'The fictions we partake of,' writes Seattle-based Damian Murphy, 'as with the fictions we create, bear consequences for each of us that lie beyond the understanding and control even of their authors.' (From 'The Scourge and the Sanctuary,' p.33).
This is particularly the case with psychological studies of protagonists often labelled under 'uncanny.' As a writer, you can be writing about yourself without even realising it; or, if you do, your raison d'etre can be buried deep in your subconscious, manifesting phobias and hang-ups in dreamscapes that seem, intentionally, to distance the self.
This title comprises three short tales – 'The Scourge and the Sanctuary,' 'Permutations of the Citadel' and 'A Book of Alabaster' - and two novellas – 'The Salamander Angel' and the first-time published 'The Music of Exile.'
'The Scourge and the Sanctuary' is a a one-sided correspondence from Theodora at 'River Station South' to Sebastian; two 'river reporters.' interspersed with an objectively related scene where her interests are revealed as much astral as environmental. She relates following three people into a local building that has caught her interest and finds she has crossed a threshold into a metaphysical world that infiltrates her very soul, shifting her perception to a new form of reality; a plot device that links each of the following tales daughters - and sons - of apostasy.
'Permutations of the Citadel' states how Martin 'had always felt that he might find the means by which to pass beyond the veil of appearance and into something altogether different.' In this case, "the cathedral of the senses, he was certain, concealed a hidden chancel." A quote that links the interests of all five tales main characters. Martin shares reception duties with astral master Algernon on the nightshift of a remote hotel. The job is a mere diversion for a pair with far greater, esoteric interests. For their own amusement, Algernon proposes re-organising the layout of the map that hangs beside the staircase. As Algernon commences with its re-drawing, Martin soon discovers his changes are already taking place upstairs... My favourite of the three short tales.
'The Salamander Angel' is the most evocative entry, but also the most traditional; invocations are summoned from the perspective of three sets of characters at a church; a set-up, at least, with more than a hint of Wheatley. The climactic scene of a horde of angels coming to life upon their pedestals, with calmly murderous intent, is memorable.
I wonder if old computer games' simplicity, calling more on a gamer's imagination, was the inspiration for 'A Book of Alabaster.' Stefan lives alone in a lookout tower on top of a house. To re-engage with an interest from childhood, he purchases a secondhand computer game and console, primitive and long unavailable. When it seemingly becomes infected by a malevolent bug that lives within the program, his – and its – reality begin to merge into a frightening new game of cat-and-mouse.
In 'The Music of Exile,' an opulent, snowbound poets' retreat draws would-be poet Karina there for the third time in as many years. Already there are three senior literati, including star poet Anna. Karina – modest about her own efforts – is set an esoteric task by her, with no clear goal, until the former develops a second-sight, which - on successful completion – may, or may not, afford Karina a measure of her mentor's genius. The impression left unspoken is whether or not this is more a trap to self-destruction by an ingenious rival.
Decadent exotica and rites of passage initiations, the territory depicted here, too often succumb to prose far too purple. Murphy just manages its restraint, succeeding in a balance between taut, economic narrative and novel evocations that well maintain the concentration.