Jorge Luis Borges, in an extremely rich and suggestive essay entitled "Narrative Art and Magic" – compiled in the anthology Discusión (1932) – discusses the art of narrative was located close to the magic through the common procedures like analogies, unusual projections, the imaginative overcoming of the insoluble contradictions. A large arsenal employed for a simple goal: the transmutation of our usual reality and its strange causality in a new, complex reading. Damian Murphy, with his fiction, recovers this Borgean statements with new developments related to the games, the wandering, the initiation. In the novel The Salamander Angel (published in the collection Infra Noir), in the stories compilation A Distillate of Heresy and in his participation in the Fernando Pessoa homage, Dreams of Ourselves, Damian Murphy has set visionary relationships between magic and fiction.
In your narratives, there is a very evocative fusion between displacement (wandering) and mapping (the conquest) of real and imaginary territories, the transiting sphere for your characters. The transitions between real and imaginary topography are subtle and complex, so that your narratives get a enigmatic complexion, related to the initiation rites. An extraordinary example of this call to wandering arises in the story "The Book of Alabaster", in which exploratory and initiation wandering happens within a virtual video-game universe. What would it be the origin of your perception of wandering? How do you set this paradoxical relationship between the free travel and the need for a map?
I’ve long been fascinated with the very human tendency to spatialize experience. Dreams, visionary experiences, initiations, video games, and narrative itself all demonstrate different ways in which we do this. Different cultural approaches to the mysteries use spatial metaphors such as the cube (along with other geometrical forms), the temple, and the city, to illustrate states, ideas, and relationships which are too abstract to represent directly.
It seems natural to me to draw parallels between the abstract maps found in Kabbalistic works and esoteric Islam, for example, and representations of geographical constructs found in video games designed for older systems. To this day, I’m compelled by maps of old video game areas (you can find these all over the internet) in the same way that I’m compelled by depictions of New Jerusalem or the geography of Tartarus.
The initiatory experience relies on the dichotomy between mapped experience and free travel, as you’ve termed it. On the one hand, a ceremonial initiation conveys the initiate along a route defined by symbolic values. Geometrical formations might be traced along a temple floor, for instance, with confrontations at various localities which represent the elemental forces of nature, or the stations of the sun and moon, or the phases of an alchemical operation. On the other hand, the initiatory process almost always involves an entry into unfamiliar territory, a period of searching for something of worth which is hidden, forcing the candidate to adapt to an environment in which they have no previous experience.
Often, in my writing, I’ll begin with a particular structure which is concealed from the reader. The story will then be constructed as a sort of initiation of one or more characters into the mystery which is at the heart of that structure. In this way, the reader is made to wander through an environment for which there exists a map, but that map has largely been withheld from them. I put a lot of emphasis on intuition and sensation - the numinous speaks far better through these aspects of experience than it does through the purely rational.
Maps of the intangible are something which I’ve always been attracted to. History is littered with maps of visionary worlds - from Dante to Blake to Swedenborg, the list is endless. Thinking back over the stories which I’ve written, every one of them seems to feature the cartography of the invisible in some way. Some more subtly than others.
There are numerous references to buildings intended for ritual (or turn to do so, due to the action of various forces) in your stories. Some of this temples are described as physical buildings, other mapped by the mind or perceived in the same way as reality impossibilities by the rational mind of the characters (but not by intuition). In this sense, I believe that “Permutations of the Citadel", as well as the novel The Salamander Angel (published in Infra Noir collection), are great examples of your operations building this fictional structures for strange and unusual rites. How do you set up, in your narratives, these unique buildings? Is there any model – conceptual or concrete – for your, so to speak, fictional design of temples?
With “Permutations of the Citadel” I was absolutely obsessive in my construction of the hotel in which the story takes place. On the one hand, this involves floorplans, maps, particular routes by which the characters get from one place to another, and things of that nature. But, perhaps more importantly, the spaces in which the rites and mysteries take place have to seem absolutely real to me. I try to invoke the richness of the experience of occupying an environment, to imbue the various spaces in the stories with a genius loci which, hopefully, the reader can relate to in a more or less tangible way. Without this element, I’d feel that I was somehow cheating.
I do use models in my construction of these locales - a mixture of physical locations and photographs. It’s very easy for me to create a space and occupy it mentally, exploring all of the fine details, the textures, the scents, variations in lighting. In a sense, these buildings are as real to me as any physical space.
