Books In Conversation
Logan Berry with Kathleen Rooney
(11:11 Press, 2021)
I’ve been a fan of Logan Berry ever since he showed up in one of my creative writing workshops at DePaul University back in 2014. There, he stood out for his voracious array of literary, cinematic, and pop cultural frameworks, his offbeat sensibility and eerie wisdom, and his seemingly inexhaustible skill for the (un)canny juxtaposition of the personal, the political, the absurdly comic, and the flat-out horrifying. It’s a thrill to get to ask him questions about his first—but certainly not last—full-length hybrid/poetry collection
Run-Off Sugar Crystal Lake, released this fall from 11:11 Press. The poems unfold at Camp Crystal Lake, (in)famous setting of the Friday the 13th franchise. The counselors are fucking, doing drugs, and performing plays on an outdoor stage, while the campers are left to their own amusements, and the Jasons are running around scaring each other. Everyone at the camp is also at the mercy of climate catastrophe. It's one of the most exciting hybrid books I’ve read in recent memory for the way it draws on poetry, prose, and visual imagery to explode the tropes of horror films and to illuminate the fear, frustration, and demented giddiness of living through an ongoing global cataclysm. The publisher calls it “a textualized slasher—brought to you in moldy technicolor splendor—sure to fuel your nightmares for years to come,” and every page of Run-Off Sugar Crystal Lake delivers on that threatening promise. Berry and I corresponded over email in late summer of 2021, one of the hottest on record, and a time during which (like most of recorded history and like slasher movies themselves) human beings were inflicting astonishing violence upon one another with no signs of stopping.
Kathleen Rooney (Rail): One of the most striking things about your book’s already striking title is that part of it is struck-through:
Run-Off Sugar Crystal Lake. How did you decide to name the book?
Logan Berry: “Run-Off Sugar” was the working title. I put a slash through it when “Crystal Lake” became a possibility. Ultimately, I liked the look of it: like a knife slash or waste that refuses to flush down the drain.
Rail: The book is designed inside and out within an inch of its life, and I mean that as a compliment. The page spreads are adorned with red spatters and orbs and grayscale patterns and unsettling images—nudes and bodily fluids and unforgiving landscapes—with the text (“NO PREACHING ONLY MOURNING,” for instance, and “mother-cackles hit hypoxic highs”) in careful harmony or discord. How did this layout come about?
Berry: The design was a collaboration with the prolific writer/designer/multimedia artist Mike Corrao. The initial manuscript I sent to 11:11 was smaller. I imagined it as a notepad from a detective or psychologist visiting Crystal Lake and the adjoining townships, as crime scene notes towards a screenplay, mixed with personal garbage. Mike proposed we make the text more haptic. I sent him over 500 images for inspiration and wrote him two essays towards a new text-object. We went from there.
The maximalist layout creates a context for itself; it becomes a polluted prop, a blunt object, or a colorful door stopper. It's aware of itself as landfill. In another sense, it gives the reader's imagination more poison candy to gnaw on.
Rail: Yum. How did the design process unfold?
Berry: Mike did the layout. He'd send me an updated version, I'd comb through it and send notes, he'd comb through it and interpret my notes and add his own additions. It was a thrill to witness his work. Also, after our initial correspondences, I wrote 70 new pages. The biggest challenge was knowing when to stop.
Rail: “This book is dedicated to no one” you say in your “Thank You” section (which actually thanks a lot of people)—why?
Berry: I wouldn't want to frame anyone for my writing.
Rail: The original Friday the 13th came out over 41 years ago on May 9, 1980. Do you remember when you first happened to see it? How many times do you think you’ve watched it over the years?
Berry: When I was 10 or 11, my dad had a bootleg satellite dish card that let us get all the channels for free. I tuned into the channel that repeated JASON X on marathon. Most of it transpires on a spaceship. That was my first encounter with the series. I watched it dozens of times, usually switching between that and Not Another Teen Movie, Scary Movie 2, The Ring, the first Jackass movie, and the Playboy channel. Horror, farce, pornography, and parody have a circuitry seared into my brain.
Next, I remember seeing Freddy vs. Jason in theaters, though I hadn't seen a single Nightmare on Elm Street movie. I didn't watch the original Friday the 13th till 2015. I was miserable at my call-center job and decided I wanted to watch the entire series. I'd watch the movies at home and read about behind-the-scenes stuff when I was supposed to be working.
My first actual encounter with Jason wasn't in the movies. I was trick-or-treating with some friends when we were like six and seven, and we saw a giant Jason dummy on the hillside of a homemade haunted house. My friend's older sister explained the lore, smirking a lot because it clearly freaked us out, and then Jason lunged at her! It was a guy in a costume. She cried a lot, and our night ended early.
Rail: Whoa. Did Friday the 13th instantly capture your imagination and present itself as something you’d want to write about?
