My Haunted Library

All things spooky. Your source for paranormal and supernatural book and movie reviews, strangeography, Halloween crafts and a little cozy fall baking.


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The House with a Clock in Its Walls and Beyond: Thank You, John Bellairs

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.

          


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Review: The Folcroft Ghosts

The Folcroft Ghosts  Darcy Coates, 2017.  YA

Grandparents provide most of the scares in this new young adult thriller.  That may sound a little on the tame side, but Coates does a respectable job instilling readers’ unease with the elderly.  Which, in this case, is a good thing.

When a freak car accident puts their mother in a coma, teen blogger Tara and her bookish younger brother Kyle find themselves staying with grandparents they’ve never met.

Everything is initially picture perfect.  Grandmother May is overjoyed to see them and bakes up a storm.  Grandfather Peter is on the gruff but kindly side.  What could go wrong?

There is the little problem that there’s no cell signal out in the country – so May kindly takes the kids’ cell phones to keep them safe.  And of course, there’s no internet out there, either.  There is a pier by the lake that looks fun – until they discover that Peter’s young sister drowned there.  Mysteriously locked rooms and strange apparitions in the night make Tara and Kyle realize the house is definitely haunted.  But ghosts aren’t the scariest things roaming about. Tara and Kyle begin to suspect that their grandparents aren’t quite what they seem to be.

The Folcroft Ghosts is a solid ghost story.  While it initially seems to echo M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Visit (2015), it takes its own unique turn at the denouement.

Coates does a nice job mirroring the emotional isolation of the kids – Tara only has internet friends, Kyle’s friends are books, and now their mother is completely out of reach – with the physically isolated and spooky atmosphere of the house. Many upper elementary and middle school readers will also relate to the siblings’ single-parent family stress. Although chilling discoveries at the finale may stretch our willing suspension of disbelief a little too far, The Folcroft Ghosts offers young readers an accessible, satisfying ghost story with enough spookiness & surprises to keep them entertained to the end.

rating system three crows