Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Jupiter had made the Plague a living thing with his black arts and the mist was writhing with evil life.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: ‘Dark Rewards,’ reads the chapter heading. ‘Oh no,’ says I.
Of all the horribleness in The Dark Portal, this chapter’s events were the ones that stuck with me as a child. The mouse-skins were pretty bad, and so was the shrine of the Unholy Triad, but it was this wretched mine and these wretched rats and wretched Finn and the wretched sentient Black Plague which haunted my young imagination. I hated it, but I could not stop listening.
Now, I still hate it, and I could not stop reading, and I’m very, very pleased about that because we’ve got one heck of a penultimate chapter here. First of all, the scenes with Oswald pretending to be a rat are like a bad dream; the descriptions of his calloused, dirt-encrusted paws are so visceral that it almost hurts to read about them, and we are made to feel his strain and fear of discovery as if it were our own.
I’ve written about the delightful Smiler on Silvering Sea, and Finn is one of the very few characters I’ve ever come across for whom the only suitable descriptor is ‘creeptastic’ , but for me, it is the setting of this chapter that makes it so terrifying. I am claustrophobic, and the mere idea of small, underground tunnels gives me the heebie-jeebies. Throw in the thin, dark opening which Oswald ends up in and the presence of the inescapable Black Death, and I’m left pretty sure that the only reason I managed to get through this chapter as a child was because the audiobook was abridged.
As much as this chapter scares me, I’ve always loved the moment where Jupiter turns up and starts bellowing to the rats that ‘HE IS THEIR LORD.’ Once again, favourable memories of Tom Baker’s narration surface in my mind, and I always grin at Morgan’s smug satisfaction when the minions are at last suitably cowed.
Matt’s Thoughts: It just struck me for the first time as I read it this time – was this chapter, with its mining strikes and merciless bosses, meant to have echoes of the 1984 Miner’s Strike? The Dark Portal, after all, was written in 1989, so the events of 1984 would have been fairly fresh in the minds of many adults, if not the children reading the book.
Whether there’s anything in that theory or not, this is probably one mine you would want to shut down as soon as possible, given what lay at the end of the dig! Such a creepy reveal – the Black Plague! Instantly British, instantly morbid – conjuring up images of death, disease and mass graves.
In fact, if you’ll allow me another musical interlude, I found that whenever I listened to Symphony No. 3 by William Alwyn (a spectacularly underrated English composer, who you should all have a listen to!), there was one particular moment that would conjure up a scene from a sadly non-existent Dark Portal movie in my head. Around the 7:30 mark in the first movement (here’s a link that starts at that point if you want to skip to it), a massive brass theme rings out, sounding ominous and devastating.
In my mind, I could see Oswald in the mines – the camera zooms into his eye, we hear Master Oldnose talking about Blackheath and the dead buried there – and then, as the music flares up, we see carts tipping bodies into a massive pit. The camera pulls up into the sky, looking down, and we’re horrified by how many people are buried there.
Yeah, now that I’ve written that down, that was never going to happen in any kids’ movie, was it?
Still, the imagery is potent and it’s a great threat, like the magical equivalent of a massive bomb that our heroes have to defuse or (if you have read Dan Brown’s Inferno or caught it in the cinemas recently) a deadly plague that will be unleashed on the world. Which mercifully gets dealt with at the last minute.
Leaving only Jupiter to be dealt with in the next chapter.
(And a few rat obituaries for us to write this week!)