Trigger warning for stalking and extremely insensitive depiction of mental illness.
Chapter Three: The Letters from No One
After what happened last time at the zoo, Harry isn’t allowed out of his cupboard again until the summer holidays start. That must have made going to school a little tricky, it’s surprising nobody bothered to phone the Dursleys and find out where he was, given that it’s illegal for ten year olds to stop attending school. Dudley has already broken most of his new presents, and knocked Mrs Figg over on his new bicycle – the bicycle Harry insisted he was too lazy to ride, if you recall. Incidentally we’ll actually meet Mrs Figg in a couple of books, and if Dudley had knocked her over she’d have knocked his bike over in return and probably spanked him with one of her crutches.
Anyway, Harry’s not enjoying the holidays, because Dudley’s inexplicable gang keep visiting the house. Piers has entered one hell of a growth spurt, since although he was described as ‘scrawny‘ last chapter he is now ‘big and stupid‘ like the rest of the gang. Harry and Dudley are both going to be attending secondary school in the autumn, and are being sent to different schools; I’m going to have to pause to explain a bit of the British school system here.
At age 11 you leave primary school and move to secondary school. Secondary schools come in three types. The free government-funded schools are known as state schools or comprehensives; they’re known as public schools in most other countries, I think [Mitchell adds: yes, we call them public schools in the States]. Harry is going to be attending this type of school; his is called Stonewall High. High school isn’t a common term in Britain, but it is in use. Then you have private schools, which as far as I know are the same thing worldwide. They have often very expensive fees and are perceived to provide a higher standard of education, though in my experience this isn’t necessarily the case most of the time. Then, just to be confusing, we have public schools, which are actually private schools only more upper-class; places like Eton, Roedean and the like, which are extremely expensive and usually reserved for children of the aristocracy and so on.
Look, I didn’t make up the naming system, okay 😛
It’s unclear which type of private school Dudley is going to be attending. His school is called Smeltings and has a very old fashioned and ugly sounding uniform which includes a small stick that students are encouraged to hit one another with. This sounds like a parody of the high end public schools to me, but the Dursleys are absolutely not able to afford such a school and are definitely not of the right social class. Piers is apparently attending too, though we have no idea of his background (except that apparently he gets fed growth hormones and/or steroids, judging by his sudden increase in size).
Both the low-class school and the upper-class school are being mocked here. I think this is supposed to indicate that Hogwarts falls somewhere in the middle, but the class system in the wizarding world is a load of nonsense since they all seem to be upper-class, even the supposedly poor Weasleys (they’re a separate issue we’ll discuss once they show up, don’t worry). Most if not all Muggleborn and half-blood students seem to be middle-class – I believe Snape is the only working-class pupil we ever see – and at least one is extremely upper-class, Justin Double-Barrelled-Surname (at the time the books were written that usually meant your family was extremely rich, though these days it usually means your parents aren’t married; nothing wrong with that, of course) who was apparently on the list for Eton. Eton would be the school the royal family send their sons to, so yeah, about as upper-class as you can get. Hogwarts doesn’t seem to have tuition fees, but they’re still very choosy about who they admit, so it seems to be combining the worst of both school types.
I digress. Petunia takes Dudley to buy his new uniform from a specialist store in London, and Harry is left with Mrs Figg. He criticises her for feeding him stale cake. Harry, you don’t get cake at all at home if the narrative is to be believed, stale cake is still more of a treat than no cake and old ladies often don’t have much money. Stop being an entitled little shit, the book is insisting you’re poor and neglected. That evening Dudley models his new uniform for his family, making his parents cry and Harry laugh. To be fair, it does sound horrible – ‘maroon tailcoats, orange knickerbockers and [a] flat straw hat‘. Even my uniform wasn’t as bad as that.
The following day Harry finds Petunia dyeing some of Dudley’s old clothes grey; this is to be Harry’s uniform. I didn’t go to a state school but I know plenty of people who did; Harry’s uniform would most likely be black or grey trousers and a white shirt, both of which he should already have from primary school, plus the actual school jumper and maybe (though almost certainly not) a school tie, both of which can be bought cheaply second hand directly from the school. Instead, Petunia is apparently going to quite a bit of effort to dye old clothing that Harry will certainly not be allowed to wear. Since we have no indication that she’s stupid, I can’t help but think she at least suspects that he’s not going to need a Stonewall uniform and is actually dyeing the clothing for something else. In any case, Harry decides it’s going to make him look like he’s wearing ‘bits of old elephant skin‘, because he can’t let a chapter pass without comparing Dudley to an animal of some sort (and also apparently wasn’t paying attention at the zoo last chapter, since elephant skin doesn’t sag/hang and look too big for the elephant. Rhino would have made more sense, that at least has large folds in it).
