I’m not usually a tearful kind of guy. “Ghost Story” is an action-packed supernatural mystery thriller, not a tear-jerker. Clearly, something else is going on here.
A novel is nurtured in the imagination of the author and blooms in the imagination of the reader. That my imagination produces such a melancholic bloom is a sign that my subconscious wants to tell me something. This doesn’t happen often, I have a very understanding subconscious, so when it sends me a message, I do my best to listen.
Harry Dresden has been a resident of my imagination since about 2004 when I first discovered the series and read the first four novels in a rush. Then I settled down to watch Dresden grow year by year. “Ghost Story” is the thirteenth novel in the Dresden Files. I pre-ordered it in hardback as soon as I finished my hardback copy of “Changes”, the twelfth novel. Then I waited for a little over a year for it to come out.
I know, I’m an addict.
So what is it that I’m addicted to and why, this time, does it make me tearful?
What I’m addicted to is being in the presence of Harry Dresden, the narrator of the Dresden Files.
When I first met him, he was Philip Marlowe with the ability to throw spells as well as one-liners. He was a rebel under threat from his own people. He was the only entry under “Wizard” in the Chicago Yellow Pages. He was a tough man, making hard choices. He had few friends and many enemies. He liked to eat at IHOP and Burger King and could never resist quoting from the “Star Wars” movies when making fun of the bad guys.
As the years went by, Harry grew more powerful. The list of enemies lengthened but so did the list of friends. I came to understand that Harry was driven by anger that bordered on fury. He could not tolerate the abuse of the weak by the strong. His reaction was simple: find the bad guy and blow him to bits.
One of Harry’s enemies bought him a grave. The tombstone read: “Here Lies Harry Dresden. He Died Doing The Right Thing.” It was meant as mockery but it also seemed a reasonable prediction of the future.
Except that Harry began to change. Each victory cost him more in terms of pain and friendship and debt to people and things no-one wants to be obligated to. It became harder and harder to know what doing the right thing meant. Sometimes it seemed that all Harry had left was his anger and a stubborn refusal to yield.
When I finished the twelfth book, “Changes”, it seemed to me that Harry was becoming the kind of monster that he might have fought in the first few books: someone who wielded great power without remorse, someone who was willing to “let the world burn”, to protect his own. Someone who had begun to understand that he was failing but could see no option other than to go on.
Of course, this was exactly how Jim Butcher, the author of the Dresden Files, wanted me to feel. Stan Lee taught us that “With great power comes great responsibility”. Jim Butcher teaches us that the greatest threat to the powerful is power itself.
“Changes” had a spectacular and unexpected ending. I had no idea where Jim Butcher was going to go from there. I’d waited a year to find out. I opened my brand-new copy of “Ghost Story” and started to find out.
What I found made me tearful.
At the start of “Ghost Story”, Harry Dresden finds himself without his powers. He is forced to observe without the ability to act. Blowing stuff up is no longer an option. As he watches, he starts to understand the impact his actions have had on those who matter to him: the pain he has caused, the hopes he has quashed, the love he has scarred. Harry learns that the price of anger is the loss of self. In doing so, he also rediscovers his own humanity, his soul, the essential part of himself that exists even when his power is gone.
It is a good story that is well told.
But it had more impact on me than it should have had.
I’m fifty-four now (too old to be reading Harry Dresden perhaps). I’ve reached a point where I have more past than I have future. My sister once gave me a Charlie Brown cartoon saying, “There is no heavier burden than great potential.” I don’t carry that burden anymore. My life is no longer about who I might become, but who I am and what I’m going to do about it.
Reading Dresden was like holding up a mirror. Not that I’m a tall, lean guy with supernatural powers and a cool coat and hat, but that I have always found anger the easiest emotion to access. Sometimes I enjoy being angry. It gives me a focus and a sense of purpose. My instinct is to create a small circle for “Us” to stand in, which I then defend from all of “Them”.
“Ghost Story” reinforced two things for me: I am the sum of all my choices and I often don’t know what my choices will mean until after I‘ve made them.
At one time, I thought that life was about doing the right thing when the big choices came along. I saw those choices as a final exam that I might pass and then graduate into being a good person.
Now, as I look back on the decisions I’ve made and what they mean, I understand that life is more about the daily grind of continuous assessment than it is about the drama of the final exam. It is the small, mundane failures of my daily life that cause me the most regret.
As I looked at myself through Harry Dresden’s eyes, I saw a man weakened by the anger that he thought gave him strength. I saw someone who fails each day to live fueled by love and rewarded by peace. I saw the price of my failures paid by their impact on those I love. I saw someone I never intended to be.
So Harry Dresden made me cry because he showed me that I am the sum of all my choices and right now, I don’t like what that adds up to.
Except that description still makes choosing seem too dispassionate a thing.
Perhaps it is better to say that choices are like the wind that weathers sandstone rock. Over time the small choices erode the weakest part of the rock. They also reveal the rocks strength.
I’ve finished the Dresden book now. My eyes are dry and looking straight ahead. It’s time to stop looking for the drama and find the value in my everyday life.
I am feeling weathered: eroded, weakened but able to see my strengths. I need to take stock of where my strengths are and what they tell me about myself. I need to turn regret into resolve.
None of which really says what I mean well enough for me to act on it, so let me borrow some words that Li Po wrote in the eighth century.
Life passes like a flash of lightning
Whose blaze lasts barely long enough to see,
While earth and sky Stand still forever.
How swiftly changing time flies across our face.
You who sit over your full cup and do not drink,
Tell me whom you are Still waiting for.