Sound FX and Horror Vibes by Jesse Hilson

RUN OFF SUGAR CRYSTAL LAKE. Logan Berry. 11:11 Press, 2021. Unpaginated.

I was listening to an interview between Joe Bielecki and the writer Logan Berry on Bielecki’s podcast Writing the Rapids, which is one of my favorite places to go to get a glimpse into what is currently happening in a more experimental vein of writing. In the geographical layout of indie lit, there are many nooks and crannies and  out of the way enclaves of writers in proximity to each other and doing their own rituals. Presses like 11:11 Press and Inside the Castle operate on another wavelength of small press publishing which is frequently closer to art, and can be puzzling to the outsider which I still consider myself to be. It’s avant garde and requires a certain degree of decipherment, which can be its own form of pleasure if you’re into that. But one emotional vibe amidst all the cerebral labyrinth-corners which it seems fairly easy to lock onto is that of horror. 

Aesthetic discussions taking place at high levels of discourse can probably explain the popularity of horror films and books to our present moment. I won’t guess at it except to say that maybe the media reflects the horrors of the times, as it has done going back for decades if not centuries. To vastly oversimplify, there’s a populist version of this reflection and an artistically advanced version. Logan Berry’s book length work (a poem? a collection of poems?) entitled Run-Off Sugar Crystal Lake defies formal genre but it definitely partakes of what could be admitted by even the most pointy-headed of academics as “horror vibes.”

So to get back to the podcast interview, I had tried twice to listen to it but it was the end of the day and I was sleepy and, no shade on the fascinating interview subject, I fell asleep during it. But I awoke to an audio-play/noise collage at the end of the podcast which made me sit up in bed, wide awake, because it sounded so terrifying. A soundtrack of police or firefighter radio traffic during an evacuation for what sounded like a forest fire gave way to a startling sonic carpet of distorted voices reciting something sinister. I had to know more about it so I ordered Berry’s book.

It’s a challenging one, comprised of fragmentary poetic lines that evade clear apprehension but all seem to wind their way through a forest around a lake at night. Is it the Crystal Lake that Jason Voorhees terrorized in the Friday the 13th movies? Well, sort of, and sort of not. If you are expecting to get a clear homage view of the killer in the hockey mask, he is too elusive in Berry’s retelling; I thought I caught him as one of “The corpse-boys clawing back into Mother’s cervix” or outfitted with a costume: “Combat pants drenched in tadpole muck. Long sleeve camo top ripped to medieval shape. Sack on the head. Knife at the waist.” But I couldn’t be sure and it seemed wrong to be a fangoria fanboy.

It’s not about Jason, or any individual, but a lurking menace. There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the film and the book; it’s more of a tone, an ambience of dread that could have larger symbolic resonances that go beyond the slasher film. The words are like a diabolical recitation. I contacted Berry after I bought the book, not to get my hand held and walked through the campgrounds at Crystal Lake but just to gently register my befuddlement, and he encouraged me to read the words aloud. Berry is a theater director and playwright and it’s fitting to treat the writing in this book as a sort of script that evokes rather than defines or communicates.

I’ve read it three times and if I wanted to persist in seeing something filmic there I could make out something about horny teenagers “tanning on the dock” who may be camp counselors and victims of a Death which is not so incarnate or locatable but just part of the environment near “the lake”: “Encircled by slugs we spoon in sleeping bags, stoned and beer-breath’d, glandes raw from loving.” Elsewhere, “Mosquitos devour our thighs as we touch privates in the canoe.”

As poetry Berry has a knack for turning out appealing, Basil Bunting-esque ribbons of language: “Meadow bedecked in fox-strips. Rabbit-rinds on cankered tree-limbs. Seared plumage.” More nature-death imagery describes how “Minnows and flies eat our eyes as the worms convert us into tree-tissue” and larger thematic wingstrokes are given when “Time’s eyelids tear off, its pupils / expand & engulp the anthrocenturies: / the gaudy gimcracks, the colonnades, / all pensions, respiring specimen, / & remnant goo.”

What will it mean to you when you sit out on the hillside beside the lake with the ominous cricket-noise and take in Berry’s phantasmagoria? I can’t say. Part of me stretching for a topical Message wanted to see it as a refraction of Thanatos triumphant in the prevalent news of coronavirus or US school shootings, but those stretches result in nothing more than the critic needing to visit the masseuse. There’s no relief here for those wanting facile explanations, and maybe that is a major aspect of the horror movies writers like Berry and his cohort are giving us. Significance breaks down and becomes something drifting like algal sputum floating amongst the cattails that is too difficult to collect and field-study. It’s all in the sound effects, which, as we all know, are an integral part of any horror production as they get deep under your skin.

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