The post arrives, and Vernon tells Dudley to get it despite Harry apparently being some sort of unpaid servant. Consistency, what is that? Dudley refuses and Harry is sent to get it anyway, and finds that he has a letter. It is addressed extremely precisely, to his cupboard, and is made of parchment sealed with wax.
A few points. First, the address is written in green, which is nice. Soon enough absolutely everything green will be pure evil, so let’s all remember this. Second, how does Harry know what parchment is? There is no way he has ever seen any in real life and on television it looks like paper. Third, we will learn that the wizarding world does not use Muggle post, and this letter is explicitly described as having no stamp, so how has it arrived with the Muggle post? Wizarding post is actually sent by owl, though we haven’t been told this yet, and I can’t see an owl managing to put a letter through the letterbox in the time it took the postman to walk away and Harry to get to the front door.
And of course the main point here is that Harry should be freaked out. He has never had a letter in his entire life – which isn’t remotely surprising, very few ten year olds get much in the way of mail, you know, except birthday/Christmas cards – and the first time anyone does write to him, it’s someone who knows where he sleeps. This is creepy. It’s not exciting.
Continuing to fail at common sense, Harry takes his letter back to the others and opens it very slowly and obviously in front of them, and Vernon takes it off him. Vernon then turns green, which becomes greyish-white, and stammers for Petunia, who looks at the letter and reacts in the same way, being about to faint and barely able to speak. They are both absolutely terrified. Not angry, or anything like that, but extremely frightened. We’ll find out next chapter that they have good reason to be.
Vernon throws both Harry and Dudley out so he can discuss this creepy child-stalking letter with his wife. The boys promptly listen at the door; this is but the first of many, many occasions when Harry will demonstrate that he has zero concept of the idea of privacy. On this occasion it’s justified since it’s clearly about him and it’s clearly serious, but most of the time he’s just a nosy little bastard.
Petunia asks her husband in a quavering voice whether the address means someone is watching the house. Vernon paces up and down muttering about spies for a while as they try to decide whether to reply to the letter or not, and finally says they’ll ignore it, because “Didn’t we swear when we took him in that we’d stamp out that dangerous nonsense?“
Rowling, ‘dangerous’ and ‘nonsense’ are incompatible concepts. ‘Nonsense’ implies that whatever Vernon is referring to does not exist. ‘Dangerous’ implies that it does exist and is, well, dangerous. Sadly this is apparently the end of the conversation, so we don’t learn whether Vernon means it’s dangerous to Harry, or dangerous to the Dursleys, or dangerous to all of them. But let’s review – the Dursleys know who has written this letter, it’s someone who knows where their children sleep, and they are petrified of some sort of danger. Harry should also be scared, and maybe be relieved that the adults are trying to deal with it even if he dislikes said adults. Naturally, he’s just sulky that they wouldn’t let him read the very scary stalker letter.
That evening after work Vernon visits Harry in his cupboard and says that he and Petunia have burned the letter and that they have decided Harry’s outgrown the cupboard and should move into Dudley’s second bedroom. (We note that this second bedroom didn’t exist last chapter when Harry was describing all the ways his cousin is spoiled. It’s materialised from nowhere just in time for it to be given to Harry, because he’s a special snowflake with plot-controlling powers.)
Dudley’s second bedroom is full of old presents he’s broken. The very house-proud Dursleys apparently keep an entire room full of broken shit, including a television their son has put his foot through – complete garbage, in other words, that actually they would have thrown away. There’s also an air rifle that’s in here because Dudley sat on it and bent it. I’m getting very tired of your fat-shaming bullshit, Rowling, I’m pretty sure you can’t physically do that no matter how much you weigh. Bending something like that would require a decent grip and some good leverage as well as consistent force, not just sitting on it.
Then there’s a rather odd bit. There’s a small tank (actual size unknown) in this room that Dudley once drove over the neighbour’s dog; he obtained the air rifle from trading away his pet parrot, whose empty cage is also in this room so who knows what the new owner did with it; and we find out on the next page that as part of his tantrum over Harry moving into an unused room full of his broken unwanted junk he’s also thrown his pet tortoise through the greenhouse roof. This sudden tendency towards serious animal cruelty hasn’t been mentioned before and won’t be mentioned again. Rowling’s just thrown it in here… because. Other things Dudley has done during this tantrum include screaming, crying, being sick on purpose and hitting his parents with his school stick. Apparently in Rowling’s world all children are three years old until they suddenly become pseudo-adults somewhere in their teens. I do wonder about her children sometimes. Mostly I wonder how they survived.
