My novella The Door is inspired by my friend Shane Jones’s painting of a very realistic door. It hung in the stairwell of his home when I went there for dinner one evening. At first, I thought he had added a new room to the house and that I was looking at the entrance.
Shane laughed and said, ‘No, it’s a painting from one of my exhibitions.’
‘What if a face appears in the glass at the top of the door?’ I said. ‘What if it opens and there is a room behind it?’
Next day, I put down some spurious thoughts, but they were sketchy, more like situations and disconnected scenes than a story. Needless to say, the whole thing languished in my computer for months.
Almost a year later, Shane emailed a detail of his painting. It shows him reflected in the doorknob, painting his picture at the easel—a reference to Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 Portrait of John Arnolfini and his Wife.
This easy-to-miss detail was the trigger I needed. The minute I saw it I knew the story was going to be about a painter with a distorted view of himself, confronting past trauma. And because my mind naturally veers towards the supernatural, I knew it was going to be a psychological ghost story.
What is a psychological ghost story? It’s one where there is a question or an element of ambiguity about what you have read. Is it really happening, or is it taking place in the protagonist’s mind? The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a good example. As is ‘Light In Her Eyes’, the second last story in my short fiction collection, The Door and Other Uncanny Tales.
Before I started to work on The Door, I constructed a kind of narrative scaffolding on which to hang the visual and metaphoric aspects of the tale.
Primarily, I wanted the symbolic aspects to show rather than tell the reader what was going on in the protagonist’s mind. Second, I wanted to use these details to progressively turn the character inwards, to made him look deep into himself, and to pull the reader along as well. In aid of that, I have him paint a series of pictures, one of which is a realistic door, just like Shane’s, with a brass doorknob that lets off a sinister glint. The other works my protagonist paints reflect his turbulent mind—a naked self-portrait, a face wrapped in bubble wrap, the back frame of a painting—all of which, by the way, are taken from Shane’s own work.
Shane’s doorknob with the warped reflections is the epicentre into which all other images and metaphors of the story are drawn. Early in the story, the painting of the door acts as a mirror for the self. Later, when the protagonist opens it and steps through, it turns into a doorway to his fears and repressed memories.
Given that the character is in flux throughout the story, I created an outer world that mirrors his inner reality. I did this by locating almost the entire story inside a double-storey warehouse with a staircase and a balcony that allows the character to move, literally and metaphorically, from inner and outer, upper and lower, realms of his subconscious mind and back again. Nowadays that is called occupying a ‘liminal space’. I prefer the less academic and more magical ‘in-between world’.
Even the suburb in which the character lives is in the process of change and gentrification, reflecting his inner transformation, from lowly farm-boy to an urban sophisticate. And because in Jungian symbolic language a house represents the body, the painted door, hanging half-way down the staircase, is located at the centre of the character’s being. Whether he moves upstairs or downstairs in his house, or whether he slides between the upper and lower levels of his mind, he must pass the door. He can enter or not. It is up to him.
Fleeting reflections, constant rain and darkness, and stray sounds from outside create a world on the verge of melting, adding to the uncertainty, disorientation and distorted sense of reality experienced by the main character. The telephone conversations that punctuate the story at vital points add to a sense of floating detachment and alienation.
Everything in The Door is thought out and deliberately placed to serve a purpose. The trick is to make it appear effortless, invisible. The reader must not notice. They need only see the front-of-house, not the behind-the-scenes. They need only get a subliminal gesture, without knowing how it is done. But a writer, or an intelligent reader, will know precisely what techniques are being deployed to achieve certain effects.
DMETRI KAKMI is an author and essayist. His third book, The Door and Other Uncanny Tales, was published in September 2020. His fictionalised memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in 2008. He also edited the acclaimed children’s anthology When We Were Young. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies. He lives in Melbourne.