{Feature} Joseph Sale Discusses The Underrated Genres Of Portal Fantasy & Portal Horror 

The Underrated Genres Of Portal Fantasy & Portal Horror

Joseph Sale has written his own portal fantasy/horror, Dark Hilarity, which he is currently distributing across every dreamworld he can access. In your world, you can find it here: Amazon UKAmazon USAmazon CA

Every time we dream, we cross over to another dimension. Spiritually-minded people may view this as being literally true, that some part of our soul enters a new realm. Psychologists might argue that it is in fact our own subconscious or unconscious minds we access during a dream-state. Either way, we’re transported to a new reality.

The genre that has become known as “portal fantasy” is perhaps one of the purest expressions of this phenomenon so central to the idea of being human. Yet, in some ways, “portal fantasy” and its cousin “portal horror” are still relatively unknown and unregarded. These aren’t genre tags that you see on Amazon listings or on Hollywood movies, yet they’re there, especially if you know where to look, and they offer some of the most interesting work of the last forty years.

To summarise, “portal fantasy” is where our protagonist steps through a portal of some kind into another world not their own. This isn’t The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is a “secondary world” fantasy, where our story is grounded entirely in this other world, Middle Earth, and no reference to our world is made at all (although there is a hint that perhaps The Lord of the Rings is indeed mythological history that explains the origins of the Western world).

At its worst, the “portal” mechanic is a means by which to amplify the strangeness and “wonder” of the new world our protagonist discovers by means of schlocky “oos” and “ahhs”. We’ve all seen those movies, where the main character (usually a kid) spends the first thirty minutes of the film in wide-eyed awe at all they’re seeing. We’ve read those books too where our character just cannot believe what they’re seeing despite its evident reality, and the longer the author sustains the disbelief, the more frustrating (and ironically unrealistic) it becomes.

However, at its best “portal fantasy” allows us to do things that other fantasy and horror cannot do. By juxtaposing reality with fantasy, we can make a commentary on both. The fantasy world can become a distorted mirror for real-world problems, fears, and tribulations that allows us to see them more clearly.

This is exemplified in the classic ‘80s movie The Never-Ending Story, based on the novel by Michael Ende. The Never-Ending Story is perhaps one of the most iconic examples of “portal fantasy” of all time. It centres on a young boy, Bastian, a dreamer, enchanted by fantastical stories; his father, however, is a cold, hard rationalist who only believes in what he can see. Bastian finds himself transported to the magical world of Fantasia by the means of a book bearing a strange symbol on its cover. This book is Bastian’s portal (which is, of course, a “meta” device by Ende), and transports Bastian to a beautiful world that is becoming consumed by a vast darkness simply called “The Nothing”. By the end of the film, the demon-wolf Gmork gives us an explanation that “The Nothing” represents the loss of humanity’s hopes and dreams. Essentially, The Never-Ending Story is a metaphor for how humanity has crushed its own imagination under the wheels of modernity. Bastian’s battle with his father’s rationalism is reflected within the fantasy world at a deeper and more symbolic level in the struggle between Atreyu and the demon-wolf. This would not be possible, or at least not as effective, if the story was an epic fantasy set in the world of Fantasia and focused on Atreyu.

Ende amplifies the weird interrelationship of the real world and the fantasy one by using second-person (about the only justifiable use of second-person in fiction, in my humble opinion). This gives the impression that not only are we reading the fantasy world, but it is reading us. It allows us to see ourselves in the same way as a mirror.

Another powerful tool in the arsenal of the portal fantasy writer is the way that travelling to a new world or dimension can open up new possibilities for a character. In other words, we often discover who people really are when they are transported to a new setting. Usually, when characters travel to an alternative dimension, their shackles are removed, and this greater freedom promised in the fantasy leads to them exhibiting new traits. This is perfectly demonstrated in Clive Barker’s insane and expansive masterpiece The Great And Secret Show. I reviewed this novel for Kendall Reviews, and it remains one of the most affecting books I have ever read. In The Great And Secret Show, Randolph Jaffe discovers a secret world, hidden in the abandoned and undelivered letters he has to sort through as part of his menial postal work job. This secret world, Quiddity, is a world of magic and ultimate power. Access to this power, however, corrupts Jaffe. It leads him to murder, treachery, and debauchery. Unlike a traditional fantasy novel or novel set in the real world that might have to exert external forces in order to change or transform a character, portal fantasy reveals a far subtler truth, that we are all only one step away from becoming entirely different people.

