Many of us have gone on job interviews that were odd. But the one that Séverine goes on in Damian Murphy’s occult-themed psychological thriller The Acephalic Imperial (paperback) goes beyond asking what kind of a tree someone would be if they were a tree. In the following email interview about it, Murphy discusses what inspired and influenced this Hitchcockian novella.
I always like to start with an overview of the plot. So, what is The Acephalic Imperial about, and when and where is it set?
The time period is the early 1960s, and the setting could either be England or France. The place in which the story unfolds is secluded from the world, and I use the ambiguity to heighten the sense of isolation.
The story opens in the private office of a man that owns a fairly large house on the outskirts of a minor city. Séverine, the protagonist, is being interviewed for a position as a live-in maid, though, as it turns out, the position is very different from the one that was advertised. The man that’s interviewing her can’t easily describe the true nature of the position. Rather than attempt to put it into words, he proposes to convey it by way of an activity — he’ll leave the room for a few minutes, and, while he’s gone, Séverine is to take something from the office that doesn’t belong to her, anything at all. She can put it in her handbag or conceal it somewhere in the room. The man stresses that no limitations or conditions whatsoever will be placed upon her for the duration of the exercise.
Rather than be put off by the suggestion, Séverine is very much intrigued. As it is, the conversation and mannerisms of her interviewer had made her curious. He’s somewhat eccentric, to say the least. The man steps out and she immediately does something that goes beyond the boundaries of her instructions. In this sense, she’s testing him every bit as much as he’s testing her: Will he accept what she’s done, or has she pushed the exercise too far? Of course, the thing that she chooses to do turns up something even more unexpected and enticing, drawing her even further into a fascination with the man, the house, the job — everything about the situation.
Needless to say, she’s offered the job (otherwise, there would be no story). As it turns out, the situation she’s gotten herself into is far stranger than she could ever have expected. Her experience in the interview is merely the tip of a concealed iceberg.
Where did you get the idea for The Acephalic Imperial, and how, if at all, did the story evolve as you wrote it?
The basic premise occurred to me all at once, and I immediately saw that I could take the story in any number of directions. The generosity of the set-up appealed to me.
There’s a tendency in my stories, especially in my novellas, for the themes and motifs of a piece to gradually expand into a complex web of associative relationships, each of which reflects the others. The whole thing comes to assume a sort of geometric form which underlies the narrative and informs the trajectories of the characters. That aspect of my writing came very easily to me with this piece. The motifs of the double-headed eagle and of the “headless one” of Greek antiquity (one being bicephalic and the other acephalic, i.e.: two-headed and headless) ultimately stand behind everything, but the following themes are equally important and run through every aspect of the narrative — royalty and treachery, obedience and disobedience, explicit and implicit rules, authority and subversion. More and more, as I wrote, the question of what it means to take things too far when one is explicitly expected to cross boundaries became central to the story.
As the piece developed, as so often happens, the microcosm that is the house that Séverine lives and works in increasingly took on a life of its own. She’s given quite a bit of time and space to explore and do basically whatever she wants. It was important for me to really make the reader feel what it was like for this character to occupy not only the house, but the unusual role she’s given by her employer. Part of the pleasure of writing, for me, lies in allowing the reader a certain luxury or indulgence, not unlike that of being in a place in which they’re not supposed to be and of doing things that, while not necessarily extreme in any way, are under no uncertain terms forbidden. This particular story very much lent itself to that dynamic.
As you said, the main character, Séverine, is a woman, and her employer is a man. Is there a reason you made Séverine a woman and not a man, or her employer a woman and not a man? Or, for that matter, both of them men or both of them women?
The genders of the main characters could have been reversed, but the dynamic would have been very different. I have a tendency to write female characters that are strong, independent, and more than a little defiant. These traits were absolutely necessary for Séverine’s role. I could have written these qualities into a male character without too much difficulty, but I would have had a very hard time writing her employer, who’s a little more on the neurotic side, as a female character. This is purely a limitation on my part — there are certain limitations that can be leveraged to such consistent effect that I’m more inclined to run with them than to try to overcome them.
