Photo credit: Beckett Gladney
My bedroom, which can be seen in the background of many photos and the occasional Skype interview, is candy-colored and bright, with walls like the inside of a giant pumpkin and shelves dripping with vintage toys. Some of them have been with me since childhood, following me from one adventure into the next (some of those adventures have involved spending time in a box). Others are recent acquisitions, bought during bouts of retail therapy after I reached adulthood. It’s soothing, if you happen to be me, and an endless nightmare of painted eyes if you happen to be someone who dislikes such things. People have been known to joke that my lifelong love of portal fantasies was born, at least in part, from the fact that stepping into my private spaces is a little like stepping through a portal into another world.
They’re not wrong. I surround myself with fantastical things because it makes it a little easier to write fantastical stories. (I don’t depend
on such conveniences — I do a surprising amount of work in airports, for example — but they help.) And in the case of portal fantasy, these items give me a link to follow back to the time when portal fantasy was king.
I’m talking, of course, about the 1980s.
The portal fantasy is not a new invention: from Alice and her Wonderland
to the Connecticut Yankee
and his time in King Arthur’s court, fictional figures have been stumbling through secret doors and winding up in impossible places for as long as people have been telling stories. Orpheus and his katabasis, Gulliver
and his travels, Ulysses and his seafaring adventures, they’re all forms of portal fantasy, in their own ways; they all go from the homey and comfortable here
into the exciting and perilous there
. Here be monsters indeed.
But for some reason, the 1980s, with their mixture of Cold War terror and self-actualization, became a breeding ground for portal fantasies like the world had never seen. They were everywhere, from horror (House
, even, in the right light, A Nightmare on Elm Street
), to adult fantasy (Barbara Hambly’s delightful Windrose trilogy
, Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman
), to superhero stories (many plot elements of the X-Men, especially those concerning Illyana Rasputin), even into science fiction, because what is The Last Starfighter
if not a way of having your portal fantasy and your lasers at the same time? It was the ultimate fish out of water story, allowing the author to bring a character the audience can relate to into the most ridiculous of situations.
Today’s media is full of stories by people who invested as children, who bought hook, line, and sinker into the idea of the magic mirror through which all our dreams come true.
I can go on for hours about how Doctor Who
is a portal fantasy writ across the stars, how the companions are falling down the rabbit hole over and over again forever, tumbling head over heels into mystery. Hours.
But the greatest bulk of the portal fantasies were showcased in an unexpected place: Saturday morning television. The '80s were the great golden time of the Saturday morning cartoon, a time when everyone wanted a piece of the pie that was a captive childhood audience, ready and willing to be advertised to. They wanted us to invest in their talking horses and transforming robots, and so many of them went with what must have seemed like the easy route.
They went with the portal fantasy.
A farm girl is kidnapped over the rainbow by talking horses who want to use her for her thumbs. A group of teens rides the wrong roller coaster and somehow winds up in a world where magic is real, malicious, and absolutely out to get them. Another group of kids encounters talking dogs who are the actual world-hoppers of the scenario, fleeing a world fallen into darkness, looking for someone who can help them through it. Over and over, we are presented with the idea that we and these magical stories exist in the same space, and that our games can thus be considered a part of their unending, true-but-untrue story. It was a way of making us invest
, and boy howdy, did we ever.
Today’s media is full of stories by people who invested as children, who bought hook, line, and sinker into the idea of the magic mirror through which all our dreams come true. We’re having a second golden age of portal fantasies — only maybe it’s the third, or the fourth, or the hundredth, echoing back through all of human experience to the first time someone said, “through that door lies a path, and at the end of that path lies the underworld, where the gods of the dead sing their threnodies to the spirits of those who’ve gone ahead.” This is the age of magicians, of girls who circumnavigate worlds in boats they’ve built with their own hands, of the descendants of those who stood their ground when Narnia attacked. And it is glorious.
Beneath the Sugar Sky
is an homage to the portal fantasies of my childhood: it is the portal running in reverse. It is the children of this world meeting a child from somewhere else and agreeing that, yes, they are willing to help her in her journey; yes, they are willing to cross the impossible divide and perform their katabasis — they are willing to change the world if that’s what has to happen to finish their story the right way. It is sugary pink and silver glitter, it is bright and beautiful and rotten to the core, and I love it so much because I can see in it the echo of all the stories that swallowed me whole when I was a little girl.
Portal fantasies are everywhere, woven through human history, going back as far as we can trace our stories, and I am proud beyond all measure to be a part of carrying them forward into the next set of hearts, the people for whom it won’t be a rabbit hole or a rainbow, but a frosting sugar door with a secret on the other side.
Come see what it is.
÷ ÷ ÷
Seanan McGuire is the author of several bestselling contemporary fantasy novels, including the October Daye series beginning with 2009’s Rosemary and Rue
, and (as Mira Grant) Feed
, and Blackout
. In 2010 she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She lives in California. Beneath the Sugar Sky
is her most recent novel.