I’ve been trying to keep this blog focused primarily on new kids’ books, and this is a golden oldie (though not so old as it might first appear). That said, too few people know about John Bellairs and now is a great time to unearth him: not just because his work is ideal for Halloween season, either. I’ll explain later.
I discovered Bellairs a decade ago, and in a curious fashion. No, not by nudging open a mysterious door behind a green baize curtain at Dulwich Library, or by stumbling upon an arcane ceremony in my next-door neighbour’s back garden when they thought I was away, and not even whilst browsing the bookshelves of a mysterious red-haired bachelor uncle whom I had hitherto known only as the black sheep of the Campbell family.
None of the above would be outside the bounds of possibilities for a Bellairs adventure. But I came to those adventures circuitously, at least partly via the work of the master himself, Edward Gorey, whose unmistakable North American gothic stylings jacket almost all Bellairs’ novels. In a stylistic coup de grace almost unthinkable today, Gorey’s unique artwork alerts us to the playfulness of Bellairs’ work, and perhaps of all spooky work for children: two worlds which should not overlap, the innocence of childhood and the forbidden knowledge of gothic fiction, suggestively interwoven through deadpan pastiche. In The House with the Clock in its Walls and its many sequels,Bellairs welcomes younger readers into the world of necromancy, of the Hand of Glory, of vengeful spirits and otherworldly evil, but he does so with enough rhetorical sleight-of-hand for us to know that the safety barriers are still up: you cannot walk off the edge of the cliff.
So Lewis Barnavelt, our young hero (ten years old with “a moony fat face with shiny cheeks” who arrives at his uncle’s house in New Zebedee, heaving a suitcase weighed down by books) finds himself stealing into the cemetery after dark on Halloween night, and to impress a new friend, unwittingly releases someone dangerous from their tomb. This someone manifests for much of the novel as two glinting circles of light: catch sight of them in your headlights, or in the house across the road, and you know you’re in trouble. Bellairs pays homage in this novel – and others – to the work of MR James (in this one, it’s particularly the great ghost story Count Magnus) with use of the telling detail. But whereas James’ archaeologists isolate themselves from humanity, Lewis lives in the very bosom of friendliness and eccentricity: Uncle Jonathan and his neighbour Mrs Zimmerman.
Together, these three are among my favourite characters in children’s fiction – they stay up late, eating cookies, trading friendly insults (‘Weird Beard!’ ‘Fatso!’) and playing poker. But why, Lewis wonders, do they play with a pack of cards marked:
The uncanny glare, they explain, is that of the spectacles worn by a dastardly somebody in life. In the hands of these three unlikely heroes, the disconcerting details of a Jamesian plot become the clue to a mystery that is solveable and therefore not invincible. Eccentricity is power in Bellairs’ fiction. ‘Our game is wild swoops, sudden inexplicable discoveries, cloudy thinking,’ says Uncle Jonathan at one point. ‘So we’d better play our way if we expect to win.’
I said that I discovered these books circuitously: it was in the corner of a photo of writer and illustrator Joel Stewart on his blog, many years ago. And such things are worlds away from the Lewis Barnavelt novels, which, though published in the 1970s and onwards, are set in a richly evoked late 1940s setting. It’s a stroke of genius (and not unlike the Stranger Things gambit, 40 years early): shifting the action safely into a never-quite-was world where magic never-quite-wasn’t, and simultaneously drawing us ever closer into all the sensuous and fascinating detail of that world, from old-time slang to Welch’s Fudge Bars.
And why is now a good time to discover John Bellairs? Well, after years of me foisting old paperbacks on friends, Andersen Press have reissued not only The House with a Clock in its Walls in the UK but also its two sequels, The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, The Witch and the Ring (with Nathan Collins boldly stepping into the giant shoes of Edward Gorey. Sometimes things come back from the dark and mysterious past with good reason: so, enjoy.