I’m still terrible at updating Goodreads. I don’t know why. It would take two minutes if I just did it after each book I read, and yet here we are, five months into the year, and I don’t think I’ve done it a single time. And so, another mini reviews post, because I’ve really been reading a lot of excellent books and you should know about them. All 5 star reads this time, because I know how to pick books I’m going to love when they aren’t horror.

“Shallow Graves” by Kali Wallace

Breezy remembers leaving the party: the warm, wet grass under her feet, her cheek still stinging from a slap to her face. But when she wakes up, scared and pulling dirt from her mouth, a year has passed and she can’t explain how.

Nor can she explain the man lying at her grave, dead from her touch, or why her heartbeat comes and goes. She doesn’t remember who killed her or why. All she knows is that she’s somehow conscious—and not only that, she’s able to sense who around her is hiding a murderous past.

Haunted by happy memories from her life, Breezy sets out to find answers in the gritty, threatening world to which she now belongs—where killers hide in plain sight, and a sinister cult is hunting for strange creatures like her. What she discovers is at once empowering, redemptive, and dangerous.

This book is so. Good. I had it on my to-read list for months and never got to it, and I was depriving myself of some serious magic. There are monsters. There are cults. There are banshees who scream until people’s ears bleed and ghouls who work night jobs and eat corpses in their bathroom and witches who cause dangerous visions and … whatever Breezy is.

And you guys. Breezy. I love her. She’s so lost and confused but at the same time, so fierce and determined and willing to jump right into the fray to find the answers she needs. And those answers are … well … spoilery, so I won’t reveal them because I really, really want you to read this. It’s urban fantasy, I guess, monsters hiding in plain sight in the real world, and that’s not usually my genre but it worked really well here.

There were a lot of good things about trauma and acceptance and learning to love and value yourself, and a lot of morality questions which I’m always into, and Kali Wallace writes really, really beautifully but also realistically. Her dialogue sounds like things people would actually say, which seems like a very low bar but is actually a high compliment. Oh and also, Breezy is a bi girl of color. I loved loved looooved this book and was so bummed when it was over, and I’ll definitely reread it. 5 stars.

“10 Things I Can See from Here” by Carrie Mac

Perfect for fans of Finding Audrey and Everything, Everything, this is the poignant and uplifting story of Maeve, who is dealing with anxiety while falling in love with a girl who is not afraid of anything.

Think positive.
Don’t worry; be happy.
Keep calm and carry on.

Maeve has heard it all before. She’s been struggling with severe anxiety for a long time, and as much as she wishes it was something she could just talk herself out of, it’s not. She constantly imagines the worst, composes obituaries in her head, and is always ready for things to fall apart. To add to her troubles, her mom—the only one who really gets what Maeve goes through—is leaving for six months, so Maeve will be sent to live with her dad in Vancouver.

Vancouver brings a slew of new worries, but Maeve finds brief moments of calm (as well as even more worries) with Salix, a local girl who doesn’t seem to worry about anything. Between her dad’s wavering sobriety, her very pregnant stepmom insisting on a home birth, and her bumbling courtship with Salix, this summer brings more catastrophes than even Maeve could have foreseen. Will she be able to navigate through all the chaos to be there for the people she loves?

This was just really delightful. I related so hard to Maeve, obviously, although our anxiety disorders take slightly different forms, and I was rooting so hard for her relationship with Salix. There are other side plots, like the death of a neighbor and a newly forged relationship with the man who moves into her vacated apartment, which are equally as lovely and full of weight and depth as the main plots, and, though there were ups and downs as the summary suggests, this is ultimately a fairly light, romantic story of two girls who are already out and don’t have to spend chapters and chapters of plot angsting over coming out and homophobia and how hard it is to be gay.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with stories like that, and of course people do have those experiences and deserve to see them reflected in the stories they read. But it’s nice, once in a while, to not be constantly inundated with the same heavy, sad plotlines for lbpq girls. Maeve’s anxiety was much more of a player in the angst than her relationship with Salix, and Salix being a calming, patient, gentle force for her was heart-meltingly sweet. This is going in my pile of feel-good f/f reads. 5 stars.

“Juliet Takes a Breath” by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff.

Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle?

With more questions than answers, Juliet takes on Portland, Harlowe, and most importantly, herself.

I am so so late to this one, I know. Roxane Gay was talking about it like, last year or the one before that or something, and it’s been on my radar since then, but as usual, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. But I’m so glad I did.

At first I was wary, because it starts off presenting Harlowe as literally the authority on all things feminist and gay, and also as this mystical magic fairy-like being who talks in the most absurd ways about spirituality and energies and auras. Not that those things are absurd in themselves, mind you, but the tone and wording she always uses would make it impossible for me, personally, to be able to take her seriously. Juliet soldiers on, though, even in the face of a seemingly impossible task–sorting through a box full of scraps of names of women with no other information about them and figuring out who they are and why they’re important. Along the way, she gets her heart broken but also gets to ride on a motorcycle with and kiss a girl, becomes somewhat disenchanted with her feminist hero, and learns so much more about her heritage and family than she knew before.

It was relieving to see some of the characters, Juliet included, start to push back against Harlowe’s obsession with tokenizing her friends and partners of color and focusing all her feminism on the power of vaginas. That last in particular was making me very uncomfortable, and I was afraid it wasn’t going to be addressed and that the author was going to just tacitly support it. Juliet’s visit with her cousin, going to the party where people were getting their hair cut and swimming and dancing and kissing, having her worldview expanded and learning about multiple genders and pronouns and ways of being in relationships, all these things were so much fun to read about and Juliet’s open-mindedness and willingness to learn were reflective of the way I want to exist in the world.

I highly recommend this to everyone, but especially to those who are just starting to explore feminism outside the boundaries of what mainstream media feeds us, those who are worried about coming out to their families and need to see that struggle reflected in literature, and those who, like Juliet, have never learned much about where and who they come from and the surprising links that can come from learning about it. It’s not a dense read as this review might make it sound, it actually flies by in easy to read prose that still packs a punch. And it’s sharp and funny and just. Go read it. 5 stars.

We’re not even going to talk about how long it’s been since I last did one of these, or how long I’ll be doing them in future if I keep taking such long breaks.

In this chapter, Harry doesn’t know what he’s going to but it has to be better than what he’s leaving behind.

My first thought about this chapter is how good Mrs. Weasley is. And how underappreciated. She’s just the mother who had too many children and now spends all her life taking care of them and trying to keep up their house, except. Except she’s so open and so kind and so immediately welcoming to Harry, without even knowing a thing about him, including his name.

“Excuse me,” Harry said to the plump woman.

“Hullo, dear,” she said. “First time at Hogwarts? Ron’s new, too.”

She pointed at the last and youngest of her sons. He was tall, thin and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet and a long nose.

“Yes,” said Harry. “The thing is – the thing is, I don’t know how to -”

“How to get on to the platform?” she said kindly, and Harry nodded.

“Not to worry,” she said. “All you have to do is walk straight at the barrier between platforms nine and ten. Don’t stop and don’t be scared you’ll crash into it, that’s very important. Best do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous. Go on, go now before Ron.”

Such a mother, even to children who aren’t hers. I love her. And then:

“Hey, Mum, guess what? Guess who we just met on the train?”

Harry leant back quickly so they couldn’t see him looking.

“You know that black-haired boy who was near us in the station? Know who he is?”

“Who?”

“Harry Potter!”

