Sunday, November 30, 2008

Any Portal in a Storm

portal--a doorway between or entryway from one landscape to another; most famously the rabbit hole into which Alice (of Wonderland fame) tumbled from the world of reality to Lewis Carroll's world of imagination and satire. A considerable subset of the fantasy genre is populated with portal stories in which characters are able to move variously from one universe to another or one time frame to another. Some famous portals are antique shops, Chinese laundries, apothecaries, and news kiosks which have a habit of offering certain inducements or products to certain characters, then disappearing when the characters, experiencing buyers' remorse, seek to return. Yet another famed portal is a park bench in Oxford, England, a site where Lyra Belacqua and her love, Will Parry, characters from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, sit at the same time on the same day of the year, there to hold hands across the boundaries of separate worlds.

The concept of the portal is not limited to such fantasy-related concepts as alternate universes, this for the same reason that fantasy fiction is an important construct for all story tellers. In an excruciatingly real way, every novel and short story is set in an alternate universe, one that is somewhat of this present reality and equally somewhat of the author's concept of what this present reality is. Portals allow the writer a glimpse into the alternate universe, along with the challenge of fleshing it out, making it seem plausible to the characters who patrol it as well as the readers who read about it.

In any convincing story, characters stumble or are drawn into portals they has not recognized as portals; they emerge to discover themselves in a world that may not be hospitable, may in fact be outright menacing, therein to pursue their agendas according to the risks and realities of the universe in which they find themselves. Just as personal traits help define characters, details and conventions of behavior define the world in which characters awaken then attempt to function in.

Dorothy Gale has been drawn into the land of Oz through the whirl of a cyclone, Alice has stumbled into the notional and autocratic world at the other side of the rabbit hole while Philip Marlowe is drawn into the shadowy illegalities of the greater Los Angeles Basin through the portal of a scratched and battered office in an undistinguished office on the lower reaches of Hollywood Boulevard. Similarly, through the highly idiosyncratic portal of Yoknopatatha County, an imaginary venue in the state of Mississippi, we gain access to the alternate universe of the rural United States South, a regional portal through which is seen a vision of America as variegated and painfully naked truth as possible, one so specific in its nature that it becomes ironically universal.

How characters come to be in such alternate universes, how they are seen by the denizens of these universes, and how they seek either to remain or find their way out are the essential natures of story.


Marta said...

Lyra and Will break my heart. I love portals and search for them every day.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Love all these stories of transformation through other worlds - looking glasses and wardrobes.

We're having a little writing experiment this month if you'd like to join in Shelly - there's a link to 'Burning Lines' on the main WKDN blog (don't have your email to send an invite to the group). Best wishes

Rowena said...

You are right. All fiction is Speculative. What if two warring families had children who fell in love? What if vampires were real? What if a black woman in the turn of the century south found her own power?

Querulous Squirrel said...

I love this series of riffs on definitions of words you are doing. All provocative, evocative, clever and profound.

Kelli Anne said...

hello. i miss you.