Berry: It developed over time. When "Crystal Lake" became a possible title, the texts I was tinkering with—everything from transcribed marginalia I made on work documents to decades-old poems—presented themselves anew. They had a setting and atmosphere to which they could convert and refract. Different voices availed themselves. The new production began.
Rail: The Friday the 13th franchise now comprises 12 movies and counting, mostly constellating their characters and plots around Jason Voorhees, the boy who drowned at Camp Crystal Lake because the horny teen counselors were too preoccupied having sex and goofing off to properly attend to him. What’s the appeal of slasher movies in general, and this one in particular, and why does it lend itself to seemingly endless repetition and sequel-ization?
Berry: Slashers are creepy and titillating. Novel plot twists notwithstanding, their tropes are well established to the point of cliché, but that's not why people watch them. Slashers aren't meant to be narratively inventive or incisive; rather, it's about the visual flow, drawing the viewers' eye to the surface, towards a purely retinal (il)logic of textures, grains, cuts, skins, fabrics, makeup, synthetic blood, shadows, lights, angles, costumes, etc. As giallo director Lucio Fulci explains it, "There's no logic to it, just a succession of images." He calls them absolute films, "with all the horrors of our world."
Friday the 13th is a rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween, which recontextualized the giallo genre in the American suburbs. The moralizing aspects of the Friday the 13th series are a distinctly American addition to the formula, a puritanical anxiety about both "justifying" the evil deeds and garnering empathy for the lead girl's eventual survival. It's not (w)hol(l)y about Justice, though; it's sentimentality. I'd wager this is also what makes the series so successful. It adds a (bitter-)sweetness, a ham-fisted heart, and a moral bowtie for personal exculpation from the sleaze that gets the people going.
And sequelization happens because the films make tons of money. Production costs are low, and they're always well-attended, regardless of critics' disparagements.
Rail: When you were working on this manuscript, you emailed me at one point and said, “I'm interested in trying to turn my poems into plays and my plays into poems, so I do imagine these poems 'spoken' or 'sung' like shards of dialogue or stage directions.” Can you say more about this impulse toward the blending of genre?
Berry: Thinking about theatrical modes through poetry and vice versa attunes me to the medium’s raw materials—to their specific frequencies or forces, their particular qualities of "there-ness"—to relinquish any fallacious notions of authenticity, and to embrace their artifice. Although it's impossible, I'd like to dissolve into the work. Theater is a space for masks, for smoke and mirrors, and synchronized heartbeats. Poetry is a space for incantation and psychosis. Together, they become cocoon-like, gooey & messy. As I've argued elsewhere, the real today is far more theatrical than the theater. I'm interested in an Ultratheater, in a total work of art.
Rail: Also, you have a beautiful singing voice, and a pretty specific, eclectic musical taste. What role does music play in your personal life and in your life as a writer?
Berry: That's kind of you to say. I need music, but like anything else it can be over-consumed and lose its luster. I try to not overindulge. And although I can sing, I can't sing on beat. I don't understand music theory and have no sense of rhythm. Nonetheless, I edit texts towards their sonic quality. Though other goals concurrently persist (and are oftentimes at odds with each other), sound is always a priority. Sound has its own alien way of thinking, and I like to follow where it goes.
Rail: Who would you want to do the soundtrack for this book?
Berry: My good friend Nick Meryhew, an exceptional composer and sound designer. If Nick were busy and I had an unlimited budget, I’d see about hiring Oneohtrix Point Never, Metro Boomin, and Sematary, ideally in collaboration with each other and with full access to the Harry Manfredini archives. If they were still alive, I'd invite the late Scott Walker and the late SOPHIE to join in as well.
Rail: You’ve had some intense jobs over the years, especially working in such institutions as the Cook County Jail and a group home for at-risk youth. I kept thinking of this idea of institutions—especially ones that are created to contain and to shape young people—in connection to the summer camp in this book. Have your jobs over the years impacted your thinking and writing?
Berry: Many of the texts that became Crystal Lake were written into notebooks during heightened emotional states after escalated or demoralizing experiences at my various jobs. In that sense, the book isn't purely fan fiction; it siphons in the venom of the Real. I sublimate everything into the writing, for better or for worse.
Rail: Earlier this year, you moved from Chicago to the Watsonville area of California. Does the location in which you think and live and write impact the writing itself, and in what ways?
Berry: It absolutely has an impact; I can’t shut off the ambient energies around me. I'm part of that ambience, and, from many angles, indistinct from it. Our technological era is alienating, but I can’t help but feel enmeshed in my circumstances. What nourishes and poisons me is a concoction specific to the specific surroundings.
Rail: This book feels very much about environmental degradation and human-imposed destruction, like on the all-black page that reads “THE FOREST ASWARM WITH ARTISTS / BURN DOWN THE FOREST” to name just one instance. What’s your relationship to the environment and the ecology in which you live?