Harry heard the little girl’s voice.

“Oh, Mum, can I go on the train and see him, Mum, oh please …”

“You’ve already seen him, Ginny, and the poor boy isn’t something you goggle at in a zoo. Is he really, Fred? How do you know?”

“Asked him. Saw his scar. It’s really there – like lightning.”

“Poor dear – no wonder he was alone. I wondered. He was ever so polite when he asked how to get on to the platform.”

“Never mind that, do you think he remembers what You-Know-Who looks like?”

Their mother suddenly became very stern.

“I forbid you to ask him, Fred. No, don’t you dare. As though he needs reminding of that on his first day at school.”

The most famous boy in the wizarding world, the boy who lived, who defeated Voldemort, and all she’s thinking about is how alone and scared he is on his first day in their world. And this is the first instance of her being a mother but also a steel-spined badass, putting Fred and George in their place and reminding them all that Harry is just a little boy, just like Ron. This trait of hers just builds and builds throughout the series, until it peaks with the “not my daughter, you bitch” moment, but it’s so nice to see just a hint of it here, in defense of a friendless little boy who just happens to be famous, which is how she always thinks of and treats him. I love herrrr.

This is also where we first see the seeds of Ron’s jealousy and what will later become his obnoxious tendency to resent Harry for things he never wanted or asked for and … well, I’m not much of a Ron fan, sorry!

“Five,” said Ron. For some reason, he was looking gloomy. “I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to. Bill and Charlie have already left – Bill was Head Boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a Prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they still get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first. You never get anything new, either, with five brothers. I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand and Percy’s old rat.”

Ron reached inside his jacket and pulled out a fat grey rat, which was asleep.

“His name’s Scabbers and he’s useless, he hardly ever wakes up. Percy got an owl from my dad for being made a Prefect, but they couldn’t aff-I mean, I got Scabbers instead.”

Ron’s ears went pink. He seemed to think he’d said too much, because he went back to staring out of the window.

Like. I would understand this more, I think, if anyone in his family ever expressed anything like this, that they expected big things from him and would be disappointed or unhappy if he didn’t live up. Of course they probably do want him to do well, that’s what parents usually want from their children, but … this is the Weasleys we’re talking about. They’re going to love him regardless. And it’s not like Ron is stupid–he’s a great strategist, after all. He just decides as an 11-year-old boy that he’s sixth and therefore last in every way, and he behaves accordingly. Ginny is seventh, so she’s technically last, and she takes Hogwarts by storm, so … it’s all a matter of perspective and Ron has the wrong one.

I do realize he’s a child, and having five older, already accomplished brothers probably would give a boy a bit of a complex, but he never grows out of it. He’s this way until the end of the series, and it’s so, so frustrating and, eventually, boring.

Seeing him bond with Harry is very cute, though, especially when they share all the food from the trolley. Harry is the sweetest, most adorable child.

“Go on, have a pasty,” said Harry, who had never had anything to share before or, indeed, anyone to share it with. It was a nice feeling, sitting there with Ron, eating their way through all Harry’s pasties and cakes (the sandwiches lay forgotten).

AWWWW!

And just a moment that made me giggle aloud a bit:

“Thanks,” said Harry, pushing his sweaty hair out of his eyes.

“What’s that?” said one of the twins suddenly, pointing at Harry’s lightning scar.

“Blimey,” said the other twin. “Are you -?”

“He is,” said the first twin. “Aren’t you?” he added to Harry.

“What?” said Harry.

“Harry Potter,” chorused the twins.

“Oh, him,” said Harry. “I mean, yes, I am.”

Harry’s nonchalance about himself is very funny to me. He’s always just like, “Yeah, I’m Harry Potter. Also, Voldemort Voldemort Voldemort, you big babies.” Well, not with that flippant attitude, more like he just doesn’t understand the significance of his own story or Voldemort’s, either, but it still makes me laugh. And that’s something worth unpacking, too, the way everyone else tells him the story of his life rather than him knowing it for himself. I imagine that would make a person feel really helpless and also frustrated, like they don’t have control of their own narrative and can’t shape it for themselves, like everything about them has already been discussed, written about, dissected, and decided by everyone else and the life they’ve been living all this time doesn’t even matter. Hagrid is the only one who takes interest in and care of Harry’s Dursley-raised life, at first, and that’s why Hagrid is the best.

And, of course, I can’t neglect that this is the first introduction of my girl, my hero, my soulmate, Hermione Granger herself. She is not … presented in the most flattering light here, but it is through Harry’s eyes, after all.

He had just raised his wand when the compartment door slid open again. The toadless boy was back, but this time he had a girl with him. She was already wearing her new Hogwarts robes.

“Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,” she said. She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth.

“We’ve already told him we haven’t seen it,” said Ron, but the girl wasn’t listening, she was looking at the wand in his hand.

“Oh, are you doing magic? Let’s see it, then.”

She sat down. Ron looked taken aback.

“Er – all right.”

He cleared his throat.

“Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow,
Turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.”

He waved his wand, but nothing happened. Scabbers stayed grey and fast asleep.

“Are you sure that’s a real spell?” said the girl. “Well, it’s not very good, is it? I’ve tried a few simple spells just for practice and it’s all worked for me. Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard – I’ve learnt all our set books off by heart, of course, I just hope it
will be enough – I’m Hermione Granger, by the way, who are you?”

She said all this very fast.

Harry looked at Ron and was relieved to see by his stunned face that he hadn’t learnt all the set books off by heart either.

“I’m Ron Weasley,” Ron muttered.

“Harry Potter,” said Harry.

“Are you really?” said Hermione. “I know all about you, of course – I got a few extra books for background reading, and you’re in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century.”

“Am I?” said Harry, feeling dazed.

“Goodness, didn’t you know? I’d have found out everything I could if it was me,” said Hermione. “Do either of you know what house you’ll be in? I’ve been asking around and I hope I’m in Gryffindor, it sounds by far the best, I hear Dumbledore himself was one, but I suppose Ravenclaw wouldn’t be too bad … Anyway, we’d better go and look for Neville’s toad. You two had better change, you know, I expect we’ll be there soon.”

And she left, taking the toadless boy with her.

I. Love. Her. Even here, in her least flattering light, I loooove her. So bossy, so take-charge, but for such a sweet cause. Poor Neville and his poor perpetually lost (or escaped?) toad. She always jumps in with both feet for the causes and people she believes in, always charges full steam ahead. As she grows she learns to make plans, do research, make sure she isn’t so easily found out, but that’s later and we’re not there yet. Right now she’s just a little girl, suddenly thrust into this magical world in much the way Harry is, but at least Harry has his name and his fame to help him along. Hermione has nothing. Her parents are Muggles, she has no “wizarding blood”, no family name to lean on, no one who’s gone before her to show her the way. All she can do is swallow books whole and parrot them back, do twice the amount of required homework, show off her knowledge at every turn to prove she belongs at Hogwarts and in the wizarding world as much as anyone else does. I used to argue that she was so much a Ravenclaw that it was wild she ended up in Gryffindor, but I don’t feel that way anymore. She’s Gryffindor in her bones. Her knowledge is just a shield and a weapon all in one, the only thing she has to secure her place in a world where half the inhabitants don’t want her.

Hermione Granger forever and ever and ever and ever, is what I’m saying.

