Batty over John Bellairs

Ghost house

Who knows what horror lurks behind these walls? Image courtesy of Lynette, Morguefile.

When I went to college, I did a lot of walking. Everywhere. I walked to class, I walked to the student union and the library, I walked to church and I walked to the center of town to visit interesting stores.

So I got to know my college town pretty well since I explored so much of it on foot. Many of the houses were old and featured nifty architectural details such as wide porches, turrets and gables. There was one building in town that particularly fascinated me. It was a large Victorian-style house with broken or boarded-up windows, overgrown grass and sagging doors. It would have made the perfect haunted house.

I love old, evocative buildings like this. Buildings like that intrigue me and raise a lot of questions. Who built the house? Why did they build it where they did? Why did they abandon it? What did they feel when they left? Why didn’t anyone else move in?

These kinds of buildings remind me of the John Bellairs classic, The House With A Clock In Its Walls. This is a gothic children’s book featuring a character called Lewis Barnavelt. Recently orphaned and slightly geeky, Lewis goes to New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan, who turns out to be a warlock. Uncle Jonathan’s best friend and neighbor, Florence Zimmerman, is a gifted witch who loves all things purple.

There are mysterious goings-on in the house, including a loud ticking noise, and in the neighborhood. The ticking noise comes from a doomsday clock created by an evil wizard that will bring about the end of the world, and Lewis and his other friends have to figure out how to defeat it.

Even though the book is aimed toward a young audience, it’ll send chills down your spine and spook you. (Hey, with Edward Gorey as the illustrator….need I say more?) I recommend reading it in a well-lighted room, during the day.

I like the book because it features an underdog character who has to discover bravery within himself to fight the bad guys. (Go, Lewis!) You end up rooting for the kid and sympathizing with him at the same time.

Bellairs was a Marshall, Michigan native who used Marshall settings for some of his work. If you’d like to see the Jeremiah Cronin house in Marshall that inspired this book, check out this Flickr image. Who wouldn’t want to live in a house like that?

The backstory behind House is also interesting. According to Wikipedia, it was intended as an adults’ novel, but there wasn’t a market for it at the time. His publisher suggested rewriting it as a kid’s book, so Bellairs did that and it worked. Bellairs’ career changed direction after that; he ended up writing 15 more books for young adults.

I just hope somebody makes this into a movie one day. It did get a Vincent Price TV adaptation, but it would be fun to see it as a two-hour movie. Today’s CGI effects would make for some cool and scary scenes.



Filed under Writing

13 responses to “Batty over John Bellairs

  1. Yay!! I LOVE this series!! I had forgotten the book and the author but once I saw the cover YAY!! I have to go off and to read them all again!! Hopping up and down in chair!!!

  2. I have been thinking of publishing the Gorey alphabet and wondering if it wasn’t perhaps … well … you know …My son loved this kind of thing as a kid. Kids love creepy stuff, actually … probably more than do their parents!

  3. Servetus

    I *loved* John Bellairs as a child. Wonder how a reread would be.

  4. Can always use a good tale – this one looks like a great choice for now. Thanks.

  5. Bellairs is really one of the great scary books for kids when I was a kid. I love his books! Myself I feel like Zilpha Keatley Snyder, with a very different style, was another.

  6. geanieroake

    I’ve never read it. I’ll have to put it on my list. Sounds like a good Halloween book.


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