Berry: Eco-death disturbs me, but I strive to not confuse my personal impact on the environment with that of humanity as a whole. I do my best. The earth won’t miss us. But I also agree with Charlotte Gainsbourg's character in Antichrist when she says, "Nature is Satan’s Church." I respect nature with the utmost fear.
Rail: If you got to be in charge of programming a horror film festival, what would be your top choices?
Berry: I would program Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Friday the 13th V: A New Beginning, Paranormal Activity V: The Marked Ones, and The Exorcist III. Each is a self-contained outlier in its respective series. I think that would make a decent theme.
Rail: What writers in the horror genre do you count as your influences? Outside the horror genre?
Berry: I'm often drawn to works that invoke horror aesthetics but don't always adhere to the genre's strictures. Works by Georg Trakl, Sylvia Plath, Rachel Lilim, Olivia Cronk, Ai, Gary J Shipley, and Sara Tuss Efrik come to mind. Looking at the list, I think a common thread among them is atmosphere. Their texts conjure uncanniness, like something horrific has happened or is about to happen, like walking through the dark to check the fuse box after the lights go out or wading through the aftermath of a plane crash.
In terms of straight horror, I love Poe, Clive Barker's early short stories, Shintaro Kago, and B.R. Yeager.
Rail: What do you get out of horror—both films and books—that you can’t get elsewhere?
Berry: Fake demons and operatic ruptures of Time.
Rail: Your book is scary and chaotic, but also really scatological and absurd and despairing. I cannot help but laugh out loud every time I read the page that says, “The Devil pooed in my mouth. Is that true?” To me, every emotion gets more profound when tempered by comedy, so I appreciate your infusions of humor here. What, to you, makes horror successful and what makes it fail?
Berry: Glad it elicited that mix of feelings from you. Indeed, I think horror is most effective when you're not exactly sure how to feel, when it's so overwhelming and sublime, that you almost have to "decide" later how you'll want to remember it. That's why low-budget horror is usually more effective to me than the glossier fare—the schlock is so visceral and absurd and nightmarishly unlike what it's trying to represent.
Rail: Of what does a typical day in the life of Logan Berry consist?
Berry: Unfortunately, it's been unpredictable and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Rail: What book do you think should be added to all high school summer reading lists and why?
Berry: I'll suggest two: James Bridle's New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. He does a good job elucidating the history of the internet, defining precisely what it is in terms of material infrastructure, as well as the entities that invested in its development. It's pessimistic, but I bet it would be a good conversation starter. And Mika's No Tiger, for the thrill of it.
Rail: What activity do most summer camps not offer that you wish they did?
Rail: Permission—you seem to grant yourself a great deal as a writer. And forgiveness—you seem to grant it to your characters. Or at least to present them without moralizing or excessive critique, as when you matter-of-factly write, “We take the children to the petting zoo. / We smoke some dabs in the outhouse for morale.” What role do those forces have in your writing? Your life? The world?
Berry: A great question, and a tough one. I won’t be able to do it justice, but: not enough forgiveness, at any scale you mention. It’s a virtue, and virtues need cultivating. Where retribution and expediency are rewarded, you'll find a lot of casualties. In terms of permission, somebody should probably shut me up.
Rail: One of the many aspects of Crystal Lake I appreciated is the way that you encourage autonomy in the reader by giving us a lot to take in. It’s a real seven-layer dip of a book, super-dense with strata and substrata. But you also just kind of put all these layers in front of us without exactly telling us what to do. How do you think a reader should ideally approach your book, and how much was audience reception in your mind as you were writing?
Berry: I wrote the book I'd want to read. Not to be obtuse, but I don't know if there's an ideal approach. If anyone reads it, I'll be curious what they think and how they approached it. My guess is most will likely go through it quickly and then shelve it. If I'm lucky, they'll say something nice about it online, though I wouldn’t put money on it. Maybe somebody will burn it—that seems like the most practical approach.
Rail: In her book Forms, Caroline Levine argues, “It is the work of form to make order. And this means that forms is the stuff of politics.” What do you see as the relationship between aesthetic form and politics, if any? (Also, sometimes these days when people talk about the “politics” of a work of art, what they really mean is the morality of a work of art, which is something else entirely, so feel free to talk about that, too, if you want.)
Berry: Art is political, but I'm afraid that many mistake art for politics. Politics is an art and uses art. It's tricky.
Rail: You studied philosophy at DePaul, right? What appeals to you about that area of study? Which philosophers inspire you the most?
Berry: Yes, that's right. I landed on that because I was 19 and foolish. I should have gone to trade school. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't love it; I really did. I enjoyed the rigor of it. I enjoyed thinking about thinking, about the different methods, their systems and assumptions.
