Gerald Durrell’s infamous Gothic horror story “The Entrance” is the final story in his collection The Picnic and Other Inimitable Stories (1980), which otherwise comprises a series of arch, Wodehousian, semi-autobiographical comedies, centering on absurd mishaps that beset Durrell’s family outings and European travels. (“The Havoc of Havelock” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.) I got turned on to “The Entrance” after seeing a number of remarks about it on the Internet along the lines of, “Durrell, why would you do that to us?!” Obviously I couldn’t pass up experiencing the tonal whiplash for myself.
Whiplash there was! Although, warned in advance, I couldn’t help noting the morbid humor that crops up in his comedies, too—in particular, “The Michelin Man” is highly reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s horror/comedy fiction for adults. (“Lamb to the Slaughter,” anyone?) Durrell himself tries to give ample warning for “The Entrance”: he cushions our arrival with a typically cozy frame story where he arrives at the cottage of a couple of bohemian friends in the south of France, complete with loving descriptions of the wine and truffles they consume. But then—amid an evening storm, the friends produce “a very curious manuscript” whose contents are promised to be “horrid.” There we enter into “The Entrance.”
I was delighted, disturbed, and baffled by the story: so here are my notes and attempts at analysis. Page numbers are from the 1980 Simon & Schuster edition. I welcome any contributions, corrections, and alternative interpretations.
First, the literary context: the story is an obvious tribute to the ghost/occult stories of M. R. James. (I found it wonderfully companionable to imagine Durrell settling down of an evening to enjoy a bit of James with his nightcap.) The antiquarian bookseller protagonist, the occult rituals in the service of unnatural prolongation of youth, the gradual onset of a creeping menace: it’s all classic James. The main distinction in content is that James’ stories are almost never as violent and graphic as the climax of “The Entrance.” Damn, Durrell.
p. 141: “the rare ‘Conrad’ illustrated Bible, said by some to be as beautiful as the Book of Kells” — I had assumed this was fictional, but maybe Durrell was inspired by the Conradin Bible.
p. 141: “the signed first edition of Alice in Wonderland that I found in a trunk” — Even if it’s not Through the Looking-Glass, I assume this is intended to foreshadow the upcoming mirror hijinks.
p. 146: “What a superb copy of Eliphas Levi” — Eliphas Levi was a real French occultist of the 19th century. His name also caught my eye in my most recent re-read of Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”
p. 147: “I’m afraid that my unexpected arrival so late at night—and on such a night—must lend an air of mystery to what is, I’m afraid, a very ordinary request that I have to make of you.” — Why DOES Gideon show up at Letting’s place so late at night? The simplest reason might be that Durrell thought it would make for a cool scene: the dark, faintly decadent French nobleman wreathed in London fog on the narrator’s doorstep. It also sets up the trend of Gideon seeming faintly erratic and untrustworthy, despite his likability.
Within the frame of the story, I thought of the following possibilities: 1) Gideon is uncertain of Letting and wants multiple occasions on which to judge his character before engaging his services. (See also the note for p. 155 below.) 2) Gideon wanted to see whether Letting had any occult books in his collection (which he does, c.f. Levi), as an overture to assessing his view of the occult; the conversation reveals Letting to be a skeptic.
p. 150: “The uncle was—well, not to put too fine a point on it—a most unpleasant old man. He must have been about eighty-five, I suppose, with a really evil, leering face…” — The wicked, learned Marquis de Teildras Villeray reminds me, if not physically, of the villain of M. R. James’ “Lost Hearts.” James’ Mr. Abney adopts his orphaned cousin, a young boy, as well as kidnapping several itinerant children, with the intent of using them in grisly occult rituals.
p. 150: “No, no, I will not be devoured so that you may live…” — This is one of the clearest declarations of the story’s driving occult mechanism, but Durrell leaves so much else ambiguous.
p. 153: “The gate-posts were surmounted by two large, delicately carved owls” — Reinforcing the motif of watchfulness in the story? (More literally, Gideon and Letting do watch owls fly on the château grounds on p. 156.) Gideon is frequently watching Letting with his large, “penetrating” eyes, and of course Letting spends the climax of the story consumed by watchfulness.
p. 155: “It began to dawn upon me that I had perhaps made myself into too much of a recluse.” — If we want to be suspicious of Gideon: perhaps he chose to draw Letting into his unsavory family affairs because he knew no one would miss Letting if he were to disappear.
