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Rhetorics of Fantasy cover“That’s right, I’m doing lockdown material.” So spoke Alexei Sayle in the most recent series of his Imaginary Sandwich Bar radio show. “You don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to do it, but this stuff happened to me!” As we enter the fifth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a tendency in popular media to try and bury what has happened. In 2023 The Guardian published an article arguing that “the Covid pandemic will not permanently direct the psychic and artistic currents of American society.” Later that year, ABC News reported people trying “to forget certain memories to protect ourselves from the trauma that we’ve been processing.” No doubt there are political incentives for this. The Conservative Party, for example, would find it very convenient if we regarded the furlough scheme as a one-time intervention, never to be repeated. But there is also a genuine desire to move on, not from the pandemic itself, but from having to think about it. We want an escape. An exit. But ought we to?

As a university undergraduate in the mid-2010s, I had grown accustomed to using the word “liminal.” In 2020, I finally found out what it meant. Living in London and holding a white-collar office job, I was fortunate enough to be working from home at the very start of the pandemic. However, I was unfortunate enough to have just filed for a fiancé visa. My plan had been to move to America, marry my fiancée, and get on with my life. But that, along with everything else, was now on hold.

These were days of great stress, but the prevailing mood for me was one of stasis. With my larger life plans frozen in place, I spent my days working, walking, waiting. As I waited, I found myself reading. I wanted, I suppose, to get away from all of this. My preference was for short stories, my attention span too knackered to concentrate on novels or nonfiction. And among the stories I read, there were a handful that I found myself repeatedly returning to. Fantasy stories. Stories about doors to other worlds. Stories about anywhere but here.

Portal fantasies are a staple of genre fiction. Though they are typically associated with children’s literature (Wonderland, Oz, Narnia), the stories I read were decidedly not for kids. In her 2008 book Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn argues that portal fantasies are fundamentally “about entry, transition, and negotiation.” In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), John Clute identifies the portal as something that “very few fantasy texts lack.” This may be due to its basic flexibility. Clute states that portals may be “signals of almost any significant transit point,” social, temporal, sexual, or political. Like Mendlesohn, he positions walking through one as in some sense contractual: “portals are likely to be warded—woven round with CONDITIONS and PROHIBITIONS.”

The prohibitions of my situation were clear enough: going out, meeting people, traversing the Atlantic, or coming within two metres of supermarket cashiers were all out. But under what conditions could I make my literary escapes? What might I find on the other side of these doors?

*

On 14 July, 1906, H. G. Wells published a short story in The Daily Chronicle: “The Door in the Wall.” The narrator, Redmond, recounts a tale told to him by Lionel Wallace, a high-flying politician who has recently died. The entire story is shot through with ambiguity. Redmond confesses that whether Wallace was “the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess.” Whatever his status, Wallace’s experience has proven fatal. In The Young H. G. Wells (2021), Claire Tomalin argues that, despite the early revelation of Wallace’s death, “it is easy to forget this as one reads on.”

This is interesting, as Wells mentions Wallace’s death more than once before he gets round to describing it. In the fourth paragraph of the story, Redmond refers to “the facts of his death,” and a little further on he mentions that Wallace “would have been in office … if he had lived.” We also read that Redmond heard about the door “a second time only a month before his [Wallace’s] death.” So striking is the story’s central scenario that it is able to distract even as careful and sophisticated a reader as Tomalin.

Wandering the streets of London as a young boy, Wallace happens upon a mysterious green door in a long white wall. The door is, of course, a portal to another world, and after going through it Wallace finds himself in a beautiful garden, where he is greeted by tame panthers and enjoys whimsical play with a group of fellow children. Eventually, Wallace is shown a book apparently conveying the story of his own life, and when he impatiently tries to turn the page, he finds himself back on “a long grey street in West Kensington.”

