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!