Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets begins with an assault on the reader. Turn to page five and you are forced into Harry’s shoes, suddenly confronted by a large pair of green eyes staring fixedly between the leaves of the hedge. How many of us instinctively thought of putting out those eyes to stop their owner from spying on Harry?Those startling pink-rimmed eyes belong to Dobby the house elf, the first and the least but bravest of Harry’s protectors in The Chamber of Secrets. Look again at Dobby’s eyes after reading the entire novel and they may appear more watchful than malicious.
It’s the first of many images of wide open eyes (and references to eye sockets) in a story stalked by an unseen beast whose gaze kills. The terror it arouses at Hogwarts is foreshadowed in the illustration at the end of The Philosopher’s Stone that shows the reflection of Professor Quirrel lifting up a fold in the back of his turban to reveal the menacing red eye of He Who Must Not Be Named.
At the climax in the chamber Slytherin built, Harry, eyes shut tight, senses the stone serpents’ empty eye sockets tracking his movements in the dark. Disarmed by Tom Riddle, who twirls his wand like a cat toying with a mouse, Harry hears how Ginny was lured unwittingly into playing the pawn in a scheme to entrap and destroy him. Riddle taunts him to break his spirit, Harry defiantly insists that Dumbledore is the greater of the two wizards and thereby summons the phoenix Fawkes to the Chamber. What Riddle forgets in his confidence that victory cannot elude him a third time is that the bird can blind with its beak and cure a mortal wound with its tears. Its help reinvigorates the weakened Harry so he can find the strength to give the basilisk its death blow with Godric Gryffindor’s sword and thrust the serpent’s fang into Riddle’s diary, unknowingly destroying the first of the Horcruxes.
At their best, Kay’s illustrations capture the grandeur of an uneven story, one of whose functions is laying down material that will drive the complex plot forward in the series’ successive volumes. From scene to scene, the shifts between low comedy and heroism are not always managed as skillfully as they might have been and some of that awkwardness is reflected in the pictures.
It’s quite noticeable in the representations of Dobby, an important supporting player who unites servility with surprising bravery. Like Hagrid, he speaks in a awkward dialect that demotes him to the status of a caricature most of the time. He is first compared to “an ugly rag doll” and Kay obliges with a picture of the house elf perched on the edge of Harry’s bed. His pink slab of a lower lip, enormous pop eyes, huge ears fringed with fine bristles, and filthy feet with long untrimmed nails do not make him at all loveable, although his resemblance to an adorable Frank Oz creation is unmistakable. The equally unattractive portrait of the house elf cuddling Harry’s filthy sock (here pristine) gives the reader permission to laugh the moment he was freed from slavery. More revelatory of Dobby’s toughness, loyalty, and misdirected ingenuity, is the vignette of him intent on the destruction of Aunt Petunia’s pudding, the pillow above his buttocks. His appearance is off-putting without being hideous or ridiculous.
Creating portraits that blend the admirable with the risible was perhaps one of the biggest challenges the text presented to Kay. Moaning Myrtle was given a mug right out of a cartoon when a better model would have been the foxy infantile expression Shirley Henderson assumed playing the ghost in the film.
More satisfying is the portrait of Mrs. Weasley, holding up a flower pot of Floo powder, her red hair in need of a good hair cut under the crumpled green witch’s hat. Kay was a little cruel in the depiction of an older woman’s body, but Mrs. Weasley’s warm, unguarded expression makes her individual and likeability but without sacrificing the realistic edge.Kay proved he can do gross by following the sketchy picture of Ron vomiting slugs on with a full-page spread decorated with more slugs dragging trails of bright yellow bile. The artist’s attempts in certain scenes to create something close to cinematic special effects are more mixed than magical. Harry’s figure on his maiden voyage on Floo powder should look as if it were speeding out of control, not stationary. When he bursts through the window in Tom Riddle’s diary, he seems to have fallen into an Abstract Expressionist painting instead of a memory strategically selected by his nemesis.
The October 2016 publication date for The Chamber of Secrets must have obliged Kay to repeat himself instead of realizing more of those important but potentially difficult scenes like the magnificent aerial view of St. Pancras, the brooding view of Hagrid making his way down Knockburn alley, or the terrifying interview between Aragog and the boys. For my money, these three illustrations do more to establish the novel’s mood (and play to his strengths) than do the two pictures of Dudley stuffing his face or the crowds of garden gnomes, Cornish pixies, and spiders.As good as Kay is with architectural subjects, it is easy to see why he drew a frieze of high relief figures disporting themselves delightfully in medieval bathrooms instead of attempting the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets ( Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom may be in desperate need of remodeling, but that sink cannot have survived a thousand years’ of school children intact). More to the point, where is Dumbledore’s office, a scene tailor-made for Kay, which I would have happily traded for the four new blocks of Diagon Alley? Why is there no grand view of the Chamber, with its columns, serpentine decorations, and ominous statue of Salazar Slytherin? The spread with the basilisk’s gigantic moulted skin with small figures of Ron, Harry, and Lockhart in the middle distance is nothing more than an appetizer, not the main course.
Nor is it clear why there are no pictures anywhere of two of the most important actors in the drama–Ginny Weasley with her vivid red hair and Tom Riddle. Perhaps Kay was unable to find the right models in the time he had to complete the set of illustrations. As wonderful as the pictures of Sir Patrick brandishing his severed head astride his skeletal steed, a rueful Hagrid, or the label for Skelegro are, they are no substitute for seeing the handsome, charming and utterly ruthless sixteen-year old shimmer in and out of focus. Too many missed opportunities ultimately diminish the novel. Do away with most of the black pages, which are the equivalent of movie music that tells members of the audience what to feel, instead of trusting their imagination. Sections with the pages specially patterned with shadowy outlines of snake scales, spider webs, lime green triangles, and imitation foxing don’t add that much to the reading experience If it were up to me, I’d give Kay the time he needs to draw the illustrations The Prisoner of Azkhaban will need to bring the story to life.