We have no idea what Harry thinks or feels about all of this. He describes the room, because that makes Dudley look bad, but the only actual reaction he shows is to think that he’d rather be in his cupboard still if it meant he could read the terrifying stalker letter from the people who watch him sleep. This is because Harry is an idiot who usually possesses no emotions whatsoever.
The next day another letter arrives, addressed to Harry’s new bedroom. Dudley’s been sent to fetch the mail this time and announces it very loudly from the hallway, at which point he, Vernon and Harry get into a three-way brawl for possession of the letter. Poor frail abused little Harry attacks his uncle without hesitation, and isn’t flattened to a pulp despite the apparent unrealistic animalistic hugeness of his relatives, proving that Rowling just fails on all counts here. Vernon wins and sends Harry to his room.
“Harry walked round and round his new room. Someone knew he had moved out of his cupboard and they seemed to know he hadn’t received his first letter. Surely that meant they’d try again? And this time he’d make sure they didn’t fail. He had a plan.”
Harry. Listen very carefully. Terrifying strangers knowing where you sleep is not a good thing. Stop trying to help the scary child-stalkers.
His ‘plan’ is to go downstairs early the next morning, sneak out of the house and go wait at the end of the street for the postman. For the last two days the post hasn’t arrived until the family are eating breakfast, so I’m pretty sure they’d notice he wasn’t there. I also don’t think the postman is allowed to hand all of a household’s mail to some random kid who claims to live there. Anyway, his master plan is thwarted by Vernon having decided to sleep in the hallway by the door in his sleeping bag. Disregarding the question of why he even owns a sleeping bag, this is a pretty insane thing to be doing, and sadly that’s only going to get worse.
Harry also seems to have forgotten his glasses, since he doesn’t spot his apparently gargantuan uncle until he physically treads on the man’s face. It’s six am in July, the sun has been up for a couple of hours by this point, the house is going to be fairly well lit and frankly chances are the Dursleys would already be up since Vernon likely leaves for work fairly early. Vernon seems to be deformed, too, since he apparently has a ‘squashy‘ face, unless Rowling believes fat people don’t have skulls. She might well do.
Vernon follows his random camping in the hallway by staying home from work and nailing the letterbox shut after tearing up three new stalker letters. Not only is this not going to work – and shouldn’t take all day, plus given that the man sells drills for a living he should be using screws anyway – he’s trying to hammer a nail in using a piece of fruit cake. This is meant to be funny, but on top of everything else it tells me that Vernon is undergoing some sort of mental breakdown. He doesn’t go back to work again for at least the rest of the chapter, by the way; I assume he must have some sick days saved up, because he’s going to miss at least a week here, and frankly he probably won’t be fit for some time after that.
“On Friday, no fewer than twelve letters arrived for Harry. As they couldn’t go through the letter-box they had been pushed under the door, slotted through the sides and a few even forced through the small window in the downstairs toilet.
Uncle Vernon stayed at home again. After burning all the letters, he got out a hammer and nails and boarded up the cracks around the front and back doors so no one could go out. He hummed ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’ as he worked, and jumped at small noises.”
The stalker’s behaviour has dramatically escalated. Once again, I’m asking how the post-owl has managed to do this. And Vernon’s behaviour has become downright alarming now; I would like to see how his poor wife is reacting to this.
On Saturday, twenty-four letters arrive. These ones are rolled up inside the eggs that are delivered to the house. So, these letters aren’t coming by the usual owl, then? Presumably a wizard is making this happen. (I also have to wonder how the letters are fitting inside a chicken egg. They’re not short letters.) So let’s picture this. There is apparently a wizard lurking outside the Dursleys’ house bombarding them with letters addressed to a ten year old’s bedroom, watching them closely enough to know when the child moves bedrooms, and escalating his behaviour when there’s no response from his target. This is really fucking creepy.
On Sunday Vernon happily tells the family there’s no post on Sundays, despite the fact that these letters clearly aren’t coming via post any more. He’s described as ‘looking tired and rather ill… spreading marmalade on his newspaper‘. This series will continually play mental illness for laughs and encourage readers to mock anyone suffering any kind of psychiatric condition, so get used to it now.