Disbelieved by his family, Wallace initially tries to forget about the door, only to mysteriously encounter it again at multiple points in his life, always during moments when he is too busy or distracted to walk through it. Distraught, he confesses to Redmond that he has frequently wandered the streets alone at night, “grieving—sometimes near audibly lamenting—for a door, for a garden!” In the story’s denouement we learn that Wallace has walked through a temporary door erected by construction workers over “a deep excavation near East Kensington Station” and fallen to his death. The story ends with Redmond wondering whether Wallace had in fact rediscovered his garden after all.

Farah Mendlesohn identifies “The Door in the Wall” as a “seemingly ordinary story [that] feels like fantasy … in this story the fantastic is the temptation framed by the door. The anxiety and the continued maintenance and irresolution of the fantastic becomes the locus of the ‘fantasy’” (emphasis hers). What gives the story its fantastical feel is the fact that the central ambiguity is never resolved. Even after Wallace’s death, Redmond never reaches a definite conclusion about whether the door or the garden really existed. As such, the door persists as a distinctly anxious portal; whether it offers delight or death, it disrupts even as it allures.

Wallace’s yearning for a paradisical state attained in childhood and spurned in adulthood suggests that this is a story about nostalgia. Much Wells criticism has taken this tack, generally reading it as a story about the maturing Wells leaving behind the fanciful style of his earlier work. In his 1961 book The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances, Bernard Bergonzi argues, “The death of Wallace, in vainly trying to recapture his original vision, may relate to Wells’s realisation of the death of his original talent.” He refers to the door as “an obvious womb-symbol” and reads the mysterious women Wallace meets in the garden as aspects of his dead mother. This psychoanalytic reading is echoed in J. R. Hammond’s 1992 book H. G. Wells and the Short Story: “In opening the door … Wallace passes into the feminine realm of imagination and sympathy, leaving behind him the worlds of duty, career and ambition.”

I have to confess, I find these readings reductive and flimsy. Wells’s most ambitious and acclaimed work in his own lifetime comes after the publication of this story, not before, making it hard to read the author’s vision as dying. The gendered nature of the garden is more nuanced. Wallace does refer to one of the mysterious women he meets there as a “grave mother,” and when he passes up the door in favour of a university career there is a loaded reference to his father’s “rare praise.” But Bergonzi and Hammond’s readings buy too readily into the gender essentialism they diagnose, reducing the polysemic nature of the story’s conceit into a crassly individualised allegory.

What’s most remarkable to me about the garden is its sense of stasis. In this, it is not an exclusively youthful phenomenon; as well as Wallace’s young “[p]laymates,” we hear of “an old man musing among laurels.” If the garden is nostalgic, it is not necessarily nostalgia for childhood, but for an idealised green world of rest and play. Wallace later describes the garden as “a jolly sort of place to which one might resort in the interludes of a strenuous scholastic career.” In all his reminiscences about “the beautiful strange people I should presently see again,” he never entertains the possibility that they, too, might have aged.

The pastoral dream world of Wallace’s garden helps highlight an underlying dynamic of much portal fantasy. The world to which our heroes travel is often static, primitive, unchanging except when outsiders act upon it. In this, it resembles the broader fictions of the historical empires from which it emerges. Mendlesohn argues that portal fantasies are “essentially imperialist: only the hero is capable of change; fantasyland is orientalized into the ‘unchanging past.’” It is perhaps telling that Wallace rediscovers the door while playing a game called “North-West Passage”; his marvelous discovery of the garden is a miniature recreation of the marvelous discoveries of imperialist explorers. If Redmond is still doubtful by the story’s end, it may be because the purported existence and then disruption of the garden’s easy stasis is a more frightening possibility than its never having existed at all.

*

The first year of the pandemic was partly spent casting around for the ideal soundtrack. Several candidates emerged: 2020 was the year of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, of Kylie Minogue’s Disco. Pop music could be a retreat into the warm cocoon of the past, or the excitement of the otherworldly. Lady Gaga’s Chromatica even opened with the words “My name isn’t Alice / But I’ll keep looking, I’ll keep looking for Wonderland.”

