The Dark Portal | Prologue & Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

He had never been brave or overtly curious, so why did the Grill call to him that spring morning, and what was the urge to explore that gripped him so?

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Ah yes, the infamous Grill. Let’s be honest, the yawning black maw of a tunnel mouth is something which inspires a frisson of unnamed fear in many of us. What, we wonder to ourselves, lies beyond, lurking in the claustrophobic darkness, waiting to leap out and attack? Cover that shadowy opening with cold, writhing ironwork, so out of place in the roly-poly, nature-loving world of mice, and you’ve got a perfect gateway to adventure, danger, and in a lot of cases, doom.

I have a peculiar relationship with The Dark Portal‘s opening pages because my first experience of this book was via audio cassette. Whenever I read that immortal tone-setter, ‘When a mouse is born he has to fight to survive’, I hear it in Tom Baker’s deeply sinister-sounding narration, and am instantly blasted with the feeling of what it was like to listen in mounting glee as this story unfolded in all its macabre glory.

And macabre it really is. The very first paragraph describes in loving detail an anecdote regarding a mouse family who died from ingesting poison set down by humans, a tragedy which, and I quote, ‘only the baby survived because it was too young to eat solids.’ Mr Jarvis was never one for breaking the reader in gently, and in this instance he achieves both of his objectives in one fell swoop: our hearts break for the innocent mousey critters, even as we shriek in horror.

This nightmarish opener really sets the bar for the series as a whole. In the first chapter, we are introduced to the kindly, lovable house-mouse Albert Brown, father of our heroine, Audrey, but our acquaintance with him is short-lived. Albert, having been pulled through the Grill by the vile enchantment upon it, meets an abrupt and sticky end, and we, like poor Piccadilly at the close of this chapter, feel the need to flee sobbing into the night.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: This opening chapter put me in a state of denial the first time I read it. That ending, where Albert Brown is peeled (how’s that for a bit of Chapter 1 violence?) by Jupiter, the Dark God of the Rats, refused to sink in. I just assumed that Mr Jarvis was only playing with us – as authors love to do – and that Albert Brown was somehow going to miraculously survive and show up again later in the book. (Just like Gandalf and the Balrog, right?)

But this is a Jarvis book and the man is out to mess you up. And so, a great character – one who I relate to more and more, now that I have young children of my own – is introduced for all of one chapter and then mercilessly dispatched.

I love the opening of this book. It starts with a classic early Jarvis cast of heroes and villains (The Mice and The Rats) which was a trademark of his early books. Then, without any mucking around, the ideas are set out in a brief prologue: a bunch of mice living in Deptford, they have a nasty Grill leading to the sewers in their basement and you just don’t want to go there. And yet there goes Albert Brown.

Still, if Albert’s flame burned brightly for 15 pages and then was extinguished, at least we had the introduction of the legendary Piccadilly. There’s just something so perfect about a City Mouse being named after a tube station.

And let’s not forget the villains. Morgan goes on to become a memorable adversary. And, of course, Jupiter, who wins the vote for my favourite of all Jarvis villains. He also becomes the villain archetype for all following Jarvis books – his shape and identity is hidden, he has a mysterious plot, lots of minions working for him, and archaic turns of phrase. But there will be plenty more to say about those two as the plot moves along …

Finally, bit of musical trivia: I have this habit of listening to classical music and imagining what sort of movie scene that the music might fit. And when I first heard the opening minute or so of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, I couldn’t help but imagine Albert Brown tip-toeing deeper and deeper into a dark, yawning sewer … Have a listen, if you want (it’s a great piece of music!), but I won’t be offended if it’s only me that hears Robin Jarvis cinema in the music!

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31 thoughts on “The Dark Portal | Prologue & Chapter 1

  1. Aron’s thoughts: I’ve gotta say that Aufwader nailed it when she pointed out the bleak significance of the prologue’s opening line.

    There you have it spelled out plainly what the tone of The Deptford Mice shall be. Plenty of books that star talking animals tend to have a light and whimsical tone with the cuddly and cute protagonist critters going on an adventure and learning an important lesson along the way before the story comes to a happy ending with them dancing around a maypole. But what we soon discover is that this is not one of those books. This is a book in which the mousy protagonists live in a world of darkness and dread. They are small and vulnerable creatures and what’s more, they know it only too well. Death is never far away and they must remember that with each day that comes. Not only can these characters die, these characters WILL die unless they fight to stay alive. You’ve got to hand it to the author. He won’t hesitate to rip your heart out of your chest by killing a character whom you’ve come to dearly love but he would never dream of lying to you about it for one second.

