Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had its share of dark and scary moments, but it is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that properly introduces the series to the dark tone that so often defines it with each subsequent book. J.K. Rowling proves here abilities once again with this feature. She wisely incorporates suspense and horror into the series for the obvious reasons of reader engagement. There’s no question that the scarier the books get, the more we need to know what will happen. It’s classic popular literature technique and Rowling is one of the its modern masters. But her mastery of darkness is not limited to mere reader appeal. She instead interests herself more in the way the darkness is representative of real life. In that respect, Chamber of Secrets is also the first book in the series to seriously explore the ills of humanity through the dangerous plight of Harry Potter and the larger community of wizards.
I guess with all this it’s best to start off with the portrayal of Lord Voldemort himself. In the first book, Voldemort is quite one-dimensional, presented mostly as the embodiment of evil, albeit severely weakened. In this second book, Voldemort is actually given character. In fact, other than a nagging feeling that he is a rotten egg due to his accusations against our beloved Hagrid, in the first flashback of Tom Riddle it is very easy to feel sympathetic towards him, especially considering the similarity of his situation to Harry’s. Rowling effectively conveys this by keeping secret the fact that Tom Riddle would go on to become Lord Voldemort. When finally this is revealed during the book’s grand climax, we can’t help but feel a little sickened, just like Harry, at our previous sympathy. This is great literary trickery, but more than that it illustrates a disturbing idea that carries very strongly throughout the series, and particualrly in Order of the Phoenix: Harry has a lot in common Voldemort. Or, put more disturbingly: there is very little to separate us from evil. The response to this, of course, is Dumbledore’s insistance at the end of Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” It’s a valiant response, but it doesn’t completely aleviate that awful feeling of being so similar to that which we consider the most evil.
This darkness involving Voldemort’s connection to Harry is very intimate and psychological, though. More overt is the tone Rowling constructs. She sets this up right at the start with the first appearance of Dobby the Hosue Elf. Dobby warns Harry that going to Hogwarts this year is dangerous. This introduces an element of mystery, but due to the nature of Dobby’s appearance at the Dursleys’ it never quite takes on the tone of sheer menace that later pervades the story. That menace only becomes properly apparent when Harry begins hearing a hissing voice coming from the walls of Hogwarts, which soon leads him to the discovery of the petrified Mrs. Norris and bloody writing on the wall: THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED. ENEMIES OF THE HEIR, BEWARE.
From that point on the book is shrouded in terror, but in a sharp creative move Rowling actually sows the seeds of this terror even earlier than the first appearance of voices in the walls. This takes place in a scene during which Draco Malfoy calls Hermione a mudblood. Until this point in the series we have never ever this word, but it will come to be the single most important word in the struggle against evil in the wizarding world. “Mudblood”, we soon learn, is a particularly nasty name for those witches or wizards born to muggle parents. Its use is the equivalent of any of the most terrible racial epiphets in the real world, and in the world of Harry Potter it identifies the dark conflict at the core of the wizarding community. Many wizards, including Hogwarts co-founder Salazar Slytherin, believe muggle-borns to be inferior to so-called pure-blood wizards, and that they should be excluded from all wizarding affairs. Its analogous to the very real plight of racism that is still at work in the heart of societies all over the World.
This racism is taken one step further by the explanation of Voldemort’s ruling philosophy. His ideas can be easily drawn as fascist, and he and his group of followers draw clear comparisons to Hitler and the Nazi movement of 1930s Germany. Allusions to Hitler might seem a little dense for what is ostensibly a novel for 12 year-olds, but the imagery established is clear even to those kids completely unaware of World War II or 20th Century fascism. In the world of Harry Potter, where even our hero’s mother was a muggle-born, the implications of vast racism and the ability for wizardry at large to be corrupted by the wills of an extreme racist looking for racial purification are as dark as you can get. That these implications are attached to the more classically gothic tale of students being attacked one by one and the threat of murder and frightening monsters only serves to make the story more scary by virtue of its stark links to reality.
Rowling even chooses to up the scare-factor by including giant spiders. Still more terrifying is that these giant spiders are actually themselves afraid of the monster that lurks within the Chamber. In a sly bit of thematic allusion, the basalisk actually seems to hold the same views as its master with regard to superiority, in this case over other species. The spiders see the basalisk as their ultimate enemy, even refraining from uttering its name—obviously similar to ordinary wizards’ reactions to Lord Voldemort.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a dark book, especially for its (debatable) target audience, but this darkness serves a purpose. First and foremost it is there to provide for a thrilling read, yet Rowling does so much more with it. She uses elements of darkness and horror to convey the darkest ideas at the core of the wizarding world, and through that the darkness at the core of the real world. There are many things about humanity that can be considered evil, and in Rowling’s mind one of the most evil is any sort of racist ideology. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets she uses a story about dark wizards, monsters and a secret evil chamber lurking beneath the wonderful magic of Hogwarts School to comment on the troubling darkness present in our own reality.