Personally, I found myself drawn to seventies rock music: the slinky, horny strutting of T. Rex; the rambling melancholy of Pink Floyd; the roiling, syrupy hype-machine of The Sweet. All of it deeply uncool, of course, but that didn’t matter. It was excellent music to work to.

The album I returned to most often was David Bowie’s Station to Station (1976). There was a utilitarian aspect to this: at around forty minutes, it was the perfect length to throw on at 9 a.m. before reporting for my morning Zoom meeting at 10. More deeply, this was not an album that promised a better world. It was an album about darkness, disintegration, and death, and I loved the title track most of all. “Here am I … Tall in this room overlooking the ocean”—well, overlooking a car park, but close enough. “Once there were mountains on mountains / And once there were sunbirds to soar with”—but not any more.

“Station to Station” is a song full of movement, of noise and acceleration and droll, spiteful wit. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine / I’m thinking that it must be love!” And by the time the final guitar solo rolls around, it stops feeling like a joke and starts feeling like the profoundest insight. Playing this song, in a little bedroom in central London, burnt-out, overworked, and exhausted, I felt like I was flying.

And yet, it’s never a song I’m eager to talk about in public. There’s a cruelty to it, a callousness embodied by the cartoonish figure of the Thin White Duke, “throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” It’s a hodgepodge of esoteric references, Kabbalah and Shakespeare and the vaguely defined “European canon,” all yoked together by violence. An online acquaintance once described it to me as “fash funk,” and it was in promoting this album that Bowie gave his most infamous interview, cited as a foundational incident for the Rock Against Racism movement:

I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible … I can’t stand people just hanging about. Television is the most successful fascist, needless to say. Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.

Sometimes art can be transcendent. Sometimes art can help soothe or inspire in the face of a bleak, uncaring world. And sometimes that art can contain things far darker than anything we might use it to escape from.

*

On 6 February, 2018, Alix E. Harrow published a short story in Apex Magazine: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies.” It is a profoundly metafictional story. The narrator is a librarian in the southern US, and also a witch (we are told in one of many wry asides that witches predominate in this profession). When one patron, a clearly troubled Black teenager, repeatedly checks out a cheap portal fantasy called The Runaway Prince, she takes it upon herself to improve his life through books. As she learns more about him, and his home life continues to deteriorate, she decides to break one of the library’s cardinal rules and expose him to the titular Witch’s Guide to Escape, a magical tome with the power literally to transport readers to otherworldly realms. The story concludes with the boy disappearing with “a sudden, imperceptible rushing,” and the narrator resigning herself to expulsion from her profession.

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is clearly written from, and to, fantasy fandom. The story assumes a familiarity with major Anglophone fantasy texts, actively trading on them for characterisation. The narrator hands the troubled boy A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), remarking that “he reminded me a bit of Ged (feral; full of longing),” and declines to give him The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) because “this was a kid who wanted to go through the wardrobe and never, ever come back.” Escapism is not merely evoked; the narrator is positively boosterish about it:

His caseworker was one of those people who say the word “escapism” as if it’s a moral failing, a regrettable hobby, a mental-health diagnosis. As if escape is not, in itself, one of the highest order of magics they’ll ever see in their miserable mortal lives, right up there with true love and prophetic dreams and fireflies blinking in synchrony on a June evening.

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Mendlesohn describes texts which hold the reader at a remove from the fantastic as “liminal.” These kinds of stories depend on a sense of knowingness, often assuming a reader familiar with the tropes and history of fantasy fiction. “[T]he longing for fantasy” operates as “a base layer” of the overall style. These works, Mendlesohn argues, “are less written within genre, than are written about it” (emphasis hers). By these standards, “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” certainly qualifies as liminal.

