The Acephalic Imperial by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While in my mid- to late-teenage years, I lived in England. As an American raised in a military family, I had already lived overseas several times, but England, at that time of my life, felt magical.
On the base where we lived was Chicksands Priory, an old (12th-century, possibly earlier) building that was supposedly haunted by the ghost of a nun whose monk-lover had been killed. Rumor was, when I lived there, that the nun had been walled up in a window bay while giving birth to the baby. My friends and I became awfully fond of breaking into the Priory, drinking, making out - all the things you would expect teenagers to do in an ancient haunted building.
One day, me and two of my friends, Randy and Marc (who were brothers), were planning our next foray into the Priory, to take place that night. We were sitting around, joking, as we always did, playing with our D&D dice - not actually playing the game, but playing with the dice. Someone, I can't remember who, said "Okay, I'm going to roll this dice and whoever's age shows up on the dice first - something bad is going to happen to them". Randy rolled the d20, then me, then Marc, eventually, we hit the number 14 - Marc's age. We laughed about it, then went about our day, eventually meeting up with the other guys and girls that we were breaking in with.
Somehow we didn't have any alcohol on us (a rare thing when we went into the Priory), but the girls and a couple of the guys made up for the giddiness of alcohol by doing a seance in an upper room in the priory, a semi-hidden room, quite small, where they made a makeshift Ouija board with the floor, some markers, and a matchbook for a planchette. Randy and I grew bored pretty quickly, as we wanted to go exploring. In the past we had found hidden tunnels in the walls of an upstairs hallway (I kid you not - with removable wall panels and all), a medieval stone wine cellar (where we usually went if we were going to drink), and a trapdoor that led to a tunnel that had been walled off about 50' down, but, we were told, used to connect to an abandoned church in Clophill, several miles away, before military personnel walled up the tunnel to prevent egress. This was the Cold War and we were on a US military installation, after all.
And where were the police? you ask. They wouldn't come into the Priory at night. We knew a couple of the police quite well and they told us that when they were on duty, if they got an alarm at the Priory, they would simply wait outside and see if anyone came out. If no one came in ten minutes, they would leave. We knew we were pretty safe if we hunkered down in there.
Or were we? This was a haunted Priory, after all.
Randy and I took our leave of the others. We found an interesting room where there was some restoration being done. I decided to take one of the metal cross-members of some scaffolding as a weapon because it's well-known that ghosts can be hit with iron, right? And Randy had a knife with him, so we could protect ourselves.
Next door, we stumbled on what was an excavation of the floor of a room. The flooring had been removed and digging in the dirt had begun. We were careful not to spoil it - even vandals have their limits. It was one of the more intriguing things we had ever spotted in the Priory. We wondered if there were bones underneath that dirt (given the number of skeletons that have been found on the property since then, there actually is a pretty good chance that there were remains interred there). With that creepy thought, Randy and I left that area.
We made our way to one of the previously-restored areas where there were occasionally dances hosted by the youth club or the high school (even though our high school was 45 minutes away). We turned the corner to walk down the longest straight stretch, a hallway running perpendicular to the front door of the Priory. Ahead of us, to the right, were the front doors. To the left, directly across from the doors, was a large stairway that led up to the area nearest where the others were having their seance.
About halfway between the place where we entered the hall and this junction of door and stairs, Randy and I looked back. There, against the wall of the hall behind us, maybe thirty feet away, was a single chair, nestled in the corner. It was very dark in that corner, darker than all the other parts of the Priory that we had been in that night. We both stopped. "Do you see that?" we both said, almost simultaneously.
It appeared that the darkness there got a little lighter, but in that subtle way that makes it difficult to tell if the light actually changed, or if one's eyes were just becoming acclimatized to the darkness.
It was enough.
"It's her!" we both said in a whisper-scream. We backed away from that end of the hall, toward the door and stairs behind us. On our left was a doorway, which we passed with some hesitancy, exposing our flank. And at that moment, the world seemed to explode.
A sound like an explosion shot out from that empty doorway. We screamed at the top of our lungs and bolted to the stairs and up! The seance-attendees all stood up screaming, in confusion "What's going on?!?" We all gathered into one ball of teenagers, all nine or ten of us, and ran screaming down the stairs.
About a third of the way down, Randy and I realized that the horrid sound that had erupted from the doorway was the automatic-flush toilets, timed just right to send us into a frisson of terror. We both started laughing . . .
. . . then Marc, who was trying to get ahead of us, tripped over the metal staff I was carrying and went tumbling down the stairs.
Randy and I stopped laughing, looked at each other, looked at Marc, who was scrambling to get up from his fall, an started screaming again. 14! The prophecy was true!
We burst out of the front door, something we never did before or after, for fear of running into the arms of the police, but there were no police waiting for us. We ran out into the night across the front lawn of the Priory.
When we looked back, we saw that one room, that we knew was dark when we entered the Priory, now had a light on. None of us had turned it on and no one else had been in the Priory with us. There were no proximity lights at the Priory at that time. But that light had definitely, somehow, turned on. This was 1987.
Summer, 2019: My wife and I go to Europe. I take her to the Chicksands Priory, where we do a formal tour with the local historical society. I share some of the things I knew about the Priory with our hostess, and elderly lady who had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Priory. We speak for quite some time before, during, and after the tour, during which time I show here some things she had not known about the Priory. She also shows me some things I did not know about the Priory. After a time, I confess that the reason I knew so much is that, as kids, we broke into the Priory all the time to party, make out, and scare each other. I feel a trite guilty. This elderly lady smiles and gives me a knowing wink and says "I think it's wonderful. Kids will have adventures, won't they?"
I share this story (all of it true) because amidst all the obfuscation there is a clarity to Murphy's work. I am glad that I am unable to explain that clarity in any other way than sharing my own experience, completely divorced from the book - or is it? It's a "color" of sorts that imbues his work - playful, bright, but at the same time, regal, dignified. It is also a space, a room, perhaps painted with subterfuge and scattered with idols of trickster gods. I cannot describe this to you as it is my space alone, though the author has invited me to come in, has opened the portal and left it up to me to peek in through the darkened glass.
This is everything you need to know about The Acephalic Imperial. Everything. Those who know, know . . .
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