{Feature} Joseph Sale Returns to discuss Portal Fantasy & Portal Horror: Part Two – The Portal Reversed

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 US & Amazon CA

Part Two: The Portal Reversed

In order to travel to other dimensions, we need some kind of talisman. This is one of the central conceits of the oft-overlooked yet potent genre of Portal Horror. Whether it’s the spinning totem from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a book bearing an auryn on its cover as in Michael Ende’s Never-Ending Story, or a black hole in space as in Moira Katson’s sterling sci-fi horror Remnants, in order for us to get to the fantasy world, we need some kind of aperture, opening, or portal. It is worth dwelling on this simple fact, that a portal can take many shapes, as this will have significant impact on the story. All three of the above examples brilliantly tie in their portal’s form to the meaning of their work. For Nolan, the totem represents our grounding reality; it is our clue as viewers as to what is real and what isn’t, which makes it a perfect tool for travelling between the realms of dream and reality. For Ende, his “meta device” of having us read a book about reading a book that transports little Bastian to another world sucks us into the story with the framed narrative, much like the epistemological framed narratives of Gothic literature drag their readers into their hold by layering stories on top of one another until we no longer know what’s “real”. And finally, Moira Katson’s portal works brilliantly in a science fiction setting because black holes are scientific galactic phenomena; yet hers harbours a darker and deeper secret, a hint of something beyond scientific reasoning.

Doorways are explicitly symbolic. When we use the phrase “When one door closes, another opens” we inherently defer to the metaphorical meaning, rather than the literal. Portals are doorways. They are methods to reach new and alien spaces, but also wards against them. Doors, after all, can be locked, because, most frightening of all: doors are a two-way affair.

In my previous article for Kendall Reviews on the underrated genre of Portal Fantasy & Portal Horror, I talked predominantly about examples where our protagonist enters another world and is changed by their profound experience in this alternate reality. I loosely alluded to Lovecraft subverting this trope in some ways by having the major threat being what’s on the other side of the portal coming in… But Lovecraft is by no means the only writer to do this, and the “reversed portal” is a genre worthy of its own article. I’d like to take this moment to thank author Catherine McCarthy for pointing this out (she has her own collection of “reversed portal” stories, called Door, which is worth checking out)!

So, what happens when the portal is reversed?

In Hope Mirrless’s often overlooked 19th century masterpiece Lud-in-the-Mist, we follow actions of the townsfolk of Lud, a little village that sits on the border of blue mountains that hide the kingdom of faery. Our heroes are “luddites” in more than one sense: rationalists, old-fashioned, and fearful of fantasy, faery, and dream. Yet, in the end, all of these three and more are brought out from faery’s realm and into Lud, flooding the streets with the weird and phantasmal. We are left on something of a cliffhanger, uncertain with what this truly means. Is it a positive thing that the town has come to embrace imagination at last, or does it represent a dark a hedonic descent? Mirrlees deftly presents us with a dual image of faery as at once inspirational and sinister, innocent and psycho-sexual.

I think that Mirrlees’ interpretation is archetypal in some sense. It represents the human relationship with the divine and the dream. We yearn for the sparks of inspiration that dreaming brings, but we also fear our nightmares. We all know intuitively that the worst possible things dwell not within a documentary (no matter how brutal or unfiltered) but in our subconscious, where forms hitherto unknown lie waiting to emerge. In addition, she rightly observes that sexuality and creativity are intrinsically linked. It is not to say we must have one to have the other, but it is no surprise to me that many of the most creative people ever to have lived clearly had significant sexual appetite: Sappho, Marlowe, Shakespeare (read Jonathan Bates’ outstanding The Genius Of Shakespeare for apocryphal stories of Shakespeare’s exploits that yet ring with truth), Byron, Oscar Wilde, not to mention modern rockstars like Freddy Mercury and countless others. Even famous writers who professed to disdain sexuality, such as John Milton, reveal more of their psyche than perhaps they intended in their work. Milton is indeed very preoccupied with sex, detailing a significant number of sexual encounters (Adam & Eve and Satan & Sin to name just two memorable ones) in an epic that is purportedly about matters sacrosanct and divine. After all, we are told that the God “Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss / And mad’st it pregnant”.

You may have already seen where I am going with this, but – yes – portals are not just doorways, but also sexual metaphors. Carlton Mellick III wrote a bizarro horror novel called The Haunted Vagina (which has recently been subject of controversy), about a woman’s whose genitalia is a portal to a hellish underworld dimension. Whilst laying on the hilarity, Mellick always tries to bring his absurdity home with a point: heterosexual men spend all their time trying to get into a woman’s vagina, yet deep down they are afraid of them. The process of birth is, in a way, a process of leaving one dimension and entering a new one full of blood and pain (and also hopefully love, friendship, and joy). Perhaps that is why we (or maybe just I) am fascinated by the Portal Horror genre. It represents a process that goes back to our earliest conception; literally. We all have to step through a portal to be born. This new light makes Shakespeare’s Macbeth even more profound: the hero Macduff is immune to Macbeth’s magic because he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”, aka, he was not born naturally. This allows Macduff to circumvent the universal laws that inhibit everyone else, and therefore defeat Macbeth. Macduff is supra-human by virtue of not stepping through the “normal” portal like everyone else. He came into the world via the sword, via a “rip”, a wholly different type of doorway. Christa Wojciechowski beautifully homages this, as well as blending it with the myth of Alexander The Great (who was allegedly born during a siege as blood ran under the chamber door), in her second Sick book, where we discover the origins of her twisted anti-hero John Branch.

Similar to doorways being two-way, the sexual act is two-way. Not to be too graphic, but something goes in and something comes out. The portal, then, offers an opportunity for our protagonist to encounter a reflection of themselves. In Michael Ende’s The Never-Ending Story, Atreyu is the fantasy-world mirror of Bastian, and it is by acquiring some of Atreyu’s traits, learning from him, that Bastian can finally succeed and triumph. This leads to the luck dragon Falkor coming through the portal and into our real world (where he disposes of some bullies into a large dumpster, for all those ‘80s feel-good vibes). At least in Wolfgang Petersen’s vision of Ende’s work, we need more fantasy in our rational world, so fantasy coming back through the portal is a good thing. If we look to films like Event Horizon, we might draw a different conclusion, as even a brief encounter with what lies beyond the portal will fuck us up beyond all repair.

In possession narratives, likewise, the whole aim of the story is to send whatever came through the portal back to the hell from whence it came. In Grady Hendrix’s mind-blowing novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a book I’m still getting over, Abby’s best friend Gretchen is possessed by a demon that begins to destroy their friendship and subsequently both of their lives. As things escalate, Abby finally recruits an exorcist to help her cast out the demon from her friend. The final exorcism scene is too perfect to be summarised here, but it rends to the bone. Closing the portal is, after all, no mean feat, especially when that portal is the body of the person you love and care about most in the world.

Ultimately, portal fantasy and horror operate at a symbolic level and describe human experience. They can be expressed in many forms, so are, in some ways, more flexible than other genres. Our portal can be a human body, a book, a glowing hole in space, or something even more esoteric. In John Gastil’s riotous Dungeon Party, the portal is playing Dungeons & Dragons no less! The possibilities are endless, and that also applies to what lies beyond the portal.

Or what might decide to come through it…

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 US & Amazon 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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