At the same time, there is an inward-looking element to Harrow’s approach. The story not only rewards knowledge of fantasy classics, it rhapsodises the literary affect of escapism. It is, in short, a fantasy story that flatters fantasy readers. This may partially account for its warm reception in sci-fi/fantasy fandom: it was nominated for the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and won the 2019 Hugo Award for the same category. As such, it echoes a contemporary trend of metafictional fantasy stories—exemplified by critical and commercial hits such as Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children (2016-) series and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (2020)—as well as a broader conversation within fandom about the value of escapism.

In a 2018 essay, “In Defense of Escapism,” Kelly McCullough argues that “[t]he idea that escape is inherently tainted is fundamentally an argument of privilege made primarily by people who have never been in a position where they needed to escape from a situation when actual escape was impossible.” McCullough’s pro-escapist position clearly mirrors the attitudes of Harrow’s narrator. His piece takes on a similarly strident tone when it states that “[e]scapism saves souls. Escapism saves lives. Escapism saves money,” and concludes that “[e]scapism has saved me.” However, the positioning of anti-escapist sentiments as stemming from socioeconomic privilege is dubious—where does it leave those who wish to explore their own oppression through art? More strikingly, the fact that part of McCullough’s argument rests on the testimony of a former cop suggests some severe political shortcomings in its consideration of who benefits from escapism and why.

To be fair, “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is more nuanced than McCullough’s argument. There is a sense of unease about the story, its surface-level tweeness belying darker implications. Mendlesohn stresses that liminal fantasy “estranges the reader from the fantastic as seen and described by the protagonist” (emphasis hers). In Harrow’s story we are never directly privy to the thoughts of the nameless Black teenager; his emotions, primarily encoded through the books he reads, come via the librarian. His final escape is arguably something she tricks him into, and we only really have her word for it that it’s something he wants. This led the blogger L. A. Barnitz to argue that “[on] second read, the friendly, caring librarian seems wildly irresponsible or arrogant about her capabilities.”

The story’s construction of a society of witches also has troubling implications. A Witch’s Guide to Escape is housed alongside other proscribed texts, including A Witch’s Guide to Seeking Righteous Vengeance and A Witch’s Guide to Uncanny Baking. At the story’s climax, the narrator wonders “how rogue librarians spent their time … And then I wondered where our Books came from in the first place, and who wrote them.” Are we to infer that these texts are written by witches exiled for crimes such as the narrator’s? In transporting the teenager to another world, she may be freed up to write proscribed texts of her own, which will be fed back into the library system to ensnare more patrons and incriminate more witches. Rather than heroically helping a young man escape his painful circumstances, the narrator may be perpetuating a larger cycle of seduction and abduction. This keys into the very concern about escapism with which she earlier took issue: that in using fantasy to escape the drudgery of daily life, we are enabling the very exploitation from which we want to escape.

*

In October 2021, things were starting to move again for me. I had just received my second COVID-19 vaccine, and my bosses had summoned us back into the office just in time for me to hand in my notice. The fateful day had finally arrived: my visa appointment at the US embassy.

It was a lot like applying for a driver’s licence, although in typical American fashion, about ten times more grandiose than it needed to be. The US embassy is located near Vauxhall, an enormous square building hulking above the housing estates like an industrial Rubik’s Cube. There’s a gastropub right next to it called The Alchemist, and a little further upriver lie the remnants of Battersea Power Station, the stuff of Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian-nightmare Britain long since gentrified away in the ongoing cyberconversion of London by its own bloated property market.

I trudged through the embassy’s security gate, an airport-style metal detector, and then it was a short walk uphill into a ludicrously massive entrance hall. There was nobody at the welcome desk. Instead, a paper sign pointed me to a lift and told me to choose the fifth floor. I was alone, uncomfortably wedged into a suit that was too small for me after all these months of lockdown. I’d have to get a new one before the wedding. The fifth floor wasn’t much to look at. A sea of empty desks, and another paper sign. Rounding a corner, I saw a marble façade and a couple of glass-fronted desks with actual people behind them. I took a number, sat down, and waited.

