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.

Sometimes, I don’t write anything because I feel very bad and I would rather save my words for nicer things. I’ve always been this way, withdrawing rather than spreading my bad feelings. But I believe poetry is a space where those feelings can be safe. So here they are. I’ll get better, and my words will be happier, but when I sat down to try to start this feature, this is what came out. I don’t think it’s a particularly good poem, but if I waited until I could write one I’m happy with, this blog would remain poem-free forever. I’m sharing it with you with the disclaimer that I’m fine, no one needs to worry, I don’t really hope to never wake up so much as I hope to never have to deal with anything again. I’m fine. Just mentally ill, constantly in pain, and tired of my life.

—–

I am trying to write a poem,
and what I keep coming back to is this:
my life is a forest where nothing grows,
a farm where the crops have all been poisoned,
a fire whose wood is too damp to burn.

I don’t know what poetry is because I have forgotten
how to look for it,
I have forgotten
how to feel it.
I have forgotten
how to feel.
I have forgotten.

My days are one long forgetting,
a fog that never lifts.
Remember when? Remember when?
Remember?
No.

To survive, you have to let go.
To survive, you have to move on.
To survive, you have to forget.

I am a spilled vase,
the water puddling around me slowly evaporating.
I am every clumsy metaphor contained in this not-a-poem,
not-a-confession, not-a-salvation.
I am a passive observer in this not-a-life.
I am not a monster, no teeth to bare,
no claws to extend. I am tired.

They say the body is a poem,
its skin, its bone, its veins and vessels,
its miraculous, marvelous blood.
Its breaths, in and out, its lungs expanding and contracting.
Its muscles and sinews.
When I stretch, I feel the ache,
the despair of joints and muscles that have worked too hard
with nothing to show for it.
They want to quit.

They say love is a poem, the yes,
the I will, the I do.
The hands clasped, the lips pressed,
the sleep-warmed skin and the mundane intimacies.
When I love, it is furious, it snarls,
it demands and takes and is never, never satisfied.
It blazes, a brightness that cannot be sustained.

They say hope is a poem,
the thing with feathers, the lift of the heart.
The thaw after winter, brutal cold to gentle sun.
The ice that is slowly melting. A smile,
a spring in the step.
I hope, I hope for quiet,
I hope for rest, I hope to never wake up.
To be released, to be relieved.
To look around and see nothing,
nothing,
nothing at all.

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!

Harry Potter has been an enormous part of my life since I was ten years old. I’ve collected so many figurines, stickers, audiobooks, shirts, wands, necklaces, etc over the years. I’ve read so much fanfiction. So much. I’ve watched so many ABC Family marathons. I’ve spent so many days, nights, weeks, lifetimes immersing myself in the books, trying to will myself to Hogwarts through the sheer force of my love for it. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work, except in the ways it kind of did.

But I haven’t done a full reread of all the books in years. I used to fall asleep to Order of the Phoenix, and later Goblet of Fire, but the last time I read one of them all the way through was when I reread Deathly Hallows in preparation for the final film. Fanfiction and the films have completely taken over. And while they’re great in their own ways, I feel like it’s time to get back to the source material, to remember the days when it was all fresh and new and to find out if that core love is still there, even through a more critical adult lens.

So, I’m undertaking the project of reading all the way through, from beginning to end, and in an attempt to make something useful out of it, I’m going to be blogging each chapter as I read it. This is obviously going to be a long-running project–there are a lot of chapters. I’m thinking of trying to post two a week, but, you know … we’ll see. These aren’t going to be recaps so much as just my thoughts, feelings, and memories, with healthy doses of Dumbledore criticism and Hermione praise, I’m sure.

JKR says that Hogwarts will always be there to welcome me home. I’m coming home. You should come with me.

“Marilla,” she demanded presently, “do you think that I shall ever have a bosom friend in Avonlea?”

“A—a what kind of friend?”

“A bosom friend—an intimate friend, you know—a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul. I’ve dreamed of meeting her all my life. I never really supposed I would, but so many of my loveliest dreams have come true all at once that perhaps this one will, too. Do you think it’s possible?”

–Lucy Maud Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables”

Today is the birthday of one of my very best friends and one of the very best people ever to be born into this world. I wanted to write a post for her since I can’t celebrate with her in person, but now that I’m trying to do it, I’m finding that, as is so often the case with feelings, I don’t know the right words.

I don’t want this to be all about me, but the thing is, I can’t think of one of us without the other. We’ve spent a tragically short amount of time actually in the same space, but we’ve been in each other’s orbits for so many years. Our edges overlap, bleed into one another so that we’re an amalgamation of girl. Our blood rides in tandem, we been wove on the same loom. I love her and so I’ve had to try to learn to love myself.

She is a queen, the brightest star, the truest good. She sings beautifully, writes wonderfully (there’s no sharable evidence of that, so you’ll have to trust me), speaks honestly. There are layers to her that have been slowly and quietly peeled back over time, and even now I don’t claim to have seen beneath them all, but there’s also a bluntness to her when she’s comfortable that is more valuable than anything. I don’t have to worry and worry at her words until they become meaningless, searching for the things she’s not saying. I don’t have to distrust her expressions of feeling. I can’t even begin to tell you how important that is to me.

We sat together in silence for hours. Exchanging ocasional words, laughter, but mostly just being. She didn’t expect more than I was able to give. She didn’t offer more than I was able to take. She fit effortlessly into my established routines. We had sunshine, and we had cold, and we had bad movies and ice cream and picnics and late nights, and everything was wonderful. I was so afraid, but the first day she spent here we sat in my room and talked for hours and that was all it took. She patiently untangled my hopelessly tangled mass of necklace chains and, come on, do I need to spell this symbolism out for you?

Our temperaments are very similar, sometimes too similar, they crash against one another and sustain minor damage, but we always end up okay. We’re both a little difficult with regard to intimacy, whether romantic or platonic, we both feel a lot for and need a lot from the people we love, we both have a hard time verbalizing those feelings and needs and believing we deserve to have them honored. We separate sometimes, but inevitably find our way back together again because no one knows our siren songs like we do.

Often, I feel like my words aren’t saying what I want them to say, and I think that’s because, often, what I want to say is simpler than the words I use to say it. What I want to say is I love you, as vast as the salt sea, as bright as the moon, to me you are like breathing, you’re like food. What I want to say is I’m crossing all my fingers and making all my 11:11 wishes for seven, eight, nine more years of friendship to chart the as yet uncharted waters. What I want to say is I solemnly swear to be faithful to my bosom friend, as long as the sun and moon shall endure.

what I want to say is happy birthday, kindredest spirit, my Diana, the mermaid to my unicorn. I’m so indescribably glad you exist. Happy birthday, favorite girl.