    The world of the mice and the world of rats seem like counterparts of each other to me, the mice living up above in a boarded-up abandoned old house that ensures their safety from predators and comes with the benefit of the larder of an elderly lady to raid during the winter while the rat-folk lurk down in the sewers and cling to their wicked lives by preying upon other living creatures. And the gateway separating these worlds of light and darkness is none other than the infamous Grille. When I got to the part that mentions how the mice only speak of it in fearful whispers, I found myself wondering why the mice have stayed for so long in a house with the world of the rats so terrifyingly close that it almost touches their own. I mean, come on! I love cake as much as the next person but can the fare provided courtesy of the doting nephews of the old lady next door really be so divinely scrumptious that I’d be willing to live in constant dread of being dragged underground and eaten alive by cannibals? Then I catch myself, realizing that I’m making the mistake of thinking of the situation from the perspective of a human. These are mice who are lucky to have constant access to delicious pastries and shelter at all. Perhaps the outside world is so full of mortal peril that the small and vulnerable mice deem the risk to be worth it, forcing themselves to believe that they will be fine so long as they don’t think about The Grille and the horror of what lies beyond it, just waiting to be unleashed. Which makes it that much scarier that the thing seems to be alive and constantly whispers to the mice to come and explore the other side of it. Who else finds it incredibly sinister that there just so happens to be a conveniently mouse-sized hole in one corner?

    What a haunting picture the author paints on the canvas of our minds as Piccadilly and Albert stumble blindly through the sewers, holding paws for fear that they may get separated in the dark and never find each other again. It feels as though the two mice are trapped in the underworld and wandering along the bleak shore of The River Styx. On wrong turn, one false step and they’re dead. The darkness is almost a character in its own right, an enemy from which they cannot escape from even behind closed eye-lids, forcing its way into their minds and dragging them into its depths. You can taste the sheer terror that comes from not knowing where you are or if you’ll ever make it out of that terrible place alive. Imagine the impression it left on me as a child. Believe me when I say that this stuff has never left me. The passage which describes Albert being tormented by visions of his wife and children waiting for him to cross a seemingly endless tunnel and be reunited with them is heartbreaking, again much like something from a Greek myth, especially since the shocking conclusion of Chapter One sees to it that he will never be with them again. A chilling question to consider is why he cries out one last time before the end comes. Was it out of pain? Or was it horror because he saw what Jupiter looks like? We’re not told and that is so creepy it makes my skin crawl.

    I’m not gonna lie, folks. Just as I had a favorite Ninja Turtle back in the day, so too did I have a favorite mouse and that mouse was Piccadilly. The moment he walked around the corner of that tunnel and into Albert’s life, I thought he was so cool I wanted to be him. He seemed to embody everything I looked up to. He was brave and tough (traits anyone would need to possess if they’d survived being lost and alone underground for several days) and he has such a cheeky way of speaking that I couldn’t help loving this guy. And yet this born survivor with an attitude shows moments of vulnerability such as when he starts losing hope of ever escaping from the sewers and when the all-consuming darkness freaks him out so much he thinks Albert is a monster luring him to his death. This made my hero feel much more human (in a mousy sort of way) than he would if he’d been presented as totally unflappable by the situation and impervious to feelings. I have to wonder what his childhood was like. He lost his parents at a young age so who took care of him while he was growing up? Perhaps the time he spent with Albert was the closest thing he ever knew to having a father. Oh Piccadilly…

    So just what does it imply about Jupiter if a fearsome rat like Morgan is reduced to cowering with terror in his presence? It says that he’s the most awesomely scary evil overlord to ever appear in a story written for children, that’s what it bloody well says! Yowza wowza! He has a personality so magnificently evil that you could read page after page that consisted solely of him making Morgan cringe as drawls remarks of withering sarcasm! Matt, you are so right about how he waxes lyrical when leaving his chief henchrat in no doubt that he’s unhappy about the mutinous miners! That speech he gave was a thing of devilish beauty! The moment when he roars with fury and the candles on either side of the archway suddenly blaze, turning the whole chamber blood-red is the precise moment when he sears himself a specially reserved place among my all-time favorite villains in the history of…of…of ever! I’m not surprised Jupiter appears on the cover of the book in all his fearsome glory! What other choice could there have possibly been? The sight of those eyes burning at you from the endless night of the dark portal is bound to capture your gaze! I know that when my own fell upon a copy of the book for the very first time, it triggered an immediate reaction of wanting to read it just so that I could find out what in the name of Hell that thing was! Wanna hear something cool that I realized? When the candles start burning like hellfire, the shadows that conceal Jupiter remain undisturbed and impenetrable in spite of the infernal light-show taking place! The dark portal is darker than darkness itself!