He’s interrupted by thirty or forty letters spewing out of the kitchen fireplace. Now, plenty of houses have kitchen chimneys, but those usually don’t come with fireplaces. The fireplace is in the living room. The chimney in the kitchen will be there to accommodate the wood-burning stove that the Dursleys apparently have. Unless we’re meant to believe they’re cooking over open flames, which really ought to have been mentioned earlier given how often we get their breakfast described. The letters are described as ‘pelting out of the fireplace like bullets‘ and once the family make a run for it they can hear the letters ‘bouncing off the walls and floor’. That’s pretty violent; these letters will be hurting anyone they hit, and could even put someone’s eye out if they get hit by a corner. The stalker has further escalated his behaviour and is now attempting to cause his victim physical harm.
Hey, maybe it’s Voldemort! He returned early to try to kill Harry via papercuts! No, I’m kidding, the person doing this is actually one of the good guys. Yeah. I’m worried too.
Given that Vernon can’t possibly tell the police about any of this, his reaction here is pretty reasonable: he decides they’re going to leave, and tells his family to pack some things while he reopens the barricaded doors. But Rowling doesn’t want him to be reasonable, so while he’s saying this he is physically pulling out sizeable amounts of his moustache to the point of removing half of it. This will have drawn blood, by the way, so he is self-harming because he’s terrified beyond rationality and unbalanced by what’s happening to his family. Oh, the comedy. They go on to ‘wrench their way through the boarded-up doors‘ which is a really clumsy description and I’m not sure what actually happened, but somehow they leave the house.
Incidentally, isn’t it interesting that Vernon’s reaction to the letters arriving isn’t “lol okay bye Potter fuck off out of my house at last” but “the entire family’s going to go into hiding with you to avoid the evil child-stalking scary wizards”? By this point he and Petunia clearly know they haven’t managed to stop Harry using magic and they should just want to get rid of him. It’s almost like they’re trying to protect him from the dangerous stalkers.
They spend the entire day just driving around aimlessly. Vernon is muttering to himself most of the time and his family are too scared to ask him what’s going on, and he won’t stop even for food (though presumably he has to stop for petrol at least once) until nightfall when they find a hotel for the night. Incidentally, Dudley is quite distressed by this point (and with good reason, considering he’s not been to a bathroom or had anything to eat or drink all day, not to mention being trapped in a car with one’s family for long periods can often be quite torturous for all involved in and of itself), though the narrative attributes it to his missing his television and video games and mocks him for complaining about something so frivolous. Rowling needs to learn some fucking empathy. Also, dehydration would be a serious issue here, they’ve been shut in a car all day in late July with no water, and this was before air conditioning. All four of them will be feeling quite ill.
The hotel’s address is given as Cokeworth. This is a made-up town, meant to be somewhere in the north Midlands. Rowling has since revealed – er, somewhere; maybe Pottermore, maybe in an interview, I can’t remember, but not in the books – that Cokeworth is where Snape, Lily and Petunia grew up and where Snape still lives. (This came too late for most of the fandom, who had already run with the few hints we were given in canon and mostly settled on Manchester, though I’ve seen alternative theories.) As such, it’s a really odd choice of stopping place. Does anyone know of an AU fic where Petunia contacts Snape while they’re at this hotel and asks for help? I’d like to see that.
The next morning one of the hotel staff speaks to them, because about a hundred letters have appeared at the front desk, all addressed to Harry’s room. Vernon quickly says he’ll take them, though there’s no explanation of what he did with them; he bundles the family back into the car and they’re off again. They drive to the middle of a field, the top of a multi-storey car park, half way across a bridge and into the middle of a forest, and each time Vernon looks around, decides it’s not safe enough and drives on again.
“‘Daddy’s gone mad, hasn’t he?’ Dudley asked Aunt Petunia dully late that afternoon.”
Yes, Dudley, he has. I’m very sorry. He won’t be able to work for a while, he’s going to need specialist care, so you’re going to end up going to Stonewall High while your mother gets a job to try and pay some of the bills. I don’t think the National Health Service in the early 90s was much good regarding people who’ve undergone serious mental breakdowns; they’d just section him and leave him to rot.
Dudley doesn’t get a response, so starts whining that it’s Monday and he’s missing his favourite TV show. This is the day before Harry’s birthday, so we know it’s July 30th 1991, which was actually a Tuesday. Fail. And yes, Rowling, Dudley does know the days of the week – apparently better than you do – but not because of television schedules. Because he’s eleven and not a total idiot.
