Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Without any further ado they opened their dark mouths and with a shock Morgan realised that he could see straight through them – they were ghostly, ephemeral things.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: This is one of my favourite chapters in The Dark Portal. It’s got everything; an atmosphere of creeping dread; the bleak, swishing set of Blackheath, eerie even in daylight hours; and, ah yes, an arcane ritual to summon unclean wraiths from the trackless void! Honestly, what’s not to like?
I’ve spoken about Twit at length, and Thomas and the Starwife will get their moments in the limelight soon enough, so let’s talk about Morgan. Oft-overlooked in the annals of Mr Jarvis’ great and bad, that spotted slime-ball is nevertheless the first villain to meet our heroes on their level, so to speak, and he deserves a look-in for that alone.
As an introduction to the kind of vile secondary baddies Robin does so well, Morgan gets top marks. In Chapter 1 he’s responsible for the capture of Albert, so we despise him already, and his appearances in both the previous chapter and this one thoroughly cement our loathing. Here, we get a look into his slinking, beleaguered existence, and begin to see that his cringing fear of Jupiter is completely warranted. At this point, he has been serving the Lord of All for years, and is bound to his malevolent master’s will come plague, fire, and doom.
The Blackheath ceremony is another one of those scenes that is etched into my memory from the audiobook. It helped that Tom Baker’s rendition of Jupiter’s ‘soothing and repellent’ voice was blood-freezingly terrifying from start to finish. To this day, I could probably recite the words of that evil incantation verbatim, just because this chapter made such an impression upon me when I first heard it. I have yet to come across a more gracefully executed yet deeply disquieting scene involving occultism, even in the work of classic cosmic horror and weird fiction writers.
I’d love to hear you opinions on this scene, Readers all. Did you wonder queasily what was in Morgan’s paper parcel? Did you turn the book face-down after reading so you wouldn’t have to see Jupiter’s blazing eyes?
Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter is more or less burned in my brain. It’s perhaps a throwback to my childhood in the 80s, where in some Christian circles, any tales of magic were immediately branded as ‘occult’ and considered dangerous. (Smurfs was on the dangerous list for some people. And you certainly couldn’t speak about Dungeons & Dragons.)
And so here we come across Mr Jarvis – in the middle of a kids’ book – describing an arcane ritual in enough detail to be highly disturbing but (perhaps) not enough detail to get himself in trouble with publishers.
Now that I’m older, I realise that in many ways Robin was drawing on centuries of legends and traditions about witchcraft and sorcery and the evil things that exist out there if you tap into them. This was the stuff that terrified grown-ups in the classic wave of occult 70s horror cinema, such as The Exorcist, The Omen and – a true British classic – The Wicker Man. But I don’t think anyone back then had thought about putting it in a book for young readers quite like this.
I don’t know – maybe people don’t read this with the same chill that I do. After having so many Paranormal Activity and Conjuring films, is the world of the occult something that is more laughable and familiar now? I’m not sure. But either way, for me, this pushed the book into a new level of darkness. Even Voldemort at the height of his mischief never felt as hideous as Jupiter summoning up dark spirits on Blackheath.
This, of course, became a mainstay of Robin’s books. There is always a moment (perhaps several) where his villains really ramp things up by tapping into dark forces. It usually marks a turning point where things go from being dangerous for our main characters to flat out cataclysmic.
But what about you, dear readers? Do Jarvis’ descriptions of dark forces give you that rising sense of dread as well?