The Dark Portal | Chapter 9

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

It was a chilling, gruesome thing; the pawless arms dangled around and touched him so softly that it was like being tickled by the dead and caressed by ghosts.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now this is one that many of us remember, and if you’re reading for the first time, chances are you’ll recall it just as vividly in future. The next three chapters are what I’m right now naming the ‘Robin Jarvis litmus test’ – in short, if you can get through these and continue reading, congratulations, you can get through just about anything Mr Jarvis will throw at us in this trilogy, and so help you, you’re here till the bitter end!

The build-up to this chapter’s horrendous set-piece is brilliantly handled. First we’ve got Part II of ‘Oswald and Piccadilly in: A Brush with Protracted and Grisly Death’ as they finally escape the marauding rats. It’s thrilling, as our heroes zoom away on their makeshift raft. It’s chilling, as they are almost gnawed and almost drowned. It’s even funny, with Oswald’s phonetically-spelled lines being the most accurate written portrayal of someone with an injured nose ib eber come acwoss.

Then, they arrive, unknowingly, in Morgan’s lair. There’s a prickling, ominous atmosphere to the scene without anything explicitly horrible happening, lulling us into a false sense of security even as the shivers crawl up our spines. It is a rat’s lair, that much is clear. Piccadilly sneaks in. Oswald remains outside to ‘keep watch’ and, predictably, follows Piccadilly after a few moments of dithering. Piccadilly senses an odd, salty aroma and comments on it. Oswald steps in something disgusting. So far, so banal.

When the peeled mouse-skins are revealed, it’s like the first paragraph of the prologue magnified tenfold. We have come to know and love the Deptford Mice. We have cheered for them, we have cried with them, and now we feel Piccadilly’s dull horror as he explains about Bib. Once again, the evil of our villains is brought home and made personal, but in this case it is Morgan who takes the ghoulish spotlight, and the true menace of Jupiter’s faithful is brought out into the open.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: You know, it’s only when I slow down and write about one chapter at a time like this that I realise what a constant stream of macabre ideas that Jarvis throws in to his books. Morgan’s stockpile of flayed skins – if this wasn’t a story about mice – would place this well into the realm of adult writers like Stephen King, James Herbert and Thomas Harris.

It’s chilling stuff, but it yet again ratchets up the stakes against our heroes.

Which then makes it even worse, when they stumble into a lair of sleeping rats … But this is also great from a storytelling perspective, because Oswald’s tall rat-like look, far from just being an interesting physical description, now becomes a major plot point. Jarvis genius!

 

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11 thoughts on “The Dark Portal | Chapter 9

  1. The events that unfold in Morgan’s larder are some of the most harrowing in the entire series. And I think that what makes them so effective is that we never see them coming. Like a ghoul lurking in the corner of some dark room, they creep up on us and pounce when we least expect it. It starts with the cliffhanger ending of the chapter we just got done with being resolved in a suitably breathtaking way that any film-maker worth his or her salt will have the time of their life with if the day should come when these books are finally adapted for the screen. I love how Piccadilly calmly counts down to the moment when the two of them will have to jump from the raft while Oswald is nervously commenting on the progress of the rat who has caught up with them. And when the plank is bouncing up and down on the turbulent waves and Piccadilly is treating their wild ride like something from a theme park while Oswald has his eyes screwed shut in terror and and prays for this to be over. As they escape from the rats, the surge of relief brings a much more lighthearted tone flowing through the next couple of pages. Piccadilly merrily tells stories of life in the big city and teases his uptight friend about what untold horrors are waiting for them on the other side of that oh-so creepy door they have just found. It feels as though the two mice are out of danger for the moment, the story having chosen to give them some time to catch their breaths after that huge action sequence. But the truth is that they are being lulled into false security and the reader along with them as the author craftily sets us up for what’s about to happen.

    The slow build-up to horror continues as Piccadilly and Oswald make their way through the opening and stumble upon a crazy collection of all the revolting things that rats naturally adore. They shake their heads and comment on what odd creatures their sewer-dwelling counterparts really are. Then it happens. A laughing Piccadilly reaches into a pile of what appears to be sacks for something for Oswald to wipe his foot on and his paw comes away holding something that brings a complete halt to the merriment. A mouse’s skin. The last remains of a young person like them who was lured into the sewers and died screaming under the eternally thirsty blade of a peeler. This place which seemed like the inside of a slobbish high-school student’s locker mere moments ago is revealed for what it truly is. The lair of a serial-killer. And Piccadilly and Oswald are standing there, looking down at the trophies that the murder harvested from each of his victims. Just take a moment so that can sink in properly. This is some Texas Chainsaw Massacre stuff levels of messed up we’re dealing with here. In another terrifying swerve that would not be out of place in a horror film rated for those who are 18 years old or over, the serial-killer unexpectedly returns to his home away from home and Piccadilly and Oswald have no choice other than to hide in the mass grave to escape becoming two more empty skins in it. And I find myself wondering if the author’s books have been targeted by parent groups. If Harry Potter was accused of encouraging Satanism and witchcraft, I shake my head at the thought of how those people would react if they ever read The Dark Portal and its sequels. And don’t even get me started on the blow-up that would surely ensue about the prequel trilogy. Just don’t. We’ll get to those books in due time.
    Chapter Nine is a defining point in the story of The Deptford Mice and it owes so much of its importance to the way Piccadilly and Oswald react to what they have seen here in this evil place. Having lost his faith in The Green Mouse when Albert was fed to the darkness that lurks beyond the candles, Piccadilly grows even harder within, swearing that he will kill Morgan someday. And what of Oswald? How does he take discovering the grim fate of one of his neighbors who disappeared from the Skirtings long ago? You would think he would want nothing more than to run home and forget all about what happened here. And he probably does want that. Who wouldn’t want to run from such horrors? But Oswald doesn’t run. What the albino mouse does is bow his head in prayer for the souls who were lost to evil, even taking the time to fold up the skins of the rats whom Morgan murdered. And we are moved just as Piccadilly is by the compassion in this young mouse’s heart. That’s why this chapter is so important to me. The story has become steeped in darkness but here we find a ray of light that shines brilliantly. Being a hero is not just about facing mortal peril and standing up to villainy, it’s about showing kindness when kindness is never more precious and this timid mouse proves it by paying his respects to the dead who would otherwise have lain rotting and forgotten in a crumpled pile. And his courage continues to shine bright and true as he picks up the divining rod and suggests that they see the search for Audrey’s mouse brass though to its conclusion.

