‘When a mouse is born, he must fight to survive. There are many enemies…’
A lot of my formative reading, I remember doing when I was ill in bed. This is probably common for many people and if, like me, you were a kid in the late 80s you didn’t have a TV in your room. (I wasn’t allowed computer games either…I know, right? Dry your tears for me and do carry on…)
My dad had read me both the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings over a year of bedtimes and whilst I immersed myself completely in the plight of the story, I don’t think I was old enough to really appreciate the depth of Tolkien’s world-building.
Reading alone had become default escapism from other children and difficult maths questions at school and I longed for something that I could vanish into, something less huge than middle earth but something more than the confines of The Witches (A huge favourite and monumental milestone in my journey to horror in its own right!).
Again, like many kids in the 80s, I spent a lot of my time playing the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ Series – single player game books that were incredibly addictive and often disarmingly frustrating (eg. If you want to follow the goblin, turn to page 244 *turns to page 244* You have fallen into a trap hidden in the road and your body is impaled on a cluster of spikes, you are dead.).
Exhausted with the effort of mainly cheating my way through these books, I fell upon something else; a book that a friend of mine at school wouldn’t stop going on about and spent many playtimes regaling me in its finer and most gruesome points. I had been given this one for Christmas or a birthday fairly recently ,the first in Robin Jarvis’ Deptford Mice series ‘The Dark Portal’.
The Dark Portal is a magnificent introduction to world-building for younger readers. The real skill Jarvis has is his ability to reach out from the very first sentence and pull his reader into his world without dumbing-down, patronising or over-complicating. I think this was the first book I ever finished in one sitting – writhing about between the sheets, back aching, throat parched but unable to stop.
The power of this story is its simplicity; set in Deptford amongst a community of mice, The ‘Brown’ family who live in ‘The Skirtings’ – an abandoned old house. The mice are complete with their own customs and deity – Bringer of spring – The Green Mouse. It is clear that mice, the world over, share in the same beliefs, thanks to the smart inclusion of the streetwise city mouse character – Picadilly and his opposite, simple country-mouse ‘Twit’.
Life is not all harvest festivals though – below the Skirtings,through a leaf-shaped grate daubed with strange occult symbols lies the sewers, a dank underworld teeming with the brutal and vicious rats – slaves to an even darker entity, a bloated tyrant revered by the rats and known only as ‘Jupiter’.
Of course, these two opposite world must collide; father of the mouse family, Albert Brown has already been lost to the pull of the malevolent sorcery that emanates from the sewers. Piccadilly,his companion, survived and flees to The Skirtings whereupon the Brown family and friends return to finish what their father started and rid the world of the foul rat-god.
Since the reading Richard Adams’ Watership Down, The Plague Dogs and Shardik, I enjoyed the idea of stories from the animals’ point of view. These animal books, however, always filled me with a frustrated contempt for the human elements; the hunters, scientists and persecutors. I gained from these books, and still maintain a sense of sorrow for the way our race treats our animal friends and this sometimes put me off reading such stories. The Deptford Mice, however, overlooks the malign influence of us in their world, instead, shrinking the reader to the size of a rodent and absorbing them completely. We are right there, in the sweat-ridden dank of the terrible rat mines, with Oswald, the sickly albino runt; we stand, trembling before the presence of the Green Mouse with Audrey Brown.
Like all of these posts, I don’t want to include too many spoilers about the plot. Whatever your age, The Dark Portal does not compromise its depth or richness of its atmosphere. There are two more in the Deptford Mice Trilogy ‘The Crystal Prison’ and ‘the Final Reckoning’ along with a three prequels named The Deptford Histories. I am confident that those unfamiliar with Jarvis’ seminal work will not be long hankering to read the lot.
As for how The Deptford Mice shaped me – I find myself striving to make my work as convincing as the world of the Deptford Mice. The very idea of anthropomorphism is huge turn-off for many readers, but Robin Jarvis’ skill is that the idea of walking, talking rodents is largely irrelevant, what matters is them and their world. These books are not afraid of the dark either – I find much of my own writing draws upon the idea of murky dark gods which owes more to Jarvis than Lovecraft if I’m honest.
Anyway, who cares about me, right, what matters here is these books. I would safely say The Deptford Mice trilogy can be enjoyed by all ages and are a perfect bridge between young and adult readers. I certainly felt more confident in my ability to enter completely the world of a good book after reading these gems. Even now, just looking at the covers brings back the evening shadows dancing over the cornfields, the cosy wooden corners of the Skirtings and the musty reek of Jupiter’s domain.
Writing not to be sniffed at. (sorry…sorry…)