    What a way to begin a story. Every page makes you want to keep turning to the next and before you know it, you’ve reached the end of Chapter One which is where it looks like we’ll be leaving The Dark Portal until next week. See you when the time comes, my fellow mouseketeers. This was a blast and I cannot wait for the saga to continue. It’s a real pleasure to be here with you all.

    Say Matt, you bet I’ll listen to that song you pointed us towards! As it happens, my chum from America once shared with me a song that we both agreed would fit perfectly as the opening theme tune for a Dancing Jax TV series! Should I hold onto that for now or would you be okay with me sharing it?

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  2. I haven’t finished chapter one yet, but rereading THE GRILLE certainly made me remember just why I love Robin’s way of writing.

    I write about happy rodents. I love reading about them, too. Gimme a good picnic and a lengthy sing-song and I’m a happy bunny (heh)

    But I love that Robin doesn’t go there. He takes the preconceptions associated with the “talking rodent” genre and peels the skin from ’em. You wouldn’t get any of this in Beatrix Potter!

    Liked by 3 people

    • That is quite true about Beatrix. Oddly enough, you *have* reminded me about a children’s story that nearly every Australian kid grew up reading when they were five or six and that is the Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

      It was written by an Australian author/illustrator called May Gibbs, who invented her own world of creatures that were anthropomorphic versions of Australian wildlife and plants. Her main characters were gumnut babies, which looked like naked one-year-olds wearing leaves, that were born in the nuts of gum trees.

      For her villains, she worked out that a banksia plant (a tree that grows spiky bushes with strange lumps on it) was a perfect fit. Give them arms and legs and an evil laugh and the Bad Banksia Men (as they were known) were enthrallingly creepy.

      That said, despite her knack for illustration, her sense of character and plot was dreadful, so there’s probably a reason why she’s famous only in Australia and not anywhere else … But for us, she’s the closest thing we had to a Beatrix Potter.

      http://www.maygibbs.org/stories-and-characters/

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    • I have to admit I wasnt so perturbed by the idea of mouse death as a wee one I had been too exposed to Dick King-Smith’s talking animal books, which were really prone to being frequently very morbid, and very blasé about it – I’m thinking especially of Magnus Powermouse, which goes ahead and casually describes the title characters rodent siblings all dying soon after birth. And then theres Saddlebottom and its fear of being eaten, and lets not even get into The Fox Busters and The Mouse Butcher…

      (Compared to these, Babe was honestly the most blandest book no doubt why it got two crappy feemily films)

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      • Actually, I just watched Babe with live orchestra last year – which was the first time I’d seen it since being a teenager – and I was struck by the level of death lying just under the surface. For instance, when Babe finally works out that farmers eat pigs and asks his adopted sheepdog mum about it, she can only confirm that’s the way it works. And that his mother would have been eaten. Somewhat morbid!

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      • @Matt (seems I can’t reply to your reply)

        Hm, I suppose my memory of Babe itself may have blurred (overshadowed by the sodding movies) but that still isn’t as ghoulish as Saddlebottom, which had a quite eerie dream sequence which ends with the title character being eaten by a soldier!

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  3. Hey, and we’re off and running! Thank you, Aron and Emmy, for jumping on and commenting! Aron, you’re welcome to share your song here or you could wait till we do Dancing Jax. Either way will be fine.

    The good news I *can* deliver, though, is that you won’t have to wait till next week for the next post. We’ll be posting three or four times a week because we’re aiming to finish Dark Portal by the end of January! So see you all in a day or so!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm. You know, having thought about it, I guess I can wait until we get to Dancing Jax before furnishing ya’ll with the name of the song I mentioned before. It’ll make the occasion much more special when it comes.

      By the way, I checked out the symphony you pointed us towards and you were so right. The opening seconds of it are perfect for capturing the pensive mood of Albert walking past the door to the cellar, then stopping and turning to stare at it with eyes that now seem oddly glazed. Then we see the door opening and he’s walking down the steps like a sleepwalker. Then he stops and the camera slowly rotates to show us what he’s standing in front of. The Grille. And here he hesitates upon the point of no return, struggling to resist the mad urge that has brought him here, before the moment passes and he squirms through the rusted gap in the corner of the gateway. The music swells along with the size of the tunnel beyond as he leaves the safety of the house far behind and becomes lost within the endless labyrinth of the sewers which swallow him up like the throat of a gargantuan monster. And that is when he blinks, the music coming to an abrupt end as he realizes what he’s done and has to bite his tongue to hold back the scream of horror.

