I never liked being scared as a child, so I avoided scary stories like nobody’s business. I can’t even handle that Sleepy Hollow cartoon that schools like to show as a Halloween “treat” because it gives me nightmares. But I had to make an exception for anything by the American author John Bellairs. These gothic horror novels aimed at children were so exciting and wonderful that I was hopeless to resist, even though reading them meant that I probably couldn’t sleep that night (or week, to be honest). The first one I read was The House with a Clock in Its Walls (1973), the chilling story of a clock counting down to the end of days. So scary.
When pudgy and lonely Lewis Barnavelt moves to New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his strange but kind uncle Jonathan Barnavelt after becoming an orphan, he doesn’t expect anything to happen to him. But when his uncle’s a wizard, and his next door neighbor’s a powerful witch, he finds that maybe a lot can happen. He also loves the house at 100 High Street – full of mysterious passageways and fancy fireplaces – but wonders why Uncle Jonathan and neighbor Florence listen to the walls. He soon learns that the house used to belong to the Izards, an evil couple who hid a ticking clock in the walls which counts down to time to Doomsday. And when he accidentally raises the dead on Halloween, the clock doesn’t have much longer to go.
I think a big reason I could even read this book at all is because Bellairs was such a good writer and created such human, relatable characters. You can’t help but feel for Lewis, especially over his misguided friendship with the totally not worth it Tarby – a friendship that leads him to wake the dead. Kids do such crazy things to fit in, no? He had three main heroes who had their own series – Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday (I love his name), and Johnny Dixon – and all of his books were so informative. For example, I learned that having pieces of the True Cross will protect you against most forces of darkness (see the Johnny Dixon novels). And the titles are all so exciting: The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt, The Dark Secret of Weatherend, The Trolley to Yesterday. The list could go on. And it does, actually – he was quite prolific, you know.
John Anthony Bellairs (1938-1991) never intended to be a children’s author, and The House with a Clock in Its Walls was originally written for adults. But since there was no market at the time for adult fantasy, he rewrote it as a young adult novel at his publisher’s suggestion. Someone should really thank that publisher. After his death, the author Brad Strickland was commissioned to continue writing stories based on Bellairs’ characters and some unfinished manuscripts. I haven’t touched them, but I really shouldn’t be so snobbish about that, should I.
Another Bellairs draw is that Edward Gorey did many of the cover illustrations. In fact, since the first Gorey drawings I saw were Bellairs’ covers I had no idea that Gorey was famous in his own right. These illustrations are perfect for the books, so creepy and moody. Quite the match made in – well, a much scarier place than heaven.