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The allure of doorways

“Edward Hopper found stillness in motion and geometry in light. His simultaneously strong and subtle images of houses, streets and intimate rooms invite us to quiet our minds and open our eyes to the beauty of the commonplace as revealed by shadow, sun and the warmth or artificial lights.” — Charley Parker

Walk through an exhibit of Edward Hopper paintings and you’ll immediately see he was drawn to windows from both sides and in every  magnitude of light. He is best known for his painting of a brighly lit diner as viewed from the dark street outside called “Nighthawks.” Painted in 1942, the original can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago. If I were an art collector, most of the rooms in my house would be filled with the work of Jamie Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth, but hidden away in my den in the company of paintings of mountains and mountain trails would be Nighthawks.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

I am a nighthawk. I like lonely diners where nighthawks can stop for coffee or a piece of pie. I wrote somewhere that in the days before gasoline was expensive, my best ideas came from driving at night, and there was a time when I knew every waitress and fry cook in a one hundred mile radius around Tallahassee, Florida, where I grew up.

Doorways and Supersitions

While windows draw me to look in or out, figuratively or literally, I cannot resist the allure of doorways. Of the many sounds our four cats hear throughout the week, the doorbell causes the greatest disruption. Their response is a mixture of excitement and foreboding until they see who is there and what they want. There are so many doorway-related symbols and superstitions, I won’t even begin to list examples, but most of them come down to the fact that a threshold is a portal between worlds or areas of activity.

The front door to my house separates, in terms of custom and use, inside from outside. Doors separate rooms from each other and often define the activities on one side or the other. The doorway itself is where the danger lies because, as anthropologist Victor Turner observed, the space within the entryway is “betwixt and between.” It reflects both inside and out, but is—in fact—neither.

Doorway superstitions revolve around the spirits and tricksters that are said to lurk, live and cause mischief or bad luck at the undertain spaces between rooms, zones, worlds, and realms. Doorways themselves can make us feel welcome or unwelcome, hopeful, fearful or inspired. They can symbolize the steps in a project, rites of passage, personal development and transcendent expirences.

Shamanistic journeying often begins with a portal, door, or cave entrance. The children in The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy novels by C. S. Lewis enter another world through a doorway in an old wardrobe. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll uses a rabbit hole to link our world with a world of magic. In my contemporary fantasies The Sun Singer and Sarabande, I use arches, a waterfall cave and a special door in a cabin to connect the world of Glacier National Park with a look-alike universe.

Liminal Space

In myth and psychology, thresholds such as those between worlds and those encountered during rites of passage ceremonies and meditation, are referred to as liminal space. The term comes from “limin,” Latin for threshold. It’s considered an intermediate state, rather like the twilight zone, dusk and dawn, a sleeper’s focus as they begin to awake, and transitional in nature.

Personally, I am drawn to doorways because my point of view about the world is very much shaped by what happens or what can happen in liminal space. As an author, I find that doorways and the boundaries between worlds, either hinted at or utilized, literal or figurative, with or without a guardian entitity or ritual of passage, are among the important tools of the art and craft of fantasy.

Doorways not only open up worlds for my protagonists Robert Adams (The Sun Singer) and Sarabande (Sarabande) to find and step into, but a vast amount of symbolism relating to stages of life or development. In Sarabande, for example, a plunge into a cold mountain lake can be seen as just what it is (a wet and cold experience) as well as a figurative dive into the unconscious and/or a realm of dream and magic:

Her laugh had the rare quality of a wolf’s howl. She flung the dryas flower at Sarabande, then swam or somehow moved closer and playfully pushed her sister’s head under water like she did when they were children playing in Turquoise Lake. Then the light or the clouds changed and Dryad vanished.

Sarabande rubbed the water out of her eyes. The mare’s tail clouds were gone along with the sun and—from growing shadows within the spruce and fir forest in lower valleys—most of the day. She waded ashore, cold. There was no time to change.   She ran down the valley’s long steps, wishing she could fly. Gem—what must she think?

The surface of the lake is the perfect place for fantasy authors and other tricksters to move a character in and our of dream or magic. The liminal space where rooms meet, where night and day come together at the blue hour, and where sleep and dream snuggle up next to each other is the place where things happen. Sometimes those things are obvious and filled with wonderment or terror and sometimes they are more intuited than visual.

Give a fantasy author a doorway (or even an everyday window) and he or she will build you a world, a place where the imagination is unfettered and where change itself is the order of the day.


  1. I too, love doorways, though my style of fantasy doesn’t take to them well (mostly because it’s not the point I’m trying to make. We’re trying to make the various worlds very real). You did just give me a fabulous idea to edit a scene to use the doorway my character pauses at to reflect on the way her life has gone to crap lately though. Thanks!

    October 25, 2011
    • You never know when a good doorway scene might come in handy. 🙂


      October 25, 2011
  2. Smoky Zeidel #

    This is a stunning post, Malcolm. As another person who spends much time in liminal space, seeking the subliminal beyond, you’ve articulated what I long have wondered it I would be able to articulate. Well written, my friend. Well written.

    October 26, 2011
    • I grok liminal space, but find it hard to explain. Finally, this post came together. I was beginning to wonder if I were stuck on a threshold. Thanks for your kind words, Smoky.


      October 26, 2011
  3. Smoky Zeidel #

    Tried tweeting, but Twitter won’t let me. Will try to remember to come back later to post it.

    October 26, 2011
  4. Very cool. What do you think the significance of an extended doorway is – like a passageway? Especially literarily?

    October 26, 2011
    • Exactly, and one can never be quite sure what one’s getting into when they step through it.


      October 26, 2011
  5. C. LaVielle #

    As we say in Witchcraft:
    “What happens between the worlds changes the worlds.”

    October 26, 2011
    • Definitely! I should have mentioned that.


      October 26, 2011

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