The Dark Portal | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

But the last, Twit noted with horror, had one of his claws missing and in its place, bound tightly to the stump, was something that made the fieldmouse squeal like his cousin – a peeler.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Poor Arthur Brown never gets much of a look-in when people talk about the Deptford Mice, but as far as I’m concerned it’s his unremarkable nature that makes him so likeable. As our heroine’s jollier, sturdier brother, it’s his duty to bring a bit of common sense and stability to proceedings. In this chapter as during the mousebrass-giving, he does this with aplomb, comforting his mother and rallying his friends when it becomes clear that Audrey is well and truly missing.

Here we also get a clearer look at Twit and Oswald; two of my absolute favourite characters out of any of Robin’s books. Twit especially is cleverly unfolded as the series goes on as a rather complex character, but his sunny personality remains genuine, as we see when he discusses his countryside home. The put-upon Oswald; gawky, bescarfed, and jittering, is the sort of character with whom we can probably all identify to some extent, if only because most of us certainly know ‘an Oswald’ in our own lives.

Between them, Arthur, Twit, and Oswald make up Audrey’s rescue party, and it is through their frightened but courageous eyes that we come nose-to-snout with One-Eyed Jake and his cronies. One rung down from Morgan, this band of bloodstained scoundrels are delightfully, slaveringly wicked, and thus immensely fun to read. I can recall one reviewer of The Dark Portal from a few years ago commenting that even the lowliest of Mr Jarvis’ rats would make Cluny the Scourge, the infamous warlord of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, drop his whip-like tail and flee in terror. I have to admit I concur – Cluny is very sinister, but you can’t beat a snickering, leering gang of red-eyed murderers closing in on our helpless heroes, deliberating whom they are going to make a ‘raw head and bloody-bones’ of first!

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m a fan of horror films, so I love the way Robin has worked in the classic horror movie trope into a kids’ story: One person goes missing in some dark, forbidding place. Other friends say, ‘Let’s go find them!’ And then everyone ends up in trouble. (He does, however, avoid that other cliché of horror stories, where somebody suggests the never-sensible idea of splitting up.)

This is also an introduction to a bunch of classic Jarvis ‘nasties’: they’re the bad guys who work for the ultra-villain and they’re nearly always ugly, sadistic and violent. I’m sure this got many parents and teachers riled up back in the day (and apologies to any parents and teachers reading this who are riled up still) but this is actually what makes his books so intense: the villains are so, well, vile, compared with the innocence of the heroes, that it makes the story that much more compelling.

Nobody has any special combat skills to battle these kind of bad guys. It just comes down to courage and tenacity. Which will be sorely tested in the chapters to come …

Final Pedantic Note: Reading the Hodder silver-coloured edition, I noticed that the book alternated between spelling the old piece of metal in the cellar as ‘Grille’ and ‘Grill’, sometimes within paragraphs of each other. To sort this one out, I went to the source. It’s now officially ‘the Grill’.

The Dark Portal | Chapter 3

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Unnatural things walked under the stars and spread fear over the earth.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now Audrey takes her first steps upon the path set out for her, desperation fuelling her to leave comfortable home and hearth. In the time-honoured tradition of heroic tales, she gives up something precious in exchange for information from an untrustworthy source, and so the wheels of her fate begin to turn.

This is a chapter which I still remember from the cassette version; the shadowy, furtive fortune-telling scene with Madame Akkikuyu had great atmosphere, despite that her accent was not exactly true to the book’s descriptions. I can recall my young indignation that Audrey had to forfeit the tail-bells which Twit had given her in such good faith, but the fact that Audrey is willing to believe that the likes of Akkikuyu can help her at all really shows her desperation.

Madame Akkikuyu is definitely one of those characters through which you can clearly see Robin’s background in model-making. With her tattooed ear, polka-dot shawl, and toy marble masquerading as a crystal ball, she is a perfect stop-motion specimen. It’s easy to imagine her eye-watering perfume and the filth under her long, chipped claws, and certainly in this chapter’s illustration she presents a bold contrast to Audrey’s frilly femininity.

