In my last post I looked at the two very different ways in
which the characters of Philip Pullman’s trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’ pass between
worlds. ‘If light can cross the barrier between the universes,’ says Lord
Asriel in ‘The Golden Compass’, ‘if Dust can … then we can build a bridge and
cross. It needs a phenomenal burst of energy.’ He obtains this energy by
severing the link between child and daemon, sacrificing Roger and using wires
to ‘harness’ the power of Dust in the Aurora. Asriel’s bridge is the result of
a single, dynamic, explosive (and emotionally charged) event. Then in ‘The Subtle
Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass’ we learn of innumerable windows linking the
universes, opened by a knife forged centuries before by ‘learned men’ in the
city/world of Cittágazze: the product of an unexplained otherworld science, ‘subtle’ in
effect as well as in nature. Each method on its own is impressive, but I’ve always
been slightly uneasy about their co-existence in the same world – that is, ‘the
fictional world of the three books’. Maybe that’s just me.
Pullman’s trilogy contains ghosts, witches, angels, harpies and Spectres, ‘His
Dark Materials’ isn’t a world of magic, and so the portals don’t work by magic
either. The energy released by severance of child from daemon is 'explained' by analogies with electro-magnetism and atomic fission, and since most
of us have at best a hazy grasp of such things (me included), we accept it.
Susan Price uses a similar method in ‘The Sterkarm Handshake’, the first book of her magnificent ‘Sterkarm Trilogy’ set in the reiver borderlands between England
and Scotland. A 21st century British corporation called the FUP has
invented a Time Tube which takes people not just into the 16th
century, but into the 16th century of closely parallel universes and the lands
owned by the wild Sterkarm clan, who quite reasonably pigeon-hole their 21st
century visitors as Elves. Despising the Sterkarms as naïve, primitive and ignorant, the company sets out to exploit them, trading small numbers of aspirins
for valuable products like the locally produced ‘organic’ beef. However, the
Sterkarms are not in the least naïve, as the FUP discovers to its cost.
The world of
the ‘Sterkarm Trilogy’ contains no magic. The Tube is powered by a ‘cold fusion
reactor’ ‘no bigger than a small family car’, and is a huge piece of
‘industrial concrete piping’ supported by a framework of steel girders. Here it
is, seen through the eyes of a 21st century character called Bryce:
In front of each
round mouth was a platform big enough for a truck… The mouths of the Tube, at
both ends, were masked by hanging fringes of plastic strips.
From each platform a ramp with a
surface of textured rubber sloped down to the ground. The one nearer Bryce touched
the gravel drive. The one that sloped down from the rear platform didn’t quite
touch the grass of the lawn, and concrete blocks had been placed to support it,
when it was present. […] That end of the Tube spent a lot of time in the 16th
century. It was easy to tell which was which, because the end that spent all
its time in the 21st was dirty. The concrete was grey and streaked,
and stained where it touched its supporting girders. The concrete of the half
that spent much of its time in the 16th was still white and
unstained. The rain of the 16th century wasn’t full of dirt, and it
The Sterkarm Handshake, 5
We don’t need to be told how it works, because the viewpoint character, Bryce, isn't a scientist, so he doesn’t know either. He simply marvels at it in operation.
You heard the noise of the Tube
spinning – some part of it, hidden inside the concret pipe, spun, so he was
told. A roar, increasing in pitch to a whine, and then passing almost out of
hearing. And then one end of the Tube vanished. … As fast as light switching
off, it blinked out of sight.
The Tube is so well thought through and clearly described out that we
accept it just as Bryce does:
[He] tried to think about the Tube as
he did about his fridge, and his multi-media console. He wasn’t sure how any of
them worked. He just expected they would, was glad when they did, and got on
with his life.
That's a masterly piece of writing... The Time Tube is a machine, a piece of technology: and ‘The Sterkarm Trilogy’ is the least fantastical of the fantasies I’ve looked at in
these essays. The story inhabits the debatable lands between fantasy and sci-fi, where
much good fiction resides, for though there is no magic, ghosts or witches or
fairies, there are many references to border ballads and folktales. If you
haven’t read them yet, do! The first book won the Guardian Fiction prize and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. They are wonderful, witty and bloody – and not for
The portal in
Stephen King’s novel ‘From a Buick 8’ is totally unexplained and (spoiler
alert) remains so. One day in 1979, two decades before the ‘present’, a car
rolls up at a small filling station in rural Pennsylvania. It’s an old-style,
dark blue Buick Roadmaster, in mint condition. A man or
what looks to be a man gets out, dressed in a black trenchcoat and black hat,
and heading in the direction of the toilet cabin tells the youngster who mans
the pumps to ‘Fill ‘er up’ in a voice ‘that sounded like he was talking through
a mouthful of jelly’. He is never seen again. The Buick – if that’s what it is
– sits on the tarmac until the youngster gets worried and calls the local cops.