    When the two mice reach a chamber and see the charm which was lost but now has been found twinkling invitingly at them from where it lies on the floor, their quest seems to be accomplished. Feel free to roll your eyes at how corny this will probably sound but I honestly feel as though Piccadilly and Oswald have found so much more than the mouse brass. Neither of them could have done this without each other. Without Oswald, Piccadilly could have roamed the sewers without any hope of finding what he was looking for and without Piccadilly, Oswald would have fallen prey to the rats. The grey and the white really are a great team and this moment of glory belongs to them both. They won it together by combining their own strengths to make this possible. But of course this is The Deptford Mice which ensures that it melts away like a snowball cast into the fires of Hell and turns into an “Uh-oh!” moment for the ages as Oswald realizes that the room is in fact the sleeping quarters of the rats and he is standing up to his ankles in slumbering brutes. The suspense is through the roof and then the house comes crashing down around our ears as a gong sounds and the rats awaken and stand up to get ready for their shift at the dreaded mine, cutting Oswald off from the door before he can escape with Piccadilly. We get another delightfully bloody moment as the rat who picked up Audrey’s brass when she lost it discovers that he has lost it in turn and makes the mistake of accusing Skinner. This dude must have had a death wish. Come on, had he ever seen Skinner? The killing machine with the mouse-peeler for an arm? As the blood sprays in a crimson fountain, it dawned on me for the first time that Skinner has something in common with One-Eyed Jake and Morgan. The three rats are all mutilated in some way or other and I can’t believe it took me so long to put that together. Mutilations don’t seem hard to come by in the sewers, emphasizing the barbarian culture of the rats who seem to consider their scars to be proof that they are strong survivors. Well, they don’t have mouse brasses so I guess they came up with a suitably rattish alternative.

    And this is where we leave Oswald for now, trapped with dozens of ruthless killers who may discover the pair of tasty mouse ears hidden under the scarf wrapped around his head at any moment. Lost in a nightmare from which there is no waking. Well played, Mr Jarvis. Well played indeed. May you continue weaving light and darkness into an intricate tapestry that will at times make our hearts melt and at others make our eyes widen with horror as we wonder if the mice will ever escape from the underworld and the lost souls who dwell there.

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  2. I couldn’t BELIEVE it when I read this chapter as a kid. And I’m pretty sure I’d invented a whole backstory to Bib, because I don’t think his reasons for entering the sewers were ever made clear? I felt very attached to Bib.

    At any rate, this chapter chilled me to my core! Its splendidly gruesome. The IMAGES those skins throw up! And we get a nice insight into the spirituality (or lack thereof) of our mice friends, too!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’d love to know Bib’s backstory if you recall any of it! One of the things I love about the Deptford Mice is the small stories of minor characters. I’d read an entire book about the Raddle sisters honestly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Unfortunately I don’t remember any of it! I was just surprised to read the chapter a few years ago to find there was very little written about him. I’d thought there were illustrations of him and everything!

        Liked by 2 people

      • The great thing about Bib is that he also represents that moment in a murder mystery thriller where they discover that some long-ago disappearance is connected with the case that they’re working on now and the horrible realisation sets in: This Has Been Happening For Years.

        Liked by 3 people

    • You know what your reminiscence about dreaming up a backstory for Bib makes me long for? Deptford Mice fanfiction! I loved reading the short stories I found on Beyond The Silvering Sea and they made me so thirsty for more fanworks about the mice!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. ‘Morgan’s stockpile of flayed skins – if this wasn’t a story about mice – would place this well into the realm of adult writers like Stephen King, James Herbert and Thomas Harris.’

    If it had been Stephen King it would have probably eventually drifted into what type of cheese was the favorite of each respective previous owners of the skins, and would have droned on and on for five pages with probably a lot of swears in italics…can you guess that I’m not the biggest fan of King?

    Fitting you mention Herbert! After all his most famous series is ‘The Rats’ about evil rats somehow taking over London (and may have been the basis for the LEGENDARY Italian bootleg horror film, RATS: Nights of Terror, or as I call it thanks to its ending, the REAL original Tale of Redwall (thus meaning – Italian Mad Max/Escape from New York bootlegs are all Redwall prequels)

    Speaking of horror writers, surprised Clive Barker ain’t mentioned more round these parts, whilst he may be on the opposite end of readership, his focus on older fairytale folklore kinda runs parallel to Jarvis in some ways – most notably also using the ‘rawhead /bloody bones’ folk tales as basis for some real icky horror (ie in Hellraiser, and uh…Rawhead Rex)

    Liked by 1 person

    • ‘If it had been Stephen King it would have probably eventually drifted into what type of cheese was the favorite of each respective previous owners of the skins, and would have droned on and on for five pages with probably a lot of swears in italics…can you guess that I’m not the biggest fan of King?’

      Ha, ha, haaaaa! So true! Don’t get me wrong, Stephen King has a special place in my heart for writing It and Different Seasons but boy oh boy can the man ramble!

      Like

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