Carrying on from the Chamber of Winter scene last chapter, there is foreshadowing aplenty in Audrey and Akkikuyu’s introductory conversation, as well as in the vision which follows. We are still in the early chapters, however, and the dread and doom are balanced with the occasional humorous moment. One that always make me chortle (and which is also a scathingly accurate summation of Madame Akkikuyu’s character) is when she admits that while her potions make her gullible patrons strong and happy, those spurious concoctions also ‘make them a little bit dead sometimes too.’

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Ah, Madame Akkikuyu! I don’t think I quite appreciated where Morocco was when I was younger, and so I always imagined her as having a vaguely exotic accent but I wasn’t sure exactly what it sounded like. And so, to make sure I get this correct in my head, and in case you find yourself reading this book out loud to little people, here is a YouTube of a how to speak in a Moroccan accent for reference.

This chapter is a great example of Mr Jarvis’ cinematic writing. Swirling colours in a crystal ball, flickering flames. It all reminds me of 80s animation, even though I couldn’t point to any one particular film. But a great example is this scene from The Secret of NIMH.

Also, pay close attention to Akkikuyu’s vision. Like another prophecy we’ll encounter in a few chapters, it foreshadows not just this book but the entire trilogy.

Finally, Piccadilly and Audrey meet for the first time, and it sets up two ideas: 1) Audrey’s denial about her father being dead. (Which, hey, I totally get.) And 2) Piccadilly’s crisis of faith. These may seem more mainstream now, but in 1989, there were few books aimed at kids with this much darkness, spiritual crisis and trauma going on. (And Robin hasn’t even started. He’s just cracking his knuckles in readiness for the real unpleasantness!)

The Dark Portal | Chapter 2

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Be it great or small, tall and dangerous, meek and futile?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Possibly one of the most well-known of Mr Jarvis’ inventions is the mousebrass. These humble circles of shining metal – based on the horse brasses of rural 19th Century England – each bear a different motif that matches the wearer’s personality and life path. The symbol moulded into one’s mousebrass is as significant to the Deptford Mice as the Hogwarts Houses to the pupils of magic in the Harry Potter books, or the colour of one’s district in William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire Trilogy. Like many ‘sorting’ conventions in fantasy, when all is said and done it is not the prescribed symbol, house, or district which truly matters; but the ways in which the characters confirm or defy the role they are assigned.

As well as meeting our heroine and being introduced to the Skirtings community, in this chapter we also get our first glimpse of the wonderfully inventive esotericism which is Robin’s trademark. The manifestation of the Green Mouse is skilfully set up by having Arthur’s mousebrass ceremony be reassuringly ordinary. He goes in ahead of Audrey through the paper streamers and painted props of the Chambers of Winter and Summer, and receives his brass in the same manner as every other mouse before him.

This in turn makes Audrey’s experience all the more alarming and awe-inspiring. The scene where she passes through the Chamber of Winter is, to me, one of the most chilling in the entire novel, and is a clever bit of foreshadowing to certain events in The Final Reckoning. Even for the mice of the Skirtings in their cosy abandoned house, the powers of nature are something to be feared and revered; the Midwinter Death is still a threat, but the Green Mouse is just as real and tangible. Faced with her destiny in the form of the brass He offers her, Audrey gives a hero’s protest. ‘On my life I dare not take it’, she says, but of course in the end she does, and now she must confirm or defy accordingly.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: If you’re like me, you might have rushed through this chapter so you can get to the action, but I would almost recommend reading it slowly, because, really, this is the closest thing that we get to a ‘nice’ chapter in this book. At the risk of sounding like Lemony Snicket, it’s all going to get more miserable from here onward.

For me, this is the equivalent of the opening of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien sets up his idyllic hobbit community. (However, Mr Jarvis mercifully spares us a 10-page prologue describing the Deptford Mice and their tobacco preferences.) It’s simultaneously completely new  – the Green Mouse, mousebrasses, the Chambers of Summer and Winter are all phenomenal fictional inventions – but at the same time it immediately feels like ancient English community and paganism. (There’s something to be said for living in a country where so many strands of mythology have been passed down over the years!)

And, finally, Robin introduces three more characters who all become memorable as the series goes on: Audrey, who increasingly reminds me of my wife and daughter. (The latter of whom at age three already had ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ as part of her vocabulary.) Twit, who I love more and more for his spirit of kindness.

