all the answers to these questions—that he’s chasing them on his own behalf, as much as ours—Kelso subsequently takes things all the way back to the boldly naïve transgressions of childhood; the reading, listening, and watching of things which had been theretofore forbidden. As a highly churched child who fought tooth-and-nail for every R-rated movie, Parental Advisory-stickered album, and banned book I brought home (and consumed more in secret than I can even count), I connected with Kelso’s essay about his early viewings of Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock (for me it was probably A Clockwork Orange), and the intense feelings that arose after that first baby-step toward willful rebellion; that first tiny (if huge-seeming) risk rewarded; that newfound sense that there are entire worlds which have been kept from you, and that those worlds are somehow more important—more real—than the one you knew before. In these moments, the abyss is but a single fired synapse; the bite of an apple; the gap between knowing something, and never again being able to unknow it.
From here, Kelso naturally widens his field of inquiry, setting out with his newlost innocence in search of newfound compatriotism. Much of Interrogating the Abyss—the bulk of it, really—is made up of interviews, conducted by Kelso (by his own admission a lonely, gloomy, and at times perceptibly needy fellow) (AKA, a writer) with his creative peers and artistic idols. Here the abyss is surely a tad wider, if no less familiar—the vast, self-doubting spacewalk of the unsolicited invitation—the “Will they answer?” “Will they be nice?” “Will they like my work?” “Will they like me?” of it all—both the void of eternal loneliness, and the scant distance between two lonely people sitting at a bar, wishing the other would talk first. But again, Kelso crosses it with abandon. Running the gamut from the aforementioned Giovinazzo, to contemporaries like Evan Isoline, Paul Curran, and my fellow Athenian Jordan Rothacker (who I definitely need to read), to long-tenured titans of the boundary-pushing bizarre like Iain Sinclair, Ellen Datlow, and Dennis Cooper, these multifarious exchanges have the delightful dual effect of allowing us to share in both the nervous excitement Kelso feels as he unabashedly geeks out over meeting his heroes, and the joy he experiences at finding them almost uniformly friendly and generous toward his project.
As interesting and well-crafted as the stories and poems included in Interrogating the Abyss are (and they are excellent—“Contiguity to Annihilation” and “Tidal Bore” being notable standouts), they almost feel like adornments amidst these real-world inquiries—metaphorical totems propping up the questions he and his correspondents tackle head on. The resultant plexus of expansive, likeminded conversation—wheeling freely, as such conversation notoriously does, between the broad, universal experience (the Audrey Szasz section is maybe the most affecting six pages in the entire book), and the uniquely specific (the Chris Zeischegg chapter is a brief window into a libertine world most of us will never know); the current state of the publishing business (we could all use a friend like Matthew Stokoe), and why and how people make art (take your pick)—somehow threads the needle between celebration and commiseration; hope and despair. It is here, in crossing the abyss between souls—between admiring someone from afar and meeting them face-to-face—that Kelso truly shows his work, and finds his best answers to all those thorny “whys” with which he first began:
Why do we leave our safe houses? To see what else is out there.
Why do we seek the verboten? To better know ourselves.
Why do we talk to strangers? To see if anyone gives a shit.
Why do we cross the abyss? To get to the other side.
I jumped, in case you were wondering, and since you’re reading this, clearly I lived to tell the tale. But the reason I began with that story in the Catskills is because, for me, it touches on all the different versions of what Kelso found as he shouted interrogations down into the abyss and patiently awaited their bounceback replies. The abyss is the distance I felt between myself and my best friend—a person whom I’ve now known for almost 30 years—who knows me better than just about anyone on Earth—and yet, with whom I’ve never stopped wanting to feel closer; with whom I’ve never stopped wanting to share more. The abyss is the last five feet or so of space that I covered at the end of that cliffjump—the point at which my body realized it had passed any sense-mnemonic frame of reference it had of previous falls, and yet was still falling—the point at which I instinctively, autonomically tucked my arms and legs into a cannonball, not to effect a bigger splash, but to best protect my bones from what my brain was now screaming was their certain atomization. And the abyss is the howling, reverberant wasteland of potential nothingness between this objectively dumb decision and the outsize harm it could have inflicted—on my friends, on my then-serious-girlfriend/now-wife, on my family back home, and on any further good I might have done in the world had I not thoughtlessly dashed myself upon the rocks. In short, it is the distance, whatever distance, large or small, that stands between us and risk. The entire ocean, and the single stroke between safety, and no longer being able to see the shore.
Sitting here now, I can say that I’m both glad I took that by-and-large indefensibly dangerous leap, and that I also regularly look back on it with mortifying regret, and a kind of visceral fear. In my most fancifully dour moments, I’ve even wondered if I actually did die that day, and have been wandering the Earth ever since in some deluded, Bruce-Willis-in-The-Sixth-Sense state of oblivious incorporeality. But that’s the thing about the abyss—you don’t really know what it is until you jump. And in as much as any of us can know what’s real, I seem to still be here, crossing smaller abysses—like the one between writing this article and hoping someone will read it—with more ease and frequency every day. And in as much as I’m still here, I can say (with a little perceptibly needy fandom of my own) that I’ve read very few books in my life that rang so authentically, nakedly true as Interrogating the Abyss. Chris Kelso wears his heavy heart on his sleeve in a way that far more successful, or even objectively better writers wouldn’t dare. He braves an openness that lets you feel everything—the very risks he took in putting this material together—right along with him, harnessing his considerable empathy in the name of igniting yours. And thanks to his courage, the abyss between him, his interviewees, and his readers, now feels a little bit smaller; a little bit lighter; a little bit easier for all of us to cross. At least that’s how I felt when I finished it. I hope he does too.
Interrogating the Abyss, by Chris Kelso. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Apocalypse Party, July 2021. 168 pages. $13.99, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.