And when Troopers Ennis Rafferty and Curtis Wilcox check the car over, they
realise the whole thing is impossible.
‘It’s got a
radiator, but so far as I can tell there’s nothing inside it. No water and no
antifreeze. There’s no fanbelt, which makes sense, because there’s no fan.’
‘There’s a crankcase and a dipstick,
but there’s no markings on the stick. There’s a battery, a Delco, but Ennis,
dig this, it’s not hooked up to anything. There are no battery cables.’
‘You’re describing a car that
couldn’t possibly run,’ said Ennis flatly.
From a Buick 8, 52
There’s a lot more than this that’s wrong with the car – and after
Ennis mysteriously disappears, the vehicle becomes the hidden secret of the police
barracks in Statler, PA – shut away in Shed B and unwillingly protected by the
fascinated yet instinctively repelled men and women of Troop D, who have no way
of explaining or disposing of the monster they guard. Gradually it becomes
clear that the Buick is itself a portal. It does weird things, generates blinding lightstorms: here, Sandy, one of the patrolmen, witnesses one:
world went purple-white. His first thought was that, clear sky overhead or no,
he had been struck by lightning. Then he saw Shed B lit up like…
there was no way to finish the simile. Shed B, a solid enough wooden structure,
seem[ed] as insubstantial as a tent made of gauze. Light shot through every
crack and unoccupied nail-hole; it flashed out from beneath the eaves through a
small cavity that might have been gnawed by a squirrel; it blazed at
ground-level, where a board had fallen off, in a great brilliant bar. There was
a ventilator stack on the roof, and it shot the glare skyward in irregular
bursts, like smoke-signals made of pure violet light.
From a Buick 8, 118
King takes his time over this description. We don’t even see
the Buick in this passage, merely the shed surrounding it: a solid, tactile structure which
the phenomenon within renders ‘insubstantial as a tent made of gauze’... Fabulous
writing. ‘From a Buick 8’ is the only book I know which is entirely about the portal, not what’s beyond it – and about
how the characters manage to live alongside this inexplicable and unknowable thing as,
over the next twenty years, peculiar creatures – beetles, bats, fish, all alien
– flop half-dead out of the trunk.
in King’s more recent book ’11.22.63’ is part of another vehicle. Al’s Diner is a
stationary silver trailer standing ‘across the tracks from Main Street, in the
shadow of the old Worumbo Mill.’ It so happens that the pantry at the back of
the cramped kitchen has a set of invisible steps which will take you into September 9, 1958. No
matter how many times you visit it will always be 9/9/58: the same day, with the
same people, doing the same things. If you wish to get to a different time – to 11/22/63
for example, to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy – you will have to
live through the intervening years. No matter how long you remain in the past,
when you return up the steps of the diner you will find exactly two minutes of ‘present’
time have elapsed. (Though you will have aged.) Again, we are never told the hows
and whys, but the ‘rules’ and the way they work in practice are convincing and
clear, along with the sensory and psychological experience of doing it. Here is Jake, the main character, trying the
steps to the past for the first time.
I did as Al
asked, feeling like the world’s biggest dope. One step … lowering my head to
keep it from scraping on the aluminum ceiling … two steps … now actually
crouching a little. A few more steps and I’d have to get on my knees. That I
had no intention of doing, dying man’s request or not.
‘Al, this is stupid. Unless you want
me to bring you a carton of fruit cocktail or some of these little jelly
packets there’s nothing I can do in h– ’
was when my foot went down, the way your foot does when you’re starting down a
flight of steps. Except my foot was still firmly on the dark gray linoleum
floor. I could see it.