p. 155: “In all our talks Gideon discussed his extensive family with me with a sort of ironic affection, telling me anecdotes to illustrate their stupidity or their eccentricity, never maliciously but rather with a sort of detached good humor.” — This seems like Durrell indulging in self-reference.
p. 156: “He is ninety-one and when I last saw him, a year or two back, he did not look a day over fifty.” — By contrast, Letting’s friend described the Marquis as looking “about eighty-five” when Gideon was a teen. Did the Marquis succeed in reclaiming youth in the intervening period?
p. 157: “At one time I lived in fear because I thought he had captured my soul…” — Another hint at the story’s mechanism.
p. 159: “‘He did it… he did it… he did it…’ muttered Gideon to himself” — And another hint. Here’s one of my guesses: the Marquis did succeed in stealing/devouring Gideon’s soul; I’m unclear whether that happened when Gideon was a teen, or shortly before the Marquis’ death. This act of soul-devouring corrupts Gideon, giving rise to his evil mirror image. The mirror image, being generally murderous, more or less fulfills Gideon’s specific wish that the Marquis “would drop dead” (p. 162).
p. 165: “…Marie had slipped on the icy front steps and had fallen some thirty feet onto the rocks and broken her legs. They are, I’m afraid, splintered very badly, and I really don’t hold out much hope for their being saved.” — Again: damn, Durrell. And again, if we are to be suspicious of Gideon: was this really an accidental fall, or an excuse for Gideon to skedaddle from the château?
p. 166: “‘A positive menagerie,’ I exclaimed. ‘It’s a good thing that I like animals.'” — Seems uncharacteristic for the vile, miserly Marquis to keep so many pets. Obviously they’re a mechanism for Durrell to generate tension with the evil mirror image (plus probably an indulgence of his enjoyment of thinking and writing about animals—even though this lot have an awful fate). But perhaps the Marquis also kept a stock of animals for occult experimentation?
p. 171: “I am your servant. Feed and liberate me. I am you.” — Another relatively bald declaration of the story’s mechanism, except that the relationships/identities alluded to are confusing. We see plenty of the “servant” in the remainder of the story, but what was it fed prior to liberation? Gideon’s soul? Pets? If the servant’s master (“you”) is presumably the one who is feeding and liberating it, then why is the servant a reflection of its meal (Gideon?) rather than the master (the Marquis)?
Does that mean that Gideon was actually the master, and released his evil reflection-entity in order to feed upon his hated uncle? But then, why would he be muttering “He did it” after what was presumably a horrific mirror encounter on p. 159?
I’m baffled! While I’m happy to conclude that Durrell was simply aiming to create uneasy ambiguity, I will also be very embarrassed if there’s a more obvious explanation that I’m missing.
p. 173: “…there appeared something that at first glance I thought was some sort of caterpillar. It was long, wrinkled and yellowish-white in color, and at one end it had a long blackened horn.” — A stupendously creepy first glimpse of our antagonist. I had such a thrill when I re-read the sentence and realized what the “caterpillar” really was.
p. 176: “It had been snowing steadily since my arrival and now the glistening drifts were so high I could not walk through them. … Some of the icicles hanging from the guttering, the window ledges and the gargoyles were four and five feeet long and as thick as my arm.” — A personal note: boy, I love Gothic stories where characters are snowed into a château or manor. See also Tanith Lee’s Lycanthia.
p. 177: “I had taken the precaution of arming myself with a stout ebony cane” — This isn’t the same cane that Gideon appears with that night at Letting’s home, is it? That one is described as “slender.” The “stout” cane seems like a deliberate recurrence, though, considering that the mirror-creature ends up wielding it.
p. 182: “leaving bloody fingerprints and yellow and grey feathers stuck to the glass.” — Another ingeniously thrilling moment of horror.
p. 188: “I relit the candles and then sat on the stairs and tried to work it out. I am still trying to work it out today.” — Me, too, Mr. Letting.
p. 188: “particularly as they found the strangled and half-eaten corpses of the dog, the cat and the birds” — Letting’s reflection was also consumed. Why doesn’t he succumb to mirror-death upon the death of the creature? Is there a transitive property where if you kill one of the mirror-creatures, your reflection become the next iteration—the frightful discovery of which leads to Letting’s death by heart attack in the post-script of the manuscript?
In conclusion: I have no idea! But what a morbid shock/delight this story was. It’s a good thing I read it when I was older and not impressionable enough to get really messed up about mirrors after reading it. Thanks for the wild ride, Mr. Durrell.
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