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  4. I concur! Thank you both for your comments, it’s great to see folks getting involved. (Also Matt, I didn’t know about the Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, what a rare and interesting find! The illustrations remind me of vintage scrapbook fairies and angels slightly).

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  5. I too love the opening lines of The Grille. In just 2 short pages Jarvis managed to set the tone for the series, kick-start the plot (ohhhhh how I detest books where the plot doesn’t start rolling until chapter 3) and just sucks you straight through that grill along with poor Albert.
    I will say though that I have never found The Dark Portal to be as disturbing as the rest of you seem to – perhaps it’s because when Matt first read this to me I was too young to fully appreciate the horror of mice being peeled and eaten (sure, it seemed a bit gory to me at the time, but I just rolled with it), or perhaps it is because I’m not really into mice that much and so found it difficult to emphathise with the characters. 🤔
    Certainly, coming back this third time (as a much older and hopefully more emotionally-developed reader) I did feel a greater sense of appreciation for Arthur Brown’s quietly understated strength and bravery – although, as with the other two readings, mostly I was just glad that it was Arthur and not Piccadilly because – like everyone else – Piccadilly is my fave too 😜
    Now hurry up and post the next chapter so I can rant about my least-favourite character 😂😂😂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Albert’s friendship with Piccadilly makes me feel warm inside. Those moments I touched upon before when Piccadilly begins to fear that this black pit will be their grave and later when he begins to freak out in a pitch-black tunnel and Albert immediately takes his paw, calming him down, are wonderful because they feel so like a dad looking after his son in the middle of a dangerous situation. Bear in mind that they only met a short while ago. Albert barely knows Piccadilly and yet he reaches out to the younger mouse and helps to keep the weakening flame of his hope alive, reminding him of the beautiful world they are struggling to return to. He didn’t have to take the time and effort to do that but he did. He has a big heart. That’s what makes him a good husband and father and what ensures that he won’t let Piccadilly give up the fight.

      You guys are right to compliment the world-building demonstrated in the prologue because it is excellent. And there’s more of it on display in Chapter One when Albert talks to Piccadilly to take his mind off their perilous plight. We glean so much about the other mice Albert is close to. What makes the delivery of this new information top-notch is that it comes in a way that feels natural rather than forced. As I said before, Albert is trying to rouse Piccadilly’s spirits by talking about the outside world and so it’s natural that he’d think of the other mice in his community. When the two of them bump into each other for the first time, he even slips in a few dark hints about the rat-folk which makes sense. As a stranger in these parts, Piccadilly would naturally know nothing about them and so the truth about how much more deadly the local rats are in Deptford is news to him just as much as it is to the reader.

      I share your eagerness for Chapter Two with all my heart. We’re about to meet so many wonderful characters there! And I’m looking forward to hearing you spill about why one of them makes you frown!

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      • To add to this, it is indeed remarkable how much we learn about the world of mice and rats in the opening two and a half pages. You can’t possibly accuse The Deptford Mice of dilly-dallying. Not a single page is wasted as the slippery plot unfolds before your eyes.

        Mouse-peeling is one of those words that seem inherently funny when you encounter it for the first time. Until the horrific truth dawns on you just what this silly-sounding word means. A mouse being murdered as his or her skin is dragged from their helpless body while they’re still alive. Beware the grille indeed, my friends. Don’t say nobody warned you.

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  6. And in local news, guess who just picked up the Whitby Witches box set? It was for sale at an affordable price and I’ll be needing the third book when we get to that series. Somehow I never got my own copy of “The Whitby Child” and it seemed an appropriate time to plug that glaring hole in my collection.

