The Rats in Potter’s Field

Years ago, I read a book called Seekers of Tomorrow, by Sam Moskowitz.  It was a collection of short biographies of golden age science fiction writers.  Most of them were very interesting to a sci-fi obsessed prat like myself, but the one that has stayed with me most vividly was the story of Henry Kuttner. 

Kuttner is known today, if at all, as the husband of C.L. Moore, and thus, half of Lewis Padgett…author of many well-anthologized stories, like “Mimsy were the Borogoves.”  But Kuttner’s first professional sale was under his own name, a story called “The Graveyard Rats.”

I’ve never read the story.  But apparently, for those who did, it was an indelible experience.  So much so, that for most of his career, every subsequent effort from Mr. Kuttner was compared to “The Graveyard Rats,” and found wanting…to the degree that, in his latter years, Kuttner grew to hate the story, and regretted writing it; it was a success so perfect that it overshadowed every one of its creator’s works to follow. 

That story, and the idea of the “perfect though regretted initial success,” has long fascinated me.  How does one follow up an incredible debut?  How does one write act two, of a one act play, and get it performed in front of an audience?

(In that frame of mind, I once asked Gene Roddenberry if he felt that the success of Star Trek interfered with his ability to get other, non-Star Trek-based projects produced.   He answered that he thought Star Trek‘s impact allowed him to put a foot in the door, but I could tell he was wondering….   Well, I certainly don’t want to think I crippled the Great Bird’s sense of creativity, or nothin,’ seeing as the first film (oops) and the Next Generation (gulp) were still to come….  Evidence, I think, that it’s possible to be resigned to your success.)

At any rate, what brings all of these thoughts forward is the news that J.K. Rowling has announced that the seventh and final Harry Potter volume is to be published on July 21st of this year.

As usual for the past few years, when a new volume appears imminent, the rumor mills begin to buzz, offering that in the last book, Ms. Rowling intends to do what Voldemort and all his followers have thus far failed to do:  kill Harry Potter.

If true, I can say only this.  That if Ms. Rowling truly believes that this is the best and only way to end the Harry Potter saga, and to thus bring the story to its most logical and story-oriented conclusion then she should do so, with all her story-telling skill.

I can’t help wondering, though, why (if true) she would plan on such an ending.  Could it be Henry Kuttner again?  Might she feel that a new, non-Harry Potter book might be greeted with reviews that suggested the work wasn’t bad, but how about another Harry Potter book?   If Harry dies, though, there wouldn’t be another Potter possibility, and her subsequent work could be seen outside of Harry’s shadow.

This is all speculation, and remarkably uninformed at that.  But I have a feeling, if Harry dies in book seven, Ms. Rowling can count on one pretty definite outcome:  she will never sell another book. 

This isn’t a matter of a Star Trek, or a Sherlock Holmes, overwhelming its creator with its success.  While those properties remain popular (to the point where Conan Doyle had to undo Holmes’ death), their popularity is nothing at all like that of Harry Potter.  “Mania” is a word frequently used to describe his impact.  And that impact comes from Harry himself.  People don’t read Ms. Rowling’s work because they admire her writing, admirable and skillful as it is; people read it because they like Harry Potter.  Harry has come to life in the minds of his fans and has become, for lack of a better term, a phenomenon.  Harry Potter has gripped the world.  Young people everywhere identify with Harry and his struggle against great odds.   I’ve taken no surveys, but the amount of Harry Potter fan fiction alone must be in the millions of words.  People like Harry.

Killing him off would be career suicide.  As able a storyteller as Ms. Rowling is, no one would ever trust her again.  Harry’s fans would feel betrayed, and any subsequent works from Ms. Rowling would have an immediate strike against them:  should I read this, should I get involved, or is she going to kill off the hero again?  Betraying a trust has a far-reaching impact.

It’s possible that a writer as able as Ms. Rowling could pull such an ending off, and go on to write more books and continue her career.  But given the level of fandom Harry has amassed, I have my doubts.  it’s much easier to hope that I’m wrong, that Harry lives and J.K. Rowling accepts that everything she does hence will be compared with her chronicle of his life.   It’s better to be Gene Roddenberry than Henry Kuttner.  The grave, and the graveyard, is a fine and private place, but none I think do there write bestsellers.  There are too many rats, after all.