My mother had a fairly devious way of punishing me as a kid. As a school librarian, she knew a great deal about children's literature, and like most literate parents, she thought I spent far too much time in front of the TV and far too little time reading. Thus, whenever I did something that warranted a punishment, my TV privileges would be stricken for the length of time it took me to read one of the wonderful children's books she "happened" to have around. And, as if that were not a clever enough means of coercing me to read, she would invariably select a book that was the first in a series so that when I read it, I would of course clamor for the subsequent volumes. In this way, she introduced me to a number of authors, my favorite of whom is John Bellairs.
Bellairs wrote a number of gothic novels for children. He worked with three main sets of characters, and in each set there is an early-adolescent boy who is something of an outcast, and who forms a close relationship with an adult who is also an outcast. The three books reviewed here center on the adventures of Lewis Barnavelt, a bookish ten-year-old who goes to live with his Uncle Jonathan when he is orphaned. (His orphan-status is stated outright and not much mentioned again; parental angst isn't much of a theme for Bellairs.) In The House With a Clock in its Walls, Lewis moves into Uncle Jonathan's house, a gigantic brick mansion that Lewis notices has some fairly strange properties: the mirror in a coatrack shows scenes from other places, stained glass windows change on their own, et cetera. It turns out that Uncle Jonathan is an actual magician, along with his next-door neighbor, the cantankerous old witch (literally), Mrs. Zimmerman. Lewis also notices that the house is full of clocks hundreds of them; and when Jonathan stops them all, the ticking of a single clock can be heard within the very walls of the house. This, in turn, seems to have something to do with the house's original owner, an evil warlock who had certain dark plans in mind. The Figure In the Shadows is the second of the "Barnavelt" books. Here, Lewis is the frequent victim of a school bully (bullies are indeed a common theme in Bellairs), and he wishes for strength so he can stand up to his tormentor. When he finds a lucky coin, he begins to have strange visions of a shrouded figure coming for him; and when he says a charm over the coin, a charm designed to awaken magical amulets, bad things really start to happen.
The Letter, the Witch and the Ring focuses not on Lewis and Uncle Jonathan, but rather on Lewis's best friend, the tomboyish Rose Rita Pottinger, and Mrs. Zimmerman. Upon the death of Mrs. Zimmerman's brother, she takes Rose Rita on a trip to see the old family farm in Northern Michigan. There they encounter an old acquaintance of Mrs. Zimmerman's, a bitter woman who, years before, fought with Mrs. Zimmerman over a man and lost. This other woman, it turns out, has been delving into the dark arts, and Mrs. Zimmerman's brother may have found a magic ring.
John Bellairs excels at creating suspense through mood and atmosphere, rather than through gore and bloodshed. He is able to evoke the sensation of the dark things lurking in the shadows in pretty ordinary ways, such as the "flipflop" sound of the front-door mail-slot in the middle of the night, and in his descriptions of the odd events that fill his novels. While his later works occasionally settled into formula, the early ones including the three "Lewis Barnavelt" books pack quite a bit of ability to unnerve, with parts of The Letter, the Witch and the Ring being downright frightening. His characters at least the protagonists are quirky and interesting; his villains are never really developed as characters, but then I never get the feeling that they should be. The focus for Bellairs is on how ordinary children can wander into the very dark areas of our world; what's important to Bellairs isn't so much the nature of the darkness as the mere existence of the darkness in the first place. Bellairs also fills his books with esoteric details of old-world culture and history; in this sense he is the Umberto Eco of children's lit.
The House With a Clock in its Walls features wonderful ilustrations by Edward Gorey, who would later illustrate other Bellairs works. Mercer Mayer provides the illustrations for The Figure in the Shadows, and while they're not as good as Gorey's, they still create some good atmosphere. I did not care, though, for Richard Egielski's "dark Americana" drawings for The Letter, the Witch and the Ring. Of course, illustrations are not the point of these books, but to my way of thinking it is Gorey who best captures Bellairs' dark imagery.
John Bellairs is my favorite author of children's literature, and these three books are the reason why. Anyone looking for children's gothic novels that are a step up from the "Goosebumps" series should look into these books, as should anyone looking for something to read in between volumes of Harry Potter. Or just keep them around for whenever your kids step out of line.