My intention is to never use the same method more than once when it comes to creating buildings and structures which act as nexuses for forces, mysteries, and rituals. In the case of The Salamander Angel, the ruined church is shown on several subtle levels, demonstrating the adaptability of a particular place to myth, to the cycles of heavenly bodies, to the progression of archetypal offices of influence (among other things). In “A Perilous Ordeal”, the abandoned manor house plays a very different role, while the same is true of the hotel in “Permutations of the Citadel” and the penthouse in “The Scourge and the Sanctuary”. Each instance demonstrates a different way in which a building or structure can exist beyond its physical dimensions.
Something that seems general to me in your stories: the exquisite taste for paradox, the confrontation between concepts that do not usually belong to the same sphere of conceptual meaning or even the same semantic nearness. This appreciation begins with the very title of several of your stories. In "The Book of Alabaster," the object of the title initially is not what it seems (though in the end, this first impression proves misleading). The dangers and the ordeal of the "The Perilous Ordeal" protagonist are not exactly those that the reader knows in the first pages of the story, with the interruption of an initiation ritual by Nazi soldiers. In this sense, your novel The Salamander Angel is a work in which the construction of the paradox manifests itself in a more elaborate way, from the angelic approach in title (almost an oxymoron) to the multifaceted plot construction. What would it be the origin of your complex work with the paradox?
I don’t know that I’ve ever set out to specifically invoke paradox, though I think I’m so disposed to them naturally that I probably introduce those elements into my writing without necessarily intending to. There are definitely places where I’m interested in the resolution of two opposing ideas or archetypes - reference is made in The Salamander Angel, for instance, to a place in which the celestial can’t be distinguished from the infernal. There are often opposing elements which must be resolved in one way or another by the characters as well.
I do tend to create spaces and artifacts which can’t quite be pinned down to one thing or another. The “book” in “A Book of Alabaster” is one example. As an object, it exists in several different contexts, making it quite difficult to define, and yet there is a particular idea or concept which underlies all of its different facets, though I may not choose to reveal exactly what that is.
An exciting aspect of your narratives is a kind of update of the "cautionary tales" powers from the functional use (even in the Fairy Tales tradition), turned to an ironic game based on the contrast between what the characters look and what they find. An object (or idea) seemingly simple proves much more complex, as the games that conjure objects/buildings and its realities in "Permutations of the Citadel” or “The Scourge and the Sanctuary”. In this sense, you provide to the reader a whole poetics of permutation as some processes started by seemingly trivial mechanisms – games, casual and accidental discoveries, unexpected encounters – that become, through exchanges and meaning conversions, much wider and more challenging. This is a narrative creation path that brings to mind the "theory of correspondences" between the planes of existence by Emmanuel Swedenborg. What is the basis of this subtle and rich narrative game?
A certain amount of this is autobiographical. I’ve always tended to engage with my environment according to strategies which might be termed arcane, and to pursue things that aren’t generally valued, or even considered, by the majority of society.
There’s a tendency for the characters in my stories to treat the world as if it was a game, or a mystery to be explored, or even a lover to be courted. Often a character will seek something without entirely knowing what it is that they’re after, or they’ll interact with their environment according to a set of rules which completely disregards the assumptions generally made about the order and structure of the culture in which they live.
I’ll often lead a character into a place in which they’re not supposed to be. There’s an archetypal element to transgressing or crossing a boundary. There are whole areas of experience which can be invoked and explored in this way. Often, by way of a sort of sympathetic magic, the crossing of a physical boundary will result in the breach of a much more tenuous threshold. I find myself continually coming back to this dynamic and finding new ways to explore it.
I’m fascinated by the things that people do in the places where they work. There’s something so compelling about the possibilities which lie just beyond the arbitrary boundaries of what we’re supposed to be doing in a particular context. Messing around on the job can be elevated to an art form, or, as in “Permutations of the Citadel”, an initiatory path.
In The Salamander Angel, there’s a section in which the character Nikolai stands on the roof of the building in which he works and observes another night worker through binoculars. He might be accused of violating another person’s privacy, but he just can’t resist observing, with intense interest, the rites and incantations by which another person carries out their professional tasks.