I was interviewed twice, by two different people. I’m not sure why, as they mostly asked me the same questions. Perhaps they wanted to check if I had my story straight. I handed over my papers, and was told they would be keeping my passport (for now). They asked me to take off my mask. They quizzed me about how I met my fiancée. What she did for a living. Whether I could support myself financially. My two favourite questions from the forms—about my possible communism and polygamy—were sadly not featured in either interrogation. It’s not, of course, that I approve of McCarthyite probes. Just that it doesn’t quite feel like an American visa application without them.

In the end, it was all rather dull. The final interviewer turned back to his computer monitor. “Well, I guess you’re moving to Rhode Island,” he said. I was free to go. I finally had my visa (or at least, I would in 3-5 business days).

I had made my choice, and was leaving England behind. I was stepping out of my world.

*

In 2009, Ellen Klages published a short story in the anthology Firebirds Soaring: “Singing on a Star.” The protagonist, Becka, is a young child of “almost six” who visits the home of her friend Jamie for a sleepover. Once the parents’ backs are turned, Jamie reveals a magical elevator hidden in her closet, which is summoned by playing a “special record.” The two children are transported to Farlingten, an uncanny approximation of an early-twentieth-century American city. Jamie introduces Becka to Hollis, a strange man with a voice “like a not-quite grown-up boy,” and to Raxar, an unfamiliar yet ambrosial candy bar.

After returning to her own world, Becka is disturbed to find no mention of Farlingten in her local library, “even in the big atlas of the whole world.” Shortly after this, Jamie disappears, and Becka discovers that the special record has inexplicably been passed on to her. The story ends with Becka’s mother, clearly disturbed by Jamie’s disappearance, warning Becka: “‘Don’t go anywhere with a stranger, even if they give you candy, okay?’” This leads Becka to respond: “‘I won’t,’ … I don’t look at the record on my dresser, and I wonder if I’m lying.” The reader is left in suspense, as Becka is simultaneously repulsed by and drawn towards Farlingten, and Hollis’s precise intentions remain obscure even as he is clearly predatory.

“Singing on a Star” is not driven by plot so much as mood. A sense of creeping wrongness pervades the text, as Becka is thrust into an unfamiliar world which she is not quite able to grasp. When she first eats Raxar, she describes it as tasting like “toasted butter, malted milk, brown sugar, and flavors I have no name for.” Even at its most seductive, Farlingten evades Becka’s immature vocabulary, and the connection between Farlingten and a half-understood adulthood is heightened when Becka observes Jamie’s interactions with Hollis: “She sounds much older here.”

Mendlesohn identifies a core aspect of much children’s fantasy: “it takes place while parents are absent.” Here, that absence is made into a source of threat, as Klages ties the logic of portal fantasy to the societal fear of child abduction. The warning from Becka’s mother not to go anywhere with strangers who give you candy is only the moment when this laying-over becomes explicit. As Stephen Case points out, the world inside Jamie’s closet is “seedy and dark,” and with Jamie’s disappearance, “the reader is left to recall the darker edges of some of their own childhood memories.”

This evocation of child abduction is the culmination of the story’s general subversion of portal fantasy tropes. Where Wells’s garden is pastoral and Harrow’s other world is largely undefined, Farlingten is a decidedly urban landscape:

This is a noisy place. Cars and trucks honk their horns under the viaduct, and men are yelling about money at a bar next door. I hear a clang and turn to see a green streetcar clattering down tracks in the middle of the street, sparks snapping from the wires overhead. The lighted front of the car says FARLINGTEN.

Whatever Farlingten is, it is not a green world of rest and play. It is a world of industry, commerce, and employment; a world, in short, of modernity. In keeping with this, the means of getting there are distinctly modern. Where Wells and Harrow portray characters traversing worlds through books, Klages’s characters use a vinyl record, whose final lines are playing when they emerge from the closet again. Becka later describes the record’s cover as “TV-blue,” furthering the connection between Farlingten and twentieth-century mass media.