Whilst the example I have provided is a negative one of someone who clearly had profound evil lurking in their heart, and who only needed a taste of power to expose that evil, portal fantasy can also show us the reverse, where the smallest and meekest person suddenly becomes who they were always meant to be. I think this aspect is most often expressed in portal fantasy’s beautiful subgenre “portal horror”. In portal horror, all the same principles apply, only the world into which our character steps is a good deal more nightmarish and testing. A good popular-culture example of such a tale would be Silent Hill. Silent Hill is not a physical place, it is a realm that we might arrive at if we reach a point of psychological nadir, or else do not tread carefully on some invisible dividing line. The modus operandi of Silent Hill is to torment those who enter it from the “real world” with their own deepest fears and anxieties. The infamous “Pyramid Head”, for example, a nine-foot-tall bare-chested man wielding a six-feet claymore and wearing a strange triangular helmet, is a cypher for emasculation and rape. His appearance is phallic in every way. He is the darkness of the male psyche, id, and sexual drive. Again, this metaphor would not work nearly as well were the story of Silent Hill set entirely in this strange and mythical town. It is by having our characters cross over that the symbols and allegories come alive. In Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, the portal mechanic is made even more reflective and nuanced, in that we reach Silent Hill via therapy sessions with the psychologist Dr Kauffman. This makes the psychological aspect of Silent Hill even more explicit.

Lovecraft also utilises the portal mechanic to a degree, particularly in his novella At The Mountains of Madness, in which archaeological explorers set foot in a ruin beyond Antarctic mountains that predates any known civilisation; this other world is a world separated from ours by time but also understanding. In addition, throughout most of Lovecraft’s oeuvre, there is a constant threat of beings beyond our universe (and comprehension) that threaten intrusion, a reversal of the portal, much like the fears lie in the deep dark of our subconscious, awaiting a return to conscious reality.

A great recent example of portal horror can be found in the work of Kendall Reviews’ own Steve Stred. His novella, The Window In The Ground, is a masterpiece of slow-burn psychological horror that centres around a portal to another world. Stred anchors his story in a real-world town, yet there is one strange anomaly: a window in the ground. What I loved about this story is that Stred exercises restraint and the horror is subtle at first. There is nothing much scary about a window, after all, but the fact it is in the ground is erroneous, strange; it niggles and gnaws at you. Eventually, it becomes terrifying by virtue of its mere existence. By concretising the portal itself, and not spelling out what lies beyond it (in fact, we’re expressly forbidden by the narrator from looking), he gets the reader asking questions: what could be down there? Where does it lead? And of course, our imagination is far worse than anything else. When we finally do glimpse what lies beyond it, we’re left with even less certainty than we began, and that’s a wholly good thing. Without giving too much away, it is what this “portal” does to the characters that really makes The Window In The Ground memorable and intriguing. Whether one wishes to view the window as a literal embodiment of supernatural forces in the world and how they act on us, or as a metaphor for puberty and growing up (after all, our protagonist is told that he is “a man” after he sees the window for the first time, plus there are several other key clues that suggest the window has greater significance), the result is the same: the portal becomes a means to greater meaning.

Dark Hilarity

Tara Dufrain and Nicola Morgan are eleven-year-old girls growing up in the ‘90s, obsessed by Valentine Killshot, a metal screamo band. In particular, they’re enamoured by the lead singer, the mysterious yet charismatic Jed Maine who bears the epithet “The Cretin”. In Jed’s lyrics, he describes a world beyond the Dark Stars that he hopes one day to reach. The girls think it’s all just make-believe they share together, until a freak, traumatic incident makes this world very real.

As adults, Tara and Nicola try to come to terms with the devastating catastrophe that changed their lives growing up, but to do so they will have to step once more into Jed Maine’s world, and confront the man who took everything from them.

Dark Hilarity is My Best Friend’s Exorcism meets The Never-Ending Story, a fantasy that explores addiction, depression, and the healing power of friendship.

Joseph Sale has written his own portal fantasy/horror, Dark Hilarity, which he is currently distributing across every dreamworld he can access. In your world, you can find it here: Amazon UKAmazon USAmazon CA

In addition, you can actually get a FREE eBook of Sale’s critically acclaimed novella The Meaning of the Dark by signing up to his mailing list at www.themindflayer.com

Joseph Sale

Joseph is a prolific novelist and co-host of Monaghan & The Mindflayer. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He is published with The Writing Collective and has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate Trilogy, and his love-letter to fantasy: Save Game. He grew up in the Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.

He edits non-fiction and fiction, helping fledgeling authors to realise their potential. He has edited some of the best new voices in speculative fiction including Ross Jeffery, Emily Harrison, Christa Wojciechowski, and more. His short fiction has appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Idle Ink, Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine. His stories have also appeared in anthologies such as You Are Not Alone (Storgy), Lost Voices (The Writing Collective), Technological Horror (Dark Hall Press), Burnt Fur (Blood Bound Books) and Exit Earth (Storgy). In 2017 he was nominated for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ prize.

You can follow Joseph on Twitter @josephwordsmith

If you really love his work, want to be in the know, and receive exclusive content that no one else can see, then he has a Patreon account at www.patreon.com/themindflayer

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