I Dream I’m The Death Of Happy Voldemort
This all started a decade ago with a segment on the Australian science show Catalyst about the psychology of children’s imaginary friends. According to science, creating an imaginary friend helped kids gain the social skills required for future normality. To fill out the segment they interviewed a little boy who once had an imaginary friend named Happy Voldemort. I say ‘once,’ because the two were inseparable until Happy Voldemort took a trip to Paris and died. Reports from the French capital were vague, but it appeared Happy Voldemort had fallen in with a questionable crowd that had ultimately meant him no good. The boy’s calm on camera suggested a passable level of closure, given the circumstances. Philosophically his mother said, We all miss Happy Voldemort.
Voldemort is an evil creature who wears his inner state on the outside—which is to say, he’s a monster—so how we ended up with a happy Voldemort who befriends children was a mystery that couldn’t be explained, only intermittently explored.
My first exploration took the form of a ukulele ballad. In the ballad, Happy Voldemort is on unpaid leave from his job at a bank. He misses his wife and son, back in London. He’s of the English sort that has no comfort with travel and is deeply ill-at-ease in Paris. Lying in the hard bed of his two-star hotel he has dreams, which he does not reveal to anybody, in which he wields unimaginable power. For reasons undisclosed in the ballad he is carrying large amounts of cash in unmarked bills. In the second verse, Happy Voldemort ends up in a water-scarred concrete tower studded with air-conditioners, where he is climbing the fire stairs, passing tagged walls and asbestos-lined blast doors, following lithe men dressed in black, landing after landing, who instead of tiring seem to accelerate smoothly as his pace quickens to match theirs, Happy Voldemort’s portly frame gliding so swiftly that it barely seems to touch the steps at all. He does not seem to know why he is here or what he is doing. He is aware that eventually the flights of stairs will come to an end, and that on the highest floor there will be some revelation about himself that will tilt his entire life sideways and expose it to a new harsh light, and the green-tinged violence of his dreams will cohere but he will no longer be alive to dream. I will spare you the lyrics.
If I’m curious about the specifics of Happy Voldemort’s demise, it’s also because I’m interested in the ethics, or perhaps the etiquette, of doing away with an imaginary friend. After all, Happy Voldemort didn’t have to die: he could just stop coming around. He could have fallen victim to one of the prosaic dangers Australian children are lectured about—run over on a suburban street, drowned, snakebitten in scrub.
And yet, even given how little we know, doesn’t it feel just like Happy Voldemort to be much too trusting, especially in a foreign country? I suspect that care was taken to kill off Happy Voldemort after giving him something he wanted—to see Paris—and in a way that brought his tragic flaw to its fullest expression. Perhaps creating an imaginary friend confers both the powers of fiction and our obligations to the other.
In a story I wrote around this time, the narrator is in the branches of a mulberry tree, talking to his own imaginary friend. The imaginary friend is unhappy to be there, because he is wearing a linen jacket and mulberry stains are hell to get out. The narrator is talking about his new girlfriend, whose name, he says, is Lane. Under withering questioning from his imaginary friend—which grows increasingly sexual as the story progresses—the narrator is forced to admit that Lane is fictional and that he’s invented her to impress his imaginary friend.
Making up a girlfriend and getting caught lying about it is obviously humiliating. But part of the narrator’s shame, sliding out of the mulberry tree in tears, is that he can’t give the same life to Lane—the companion he wanted—as he could to this vicious, fastidious, id-driven frenemy: that his so-called friend is realer than love, realer even than fantasy. This friend was a lie, but he could still be lied to.
Here’s another vision of Happy Voldemort. For this one, I’ll ask you to put yourself in the position of the man himself. You’ve just hopped out of the cauldron in Goblet of Fire, where your loyal servants surround you. You sense power coursing through you: long-suppressed magical power and the easy authority of command. To have kept their allegiance, after all these years! But you look a little closer and you see that time has done nothing to flatter your partisans. Everyone’s put on a little weight, everyone’s Death Eater tattoos (remember the ecstasy of pain, the black, black ink, the writhing serpents’ tongues) are looking a little faded, a little dated. Everyone’s staring at you with the old avid fear, like they would eat you up if they could. It feels like a high school reunion where the returned outcasts are smiling with meek expectancy. Also, there’s a murdered kid on the ground, and your arch-nemesis, the one you’ve been scheming against across three and a half books and however many blighted and disembodied years, is a dipshit in silly glasses whom you have dead to rights. So I’m asking: how much would it have really taken? How much of a nudge would have been required for Voldemort to look at this scene and say, Fuck it, I’m done?