There are two other female characters in the book, each of which has a very different relationship with Séverine. To my mind, these work very well as purely female relationships. All three of these roles are loosely based on a mixture of people I’ve known personally and various historical figures — one of them very much calling to mind Helena Blavatsky — as well as film stars from several decades ago. Once the characters were nailed down, it didn’t occur to me to switch any of their genders.
It sounds like The Acephalic Imperial is a psychological thriller. Is that how you’d describe it?
There are elements of the psychological thriller to The Acephalic Imperial, absolutely, though I tend to avoid the most common elements of the genre. I found myself asking, when I set out to write the story, what might a Patricia Highsmith or George Simenon book be like without the elements of crime or violence? Or, for that matter, a Hitchcock film? I’ve replaced these things, in part, with the occult themes and motifs that always comprise the heart of all of my work. Even in this, I meticulously avoid anything that might be associated with the horror genre — in my mind, there’s nothing in the least horrific about occultism.
What I’ve retained, hopefully, is the intrigue that a psychological thriller presents. I want the reader to feel that there’s very definitely something going on and that they absolutely have to know what it is. Of course, it’s important, when this feeling is created, that it’s not just a bluff. There really does have to be something worth writing about that’s revealed at some point in the story. The reader doesn’t have to be shown everything, but they do have to be shown enough to feel satisfied.
It also sounds like it’s a pretty dark tale. Has anyone made any good jokes about how it’s ironic this novella is being published by Snuggly Books? Or does “snuggly” have a different meaning in England than it does in the colonies?
I wouldn’t say that there’s anything tremendously dark about the story, though I suspect some readers might disagree with me on that. I’ve had people tell me that certain parts of some of my stories are terrifying and it actually kind of baffles me. There are types of experience that some people find frightening and others are perfectly comfortable with.
That said, there is one character — neither the main character nor her employer — that might come off as a little intimidating. She certainly intimidates Séverine, but also compels her.
The term “snuggly” fits this book perfectly — the reader should be able to snuggle up with it and enjoy it with comfort and ease.
Now, prior to The Acephalic Imperial you released two collections of short stories and novellas: Daughters Of Apostasy and The Star Of Gnosia. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on The Acephalic Imperial but not on anything else you’ve written?
This novella is a little more directly influenced by the names mentioned above — Highsmith, Simenon, Hitchcock — than most of the stories in the two collections, though a similar influence hovers over a couple of the short stories in those books as well, particularly “The Scourge And The Sanctuary” from Daughters Of Apostasy.
Other than that, I think this one fits pretty well with my other work. If it were a Hitchcock film, it would be Rope, which, at least in my opinion, contains most of the elements found in his other films.
How about non-literary influences; was The Acephalic Imperial influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? You mentioned Hitchcock and his movie Rope already.
There are two sections in the book that are very strongly influenced by the Velvet Underground song “Murder Mystery.” I shifted some of the more horrific elements that appear in the song in a different direction in those sections — specifically toward luxury, royalty, treachery, insurrection — though the element of mystery that saturates the music and lyrics is emphasized in the text.
One of the reasons I asked about movies is that The Acephalic Imperial sounds like it could be adapted into an interesting movie. Has there been any interest in this?
Most of what I’ve written I think would be impossible to film, though somebody like Guy Maddin [Brand Upon The Brain] could make a pretty interesting attempt. With this book, I could almost see it. Parts of the story would have to be completely changed, but the basic premise and story arc could work. Of course, it would be the furthest possible thing from a modern Hollywood-style movie.
If someone did want to adapt The Acephalic Imperial into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Séverine and the other main characters?
I had Anna Karina circa 1962 in mind while I was writing Séverine’s part. I’m so completely out of touch with modern actors that I can’t think of a single person that I’d cast were the book to be made into a film at this point.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Acephalic Imperial, which of your other books would you suggest people check out next and why that one?
The ones I would most recommend are out of print and very difficult to track down: Seduction Of The Golden Pheasant, Psalms Of The Magistrate, A Spy In The Panopticon.
As for what’s available and in print, it’s a toss-up between Daughters Of Apostasy and Star Of Gnosia. Some people like one more than the other, though it can go either way. I mentioned “The Scourge And The Sanctuary” from Daughters Of Apostasy above. The title novella from Star Of Gnosia has some similarities to this one as well, at least in terms of setting.