Ginger Nuts of Horror
By George Daniel Lea
The title alone is enough to snare interest; a tacit promise: I am here to engage, to intrigue; to beguile and distress. For this reader, one that almost always seduces, but rarely satisfies. All too often, such superficial impressions fail to swell into anything more, once the cover is open, the pages have begun turning.
It's therefore a rare and radiant pleasure to report that Daugters of Apostasy, a collection of short stories and novellas by Damien Murphy, collects on its oaths and then some.
I have a penchant for work that doesn't particularly care if the audience knows what it's talking about; works of cyberpunk that throw ideas and images and concepts at the reader, befuddling and bemusing, but also bewitching through their sheer variety and abtruseness, surreal, Lovecraftian horror that reaches for the indescribable; concepts and images so bizarre and distressing that the human imagination isn't quite the equal of comprehending them.
Daughters of Apostasy has precisely that quality: from the first tale onwards, its stories beguile by befuddling, drawing the reader into realms of experience that are familiar and almost banal to the characters that inhabit them, but alien to the point of surreal for common or garden humanity.
Tales of occultism and bizarre metaphysics, of nostalgia that becomes a gateway to other and terrifying realms, of characters and creatures that inhabit entirely other states of being...the collection exercises that wonderful characteristic of throwing the audience headlong into situations that have little in the way of exposition, affording them credit in terms of their intelligence and imagination; that they will be intuitive enough to fill in the gaps themselves, and derive significance based not only on what they perceive, but what they project.
This is one of the rarest and most precious qualities in all fiction; stories that treat their audience with a modicum of respect.
I respond VERY well to this, and can forgive any number of stylistic or technical sins as a result. The stories collected herein -which range from short stories to small novellas- all exemplify it; they expect their audience to understand without being spoonfed; to intuit significance even when they are not familiar with the language, traditions and imagery unde discussion.
Occultism and ritual magic features widely throughout, The Scourge and the Sanctuary, for example, focussing upon characters who are clearly adept magicians and practitoners; who speak to one another (via the medium of written letters, the story recalling the journalistic styles of mid-to-late Victorian horror and science fiction) naturally and without deviation or explanation, lending the communciations an air of intrigue and mystery, especially since the topics under discussion are so esoteric and difficult to discern. Whilst the factor may prove alienating to some who wish for their horror fiction to be immediate and explicit, for this reader, the escalating sense of uncanny events occuring beyond immediate sight or experience; the accrual of implied back mythology and the innate mystery and poetry of the language utilised, lends this story -and others- a degree of depth and resonance that is rich, deep; almost decadent in its indulgence.
Writer Damian Murphy is a master at evoking esoterica and making it feel legitimate, as though the characters know what they are talking about, even if the reader doesn't. That air of quiet authority, of casual certainty, is what lends the otherwise esoteric and abstruse subjects verisimilitude; a certain resonance of the real, that doesn't require wider reading or explanation to justify itself.
That said, those familiar with occult and alchemical traditions, abstruse mythology and religious symbolism, will find plenty to occupy them here, as, even when the rites and subjects under discussion are totally contrived, they still reference enough of traditions that operate beyond the page to make themselves feel real and legitimate.
This is particularly apparent in stories such as Permutations of the Citadel (a personal favourite) in which images and settings that might otherwise appear banal intermingle with those that are perfectly bizarre and abstruse, the characters that occupy them seeming to regard neither one as any more unusual than the other, operating, as they do, in states of knowledge and experience that are far removed from the common or garden, but which are day to day for them. This does not have the effect of robbing the images of surreal, reality-warping horror of their impact; if anything, the manner in which they intermingle with the ostensibly commonplace has the effect of stealing the reader's breath, emphasised by contrast and the natural manner in which one sifts into the other.
Characters have a penchant for treating the bizarre and abstruse phenomena and situations they encounter with a degree of casuistry and familiarity (though not universally so), which in turn lends them a particular intrigue: what have these characters been through, what do they know, who and what are they?; A certain world-weary sardonism that is endearing and serves to inform the implied mythologies they are part of: much of what makes these stories work is what happens off the page; back mythology is rarely explicitly detailed. Instead, readers must discern and infer what they can from character experience and interaction: the characters and their backgrounds therefore become as much the reader's creations as the writer's; the former obliged to imagine beyond the bounds of what the latter provides in order to get the most out of them.
This is the principle strength of Daughter's of Apostasy as a whole; it is a collection that understands the nature of audience engagement in a way that very, very few do; it does not go out of its way to spoonfeed the reader every detail, such that the stories sometimes have the intense and bewildering qualities of hallucinations or fever dreams. This is also likely to be a factor that alienates certain audiences, as it requires a degree of engagement and energy that they may not be willing to provide.
For those that do, they will find something strange and rare and beautiful, here; stories that are consumed by particular ideas and images, that maintain a strange and distressing allure, in which personal mythologies and internal landscapes bleed out into reality, or reality exposes itself as being not entirely solid or certain; the very notion a nonsense, as apt to fray or break, shift or transform as wet clay or paint, beneath the right pressures.
Place and setting are all important, here; every story in the collection exhibiting an extremely strong and vivid sense of environment, many of them described in intimate and precise detail (perhaps over-described in some instances, which can clash with the elegance and suggestive nature of the rest of the prose, though there are often reasons why settings and environments are paid such specific attention), which has the effect of lending the stories a painterly quality, certain scenes and compositions extremely vivid in terms of their architectural detail and colour, especially in stories such as the aforementioned Permutations of the Citadel, in which place and mythology intermingle, one becoming an expression of the other.
Other stories in the collection, such as the languidly beautiful Book of Alabaster, explore ideas of bizarre metaphysics invading or erupting from an otherwise banal existence; nostalgia here becoming a gateway to something far more sinister; an isolated, ordered and controlled life breaking down through obsession over the past and its mysteries, of the unknown blossoming form what was presumed intimately familiar.
The story is also notable for its subject matter; peculiarly post-modern, in that it makes references to old video games in the manner that more traditional tales might cursed books or musical compositions; even films and TV shows. That intermingling of the subjectively post modern and the mythologically ancient and eldritch works beautifully, in that it suggests a far deeper and more distressing horror than any immediate threat: this is something intimate, something that knows the reader as it knows the protagonist, and will use that intimacy to inveigle them, to seduce and ensnare, then to break them down. That the events occuring may not be physically occuring at all is something left up to the reader; the story as much one of a mind in dissolution, of sanity fraying apart, as it is one of something vast and unseen insinuating itself into an unwitting life.
In terms of its individual stories, there is enough variety in tone and structure, concept and style to consistently intrigue throughout, yet a simultaneous sense of thematic coherence that lends the collection flow and rhythm.
That it plays with such esoteric and abstract notions and does so in a manner that is not overt and immediate but subtle and suggestive, may alienate some readers, but for those of us that find ourselves glutted with the familiar, that starve for something genuinely bizarre and removed from the common herd, Daughters of Apostasy is sure to satisfy.