The lives of philosophers are largely boring or tragic (and usually both), but Simone Weil and Diogenes of Sinope led inspirationally terrible lives to practice what they preached.
Rail: Speaking of philosophers, Nietzsche suggested that art is often an eruption of that which gets repressed in the modern social order, and said that making art requires a kind of “boldness,” one which is “mad, absurd, and sudden in its expression.” Crystal Lake feels bold in that way. It also feels sort of shocking in the way that some experimental or avant-garde writing strives to be shocking—to somehow create a work of art that could forcefully alter reality. First, do you consider yourself to be “experimental” or “avant-garde?” Next, do you think that a work of art can force reality to become different?
Berry: I don't consider myself either because I don't think about it while working. If someone wanted to classify the work that way, I wouldn't object to it, since it would be true to their experience of it. And I don't know if a work of art can alter reality, but I think it's worth a shot. It depends on how we want to define it. If a car counts as a work of art, for example, then I think we have an answer.
Rail: And because you enjoyed Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, did you ever worry that your avant-gardism (if that’s what this approach is in Crystal Lake) might shift into cruelty?
Berry: Not really. I don't aspire to shock or to cruelty. I like extremes, though, and exploring the limits of my thoughts. I write out of anxiety and pain. I'm not into hurting others for the sake of art, though I'm not against violations against myself. Truth be told, the most outlandish shit in the book, to me, the stuff that feels contrived by a pissed-off teenage nihilist, is the stuff I ripped directly from reality. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I guess this means you can include me in your list of garden-variety autofiction writers. Perhaps that's even more apt than "experimental" or "avant-garde."
Rail: I know that you’re kind of a fan of personality tests. Why?
Berry: I usually take them when I'm feeling self-destructive, so I think I use them as a means of enacting distance from myself. My recommendation is to take a couple of popular tests—the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs, for example—compare them, then look up "the dark side of (whatever your personality types are)" and see what comes up. That can be rather amusing, especially if it's a tirade in a forum. But the best thing to do is to take a couple popular tests then look up "famous people with (whatever your personality types are)." According to the anonymous experts online, the only celebrity who has both my Myers Briggs and Enneagram personality types is Osama Bin Laden.
Rail: The jacket copy on the—trippy and marvelous—cover of the book says that it’s a “study of the death-obsessed, apocalypse-obsessed,
apathetic-sentimental, quaking-at-drugged-out-dance-parties, working-at-low-wage-late-stage-capitalism-jobs, ditching-summer-camp-activities-and-duties Teenager.” I’ve been thinking about how Walter Benjamin said that “humankind’s […] self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.” He said that in 1935 and one could argue that since then, the cultural sea we’re all obliged to swim in has remained just as shallow and doom-obsessed. Because of the self-destructive palls of apocalypse and mortality that infuse Crystal Lake, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the relationships you see between annihilation and aesthetics.
Berry: I don't know what Benjamin means by this exactly, so I can't comment directly. I will try to do so at a slant. Millennialism has been around for thousands of years, but the doomy climate of 2021 does have a particular aura. What feels unique to me is its ubiquity, and I don't think that death-obsession is a pleasure, necessarily. Many people can't imagine a future for themselves, so they cope. In the absence of something worth living for or dying for, people feel doomed. Deaths of despair are at an all-time-high in the US and rising. Better to let art subsume the pain than to let it fester elsewhere, I think.
Rail: You and your spouse, Eileen, care for a very great, very old dog named Chomp who occupies a crucial position in your lives right now. I am consistently touched by how patient and compassionate you are regarding all his many special needs. How does his presence in your life shape your worldview?
Berry: Chomp just celebrated his 16th birthday this past September. We took over caring for him after Eileen's grandparents could no longer do so due to their own age-related infirmities. He's lived across the United States—in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Illinois, and California. He's lived a lot of lives. He's still agile and inquisitive, but his mental faculties have severely deteriorated within the last couple of years. He has an inoperable growth on his cheek. He helps us practice patience because he requires it from us. He keeps us gentle and observant. He disturbs us while we're sleeping with occasional night terrors. One time, he fell asleep on Eileen's chest, and she had a marathon of nightmares—a real-life production of Fuseli's The Nightmare! We love him a lot.
Rail: It can be an expected, an annoying, or even an excessively capitalist (for its fetishization of productivity) question, but I’m going to ask you advisedly because I know you keep a lot of irons in the fire. What projects are you working on now and what’s next?
Berry: I don't mind that question at all. Mike is helping me redesign a book that'll be out in 2023. It's our second large-scale collaboration together, and now that we're comfortable working together, we're pushing the process even farther than before. I'm currently working on three manuscripts. I'll give some details on one of them, since it's thematically related to this interview: it's an ekphrasis of the Saw series with the working title SAWPERA. It's in a similar mode to Crystal Lake, but a lot stupider and even more horrific.