Why the choice of vinyl over paper? It could be that books are too low-tech a medium for such a thoroughly modern portal. It could be that the real-time nature of recorded music heightens the sense that the characters are on borrowed time; where books can be lingered over, records progress inexorably towards an end point. Or it could be that these characters have not sufficiently developed their reading abilities for books to act as a means of escape. Though they visit a library late in the story, Becka has to ask her teacher to look up Farlingten for her.

Or perhaps it’s something else. In her 1975 essay “The Child and the Shadow,” Ursula K. Le Guin argues that great fantasy stories “work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter.” In this case, the dangers posed by Farlingten lie too deep for Becka to clearly articulate, but at just the right depth to put mature readers on edge. Or, as LeVar Burton puts it, “it’s every parent’s nightmare told from a child’s point of view.” “Singing on a Star” is powerful because it shows the potential flipside of escapist fantasies: that we might choose to run away from our world and into the arms of something even more dangerous.

*

My life in Britain ended in the dark. A 5 a.m. taxi ride to Heathrow Airport, my natural inclination to stare nostalgically out of the window thwarted by the city’s dark unfamiliarity. I didn’t recognise the place any more, not least because one of the few things I could make out was an American Candy Store, an example of the new breed of retail outlets that had spawned across central London in the years since I’d moved there. I had never actually been inside one, of course. Why go to the tourist version when I’d get the real thing soon enough?

My driver was friendly, and helped me shift my bags out from the boot. Heathrow Airport, at least, looked the same as ever: vast, grimy, and transitional. It was a slightly different story inside; very few check-in desks were open, and half the people were wearing masks. I handed over my COVID test result from the previous day and waited to deposit my suitcase. I mounted a familiar escalator and sailed through an underpopulated security line. Glancing at one of the few screens not displaying a Chanel advert, I saw that my gate wouldn’t be announced for at least another hour.

All those years of waiting, and now here I was. Still waiting.

Visiting my fiancée over the years, I had become very well acquainted with this particular departure lounge. I found my usual seat, in clear view of a screen and within reach of the toilets. I tried to sit at least a few seats away from everyone else, but it was getting harder and harder to do that these days. I took off my glasses and took out a book. I needed distracting, both from my usual nerves about flying and my sense of melancholy about leaving the only country I had ever called home. This was to be my last experience of Britain as a Briton: a sparsely stocked WHSmith bookshop and an over-lit toilet. It was hard not to read this as a metaphor.

My gate would be called, in time. Another portal between one world and the next. But the list of names on the screen reminded me of something I was wont to overlook: portals are ordinary. We fixate on them in childhood because they, like everything, are new to us. As adults, we walk through them all the time. We spin up dozens in an hour without even thinking about it. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we even enjoy the trip.

Eventually, my gate number came up, and I went to find another new world.

*

On 16 May, 2022, Ling Ma published a short story in The Atlantic: “Office Hours.” It was collected in the book Bliss Montage later that year. The protagonist, Marie, is a young film professor fighting her way through an academic career when her former professor shows her a mystical portal to another world hidden in “his old office, which now happened to be her office.” This revelation is followed by the line “On the other side is where this story begins.”

Except it doesn’t quite. Mendlesohn observes that “almost all portal and quest fantasies use the figure of a guide to download information into the text” but the Professor (he is never given a name) is decidedly ignorant. “I used to have questions too,” he tells Marie. “But eventually I found I was able to enjoy this place without any answers.” In the absence of explanation, Marie ends up using the portal as a convenient place to smoke. “The pleasure of this place, she discovered, was its extreme, surreal privacy.”

This highlights one of the story’s major themes: the fragmentation of the self amid the pressures of academia. At one point the Professor advises Marie that “you have to learn how to split yourself up, like an earthworm.” The story’s climax involves Sean, one of Marie’s colleagues, noticing her leaving her office, “her coat flapping behind her,” only to go through the portal and find another Marie, “standing there smoking.” The portal, it seems, has literally enabled Marie to live a double life, fragmenting herself into multiple personae. That Sean, Marie’s “least favorite” colleague, and the one around whom she has most consciously had to wear a different face, is the one to discover this fact only heightens the intensity of the moment.