Side note: what house is Dumbledore in? Is it specified in canon? Because here Hermione speculates that he was in Gryffindor, but that feels so utterly wrong to me. He’s too careful, too cunning, too manipulative. And far, far too patient and restrained and secretive. He feels very Slytherin to me, which is not just because I’m anti-Dumbledore (I am, but we’ve already been over how much I hate the anti-Slytherin bias), but like he could also be a Ravenclaw with Slytherin tendencies. He does favor Gryffindor shamelessly and unfairly, but I’ve always assumed that’s due to Harry.

The rest of the chapter is just blah blah Malfoy, blah blah Crabbe and Goyle, blah blah boat ride to Hogwarts. I don’t care about most of that. Except to mention that Scabbers helped them out when Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle were bothering them, which is interesting given, you know, who he is. I’d forgotten about that tiny detail. Why would he even bother?

Next up: sorting!

I’ve been devouring books recently, and since reading is one of the few things I can make myself do right now, I’m trying to put it to some use by finally getting into horror written by women. I’ve read the odd novel here and there, but the vast majority of my horror reading is by men. Until I undertake the enormously overwhelming task of getting my Goodreads up to date, here are a few mini reviews of what I’ve read so far. Hopefully, after this, I’ll be able to write full individual reviews when I finish things, but as always, we’ll see.

“As I descended” by Robin Talley

From the acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves, Robin Talley, comes a Shakespeare-inspired story of revenge and redemption, where fair is foul, and foul is fair.Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple–but one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey. Golden child Delilah is a legend at exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. But Delilah doesn’t know that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything–absolutely anything–to unseat Delilah for the scholarship. After all, it would lock in Maria’s attendance at Stanford–and assure her and Lily four more years in a shared dorm room.Together, Maria and Lily harness the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school. But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what’s imagined, the girls must attempt to put a stop to the chilling series of events they’ve accidentally set in motion.

I loved this book and was also terrified by it. While reading it, I didn’t want to hang my hands or feet over the sides of my bed, even though nothing in it related to anything being under the bed. And after finishing it, I was very reluctant to leave my bed to brush my teeth and wash my face. I didn’t want to stand in front of the mirror. I had to turn on a comedy podcast for a while to convince myself to do it, and then I had to keep it playing while I fell asleep. I think what made it such a scary reading experience for me was that I wasn’t expecting it to be scary. The plot summary I read didn’t give much away, which is the right idea because my memories of “Macbeth” were very fuzzy and I didn’t bother to refresh them, so I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what “As I Descended” would be like. All I knew was that it was gay and had spirits in it, which is really all I ever need to know. 5 stars. I want to read this again already.

“13 Minutes” by Sarah Pinborough

I was dead for 13 minutes. I don’t remember how I ended up in the icy water but I do know this – it wasn’t an accident and I wasn’t suicidal. They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but when you’re a teenage girl, it’s hard to tell them apart. My friends love me, I’m sure of it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try to kill me. Does it?

13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough is a gripping psychological thriller about people, fears, manipulation and the power of the truth. A stunning read, it questions our relationships – and what we really know about the people closest to us…

This was okay. I didn’t love it, but it was engaging enough to keep me reading and I finished it pretty quickly. I give Sarah Pinborough credit for the twist; I knew there must be one, because everything seemed to wrap up too neatly and easily, but I didn’t expect what it turned out to be. It did tension very well, and by the time I finished it, I was stressed. I’m not sure how realistic it is, but it doesn’t really matter, I guess.. There was also a weird little side romance that I found unnecessary, which is saying something because I’m a fiend for romance these days. 2 stars.

“Come Closer” by Sara Gran

From the author of Saturn’s Return to New York comes this dark psychological thriller. “‘What we think is impossible happens all the time.’ So claims the beguiling narrator of Come Closer, and after reading this spare and menacing tale, the reader has to agree. Sara Gran has created a sly, satisfying (fast!) novel of one young woman possessed not only by a demon but also by her own secret desires.”–Stewart O’Nan

I have no idea how I feel about this one. It’s a very quick read, so it has that going for it, and it subverts some common possession horror tropes in an interesting way. And it’s very funny. I liked the narrative voice a lot and will probably read more of Sara Gran’s work on that basis alone. It’s just … it feels so incomplete. I wanted it to be much more fleshed out than it is. More about the demon, more about the protagonist. I liked the ambiguity surrounding whether the possession is legitimate or whether the protagonist is just having a psychological breakdown, and the fact that it’s one of the only possession narratives I’ve read from the point of view of the possessed person. There are a couple of homophobic slurs that are not presented as bad and actually come from the protagonist herself, which is … not great. There are plenty of things I enjoyed, though, so. 3 stars.

“The Taken” by Sarah Pinborough

The ghost of a little girl who disappeared thirty years ago returns to the town where she met an early end. She has revenge on her mind, and she’s brought friends to help her carry it out.

This is one I would read again, but am not absolutely dying to read again immediately. We all know by now that children have an endless capacity to be creepy, but here, they’re downright sadistic. And so violent. There’s one death in particular that was at once very creative and also very gruesome and aggressively unpleasant, and the murderous antagonist takes so much pleasure in every murder she commits. I don’t want to spoil specifics, because I do think it’s worth reading, but I feel like it should be made more apparent how disturbing the malicious glee is. And speaking of things I wish were made more apparent, can books please stop surprising me with out of the blue graphic descriptions of child molestation? That would be great. I didn’t expect or need to read that. I don’t think it was necessary to the story at all. But if these warnings don’t put you off, I do recommend this. 3 stars.

I don’t know why I used to read so many books while lying in my bedroom closet, but I did, and my earliest memories of “Anne of Green Gables” are there, while my mom was cleaning and blasting Alanis Morissette and Celine Dion. It seems fitting, now.

Sometimes, when you reread books from childhood, you find that they don’t quite hold up. Nostalgia alone isn’t enough to make the story carry you away like it used to. You find the characters lacking in depth or originality or relatability, you realize that harmful messages are subtly woven throughout, you just aren’t the person you were when it was fresh and new and you fell in love for the first time. Not so with Anne. Perhaps because I never really stopped rereading it, taking out a copy to read over my favorite passages and chapters whenever I need them, returning to the book in full each spring for a reread, carrying Anne in my heart wherever and whenever I am. Perhaps because Lucy Maud Montgomery managed to tap into something fundamental about childhood, the longing and the loving and the leaving, the changing and, at the same time, the holding on and the holding close. The book grows with you as you grow into yourself and there’s always a part of you that is still and always Anne Shirley.

“Well, don’t cry any more. We’re not going to turn you out-of-doors to-night. You’ll have to stay here until we investigate this affair. What’s your name?”

The child hesitated for a moment.

“Will you please call me Cordelia?” she said eagerly.

“Call you Cordelia? Is that your name?”

“No-o-o, it’s not exactly my name, but I would love to be called Cordelia. It’s such a perfectly elegant name.”

“I don’t know what on earth you mean. If Cordelia isn’t your name, what is?”

“Anne Shirley,” reluctantly faltered forth the owner of that name, “but, oh, please do call me Cordelia. It can’t matter much to you what you call me if I’m only going to be here a little while, can it? And Anne is such an unromantic name.”

“Unromantic fiddlesticks!” said the unsympathetic Marilla. “Anne is a real good plain sensible name. You’ve no need to be ashamed of it.”

“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Anne, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordelia—at least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an E.”