Even in fantasies which acknowledge the existence of
magic, portals between worlds still need to be fully established in the reader’s
imagination. When Alice runs down a rabbit hole we are already in fantasy- or
dream-land: children don’t fit down rabbit holes. When the rabbit hole leads
into a well, surreally lined with maps, pictures, cupboards and shelves, there
might be a moment of disbelief – until Alice plucks a jar of marmalade from one
of the shelves as she falls past. That jar of marmalade, with Alice’s anxiety
about dropping it on someone’s head before she manages to replace it on a shelf
further down, is solid and utterly convincing.
In his Old Kingdom series, Garth Nix has a Wall which divides Ancelstierre, an unmagical world resembling 1920s
Europe, from the Old Kingdom where Charter Magic rules, Free Magic creatures
roam and the Dead can rise. On the Ancelstierre side, the Wall is guarded by the
Perimeter: ‘parallel to the Wall and perhaps half a mile from it’: a liminal zone filled with concertina
wire, trenches and concrete pillboxes for the use of the soldiers whose
difficult job it is to prevent unwanted magical intruders. The Wall itself appears
It was stone
and old, about forty feet high and crenellated. Nothing remarkable, until the
realisation set in that it was in a perfect state of preservation. And for
those with the sight, the very stones crawled with Charter marks – marks in
constant motion, twisting and turning, sliding and re-arranging themselves
under a skin of stone.
The final confirmation of
strangeness lay beyond the Wall. It was clear and cool on the Ancelstierre
side, and the sun was shining – but Sabriel could see snow falling steadily
behind the Wall, and snow-heavy clouds clustered right up to the Wall, where
they suddenly stopped, as if some mighty weather-knife had simply sheared through
This differential is rather like Susan Price’s Time Tube which is dirty on
the end in our world, but clean and white on the end that spends most of its time
in the past. We don’t know why things
are so different on either side of the Wall, but since neither
side is ‘our’ world, we can accept this arrangement as simply the way things are. And
the Old Kingdom offers another series of portals in the Nine Gates of the river
of Death, which necromancers and the Abhorsons can enter in spirit, though not
without risk. The precincts between the Gates, made tricky by the insistent pull of the current and the presence of desperate spirits that lurk there, are vividly realised.
into Death was made easy – far too easy – by the presence of the broken stones.
Sabriel felt them near her, like two
yawning gates, proclaiming easy entry to Life for any Dead nearby. Fortunately
the other effect of the stones – the sickening illness – disappeared in Death.
There was only the chill and tug of the river.
Sabriel started forward immediately,
carefully scanning the grey expanse before her. Things moved at the edge of her
vision; she heard movement in the cold waters. But nothing came towards her,
nothing attacked, save the constant twining and gripping of the current.
She came to the First Gate, halting
just beyond the wall of mist that stretched out as far as she could see from
side to side. The river roared beyond that mist, turbulent rapids going through
to the Second Precinct and on to the Second Gate.
… Sabriel spoke words of power. Free Magic, that shook her mouth as she
spoke, jarring her teeth, burning her tongue with raw power.
The veil of mist parted, revealing a
series of waterfalls that appeared to drop into an unending blackness.
Alan Garner’s ‘Elidor’
is based on the fairy tale ballad Childe Rowland, first published
in 1814 by Robert Jamieson, who remembered it imperfectly as it was told to him
by a tailor in his childhood around 1770.
It was reprinted in the 1890s by Joseph Jacobs in ‘English Fairy Tales’,
although it’s actually Scots. The other clue to its antiquity is that it’s
referenced in King Lear, when Edgar is pretending to be mad:
Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
was still: ‘Fie, foh and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man’
The last two lines refer to the dread cry of the King of Elfland on
discovering Childe Rowland within his halls. The tale tells how young Childe
Rowland kicks a ball over a church; how his sister Helen runs around the church
widdershins to retrieve it and vanishes into elfland, how Rowland’s two elder
brothers set out to rescue her, with advice from the Warlock Merlin to cut off
the heads of anyone who speaks to them, and not to eat or drink anything in
elfland – advice they forget to follow, and fail to return. Finally Rowland
himself sets out, but he remembers and follows Merlin’s advice and is able to
revive his dead brothers and bring his sister home.
In Garner’s book four children,
Nicholas, David, Roland and Helen wander bored and penniless around Manchester,
keeping out of the fuss at home while their parents move house. They find a
demolition area of bomb damage and slums, where ‘black in the wasteland stood a
church. It was a plain Victorian building with buttresses and lancet windows, a
steep roof, but no spire. And beside it were a mechanical excavator and a
lorry’ – left by a demolition gang.