The story’s fantastical conceit literalises a recurring motif in Ma’s work: the different versions of ourselves we present in different situations. In her 2018 essay, “Crying at the Playboy Office,” Ma describes working for this notorious media empire:

The self is infinitely divisible. As in Zeno’s paradox, if the self is cut down and continually halved into smaller pieces for eternity, it can still exist. You may act like a completely different person—ingratiating yourself to higher powers, publicly holding political views you don’t believe in; in other words, completely subjugated to the system around you—but the self remains. You can be a feminist and still work at Playboy. You can object to the objectification of women but still attend employee parties staffed by lingerie models passing out Playboy Energy Drinks. You can dislike working with certain difficult coworkers, but still wear Nice Face around them. You can be a professional at work, but still retain your personhood.

Is this a depressing outlook or an inspiring one? Are you a hypocrite or are you a survivor?

At this point, the essay transitions to a different section, and the last two questions remain pointedly unanswered. Ma’s work is at its best when it allows readers to marinate in these uncomfortable ambiguities, which are in turn heightened by her dexterity with language (“object to the objectification of women” is typically deft).

In prioritising uneasy atmosphere over straightforward explanation, “Office Hours” may be closer to horror than traditional portal fantasy. Ma states in an interview with Megan Labrise that “I often feel like I’m working in the horror genre, or at least on the outskirts.” “Office Hours” fits with Joanna Russ’s description of nineteenth-century horror stories, wherein “one gradually becomes aware that one’s familiar world contains the fantastic or horrible.” Yet the story’s conceit also allows it to fulfill what Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint identify as the modus operandi of politically minded fantasy in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (2012): “Fantastical intrusions into bourgeois reality are thus seen as the return of the repressed into the realm of representation.” It seems, in short, that we have another case of liminality on our hands.

Adding to that sense of liminality is the story’s focus on film as a medium. Like “Singing on a Star,” “Office Hours” eschews books as its metaphor for world traversal in favour of a real-time format. The story’s pivotal scenes take place during film classes or lectures. In her review of Bliss Montage, Lily Houston Smith zooms in on Marie’s class discussing the 2001 film Ghost World:

A student named Zach spoke first. “I didn’t get the ending. I mean, I like that it’s kind of open-ended, but it feels like a cop-out. Enid just gets on this special bus and goes where?”

She reset the question. “Well, the ending seems to serve as a refutation of some kind, with Enid opting out of the town on this mysterious bus. One way to approach this is to ask: What is Ghost World trying to refute? Are there specific scenes that suggest an answer?”

Smith refers to this moment as “defensive posturing,” one of several “winking asides” scattered throughout Bliss Montage. She argues that by the end of “Office Hours,” Marie has found “a way to reject linear time,” with the portal allowing her to refute the “slow narrowing of possibilities” that constitute her academic life.

This is a compelling reading, but it misses the analogy between Marie’s portal and the medium of film. Just as a film character is not one image, but several of them rapidly projected onto a screen, so Marie and the Professor become not single entities but multiple embodiments of themselves, able to move through the world, and, crucially, to be preserved after death. The forest hidden in Marie’s cupboard may be more akin to a freeze frame than to an enchanted garden, even as they both embody a sense of stasis. Moreover, there is an air of threat about the story’s final scene, particularly its last line: “The cigarette fell from her mouth, snuffing out as it hit the ground.” If film is our analogy for this portal fantasy, it reads like an abrupt cut to black, the forest’s illusory stasis swept away in an instant. Roll credits.

*

Photograph of a lamp post painted on a wall, which includes signs pointing to Narnia and other fantastical lands.It was the spring of 2023, and I had an essay to write. My fiancée was now my wife, our home was now a little town in rural Virginia, and her workplace was now the university around which the town was built. I did not have a workplace, as such; I was still waiting for my green card, and for a decent hourly wage. But, as a faculty spouse, I was entitled to some free classes. I was taking the English Capstone class: an extended essay on a topic of our choice. I was thinking of writing something about portal fantasy.

