When young, shy, recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt comes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan, Lewis discovers that his uncle’s big old mansion holds some secrets. Well, a lot of secrets. First are the clocks: dozens of them, everywhere, endlessly tick-tocking and chiming away—all to hide the spectral ticking of one deadly timepiece hidden somewhere in the walls by Isaac Izard, an evil sorcerer. Second is Uncle Jonathan himself: he’s a warlock, the good kind. And his best friend next door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman, chocolate-chip cookie baker extraordinaire, is a powerful good witch. Lewis comes to love his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman but struggles to make friends in school. He is new, overweight, and nerdy and has trouble fitting in. In a misguided effort to impress a popular classmate, Lewis accidentally raises Izard’s sorceress wife from the dead. The clock in the walls starts to tick faster, signaling that time is running out to stop the evil Izards before they destroy the world.
Published in 1973, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (who later illustrated twenty more of Bellairs’s and Brad Strickland’s gothic children’s novels), this book terrified me as a child. It is deliciously creepy and atmospheric. There are scenes that even day give me a little chill: being pursued down dark country roads by a single ghostly car with blinding headlights; a moth fluttering sickly-stickly into Lewis’s hair; a ghostly figure materializing down a long hallway, pacing closer and closer… Shivery. And as much as I enjoy Jack Black movies, I have no plans to see the recent film adaptation of this classic. I’d like my spooky memories to remain as they are: nicely dark and creepy.
Bellairs was probably the most formative horror author in my young life. I read each spooky, mysterious adventure as fast as I could get my hands on them. And then read them again. And again. The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (1978) featured a new character, Anthony Monday, and is the only title with no supernatural elements: but it’s a great story. Before his death, oddball millionaire Winterborn builds a castle-like town library and hides clues inside to a priceless archeological treasure. It sounds like a godsend to Anthony, a loner who worries about his family’s finances. He and his friend, the elderly librarian, Mis Eels, battle a wrath-of-god storm and an unscrupulous bank manager in their efforts to find the prize. 1983’s The Curse of the Blue Figurine introduces Johnny Dixon, a quiet boy who lives with his grandparents because his father is a fighter pilot in the Korean War. Johnny discovers an accursed ushabti and falls under the spell of an evil sorcerer. Both characters star in additional titles.
Bellairs died an untimely death at the age of 53, but his characters live on. The Bellairs estate hired Brad Strickland to complete two of his unfinished manuscripts and write two books based on one-page synopses Bellairs left behind at his death. In 1996, Strickland wrote The Hand of the Necromancer, featuring Johnny Dixon. This marked the first of his own stories using Bellairs’s characters.
Gothic horror fans, if you haven’t read a John Bellairs book, you’re missing out. And so are your friends. And your kids. And your grandparents. Everybody.
Because Bellairs’s stories are good.
They’re suspenseful and spooky. Our heroes face down such occult horrors as sorcerers, ghosts, mummies, zombies, and necromancers. Bellairs also gives Jeremy Robinson and Dan Brown a run for their money with the sheer volume of weird occult lore and arcane religious references he weaves into each story. Not to mention the history: most of these creepy tales are set in 1950s and are rich in historical detail from a time when people still listened to radio shows and went down to the sweet shop on Main Street to share a hot fudge sundae.
Above all, Bellairs’s stories are well-written. Bellairs spends a lot of time developing his characters and it shows. You like them. You want to have these adventures—scary as they are—with them. In his books, shy kids with glasses are heroes. Not only that, kids can be—and are—great friends with older adults. Bellairs is a master at creating memorable elderly sidekicks for his heroes: from Miss Eels, to Professor Childermass and Father Higgins, to Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. They’re funny, kind, cranky, clumsy, plucky, spry, and…magical. They can bake a mean Sacher torte, wield a tire iron against an approaching zombie, enchant a coat rack, face down the spirit of an evil priest, and travel with you back in time to the siege of Constantinople. Lewis will eventually find a good friend in Rose Rita (The Figure in the Shadows 1975), and Johnny meets and befriends Fergie at Boy Scout Camp (The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt 1983), but even so, Bellairs shows that not only do old folks rock, but they have a lot in common with their young friends.
When I was little, I couldn’t get enough of these eerie, disturbing, yet oddly comforting stories. When October puts a chill in the air and darkness falls a little earlier each night, I sit down with Anthony and Miss Eels, or Johnny and Professor Childermass for a walk down a haunted memory lane. And I find I still love these books. Thank you, John Bellairs.