Within the stories themselves, I’ve enjoyed playing games with the reader, often deliberately making use of deception and misdirection in order to conceal narrative, thematic and structural elements which might alter the interpretation of the piece. There are almost always hidden layers that might be discerned by paying close attention to particular aspects of the story. Again, I try to avoid using the same trick more than once, so if a key to one story is found, it generally won’t fit with any of the others. There’s an element of play in this approach which is very necessary to my creative process. On the other hand, I try to avoid creating something which can be reduced to an elaborate crossword puzzle. The sense of place and mystery, the emergence of the structures and themes which are at the heart of the story, and the flow of the narrative all have to get equal attention.
Your short (but remarkable) novel The Salamander Angel features a unique structure of complexity interactions: multiple characters, performing different ritualistic activities, composing a process that only reveals itself in all its amplitude at the end, loading the intricate plot with a kind of metaphysical suspense. Tell something about the construction of The Salamander Angel – problems and solutions, essential ideas to the plot and other questions about this brief jewel of fantastic fiction.
When I began the story, I had little more than the opening paragraph and the first traces of the Breaking and Entering chapter. Having no idea what direction I wanted to take things in, I compiled a list of themes I wanted to include, and the scaffolding upon which the narrative is built immediately revealed itself.
The ritualistic structure of The Salamander Angel is based on a particular process which I’m hesitant to reveal too much about. It’s an initiatory process, the core dynamic of which is quite audacious and foreign from the point of view of exoteric religion, yet traces of it can be found all throughout the history of western esotericism and literature. The implications of this process are at once catastrophic and harmonizing, it involves an extreme change in the point of view of the person undergoing it. My hope is that the reader will be enabled to approach the hidden mechanisms of the story, however obliquely, in an organic way by engaging with the characters, settings, and plot.
In the story, the initiatory process takes place in the context of a building, a city, and ultimately the world rather than that of an individual (though each character is affected by it in their own way). Only one of the ceremonial officers seems to have the whole picture, the rest play their parts with only a partial understanding, at best, of what’s going on. This approach made the story a very enjoyable one to write.
The other main theme of The Salamander Angel is transgression. Shortly before beginning the story, I was asked to speak at a public event in anticipation of a dance performance. The performance involved the Watchers of the Book(s) of Enoch, the Nephilim, the fallen angels and other related topics. I don’t remember exactly, but I don’t think I had more than a day or two to prepare. I quickly put together some thoughts on the theme of transgression on a grand scale, tying the stories of the fallen angels and the Nephilim to our very human tendency to transgress our natural boundaries, contexts, and limitations. Once I’d hit upon the main structure of the story, I found that these ideas fit perfectly.
The other motifs – the Salamander Angel, the lodestone, the star Algol – each play their role in bringing about the transformation which may or may not take place within the story (there’s nothing to suggest that anything really happens other than the delusions of an unconnected group of eccentrics). I have a notebook in which the entire structure is plainly laid out, with explanations of all of the different elements - I wanted to have something to ensure that I didn’t forget what I’d done!
Both in the novel The Salamander Angel as in the tales of the collection The Distillate of Heresy there are times when the usual structure of the plot becomes a little more abstract, poetic maybe. I think, for example, in the chapters "The Rites of Bibliomancy" and "First Excerpt” of The Salamander Angel, in which you have dropped the narrative causality in favor of a different approach to the fictional universe, more symbolic and guided in the aforementioned aspect of correspondence between different spheres – or if you prefer, the permutation way. In this sense, you want to work in other genres such as poetry, in the near future? Is there any of your future project already defined?
I do have some ideas for pieces which embrace the poetic side of things more than the narrative. I expect that those elements will continue to erupt unexpectedly within the flow of narration from time to time as well.
As for future projects, a new novella should be published soon. I’ll keep the details concealed for now, other than to say that it involves several mysteries found within Catholic liturgy. Aside than that, a new batch of stories is in the works. I have enough ideas to keep me going for some time, and inspiration has been increasingly kind to me as I get older, so I imagine there should be quite a bit more to come.
Interview conducted with support from PNAP-R program, at the Fundação Biblioteca Nacional (FBN).
NOTE: The first three beautiful photos below were kindly provided by Jonas Ploeger, Zagava Press editor, with the covers from, respectively, A Distillate of Heresy, Infra Noir and Dreams of Ourselves.