“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

“Oh, it makes such a difference. It looks so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

For me, it’s more than a part. For me, it’s the whole. The whole of me is and has always been Anne Shirley. It’s not just the way, when I was six and seven and eight and beyond, I longed to change my name, before I had ever even heard of Green Gables. I refused to answer when people spoke to me unless they called me by whichever name I had decided I wanted to go by that day, ranging anywhere from Beth to Matilda. There is something about Chelsea that has never felt like me, something I wear like Anne’s too tight wincey dress and that, when I hear myself called by my name, always makes me flinch a little inside. I know this bothers my mom, because she gave me this name, but I can’t help it.

“Fancy. It’s always been one of my dreams to live near a brook. I never expected I would, though. Dreams don’t often come true, do they? Wouldn’t it be nice if they did? But just now I feel pretty nearly perfectly happy. I can’t feel exactly perfectly happy because—well, what color would you call this?”

She twitched one of her long glossy braids over her thin shoulder and held it up before Matthew’s eyes. Matthew was not used to deciding on the tints of ladies’ tresses, but in this case there couldn’t be much doubt.

“It’s red, ain’t it?” he said.

The girl let the braid drop back with a sigh that seemed to come from her very toes and to exhale forth all the sorrows of the ages.

“Yes, it’s red,” she said resignedly. “Now you see why I can’t be perfectly happy. Nobody could who has red hair. I don’t mind the other things so much—the freckles and the green eyes and my skinniness. I can imagine them away. I can imagine that I have a beautiful rose-leaf complexion and lovely starry violet eyes. But I cannot imagine that red hair away. I do my best. I think to myself, ‘Now my hair is a glorious black, black as the raven’s wing.’ But all the time I know it is just plain red and it breaks my heart. It will be my lifelong sorrow. I read of a girl once in a novel who had a lifelong sorrow but it wasn’t red hair. Her hair was pure gold rippling back from her alabaster brow. What is an alabaster brow? I never could find out. Can you tell me?”

It’s not just the hair, either, although that did give me a thrill when I first read the book. I have been by turns in love with and sick of my hair, and when I was a teenager, I was desperate for what I perceived to be a more interesting color. Black, I thought, or green. My mom said no to both, and rightly so. I was never teased for it that I can recall, but I nonetheless empathized with wanting something more elegant and attractive.

“This morning when I left the asylum I felt so ashamed because I had to wear this horrid old wincey dress. All the orphans had to wear them, you know. A merchant in Hopeton last winter donated three hundred yards of wincey to the asylum. Some people said it was because he couldn’t sell it, but I’d rather believe that it was out of the kindness of his heart, wouldn’t you? When we got on the train I felt as if everybody must be looking at me and pitying me. But I just went to work and imagined that I had on the most beautiful pale blue silk dress—because when you are imagining you might as well imagine something worth while—and a big hat all flowers and nodding plumes, and a gold watch, and kid gloves and boots. I felt cheered up right away and I enjoyed my trip to the Island with all my might.”

The imagination thing gets a little closer to the heart of it. I never thought much about my blindness as a child, never really resented what I couldn’t see because what was going on in my mind was so much more interesting to me than anything in the outside world. I had friends, and I must surely have done things with them and slept over at their houses and all the other hallmarks of being a young girl, but what stands out most clearly to me are all the hours I spent with my imaginary friends. I had an entire imaginary town, peopled with my friends and their families, complete with full names, phone numbers, trips to the skating rink (a pair of rollerblades and a back porch), dramas and domesticities. Unlike Anne at the orphanage, I had so much scope for the imagination–a front yard with a weeping willow tree and wild onions, trees to climb, plenty of nooks and crannies to hide away in because I was very small–but there were still things I wanted and didn’t have, or had and didn’t want. Aren’t there always? I took care of them all with my imaginings, and, often, I think I even believed the things I made up. I knew I had made them up, of course, and if you’ve never done this I don’t know how to explain it to you, but alongside that knowing was also the certainty that I had made them up into actual existence. It wasn’t always a good thing, but mostly it was.

As much as she hated Gilbert, however, did she love Diana, with all the love of her passionate little heart, equally intense in its likes and dislikes. One evening Marilla, coming in from the orchard with a basket of apples, found Anne sitting along by the east window in the twilight, crying bitterly.

“Whatever’s the matter now, Anne?” she asked.

“It’s about Diana,” sobbed Anne luxuriously. “I love Diana so, Marilla. I cannot ever live without her. But I know very well when we grow up that Diana will get married and go away and leave me. And oh, what shall I do? I hate her husband—I just hate him furiously. I’ve been imagining it all out—the wedding and everything—Diana dressed in snowy garments, with a veil, and looking as beautiful and regal as a queen; and me the bridesmaid, with a lovely dress too, and puffed sleeves, but with a breaking heart hid beneath my smiling face. And then bidding Diana goodbye-e-e—” Here Anne broke down entirely and wept with increasing bitterness.

This, though, is the true heart of it, I think. I identify with Anne so strongly because I, too, love my best friends passionately and I, too, hate their imaginary future husbands. When I picture my best, most ideal life, it’s full of women, myself and all my closest soul sisters living and working near each other, holding dinner parties and sleepovers well into our twilight years, raising animals but never any children, maybe having the occasional romance but never the lifelong commitment of marriage.

I know, obviously, that this is far from realistic, and is not the best possible life for all my friends. I know that some of them do want marriage, and maybe even children, and would probably be unhappy with their lives if they never had those things. I know that. But I am very sparing with my affection, and it takes a lot for me to bond with someone on a level where I would call them friend. That word means something more to me than just “person I like and whose company I enjoy”. It means kindred spirit, bosom friend, confidant. It means love that is not exactly romantic but maybe is, kind of, a little bit. I have trouble with the blurring of the line that often occurs between women who are friends and women who are partners. I am jealous and greedy and I want everyone I love to love me best and put me first. This is an unattractive and sometimes destructive quality, I know that too. But I have never related more to a character or a passage or a sentiment, and I feel in my bones that I will repeat this scene whenever one of my friends gets into a serious relationship, because, like Anne, I am overdramatic and painfully full of feelings and all of life is for me one long romance. Just not with a man.

OCTOBER was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

“Messy things,” said Marilla, whose aesthetic sense was not noticeably developed. “You clutter up your room entirely too much with out-of-doors stuff, Anne. Bedrooms were made to sleep in.”

“Oh, and dream in too, Marilla. And you know one can dream so much better in a room where there are pretty things. I’m going to put these boughs in the old blue jug and set them on my table.”

There’s also this, which is just … you know. October is my favorite month of all months, and, for someone who is so reluctant to spend money or do anything else extravagant for myself, I do love pretty things. And puffed sleeves. Last year, at an antique shop, I bought myself a dressing gown with puffed sleeves and every time I wear it, I think of Anne and feel ridiculous and glad.

I could go on. There is so much about Anne that is also about me. I hold wild, awful grudges, I have never let go of anything in my entire life. I resented Anne a little, the first time, for eventually forgiving Gilbert. I resented her even more for marrying him. I also used absurdly pretentious words in everyday conversation when I was young, and still sometimes do in writing. And so on, and so on. I’m convinced that Lucy Maud Montgomery looked into the future from 1908 and saw me, a child desperately in need of a literary kindred spirit, and she wrote this book for and about me. I thank her for it every day of my life.

I can’t seem to do anything else right now but reread Stephen King books and Jenny Trout’s Fifty Shades recaps, and I really don’t want to write about the latter here, so instead I’m going to write a kind of love letter to the former.

