This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. A Review of Portals: Gates, Stiles, Windows, Bridges & Other Crossings first published October 4 2020.
Since gods of nearly all cultures were believed to inhabit the skies, the route there was usually stepped. It is an acceptable theory that the monumental stone Step Pyramid of Djoser, designed by Imhotep in the 27th century BC, was not only a tomb but intended to facilitate an afterlife in heaven. The high ziggurat temples of the Sumerians and Babylonians had access by steps only for the priests. Mayan temples too were step-form. In Genesis Jacob dreams of the way to heaven as by ladder with angels ascending and descending. ~ Philippa Lewis
(In the article that followed in the) next week I explored two more wonderful collections of contemporary horror (continuing a run of such reviews), Tracy Fahey’s The Unheimlich Manoeuvre and Kristi DeMeester’s Everything That’s Underneath, but that Friday I wanted to touch on a motif common to both books, and to much of the best indie horror I had been reading.
Fahey encapsulates this well in one of her stories, where a character observes ‘I look at the houses — such a thin shell that separates inside from outside, light from darkness.’ This notion of interiority is crucial not just to that story, but is a quality in Fahey and DeMeester’s work I would later explore; what is inside and what is outside is constitutive of so much of the horror, and so much horror per se.
This distinction between interiority and exteriority has always been crucial to the horror and gothic genres; ideas of haunting, but also abandonment, imprisonment and radical, isolated suffering hinge on that duality. However, it is also one that percolates our myths and fictions more generally. And it is a contrast that rests on the ancillary idea of the passageway. That is, what mediates symbolic domains: outside, inside, outdoors, indoors: the door, the passage, the portal.
Passageways are often critical to my other favourite genre too. Utopia has many passages. It has the ships of Christianopolis and the spaceships of The Dispossessed. Characters find their paradises by sleeping (as in News from Nowhere) and by arguing on a stage (see A Modern Utopia). After all, going from somewhere to nowhere requires a particularly extraordinary means of travel. And the framing of that means is often therefore crucial to the unfolding story.
Philippa Lewis sets out in her short but delightful introductory work, Portals: Gates, Stiles, Windows, Bridges & Other Crossings, by noting an intimate link between her subject-matter and at least two distinct mediums of fiction, ‘Fifteenth and sixteenth century books,’ she observes, ‘often used the architectural motif of an elaborate doorway as a frontispiece, a visualisation of the opening into the book. Similarly a proscenium arch in the theatre creates a “window” that separates the audience from the play which comes to life as the curtain rises.’ Right away, the space of fiction requires the idea of an intermediary, a between-world or frame. Portals don’t just exist within narratives, but narratives are themselves a portal. The act of reading a figurative stepping through.
Going back to my own broader reading obsessions, Lewis pleasingly connects the notion of portals to utopia directly, using an image from Bartolomeo Del Bene’s allegorical poem The City of Truth, or, Ethics (1609) of ‘an idealised walled city’ with five gates. This part of the book recalled to me those utopias that intersect with fairy tales: Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing-World with its journey by boat to a fantasy island and the utopian commune of Tao Yuanming’s poem The Peach Blossom Spring, (421 CE) which has its strange and focal entrance:
The peach trees stopped at the stream’s source, where the fisherman came to a mountain with a small opening through which it seemed he could see light.
Lewis is keen to stress this side of her subject: ‘Writers have long used imaginary portals in stories to enter fantasy worlds, for in fairy tale, magic progresses the narrative journey.’ She mentions ‘Open Sesame’ from the Arabian Nights, the rabbit-hole from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the titular mirror in Lewis Carroll’s sequel, as well as C. S. Lewis’s famous wardrobe. She could have equally reference Weaveworld and Clive Barker’s magical carpet. Portals concludes by looking at some mythic, rainbow gates such as that to Asgard. We are everywhere imagining such transitional spaces and means of exploration. Darker, more horror-suffused uses of portals are present here too, those ‘flipsides, doors and gates [that] can lead into frightening and bad places: prison gates are entered through, but it may be some time before they can be passed again.’ For example, Lewis raises numerous gateways to afterlives for the damned, singling out Dante’s, whose ‘vision [of] the entrance down to hell is through a gate inscribed “Abandon all hope, you enter here”.’ The idea of portals as journeys is mentioned in this capacity too: ‘The most famous ferryman is Charon who, in Greek mythology, transported the souls of the newly dead across the rivers Styx or Acheron to Hades, the underworld. A coin placed in their mouth paid the fare.’
Lewis’s book has the charm of innocent obsession. It’s not a final word, but a launching pad redolent of the awe and affection of its author, richly illustrated with apt drawings gathered from all over. The information is self-contained, presented with an earnest curiosity. There’s an occultists love of metaphor throughout: ‘The Third Eye, inner eye or mind’s eye, refers to the gate that leads to the interior being and spaces of higher consciousness.’ In particular, there’s an interest in the way material conditions (innovations) have changed attitudes to portals, but also the etymologists interest in how language shapes their literal and figurative meanings:
The Latin words for ‘carry’ portare, ‘gateway’ or ‘portal’ porta, and ‘haven’ portus, all has the same root, which gives the English words deriving from them an affinity.
The English word ‘window’ derives from the old Norse word vindauga or ‘wind-eye’ an expression giving a hint to the fact that the earlier small windows, prior to the development of chimneys, drew out smoke from the central fire.
The threshold is the line crossed once a door is open; it also has the non-literal meaning of ‘start’ or ‘beginning’. Two historical relics attached to doorways that relate to entering a house are the metal snuffers, into which the link boy thrust his touch to extinguish it, and iron boot scrapers, to clean the mud off boots and shoes in the days of rough roads and no pavements.
A lot of this book, which is part of the fascinating Wooden Books series, is concerned not with grand metaphysics, but the simple fact of portals. It focuses on things such as how ‘revolving doors are sophisticated turnstiles, but their purpose is different: unlike a hinged door, they provide a constant entrance and exit to a building without letting rain, snow, wind or dust blow in from outside.’ Lewis also skims the way various cultures have approached portals, for instance: ‘Chinese Ming period scholar gardner Li Yu called [windows] opportunities for “unintentional painting”. The window opening, which could be circular, hexagonal, gourd, pearl or fan-shaped, became a frame to a carefully composed garden or natural landscape feature when looked through from within.’
This book is a small gem, and worthwhile a read no matter what type of portal most exercises your imagination.
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