Vernon’s locked the car and gone off to get something mysterious. We find out next chapter that he’s bought a rifle; now, I’m sure every American reader accepted this as perfectly normal, but it should have given most British readers pause. You can’t just go and buy a gun here. We don’t sell them in supermarkets and general stores. I doubt Vernon would even know where to buy a gun from – I wouldn’t have a clue, honestly, I’ve only seen two gun stores in my entire life and don’t remember where either of them were – and even if he did, he wouldn’t have a licence, because 99.999% of UK citizens (who aren’t police, military, private security or gamekeepers) don’t have one unless they’re part of the pheasant-shooting upper-class set, which he certainly isn’t. You need to apply to your local Chief of Police to get a gun permit, providing references and fees and presumably the reason why you want the gun, and a police officer will come to your house and interview you and look at where you’re going to keep the gun and so on. You also need a different certificate to buy ammunition. It’s a complicated and lengthy process.
And Rowling should know this.
“In the wake of the 1987 Hungerford massacre, in which one lone gunman killed 16 people, Britain introduced new legislation — the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 — making registration mandatory for owning shotguns.”
She would remember the Hungerford shooting. We don’t get many mass shootings, each one stays in the public memory for decades.
Anyway, Vernon comes back with his mysterious new purchase, and won’t answer Petunia when she asks what he bought. I expect he knows she’d ask where the hell he got it and he doesn’t have an answer. He tells the family he’s found ‘the perfect place‘ and points out to sea, where there’s a tiny shack on top of a rock just visible. There’s apparently a storm forecast for that night, and he’s found a random old man who’s going to lend them his boat. I’m pretty sure this old man is actually Dumbledore in disguise, honestly, since he’s grinning wickedly and apparently relishing the notion that his boat’s going to get wrecked and a group of unbalanced strangers including children will drown.
I don’t know that Vernon would know how to row, and even if he did, handling a very small boat in a stormy sea is very difficult to do by yourself [Mitchell adds: absolutely; I’ve had this experience before and wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and in my case the boat had a motor], but somehow they get out to this tiny island. The house is clearly abandoned and pretty much derelict, which begs the question of how did Vernon find it? And why is he so happy about it? Because he’s found a safe place to hide his family from the stalkers? Because he’s thwarting people trying to get in touch with Harry? Because his mind has snapped?
This is the end of July and even out at sea it ought to be pretty warm and humid, particularly since it’s only early evening, but it’s apparently freezing cold in this little shack. Maybe there are Dementors there, I don’t know. Vernon attempts to set fire to some crisp packets, presumably for warmth, though unsurprisingly this doesn’t work. Conveniently there are exactly enough blankets and furnishings inside this abandoned uninhabitable and otherwise almost empty house for everyone to have somewhere to sleep, though Harry stays awake because he can see Dudley’s watch and he’s waiting for his birthday. He can hear noises outside and hopes the roof isn’t going to collapse, though apparently he might be warmer if it did.
Then, at the stroke of midnight, someone bangs very loudly on the door.
This is meant to be dramatic, of course, but this entire chapter is just so horrible. Someone is stalking a child, tracking where he sleeps and escalating the harassment to dangerous levels when there’s no response. Vernon is literally breaking down and going insane and scaring his family. And it’s meant to be funny. I don’t even.
So, how to fix this clusterfuck?
Get rid of this whole chapter. Don’t make the good guys into psychotic child-stalkers who terrify a man into a breakdown. Instead, when the first letter (which is addressed to the house, not the bedroom) doesn’t get a response, an actual sane non-frightening wizard shows up to find out why and chat to the Dursleys and Harry about what’s going on. This wizard will absolutely not react the way Hogwarts’ ambassador does in the next chapter, because seriously what the actual everlasting fuck.
So the first chapter would be more or less the same, just rearranged a bit. The second and third chapters get combined into a much less “dramatic” chapter that demonstrates that Harry has a pretty dull and lonely life, he’s got no friends and his aunt and uncle drastically favour his cousin over him and he doesn’t know what happened to his parents, and sometimes weird things happen around him that he thinks he might be imagining a lot of the time. Then a letter arrives that makes his guardians nervous, they refuse to answer and a stranger comes to the door to actually explain things to them sensibly.
By the way, everyone, our Index page over to your right is now up and running, so it’s easier to find specific posts now.