Everyone who knows me is undoubtedly sick of hearing me talk about Stephen King, or, as I like to call him, my problematic father who raised me. That’s a shame, because I’m not even close to being sick of talking about him. Since I either haven’t loved or haven’t finished a lot of his more recent output, I’m going all the way back to my childhood and adolescence to share some of his works that have imprinted themselves on my mind and my heart and, let’s be honest, probably influenced my development and contributed to the person I am now. thanks a lot, Steve.

I. “It”

There are several parts to this first and largest one. In the first part, I’m eight or nine years old, standing petrified in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen while someone, I don’t remember who, is watching it on TV. I want to leave so that I’m no longer hearing what’s happening, but I can’t. Pennywise has reeled me in just like he reeled in Georgie, just like he reeled in all the other dead kids.

Later, I’ll take the most reluctant shower of my life, one during which I aim the showerhead as far from the drain as I can get it, as though that would stop It if it really wanted to get me. For years after, and, if we’re being honest here, right up until the current moment, there will be repeats of that first shower, times when I don’t want to get too near the drain, when I hurry out into the too-cold air before I’m thoroughly dried because the water is gurgling as it runs out and I don’t want to hear any voices down there.

In the next part, I’m only a year or two older, and I’m trying to read the book. The massive, meandering, time-jumping, POV-shifting book full of words and concepts I don’t understand yet. It doesn’t work, but it embeds in me a desperate desire to finish it, someday.

In the next part, I’m another couple of years older still, and I’m in my bedroom, reading the bird scene. You know the one. Mike, in the smokestack, at the Ironworks. I’m home alone, it’s early evening, and I’m terrified. I know I should put the book down and do something else, something brighter and lighter, until my parents get home, but of course I don’t. Because there’s something about that kind of fear. You know what I’m talking about. Something that makes us keep seeking it out, in movies and books and haunted houses and, sometimes, in real life situations. Especially for kids and teenagers, who believe they’re invincible. I keep reading, and it keeps getting later.

In the final part, I’m reading aloud the way I always did when I was young, not to anyone in particular, just because it made the reading better. But sometimes one or the other of my parents would listen, or my sister, or whoever happened to be around. I’m in the car, in the backseat, on the way home from a family gathering, and Bev and Tom are about to sleep together. It’s not nice, not a positive thing for Bev, but even if it had been, my voice would have faded away when I got to, “Sliding into her was like sliding into some exquisite oil.” I understand, now, the things that were beyond me the first time I attempted this book. I read silently from then on, and when my mom asks why I stopped reading aloud, I say I don’t know, I just did.

II. “The Shining”

I don’t know exactly how old I am, mid-teens. I’m in my bedroom again, but this time I’m not home alone. All the more inexplicable, then, that I’m so, so afraid. It’s that woman in the bathtub. She has haunted me all my life since the first moment I read about her.

The woman in the tub had been dead for a long time. She was bloated and purple, her gas-filled belly rising out of the cold, ice-rimmed water like some fleshy island. Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles. She was grinning, her purple lips pulled back in a grimace. Her breasts lolled. Her pubic hair floated. Her hands were frozen on the knurled porcelain sides of the tub like crab claws.

Danny shrieked. But the sound never escaped his lips; turning inward and inward, it fell down in his darkness like a stone in a well. He took a single blundering step backward, hearing his heels clack on the white hexagonal tiles, and at the same moment his urine broke, spilling effortlessly out of him.

The woman was sitting up.

Still grinning, her huge marble eyes fixed on him, she was sitting up. Her dead palms made squittering noises on the porcelain. Her breasts swayed like ancient cracked punching bags. There was the minute sound of breaking ice shards. She was not breathing. She was a corpse, and dead long years.

It’s also the hedge animals, when they start to move, to creep up the path to the fence, to Jack. Miranda laughs about that, but they made me deeply uneasy the first time I read about them, and they still do. I could go into the living room where my mom is watching TV, and eventually I think I do. I tell her I was reading “the Shining” and I actually got scared, and she laughs. But during the reading, all I can do is take another breath and turn another page. Stopping is no more a possibility this time than it was the last, or ever will be in the future. The family drama, the alcoholism, all of Jack’s inner turmoil, that will all be important later, during rereads, but this first time, it’s all about the woman in the tub and the hedge animals and Danny.

III. “Pet Sematary”

I see the movie first, and the absurdity of it puts me off the book for years. I think of it as something a little silly, not well-written, despite having never actually read any of the writing. My mom likes the movie, so we see it more than once. Gauge gets to me, kind of, mostly at night when all manner of things both frightening and not have a much easier entry into your fear spaces.

Finally, because I’m a Stephen King completionist and even as a teenager I have a goal of eventually reading all his published work, I decide to read it one night while my parents are out at a party. This is a theme, if you hadn’t noticed. I’m not known for learning from my mistakes. I huddle under a blanket for hours, immediately enthralled and ultimately so afraid that when my parents come home and the garage door bangs, I almost die of fear right then and there. I hurry into the kitchen, for once needing to be surrounded by voices and activity, and I tell my mom what I’ve been doing. She exclaims in horror, why would I want to do that? I don’t have an answer. I still don’t. It’s a hard one to get through, as much because of the deep, brutal depression hanging over the entire thing as the fear, but, oh, the fear. It’s Pascow I always remember, Pascow who scared me so much, even though he’s not the antagonist.

Something woke him much later, a crash loud enough to cause him to sit up in bed, wondering if Ellie had fallen onto the floor or if maybe Gage’s crib had collapsed. Then the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, flooding the room with cold white light, and he saw Victor Pascow standing in the doorway. The crash had been Pascow throwing open the door.

He stood there with his head bashed in behind the left temple. The blood had dried on his face in maroon stripes like Indian warpaint. His collarbone jutted whitely. He was grinning.

“Come on, Doctor,” Pascow said. “We got places to go.”

Louis looked around. His wife was a vague hump under her yellow comforter, sleeping deeply. He looked back at Pascow, who was dead but somehow not dead. Yet Louis felt no fear. He realized why almost at once.

It’s a dream, he thought, and it was only in his relief that he realized he had been frightened after all. The dead do not return; it is physiologically impossible. This young man is in an autopsy drawer in Bangor with the pathologist’s tattoo—a Y-cut stitched back up—on him. The pathologist probably tossed his brain into his chest cavity after taking a tissue sample and filled up the skull cavity with brown paper to prevent leaking—simpler than trying to fit the brain back into the skull like a jigsaw piece into a puzzle. Uncle Carl, father of the unfortunate Ruthie, had told him that pathologists did that, and all sorts of other random information that he supposed would give Rachel, with her death phobia, the screaming horrors. But Pascow was not here—no way, baby. Pascow was in a refrigerated locker with a tag around his toe. And he is most certainly not wearing those red jogging shorts in there.

Yet the compulsion to get up was strong. Pascow’s eyes were upon him.

He threw back the covers and swung his feet onto the floor. The hooked rug—a wedding present from Rachel’s grandmother long ago—pressed cold nubbles into the balls of his feet. The dream had a remarkable reality. It was so real that he would not follow Pascow until Pascow had turned and begun to go back
down the stairs. The compulsion to follow was strong, but he did not want to be touched, even in a dream, by a walking corpse.