Voldemort is no sexy paradox like Snape or Draco—he’s so evil that there’s little in him left to explore. This might be why he doesn’t seem to be a dominant presence in Harry Potter fanfic. Writers tackling him tend to set their stories at a time when Tom Riddle might never have become Voldemort—supposing he had been loved more, had been shown a different path. Other Voldemort qua Voldemort fanfic is about his legacy, which is often a child. But everything in the middle seems fixed in place.
(Voldemort has a wicked daughter in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and that daughter has an imaginary friend. Perhaps J.K. Rowling was busy tweeting and missed the key episode of Catalyst.)
That’s not to say other types of Voldemort fanfic can’t be done. There is slash where (for example) Voldemort abducts Harry Potter in the first paragraph to make him a sexual plaything confined to an all-black room, or where Harry becomes pregnant with Voldemort’s child. But these writers don’t labor to overcome the essential absurdity of their premises, so their work remains bizarre for its own sake.
But this is the very thing that lends weird beauty to the little boy’s choice of imaginary friend: the willingness to take the monster as he was.
Borrowing another writer’s character, especially a famous one, is not like other writing. A famous name doesn’t just sit there: it weighs down the page the way the mass of a black hole weighs on space-time. Across the text it introduces disturbances: allusions, cross-references, harmonies, pockets of interference. Using such a name feels like wielding a wand and casting a spell: a little too easy for the power it accords. It feels like cheating even as I write these words.
And yet. Borrowing a character creates a duty to your own imagining of the character, this dehydrated name on the page you’ve helped to give being. The point of nonsensical Voldemort sex fanfic is to comedically refuse to do this, to be, above all, rude—puppets jerking on their strings, farts where there should be speech.
This is what I was trying to get at in my story about the boy in his mulberry tree. He believed he could divert his story in midstream simply because he was its creator and for reasons of pure self-interest. His imaginary friend—who was also his creation—cruelly exposed his aesthetic and moral error. But I don’t believe the boy was wrong simply for inventing something he wanted badly. His invention didn’t touch his truth—but what you want can also be your truth.
If Happy Voldemort wished to reinvent himself in polite society, his first order of business would be a nose. I like to imagine Happy Voldemort crafting noses for himself, at home in his flat listening to BBC Radio Four, shaving down a bridge or gluing a few decorative hairs to the inside of a nostril. I like to imagine he’d treat noses like earrings or glasses, keeping them in a variety of sizes and styles and attaching them to suit his mood. He’d have a flat sliding drawer, segmented like a jewelry-box, where he would store his Gogolian hoard: big noses, small noses, hooked noses, snub noses, grand Roman noses, noses pinched between the eyes, the crooked and squashed noses of rugby props. He’d quickly get the societal message that one ought to have the same nose from day to day, but in his flat he’d pose with them all, combining them with his equally illustrious collection of wigs, and when he was going somewhere he wouldn’t know anybody he’d choose a dainty puglike nose with just a hint of bridge.
I suppose that Happy Voldemort might find some continuity living in a creaking mansion in Shropshire or something like that, but really I prefer to imagine him in a cluttered London flat: taking on new challenges but keeping them manageable.
I don’t know how this version of Happy Voldemort dies. But I know he has to: worse than a villain, he’s an aberration.
I’m sure you think I have my reasons for getting so deep into this; you might imagine I’m exploring my own childhood by proxy. Well, the truth is I never had an imaginary friend.
To be fair, I was a strong candidate: a cranky child with a preference for solitude. I spent a lot of time in the long backyard of my childhood home in Perth, which was divided into kingdoms, each inhabited by ants. The great cities of the ants mostly clustered around the brick path that ran alongside the games room by the barbeque, and less visibly dotted the allied forest kingdom to the east, with its succulent ground covers tumbling over dry mulch, bordered by rocks with a mica glitter that overlooked a grass slope leading down to the pool.
To the south, where dragonflies came to hover over the pool and glitch away, a third great ant kingdom flourished, but little was known about it. The route was full of dangers, for the dragonflies were mortal enemies of the ants.