The church is sharply delineated in those few short sentences, but the
important words are ‘black in the wasteland’: this is a dangerous,
between-worlds space. As the children begin playing with a football fished out
from under the lorry, someone starts a high thin tune on a fiddle across the
street – and Roland kicks the ball straight through the church window. Helen goes
to look for it and doesn’t come back. After her goes David, and then Nick, who
assumes the pair are ‘trying to have us on.’ On his own, Roland is restless.
The music comes again, and fades. No one answers his calls.
The wasteland was bigger in the late afternoon
light; the air quiet; and the houses seemed to be painted with dusk. They were
as alien as a coastline, from the sea. A long way off, a woman pushed a pram.
emphasises Roland’s isolation, as well as a sense of mystery and possible
threat. He finds a broken side door and climbs into the church. It ‘smells of
soot and cat’ and there’s no sign of his sister or brothers.
Everything movable had been ripped out down to
the brick. The church was a cavern. Above Roland’s head the three lancets of
the west window glowed like orange candles against the failing light. The
middle lancet, the tallest, was shattered, and the glass lay on the earth. But
there was no ball.
this description is wasted: it’s not just scene-painting; it’s imbued with
gathering menace. Garner really makes us feel we’re clambering into the church
with Roland, more and more worried and puzzled, like him, about where his
sister and brothers have gone. And because it’s so vivid, we’ll be willing to
believe what happens next as he meets the fiddler and is drawn into the fairy
Elidor where he discovers – in a nightmarish moment – the empty fingers of his
sister’s woollen glove embedded in the turf of the Mound of Vanwy. To rescue
her and his brothers, he needs to get into the doorless Mound, and the fiddler
Malebron tells him that he can ‘find’ the door by visualising it, forcing it to
be. ‘Think of the door you know best,’ he says.
Roland thought of the door at the new house. He saw
the blisters in the paint, and the brass flap with ‘Letters’ outlined in dry
metal polish. He had been cleaning it only yesterday. It was a queer door to be
stuck in the side of a hill.
‘I can see it.’
‘Is it there? Is it firm? Could you
touch it?’ said Malebron.
‘I think so,’ said Roland.
‘Then open your eyes. It is still
‘No. It’s just a hill.’
‘It is still there!’cried Malebron.
‘It is real! You have made it with your mind! Your mind is real! You can see
Roland shut his eyes again. The door had a brick porch, and there was a house
leek growing on the stone roof. His eyes were so tightly closed that he began
to see coloured lights floating behind his lids and they were all shaped like
the porch entrance […] and behind them all, unmoving, the true porch, square-cut,
said Roland. ‘It’s there. The door. It’s real.’
by setting the front door of his new house in the side of the Mound, Roland
connects two worlds. His everyday front door is now a portal into this fairy
world, and its power begins leaching through. This is not only brilliant descriptive
writing: it is the blueprint of how to create fantasy. Roland’s
effort to place that door in the side of the Mound – to make it real, tactile,
functional, to make it work – is precisely the effort a writer must bring to
her or his work. ‘It is real! You have made it with your mind! Your
mind is real! You can see the door!’
Portals in fantasy come in all forms, shapes and
sizes, and pose three questions for writers: How are they supposed to work, what
do they look like, and how does it feel to use them? All three need to be
carefully thought through. The answer to how a portal works is always sleight-of-hand. It may be by magic
or the power of Aslan, or some pseudo-scientific jiggery-pokery such as Lord Asriel’s
rigging of wires to connect the severance machine to the Aurora in ‘His Dark
Materials'. It may be the potent remnant of long-forgotten science like the
'subtle knife' – ‘long-forgotten’ implying ‘no need to explain’. Like Garth
Nix, a writer may ask us to assume a known history – ‘it’s always been this
way’ – which nobody questions. The origin of some portals are left utterly
mysterious, as with Stephen King’s Buick, and the invisible steps at the back
of Al’s Diner. It doesn’t matter! None of it matters, so long as a writer can
make the reader see and feel what is happening. The old
wardrobe, the smell of mothballs, the fur-coats, the unexpected depth – where’s
the back? – the softness of fur changing to prickly pinebranches – the cold,
the crunch of snow underfoot. Then and only then the reader will believe:
is real! You have made it with your mind! Your mind is real! You can see the