IV. “Bag of Bones”

I first read this in midwinter, and, from then on, it becomes my winter book, despite the fact that it’s set in summer. I check it out from the public library on tape countless times, each reread burying it more indelibly in my consciousness. I never love Mike, but I come to care about Kyra and Mattie so much that I think about them at random moments and am shocked and hurt all over again by the unfairness of their story. I wish for my own John, someone funny and kind and enthusiastic and so, so sweet. I am furious about Max and Rogette, about everything they say and do. I am torn about Sara, at once sympathetic to her story and motivations and deeply upset and frustrated by her methods of revenge.

There are troubling dynamics in Mike and Mattie’s relationship, and Stephen King shows his typical lack of sensitivity or grace in writing about race, but I won’t pretend I care about those things as a teenager first gripped by the story. I don’t. I care about the relationships, but in a simpler way. I want Mike and Mattie to be together because the story wants them to, and I want Kyra to be happy, and I want Mike to be at peace with Jo’s death, and I want John to be friends with everyone and for them to have endless barbecues and picnics and laugh and talk and laugh.

When I’m home alone, again, again, I am made uneasy by Max and Rogette pacing Mike and then throwing rocks at him in the lake. When I fall asleep listening to Stephen King reading me the story and I wake up to Mike talking to a ghost in the cellar, I’m so filled with panic that I’m barely able to turn it off. And every time, no matter how many times I’ve already read it, when I read about Mike’s dream of the shroud thing, I have to take a break and do something soothing before I continue.

I’ll run away, I think. I’ll run back the way I came, like the gingerbread man I’ll run, run all the way back to Derry, if that’s what it takes, and I’ll never come here anymore.

Except I can hear slobbering breath behind me in the growing gloom, and padding footsteps. The thing in the woods is now the thing in the driveway. It’s right behind me. If I turn around the sight of it will knock the sanity out of my head in a single roundhouse slap. Something with red eyes, something slumped and hungry.

The house is my only hope of safety.

I walk on. The crowding bushes clutch like hands. In the light of a rising moon (the moon has never risen before in this dream, but I have never stayed in it this long before), the rustling leaves look like sardonic faces. I see winking eyes and smiling mouths. Below me are the black windows of the house and I know that there will be no power when I get inside, the storm has knocked the power out, I will flick the lightswitch up and down, up and down, until something reaches out and takes my wrist and pulls me like a lover deeper into the dark.

I am three quarters of the way down the driveway now. I can see the railroad-tie steps leading down to the lake, and I can see the float out there on the water, a black square in a track of moonlight. Bill Dean has put it out. I can also see an oblong something lying at the place where driveway ends at the stoop. There has never been such an object before. What can it be?

Another two or three steps, and I know. It’s a coffin, the one Frank Arlen dickered for . . . because, he said, the mortician was trying to stick it to me. It’s Jo’s coffin, and lying on its side with the top partway open, enough for me to see it’s empty.

I think I want to scream. I think I mean to turn around and run back up the driveway — I will take my chances with the thing behind me. But before I can, the back door of Sara Laughs opens, and a terrible figure darting out into the growing darkness. It is human, this figure, and yet it’s not. It is a crumpled white thing with baggy arms upraised. There is no face where its face should be, and yet it is shrieking in a glottal, loonlike voice. It must be Johanna. She was able to escape her coffin, her winding shroud. She is all tangled up in it.

How hideously speedy this creature is! It doesn’t drift as one imagines ghosts drifting, but races across the stoop toward the driveway. It has been waiting down here during all the dreams when I had been frozen, and now that I have finally been able to walk down, it means to have me. I’ll scream when it wraps me in its silk arms, and I will scream when I smell its rotting, bug-raddled flesh and see its dark staring eyes through the fine weave of the cloth. I will scream as the sanity leaves my mind forever. I will scream . . . but there is no one out here to hear me. Only the loons will hear me. I have come again to Manderley, and this time I will never leave.

V. “Night Shift”

It is again midwinter, cold even in the house, in my bedroom, and I’m reading “The Boogeyman”. It is not, in all honesty, either a very scary or very good story, and yet there’s something about it. Something that creeps. Something that unsettles, in the awful way Billings talks, the things he says and the way he regresses into child speak, the way you can almost remember something from your own childhood, the monster you knew was hiding in the closet. I alternate between bursts of reading and then hurrying to the other unoccupied bedroom, where my desktop computer is, to distract myself for a while before gravitating back to the story. I’m not home alone this time, but it doesn’t matter.

I am always drawn to “I Know What You Need”, something in its occult premise calling to me. Something about tenderness, something about ruthlessness. Something about the things love and the need to be loved will drive you to. I say it’s my favorite story in the collection, and maybe, for a while, it is.

My experience with “Sometimes They Come Back” is much like that of “The Shining”. Not home alone, my parents in the living room watching TV, and yet. My bedroom might as well be the only room that exists in the world, isolated from any other life, any other contact. I am as terrified as if I were the one being driven mad by boys who can’t possibly still be boys, summoning the devil himself, seeing my dead brother get his revenge.

I am who knows what age, it could be anywhere from 11 to 16. I’m spending the night, or the weekend, or the week, at Miranda’s house. Her dad is reading “The Ledge” to us. I’m only partially paying attention because I’m sleepy and, as much as Miranda enjoys being read to, I do not. But later, I imagine myself onto the ledge, the wind, the pigeon, and adrenaline spikes through me, even as I’m lying in bed.

Phrases from “Night Surf” and from “The Lawn Mower Man” work their way into the vocabulary of my friendship with Miranda and into our everyday speech, the way we randomly quote the things we love most during situations where they seem to fit. Even if we’re the only ones who know what they mean.

VI.

Stephen King gives me language for things I don’t yet know how to say, comfort for the times in my life when I’m too depressed or too anxious or just too much, familiarity and dependability when nothing else feels familiar or dependable. I can always count on him to be exactly what he is, on his stories to do exactly what they’ve always done. I learn to be critical of him, to acknowledge and not make excuses for the many, many ways he fails. I love other writers more. I love his son Joe Hill’s writing more. My feverish obsession rises and falls. But he’s always there, and always, I come back.

DIAGON ALLEY!!!!

This is the longest chapter so far, and it’s so. Good. It perfectly encapsulates all the overwhelming joy and wonder of the wizarding world, both for Harry and for us as readers. Here’s how Diagon Alley is introduced:

“Welcome,” said Hagrid, “to Diagon Alley.”

He grinned at Harry’s amazement. They stepped through the archway. Harry looked quickly over his shoulder and saw the archway shrink instantly back into solid wall.

The sun shone brightly on a stack of cauldrons outside the nearest shop. Cauldrons – All Sizes – Copper, Brass, Pewter, Silver Self-Stirring – Collapsible said a sign hanging over them.

“Yeah, you’ll be needin’ one,” said Hagrid, “but we gotta get yer money first.”

Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping. A plump woman outside an apothecary’s was shaking her head as they passed, saying, “Dragon liver, seventeen Sickles an ounce, they’re mad …”

A low, soft hooting came from a dark shop with a sign saying Eeylops Owl Emporium – Tawny, Screech, Barn, Brown and Snowy. Several boys of about Harry’s age had their noses pressed against a window with broomsticks in it. “Look,” Harry heard one of them say, “the new Nimbus Two Thousand – fastest ever -” There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon …

How much would you give to be able to spend time there? Even just a day? Even just an hour? I would give a lot. And can you imagine what it was like for Harry to suddenly be bombarded with all this, only a handful of hours after learning that magic was a real thing? The mental whiplash he must have experienced. I love everything about Diagon Alley so much that I have to make myself not think about it, or I’ll break down in actual tears over not being able to go there and be a part of this world. This is the thing I’ve always praised JKR for–even if I don’t love her writing, her worldbuilding is spectacular from book one.