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  7. How many of you recognize the name Art Spiegelman?
    What about “Maus: My Father Bleeds History” and “Mauschwitz: And Here My Troubles Began”?
    If you know of these graphic novels, and have looked at them, chances are that you found them unforgettable, no matter how long ago it was. I myself had to go back and look up the author’s name, but I have never forgotten his graphic novels. They created a sensation, in fact they made history, and they have been talked about, written about, and argued about ever since.
    The two main things that Art Spiegelman’s work, this specific two-volume work, has in common with Robin Jarvis and his Deptford Mice, is that visual art is important to the literary work (I have not seen Jarvis’s graphic-novel adaptations although I know there are some out there), and that the characters are mice, cats, and other animals.
    The “Maus” books differ in that they are a graphic-art presentation of non-fiction, the story of cartoonist Art Spiegelman and his father Vladek Spiegelman who survived internment at Auschwitz and Dachau. The father’s story is told through comic-strip fashion — graphic art — and is based on careful interviews between father and son, intended to document this history before the father passed away.
    My experience will differ, as a reader, from those of you who read Robin Jarvis as “young adults” or whatever the name is for the target audience for which the publisher marketed the Deptford Mice books. I am reading Jarvis for the first time as an adult approaching senior years, while the graphic-novel “Maus” series got my attention first when I was fresh out of university.
    I could say a great deal more, comparing and contrasting these two authors and the work they have done, and what it is like to see these two epic sagas through the eyes of small, common, short-lived animals. But I reckon that I have honestly said enough. Those of you who share my acquaintance with the “Maus” graphic novels will know what I am talking about.

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    • Hi Melanie, I have read Maus (a while back now) and know exactly what you mean. Somehow the imagery of small innocent mice lowers our guard a bit – possibly too much Mickey Mouse / Tom & Jerry when we were growing up – and so the author almost surprises us when he launches a full-blown story with complicated adult emotions. Featuring mice.

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    • You know, I’ve heard of Maus before. I haven’t had the chance to add it to my graphic novel library just yet but I’m certainly intrigued enough to do so in the future. And if a shred of what I’ve been told is true then to say that anyone who expects it to be a cute story because mice are involved is in for a sense-shattering shock would have to be the understatement of the century.

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      • And now I’m wondering why there’s never been Deptford Mice graphic novels. Come on, Redwall was made into a graphic novel so why not The Dark Portal? (Followed by The Crystal Prison, The Final Reckoning and then the Deptford Histories series. And then there’s Dancing Jax and Deathscent to be considered…)

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      • Probably because the only person I’d want illustrating a graphic novel of The Deptford Mice would be Mr Jarvis himself. But, now that you’ve said it, almost any of his books would work well as a graphic novel.

        But then there’s something great about his descriptive prose as well that would probably have to be cut if he was in a graphic novel format. So perhaps it’s best that he writes just normal books.

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      • I owe everyone an apology because I misstated something. In looking up Robin Jarvis, who is new to me, I noted a remark about graphic novels and presumed that these were published. I was mistaken about that.
        The actual statement was that Mr. Jarvis’s Deptford Mice started out on storyboards, and that a graphic-novel version existed only as a rough draft, which was done in order to proceed to the literary book that was published. I’m sorry I misstated that.

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      • Awww, don’t worry about it! I remember Robin Jarvis posting some pages of the storyboard for The Dark Portal on Twitter…was it last year or the year before? Anyway, it was such a neat thing to see! Personally, I think he ought to put it up on his website!

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  8. Just popping in to say thank you all for taking time to embark on this marathon! It’s fantastic to read your thoughts. Weirdly, this first chapter was the easiest thing I’ve ever written, as I didn’t know any better and it was all ripe and ready to burst out of me.

    The mice, and their world, appeared in a sketchpad for me one long weekend when I lived in Deptford. It was one of those rare instances of inspiration, mixed with an obsessive compulsion to get it all down before it disappeared back into the ether. By the end of it I had all the characters drawn and named, as well as the mousebrasses and several key moments, even though I wasn’t thinking of writing a book for them at the time.

    I still feel sad about Albert.

    Am loving the Bruckner by the way! I listen to music all the time when I’m writing but this is new to me. I can definitely see Albert stepping warily through the reeking shadows to this, and then there’s all the terrors that follow. I’m going to be listening to it a lot more in future.

    I’ll keep wandering by and contribute when I can!

    best mousey wishes

    Robin

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    • Hi there, Mr Jarvis! I was thrilled to hear that you dropped by to greet us here on Myth and Sacrifice! Thank you for opening the door to so many Gothic worlds for us to step through and face what lurks on the other side! I’m sure we’re all looking forward to The Devil’s Paintbox when March swings by!

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    • Greetings, Mr. Jarvis! It’s so amazing to see you here. I truly admire your talent for writing, drawing, and world-building. You’ve inspired me quite a bit.
      You know, years ago, I gave my mum The Dark Portal to read, but she couldn’t even get past the opening chapter because of the traumatising death of Albert Brown. She still brings it up jokingly from time to time!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think children are far more able to cope with that sort of thing than adults. Most kids see it as part of the story, whereas adults add their own personal griefs on top, which is understandable I suppose.

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