I was in the university library, a Modernist block clinging to the side of a hill like a giant concrete barnacle. The books I needed were four floors down. I descended the first flight of stairs, and ran straight into a lamp post.

It was outlined in black on the pale off-white wall. It was a reminder of The Magic of Reading to an audience far too old to need persuading; a little piece of the familiar in the alien world I now inhabited; an odd vindication that I was on to something. It bore signs directing the viewer to various fantasy kingdoms: Narnia, Lonely Mountain, Hogwarts, Panem, Wonderland, Neverland. A travel guide to the possibilities of fiction; a maturing and regressing through the bands of children’s literature. A mixed bag.

Obviously, there were several things about my new life that made me profoundly happy. The opportunity to take university classes for free, the beautiful countryside I was now surrounded by, and the access to two excellent libraries (both the university’s and the town’s public one). Most importantly, I was now married to the woman who had moved heaven and earth for us to be together. The wedding had been a delight, a small ceremony in snow-swept upstate New York, and living together was the most content I had ever been.

But one has to take the rough with the smooth. The bureaucratic nightmare of my immigration did not stop with our wedding—indeed, it still hasn’t stopped, even as I write this—and there was a lot to get used to in our new town. Two Confederate generals are buried here, one of them on the university campus itself, and the graves attract plenty of people with their own fantasies of an unchanging past (and present). Neo-Confederates march through town at least once a year, and while I was doing my portal fantasy coursework a bunch of trolls in the student body invited a fascist provocateur to campus. The response from university administration was to graciously allow the LGBT society to throw a pizza party during his hate sermon. These were the things I would have to accept, if I was to live here. Conditions and prohibitions.

I turned away from the lamp post, and headed down the next flight of stairs. I glanced at the list of books I’d scrawled on a scrap of paper. This was my quest for today: to find what I needed to make sense of my material. The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin (1979). To Write Like a Woman by Joanna Russ (1995). Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (2008).

*

On 3 April, 2020, Arundhati Roy published an essay in the Financial Times. Focusing on the Indian government’s callous and authoritarian approach to managing COVID-19, it is a trenchant and astute piece of analysis. But the part I keep coming back to is the article’s ending, which also provides the title: “The Pandemic Is a Portal.”

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Obviously, this didn’t happen. We resolutely held on to our prejudice, hatred, avarice, etc., and in many cases they only got worse. But the thing that haunts me about this article is the same thing that keeps me coming back to these stories: it describes a moment of transit, a point where we were presented with a choice. And it shows that we can make the wrong choice. We can pursue perceived opportunities at the cost of our own freedom and even lives. We can arrogantly push others into choices they might not otherwise make. We can find our selves distorted and made unrecognisable. We can walk through a door and find nothing on the other side but “darkness, danger, and death.”

In her 2023 book Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, Naomi Klein refers to the brief popularity of Roy’s essay on social media in the early months of the pandemic. She writes movingly about the collective desire “that a global calamity might take us somewhere not just different but better.” A page later, though, she admits that within a year, “much of the sense of possibility … had evaporated. We had passed through the portal to a changed world, but not in the ways so many of us had hoped.” A decision had been made. A door had been slammed shut.

Small wonder, then, that I am fascinated by portal fantasies. I lived in one. I still do. The pandemic is a portal, but it does not offer the delightful excursions of children’s fantasy. Instead it offers a topsy-turvy world of sickness and confusion. And if I keep reading about doors to other worlds, it is perhaps because I wish to retrace my steps, to walk through the door again and again, trying to find the moment when I could have chosen differently.



William Shaw is a writer from Sheffield, currently living in the USA. His writing has appeared in Space and Time, Daily Science Fiction, and Doctor Who Magazine. You can find his blog at williamshawwriter.wordpress.com and his Twitter @Will_S_7.
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