And can we also talk about Flourish and Blotts, which is described like this:

They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk; books full of peculiar symbols and a few books with nothing in them at all. Even Dudley, who never read anything, would have been wild to get his hands on some of these.

Take me there, I wanna go there. This is where my Ravenclaw comes out most strongly, because I am more excited about this one bookshop than anything else in the entire shopping district. But really, all the wizarding world’s knowledge is contained in there, all the spells and potions and plant lore and dark arts and histories. Plus, I could finally find out the answer to the question that has plagued me for years, which is whether or not the wizarding world has poets and novelists and, if it does, why we never hear about them. So anyway, bookshops. They’re great, right?

What is not great is Malfoy. In just the one scene with him at Madam Malkins, he manages to insult Hagrid, display his anti-Muggle bias, brag about his mad Quidditch skills, and give the first (but far from last) evidence of what a spoiled brat he is. He’s the very definition of a privileged white (or, more importantly in this world, wizarding) boy who has never had to question his views because he’s never been exposed to anyone or anything outside of them. All he knows of Muggles comes from his parents, and especially his father, and even after he goes to Hogwarts and is around Muggle-borns, he still never has to really confront the reality of their humanity and their lives. That would be an interesting fanfic, Malfoy has to live in the Muggle world without magic for a period of time and finally gets some perspective. I’m sure it’s been written.

Aside from all the Diagon Alley specific stuff, there are a couple of interesting but troubling things Hagrid says that I wanted to mention. The first is when they’re in the boat on the way to land (which brings up the question of how the Dursleys got off the rock the hut was on), about separating wizarding people from Muggles.

“But what does a Ministry of Magic do?”

“Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.”

“Why?”

“Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”

I mean. That’s not true though, is it? Muggle-borns’ families find out about witches and wizards, and as far as we know from the books, there’s not an influx of Muggle parents and siblings demanding magical solutions to their problems. I get that it’s not on the same scale as if the entire Muggle population knew, but still, I feel like this is a pretty flimsy justification for segregation and it lends a lot of weight to the “the treatment of Muggles = racism” interpretation. It also doesn’t give Muggles much credit and furthers the othering of them done by wizarding people and, yeah, it’s pretty all-around bad. Really, all wizards would need to do is show Muggles the way their society is run and Muggles would realize they’re better off trying to solve their own problems.

The other troubling thing is this, after Harry talks to Malfoy:

“And what are Slytherin and Hufflepuff?”

“School houses. There’s four. Everyone says Hufflepuff are a lot o’ duffers, but -”

“I bet I’m in Hufflepuff,” said Harry gloomily.

“Better Hufflepuff than Slytherin,” said Hagrid darkly. “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one.”

First of all, the fact that Voldemort was in Slytherin doesn’t mean that every Slytherin is Voldemort-level evil. Second, I find it unlikely that every single dark witch or wizard was a Slytherin. Just, statistically, that seems improbable. And third, even if it were true, it doesn’t follow that every single Slytherin is bad. If JKR really does want me to buy this, then I also have to point out that maybe the reason all Slytherins go bad is because they’re all painted with the same brush from moment one of becoming a Slytherin, always automatically assumed to be Voldemort sympathizers or even possible Voldemort successors, always treated unfairly and more harshly than any of the other houses just because of the possibility that they’ll end up turning to the dark arts later in life. This is so irritating, and remains so throughout the series. Give me nuance or give me death.

Next up, we’re on our way to Hogwarts. Finally!

In this chapter, Hagrid calls Uncle Vernon a great prune and a great Muggle and Dudley a great lump and a great puddin’ of a son, and it’s … great.

Honestly, it isn’t a very long or eventful chapter, until you really think about it from Harry’s perspective. He starts the night cold and hungry, sleeping on the floor, thinking of all the terrible birthdays he’s had in his life, and ends it with the knowledge that he’s a wizard, that he’ll soon be escaping the Dursleys to go to Hogwarts, that his parents are famous and so is he. He gets a birthday cake and sees owl post in action and witnesses Dudley getting a pig’s tail. He has Diagon Alley to look forward to, even though he doesn’t really know what that is at this point.

And the way Hagrid introduces all these things to him is just so … I love Hagrid. He’s wonderful. So matter-of-fact about it. Just, “Harry – yer a wizard.” I keep trying to imagine what my thoughts would be after hearing that one little sentence, and I can’t do it. I wouldn’t believe him, almost certainly, I would think I’d misheard him, possibly, I would have eventually ended up at the same place Harry did, probably.

Hagrid looked at Harry with warmth and respect blazing in his eyes, but Harry, instead of feeling pleased and proud, felt quite sure there had been a horrible mistake. A wizard? Him? How could he possibly be? He’d spent his life being clouted by Dudley and bullied by Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon; if he was really a wizard, why hadn’t they been turned into warty toads every time they’d tried to lock him in his cupboard? If he’d once defeated the greatest sorcerer in the world, how come Dudley had always been able to kick him around like a football?

“Hagrid,” he said quietly, “I think you must have made a mistake. I don’t think I can be a wizard.”

God. These early chapters of baby Harry are still killing me, in a way they never did before. Impostor syndrome before he even knows what being a wizard entails or how magic works. A defense mechanism, maybe, to keep himself from getting attached to the idea of this power and ability, this possible future away from the abuse he’s known his whole life, so that if it’s suddenly snatched away from him as he must expect it to be, it won’t hurt as much.

And Hagrid is so good and kind, reassuring him without even having to try, because the idea of Harry Potter not being a wizard is so absurd to him that it doesn’t even warrant consideration. I’m very glad that it’s Hagrid who comes for Harry and introduces this world to him, because I feel like there’s something there that Dumbledore wouldn’t have been able to tap into even if he’d tried. I don’t know exactly what it is. Maybe it’s that Hagrid is himself so childlike in a lot of ways, and so invested in the wizarding world and Hogwarts as places where he’s been able to find belonging, so he can understand and connect with those things in Harry and build this instant easy rapport. Maybe it’s the way he instantly and aggressively condemns the Dursleys’ treatment of Harry, which I don’t think Dumbledore would’ve done quite so blatantly and which I think is so important to do, to show Harry that it isn’t okay and there are adults in the world who know that and are willing to make noise about it.

I just. I just love Hagrid, you guys. He deserves way more page time than he gets. It’s great to see the foundation built here of a friendship that lasts a lifetime, and that facilitates so many things in coming chapters. And it’s great to see the Dursleys being yelled at by a wizarding giant until they cower and squeak. I wish they had gotten more than a destroyed gun and a pig’s tail.

In this chapter, things descend and continue descending into absurdity, as Hogwarts tries to contact Harry to deliver his letter. The thing that struck me most while reading it is that Uncle Vernon, for all his professed knowledge of how “those people” think and act, is bafflingly ignorant of even the most basic concepts about magic. If I were a Muggle with no idea of the mechanics of magic or the culture of magical people, I feel like I would still probably be able to figure out that nothing I could do would actually stop a magical person (or school of people) who wanted to deliver a letter. Boarding up the mail slot, the cracks in the doors, fleeing the house for a hotel and then even farther for a shack in the ocean, all things Uncle Vernon tries. They’re magical people. They can use, you know, magic. Let’s see how many times I can use the word magic in one post.

