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. Does the reader want to escape the gaze? Or put out those eyes of the creature spying on Harry?Those startling pink-rimmed eyes belonged to Dobby the house elf, the first, least, and bravest of Harry’s protectors in The Chamber of Secrets. Look at Dobby’s eyes after reading the entire novel and the gaze 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 Quirrell lifting up a fold in the back of his turban to reveal the red eye of He Who Must Not Be Named.
At the climax of The Chamber of Secrets, Harry, with eyes shut tight, senses the stone serpents’ empty eye sockets tracking his movements in the dark. Then he is disarmed by Tom Riddle, who tries to break his spirit by toying with him like a cat tortures a mouse, twirling Harry’s wand the entire time. Even after Harry learns that Ginny was the pawn in Riddle’s scheme to entrap and destroy him, he refuses to acknowledge him as a greater wizard than Dumbledore, which summons the phoenix Fawkes to the chamber Slytherin built. What Riddle has forgetten is that Fawkes can blind with the basilisk with its beak and cure any mortal wound it inflicts with its tears. The phoenix’s bravery so reinvigorates Harry that he is able to give the basilisk a mortal blow with Godric Gryffindor’s sword and to thrust the monster’s fang into Riddle’s diary, unknowingly destroying the first Horcrux.
At their best, Kay’s illustrations capture an uneven story’s grandeur. One of the volume’s functions is laying down material that will drive the complex plot forward in the series’ successive installments, not unlike The Subtle Knife or The Two Towers. From scene to scene, the shifts between low comedy and heroism are not always managed skillfully and some of that awkwardness is reflected in the pictures.
It’s quite noticeable in the illustrations of Dobby, a crucial supporting character who unites servility with bravery. Like Hagrid, he speaks in an awkward dialect that demotes him to a caricature. Dobby 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 loveable, although his resemblance to a Frank Oz creature is unmistakable. At the end, the equally unattractive portrait of Dobby cradling Harry’s filthy sock to his face (here pristine) gives the reader permission to laugh the moment of freedom from slavery. His toughness, loyalty, and misdirected ingenuity, is captured the vignette of him intent on the destruction of Aunt Petunia’s pudding, with the pillow case riding above his buttocks. His appearance is off-putting but funny without being as hideous or ridiculous as in the other two pictures.
Creating portraits that blend the admirable with the risible was perhaps one of the biggest challenges the text presented to Kay. Moaning Myrtle has a mug right out of a cartoon when a better model would have been Shirley Henderson, who played the ghost in the film with a crafty yet infantile expression.
More satisfying is the second of the two portraits 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 perhaps justifiably a little cruel in his depiction of an older woman’s body, who has had seven children, but Mrs. Weasley’s warm, unguarded expression makes her individual and likeable without sacrificing the realistic edge.
Kay proves he can do gross in the sketchy picture of Ron vomiting slugs followed by a full-page spread decorated with slugs dragging trails of bright yellow bile. The artist’s attempts to create something like 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 instead of frozen in one moment (if indeed that’s possible). When Harry 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, not having the time to realize more of those important but potentially difficult scenes like the magnificent aerial view of St. Pancras, Hagrid making his way down Knockburn Alley, or the tense interview between Aragog, Harry, Ron, and Fang. For my money, the three following illustrations are critical to establishing the novel’s mood (and play to Kay’s strengths) than do the two pictures of Dudley stuffing his face or the crowds of garden gnomes, Cornish pixies, and spiders.Architectural subjects are one of Kay’s fortes. Yet it is easy to understand why he chose to draw a frieze of high relief figures romping in medieval bathrooms instead of the entrance the Chamber of Secrets. Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom may be in desperate need of remodeling, but that sink cannot have survived intact after a thousand years’ of abuse by school children with magical powers! More to the point, where is Dumbledore’s office, a scene tailor-made for Kay, which I would have been willing to trade for the four new blocks of Diagon Alley? Why is there no stupendous view of the Chamber, with its columns, serpentine decorations, and ominous statue of Salazar Slytherin with the weedy beard down to his feet? 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 a teaser.
Nor is it clear why there are no pictures anywhere of the two 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. I wish the publisher had done 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 imaginations. Sections with the pages specially patterned with shadowy outlines of snake scales, spider webs, lime green triangles, and imitation foxing don’t add enough to the reading experience to deprive readers of a chance to see Fawkes fly off with Harry, Ron, Ginny, and Lockhart, after those tantalizing pictures of soaring birds (and magical cars) in the novel’s opening chapters. If it were up to me, I’d give Kay the time he needs to draw the illustrations The Prisoner of Azkhaban that will bring the story to life.