And Oswald. In an American cartoon, I feel like he would be one of those clumsy, less-than-bright characters that are inserted for gags, but Robin characterises him much more as an over-anxious out-of-place sort of person. Which I could completely relate to growing up.

Anyway, I won’t spoil anything, but one of the best things about The Deptford Mice is watching the arc all three go through, not just in this book, but over the course of the trilogy.

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!

Four Weeks to Go & Where To Get Hold of The Dark Portal

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This is an accurate portrayal of everyone who has joined the  (Re)Read trying to get the rest of their friends and acquaintances on board too!

Yes! We’re just short of four weeks to go till we start reading! It’s been exciting to see a few people sign up to follow the blog and hopefully we’ll get more on board as we go along. But for those who are joining us on the Grand (Re)Read who don’t yet have a copy of The Dark Portal lying around that they can dust off and start reading again, we wanted to let you know where to get hold of one.

Sadly, despite Matt having bought The Dark Portal twice in his lifetime just to collect the different cover artwork and Aufwader having somehow acquired three copies of varying provenance, it was not quite enough to keep this book in print in a physical format as of the time of writing. (This is unfortunately the case for most early Jarvis books that we will be reading through in the first year.)

However, those of you who have a Kindle (or can get the Amazon Kindle app in some shape or form) will be delighted to know that you can pick up a very affordable copy of The Dark Portal eBook. (We just checked prices now and currently, it was sitting at £1.99 on Amazon.co.uk, $0.74USD on Amazon.com and $0.99AUD on Amazon.com.au.)

So, really, you’ve got no excuse for making a quick impulse buy right now as we speak.

The caveat with the eBook version, though – and it’s a major one – is that there are no illustrations. Mr Jarvis, as well as being a writer of some talent, is also a phenomenal illustrator as well. In fact, the story goes that he drew pictures of the Deptford Mice first and then started coming up with a story to house them.

And so the original editions of The Deptford Mice Trilogy all feature stunning cover-art on the front and back of the book plus a full-page black-and-white illustration in each chapter (so 14 interior illustrations in all). These illustrations are amazing, because they really bring the heroes and villains of the series to life and set the tone for the story.

So please do buy the eBook version, which we hope gives a couple of pennies to Robin. But for a few pounds in the UK (or around $10 if you live on the other side of the planet like Matt) you can pick up a cheap second-hand copy from eBay or AbeBooks or Amazon which will give you a chance to see the illustrations for yourself. (For copyright reasons, we won’t be able to reproduce them all in this blog, though we may point out a couple of our favourites along the way.)

BUT … before you head off to get yourself a second-copy, we need to give a further warning: there are second-hand copies and there are second-hand copies. It’s possibly a rights issue, maybe something else. But there was at least one print edition of The Deptford Mice books that came out with just text and no illustrations. (The horror!) So, to make it easy for you, here are the front covers that you are looking for:

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This one is the original first edition, featuring a pair of burning red eyes peering out of the Dark Portal of the title. This is the ideal one to get, because it was the most nicely laid out in terms of font, paper stock, readability, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

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Next best is this Hodder Silver edition, which came out in 2000 with the same interior illustrations but a new cover by Robin. It has a very cool feature – if you get all three of these editions and line them up in a row, you see a picture form across the spines! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This next one is the American edition which came out in hardback, with a cover by Leonid Gore. It features Robin’s illustrations on the inside, but for some mysterious reason, the US publisher saw fit to have completely new illustrations done for the covers. While the large, dramatic-looking rat is quite eye-catching, for Matt at least, it’s just not what a Robin Jarvis book looks like. But if we have any readers in the States, this edition may be slightly easier to track down.

 

 

 

Most other versions of the book that we have seen haven’t had the illustrations, so I would suggest only purchasing one of those three. (As a side note, the Japanese editions of the Deptford Mice Trilogy are illustrated by John Shelley throughout, and are definitely worth collecting). The Dark Portal is also available in German and Italian.

Once you’ve picked up a copy, if you want to drop by and comment on this post to let us know which edition you own, or which edition you bought and what you like about it, we’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, don’t forget to tell your friends to come over and sign up! The more, the merrier! (Maybe buy two copies of The Dark Portal, so you can give one away as a Christmas present?)