I am very curious, though, about how exactly this works. What magical (sorry) system allows Dumbledore or McGonagall or whoever to know the exact location Harry is in, down to the room in the house/hotel? It seems like if it’s an ability that’s available to all witches and wizards, it could be incredibly dangerous and predatory. And if it isn’t, how are only the Hogwarts staff able to utilize it? I would love to read an encyclopedia of magical (sorry, sorry) mechanics, explaining how all these systems work. The way the house-elves deliver food, to name another one, or the specifics of Apparition. Failing that, I’d also take “Hogwarts: A History”, since no one else except Hermione seems to appreciate it.

Another thing I’m curious about: why do the Dursleys bother giving Harry any kind of birthday or Christmas presents? Why not just ignore him altogether on present-giving occasions? Do they do it just to rub in the fact that he has no one else to give him presents and they could be giving him ones equal to Dudley’s but aren’t? Especially once he’s at Hogwarts and they don’t even have to see him, sending him the fifty-pence piece just seems silly, but also giving him a hanger and a pair of old socks for his birthday.

Anyway. Maybe I’m too emotionally invested in this series, or, well. What I meant to say was, definitely I’m too emotionally invested in this series. But even so, Uncle Vernon’s madness is genuinely alarming to me. He’s always cartoonishly unpleasant, both in personality and in appearance, but there’s something else here. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Why does the very possibility that Harry might find out about his magic (okay, I give up, it’s a lost cause) upset him so deeply? It seems like more than just a fear and distaste for abnormality. Maybe he’s afraid that secretly, buried somewhere very, very deep, Petunia harbors some magic, and that by marrying and procreating with her, he’s enabling it to continue spreading, and that’s why his reactions to any hint of it are so extreme. Maybe he’s just an underdeveloped side character who doesn’t matter and I read too much fanfiction.

Harry is pretty sassy and gets an actual bedroom in this chapter, and soon he’ll be able to (mostly) leave the Dursleys behind, so all in all, things are on an upswing. And in the next chapter, Hagrid! Which means things are on an upswing for me, too. I’m ready to put these prologue-y chapters behind me and move on to the actual meat of the book.

This chapter is profoundly sad. It’s also almost comically exaggerated, which kind of distracts from the heaviness of what’s actually happening, and I’m not sure if that was a choice since it’s a children’s book or just the way JKR wrote back then, but either way it’s a strange reading experience.

For ten years, ten of his most formative years, Harry was forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. Full of spiders and not much else. He was used as a punching bag by Dudley and all his gross friends. He was used as a verbal punching bag by Mr. Dursley. He was used as a servant by Mrs. Dursley. He was spoken about as if he wasn’t actually there, and never, as far as I remember, addressed with his actual name. He had nothing of his own, only hand-me-downs from Dudley. He was almost never allowed out of the house, except to go to school or shopping with Mrs. Dursley, he never got to go on trips, he never got to celebrate his birthday. He was locked in his cupboard for days on end for the slightest things.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine going from this, the only life you remember, to being famous, beloved, and magical? How terrifying and disorienting that must have been. How undeserving he must have felt.

Even in this chapter, before he knows anything about himself or his world, Harry is so excited to be able to go along to the zoo with the Dursleys. He hates them and they hate him, he must know that they aren’t going to actually let him enjoy himself, and he’s still grateful to go, to be given a cheap lemon popsicle and to be allowed to finish Dudley’s unwanted leftovers and to not have to stay with Mrs. Figg. If he’d only known who she really was. This seems like luxury to him, like as much as he can hope for.

The glimpses he’s given of the people who know who he is and appreciate him are also sad. Like, “When he had been younger, Harry had dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take him away, but it had never happened; the Dursleys were his only family. Yet sometimes he thought (or maybe hoped) that strangers in the street seemed to know him.” Break my heart, Harry. They do know you. Just wait, so much good is coming your way. I mean, also a lot of bad, but … a place to belong and people who want you. And magic!

The seeds of some of the series’ core elements are planted in this chapter–Harry being able to communicate with snakes, the bits of memory he has of the night his parents died, even a little of his saving people complex. Or, well, saving things complex. Without even knowing he can do magic, he still manages to free the snake and send it on its way to its homeland. I don’t know what JKR’s writing process was like, how much of the series she had planned out before she started writing, but it’s really interesting to see how early these things were introduced, and how casually. They hardly seem important at this point except insofar as they further Harry’s abuse and sense of alienation, but they build and build throughout the series. I love it.

I enjoyed this chapter a lot more than the first one, and, more surprisingly, I’m finding Harry much more sympathetic than I ever did before. I don’t know if it’s a result of being older and more able to recognize and appreciate nuance, or if it’s just that I haven’t gotten to the later books when he’s much more angsty and unkind to his friends, but I want to give him a hug and assure him that Hagrid is coming. And I want to have a stern talk with Dumbledore and ask if there was truly no other way to protect Harry the way he needed to be protected, because honestly. This is just cruel and unnecessary and surely he knows what’s happening. I really believe that so much could have been avoided or at least minimized if Harry had had a more stable, less abusive upbringing and if he had been allowed to know things about his family. True things, not that they died in a car crash and were freaks.

Note: I’m using the American title because that’s the title of the version I grew up with and the version I’m rereading from. Shhh.

My first ever exposure to Harry Potter was in sixth grade, on an afternoon when my class had gone out to a pizza place for lunch and stuffed ourselves silly. Afterward, we lay on the classroom floor and our teacher read us the first chapter, and, I’m going to be honest with you here, I fell asleep. I have hazy memories of Hagrid arriving on the motorbike, Dumbledore taking Harry and placing him on the Dursleys’ doorstep, their moment of silence, but not much else. It’s a mystery why I then went on to devour and shape my life around the entire series, with an introduction like that. But I did.

An even bigger mystery is why, during those early years, I was so in love with Dumbledore. If there’s one thing I took away from rereading this first chapter, it’s that he’s really unbearable. His constant deflections, his refusal to just answer simple questions, his secretiveness. How much might have been different if he had just talked to people as though they were his equals, rather than revealing bits of information to various people and creating a mess of an incomplete puzzle no one else had all the pieces to. He’s just one man, not god.

That aside, I was also surprised by the simplicity of the writing. I’ve never thought JKR was a brilliant writer–a worldbuilder, yes, but not a writer–but I guess I had forgotten just how basic it was in the beginning. It did start out as a children’s series, so it makes sense, and this isn’t really a criticism. Just an observation. It was like rereading the Oz books after years and years and fondly laughing about the writing of those. What you think is brilliant as a child is not always so brilliant as an adult. And I’ve gotten used to fanfiction, which, if you find the right authors, is much more impressive in terms of writing quality.

It was fun to see the first appearance of the Deluminator, so far ahead of when it becomes important, and to see Professor McGonagall in cat form (the perfect animagus form for her, by the way), and to see Hagrid and the trust Dumbledore had for him. Hagrid is wonderful and deserves every good thing. And it was fun to have a chapter that wasn’t from Harry’s perspective but, instead, from the absurdly over-the-top terrible perspective of Mr. Dursley. Imagine how much less volatile Harry would have been if he hadn’t been raised by people who hated him so much and were so irredeemably awful and boring. Like. Who doesn’t approve of imagination?

This is a short post, but it was a short chapter. So, until next time, to Harry Potter — the boy who lived!