Northward, following the slope of grass uphill, the exposed lawn baked in the sun. The ground was trampled hard beside the paving and laced with thorns and burrs, the Hills hoist clanking slowly in the easterly, arms circling patches of grass chewed brown by the lawn beetles, mortal enemies of the ants. Beyond that, in the realm’s ultimate north, were the paperbarks by the back fence, where European wasps built nests that from time to time armored exterminators were sent in to subdue.
There was a second route that led from the barbeque to the pool, via a few stairs, which crossed a paved and shaded area. The bricks soft and a little scummy with dirt, moss filling the cracks. While the area was hospitable for ants, it was less so for my imagination, because it was in full view of anyone who might be in the kitchen. Knowing I could be seen there, muttering my stories (which had to be whispered aloud, to myself), I lost confidence in everything I was working to create, and I abandoned this region as a wasteland.
Did I ever name these kingdoms or give them heroes? If I did, the names are lost. Since I had chosen ants, I think I understood that my world would be light on individuality. There were certainly other times where I was gearing up to write my great work of fantasy, but first I had to map out where my epic plots were going to take place. I’d lay down some forests—obviously you’d have a huge one in the middle somewhere that your characters would fear to go—drop in a few mountain ranges and cities, add some wonky rivers running every which way, some islands if I was feeling completist, and then be left with the tedium of naming all this crap. You needed non-stupid names with a vague logic, but logical in a slow-evolving, messy human way. It’s lonely, one person purporting to do the job of fifty generations. This was the point where my ardor for these epics died.
I had a creator’s tremendous ego but a shame of my creations and a fear of discovery. I was fiercely self-serious. I could tell my tangled stories and be indulged: but the last thing I wanted was to be indulged.
I had no enemies but a spirit of enmity. I hated to be interrupted in the backyard. Once I screamed at my sister to get back in the house when she came out to talk to me.
Looking back, it seems I had adopted the standpoint of a villain.
I suppose the story of my Happy Voldemort is a story of secret creation. Of creation where the creator believes himself to be reviled. Of creation’s continuing delight under the irredeemable surface of the self. Of the liberating secret. Of the transmutation of power to joy.
But I’m no longer that child: he too is a character, borrowed in this case from the past.
We’ve spoken so much about the deaths of imaginary friends, when the birth of such a friend is a human secret no one can know. For a child, to accept such a friend is to hide the methods and means of their creation in the shadow of their companion. An adult’s mind is too creaky to bend back to the critical time. The only way to know is to succeed, and the only way to succeed is to hide your traces.
How often do we get to prod the unknowable? The world is enormous. It whispers, rustles and confides. A world of exposure and shade, of damp and dry. Smelling of the weeds bound lightly to the sandy soil, the sap inside as the stalks are pulled apart. Wasps enter the world, leave. The sky above the back fence is almost cloudless. Not everything with the power of thought seems to come from inside you. You watch this world and you do not know what comes next. Does the wind die down or rise, do the sheets dance on the line? Stand very still. What is you, and what is not? Dust or the sole of your foot? Your hand or the cat’s-tongue of wet brick, the lush grass under the drainpipe? Your voice, or someone else’s?
The edges of your perception are not the edges of you. You close your eyes and the sun blazes low on the lid of your right eye. There is a voice that speaks, from within you but with a confidence not yours. You ask a question. You think, and the answer is not your answer.
Happy Voldemort is made of sun and dirt and books and trees. He is made of unbound thoughts that are drawn to his gathering idea. He is made of solitude, and you are alone. His beginning is as slow and accretive as the birth of a star. The last thing to settle on him, as the grit and dust of his origins gives him form at last, is his name.
No one can say how long this process takes, what it is like to witness.
Hello, says the boy.
Hi there, says Happy Voldemort.
To return to where we began: Why ‘Happy’ Voldemort?
The answer—naive, and yet I’ve followed him in this—is surely that the boy who befriended him thought good should also mean happy.
Born and raised in Perth, Western Australia, Bryn Dodson is a graduate of New York University’s creative writing program, where he was a finalist for the Axinn Foundation/E.L. Doctorow fellowship. His fiction has appeared in [PANK], Westerly, and Sky Island Journal. He works at a digital agency, co-organizes New York City’s Lunar Walk poetry reading series, and lives in Brooklyn.