Friday, January 11, 2008

John Bellairs

John Bellairs (1938-1991) wrote several gothic mystery series for young readers, featuring heroes named Lewis Barnavelt, Johnny Dixon, and Anthony Monday; plus, a fantasy classic titled The Face in the Frost. At this writing I have only read the Lewis Barnavelt books, however. I intend to rectify this oversight, in time. One thing that has held me back is confusion about which books are authentically by Bellairs, and which were "ghost-written" by Brad Strickland, using notes left behind by Bellairs at his death. It was only just now that I bothered to Wiki the matter, so I can go forward with confidence that I am reading a book that was really written by its purported author. For what it's worth.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls
by John Bellairs
Recommended Age: 10+

This prolific author of spooky stories wrote a series featuring little Lewis Barnavelt, who makes his first appearance in this book.

A pudgy, crybabyish boy who is terrible at baseball and football, Lewis has just lost his parents when he comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan in a mansion overlooking the small Michigan town of New Zebedee. At first Lewis enjoys the company of his uncle and their next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Zimmermann. But then he grows suspicious of their eccentric behavior. At last they reveal to him that they are witches - but good ones.

However, a very evil witch and wizard lived in the house before Uncle Jonathan: the Izards. Isaac and Selenna Izard have left behind a mysterious clock that ticks somewhere inside the walls of the house, but no one can find out exactly where it is. And when Lewis himself dabbles in some dangerous magic of his own, he unleashes a force that will use the clock in the walls to bring about the end of the world.

Lewis is kind of a pathetic boy, yet somehow you can't help liking him and sympathizing with him. His Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann have an enjoyable friendship, and they care for Lewis deeply. And though they are little more than dabblers in magic, they have to face an awesome and terrible evil. How they do it is sometimes funny, often exciting, and occasionally downright hair-raising. The midnight car chase particularly stands out in my mind.

In and among magical adventures and battles against evil, Lewis faces the schoolyard angst many of us can relate to. His unlikely friendship with a boy called Tarby proves to be a test of character for both of them, and the outcome isn't the pat storybook kind that you might expect. And the end of the book hints at developments that unfold in the books that follow this one, including The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring.

The Figure in the Shadows
by John Bellairs
Recommended Age: 10+

This sequel to The House With a Clock in Its Walls finds pudgy orphan Lewis Barnavelt a little older but not much wiser.

Lewis, you may remember, has been living for the past year with his wizard uncle Jonathan in the little town of New Zebedee, Michigan. Uncle Jonathan is not very magical, really, but his next-door-neighbor and close friend, Mrs. Zimmermann, is a very learned, good witch. Nevertheless, neither Jonathan nor Mrs. Zimmermann think Grandpa Barnavelt's "lucky coin" has any magic in it, when they dig it out of the old Civil War veteran's trunk.

All the same, Lewis takes to wearing it around his neck, and thinking of it as a magic coin. And when he and his best friend, Rose Rita Pottinger, put the coin to a very spooky magical test, he awakens a nasty force. At first it seems as if the coin will help Lewis, giving him courage and strength to deal with a bully at school. But then it starts to get out of his control, and he begins receiving ominous messages. And a dark figure that smells like wet ashes begins to stalk him.

In a scene that reminded me, somehow, of The Lord of the Rings, Lewis reluctantly lets Rose Rita take the coin from him. She tells him that she has dropped it down a sewer, but Lewis suspects otherwise. One day Lewis takes an opportunity to steal the amulet back from his best friend, but before he can do anything with it, the dark figure rises up to claim him. And in a terrifying race against the elements, on a blizzardy Michigan December night, Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmermann and Uncle Jonathan have to find Lewis before the evil spirit of the amulet/coin takes him to its... gulp... home.

It's yet another creepy, gothic story, featuring a hero who somehow manages to hold our sympathy while also being a coward, weakling, and crybaby. He is, after all, only a chubby little boy, and what happens to him could happen to anybody - well, at least, anybody whose uncle and neighbor are wizards - even in the Middle America of the late 1940s. The story also explores the dark and light sides of magic in an interesting way. Take, for instance, this exchange in which Mrs. Zimmermann has been explaining how a Michigan farmer in 1859 might become a practitioner in the dark arts...

"You know," she said slowly, "it must have been awfully lonely on farms in those days. No TV, no radio, no car to take you into town for a movie. No movies at all. Farmers just kind of holed up for the winter. Some of them read the Bible, and some of them read - other books."

"You read those other books, too, don't you, Mrs. Zimmermann?" said Rose Rita in a small firghtened voice.

Mrs. Zimmermann gave her a sour look. "Yes, I do, but I read them so I'll know what to do when something awful happens."

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring
by John Bellairs
Recommended Age: 10+

This is the third book of the Lewis Barnavelt trilogy by John Bellairs. Bellairs is actually credited with nine Lewis Barnavelt mysteries, but let the buyer beware: most of them were ghost-written after Bellairs' death. Funny how that sentence sounds like the plot of a John Bellairs novel.

In this book, however, Lewis Barnavelt is really not the main character. He goes away to summer camp at the beginning, and we only see him again at the very end. The rest of the time, the story focuses on Mrs. Zimmermann (who lives next door to Lewis and his Uncle Jonathan) and Lewis' best friend, Rose Rita Pottinger.

Rose Rita has come to that awkward age, you know what I mean, and she is concerned about being a not-too-pretty tomboy, and not like other girls. She is also upset about her best friend leaving her in the lurch all summer. Spunky, magical Mrs. Zimmermann offers her an alternative to moping around New Zebedee by herself. They go on an adventure together.

The adventure soon turns into a scary mystery, however. Mrs. Zimmermann has just inherited a farm from her cracked cousin Oley, along with a supposedly magical ring. But when they arrive at the northern Michigan farmhouse, they find it ransacked and the ring stolen. Later, as they tour the Upper Peninsula, stranger and scarier things start to happen. Someone is using magic to try and hurt Mrs. Zimmermann.

Things come to a head when the duo returns to the farm, and Mrs. Zimmermann vanishes into a midnight downpour. Rose Rita frantically tries to save her friend, but between the good intentions of a wholesome farm family and the bad intentions of an up-and-coming witch, her prospects are not good. Finally all her hopes come to a dangerous midnight raid on a filling station, where Rose Rita believes she will find the secret to Mrs. Zimmermann's disappearance.

What she actually finds is an enemy with great magical powers backing up her evil designs. Before the mystery is solved, Rita's life will be in terrible danger... and that's not the worst of it. Once again a fatal magic talisman is brought into the story, which has power over the people who try to use it. And once again, the power of friendship and a bit of luck are needed, to end a spooky magical mystery in the wild woods of Michigan USA.

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