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.
Even though 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 wasn’t acid.
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 children.
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:
[T]he whole 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…
But 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.
The portal 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– ’
That 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 medieval:
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 the sky.
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.
The crossing 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:
Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
His word 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.
It 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.
None of 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 world of 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 there.’
‘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 the door!’
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, solid.
‘Yes,’ said Roland. ‘It’s there. The door. It’s real.’
And 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:
‘It is real! You have made it with your mind! Your mind is real! You can see the door!’