The John Bellairs Read

John Bellairs Book Spines by Todd Wellman
John Bellairs Book Spines

Re-reading the original 15 John Bellairs middle-grade titles means nostalgia for the creepiness of hidden passageways and overlooked objects I loved in late-elementary and middle schools, as well as a grown-up reflection on how my own fiction has been influenced by Bellairs. And! The books feature so much Midwest love: Lewis is from Milwaukee; stories play out in Lower Michigan; and Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmerman have an Upper Peninsula of Michigan lark. Also, I’m reminded of the hours spent studying Edward Gorey illustrations, as if they were stereograms.

A surprising find in some books is the accuracy of the time period’s racism regarding First Peoples — as in, overall, if you’re Indigenous in Bellairs, you are probably ancient and magical. Bellairs is so good at depicting a period, he may not have wanted to insert authorial voice out-of-time, though simple “While decades later so and so would learn differently” would have fit easily into the writing style.

Reading the 13 Brad Strickland-written or -completed books is a rare passage into published examples of a “What else could have happened with these characters?” and a good look at how characters and content in a world alter, when the writing occurs later on but the time period of a world remains mid-century. For example, under Strickland’s hand, youths convince elders that smoking is bad and that a bubble-blowing pipe will do just as well.

Continual unknowns are the timelines of all the odd occurrences surrounding Lewis, Johnny, and Anthony. The characters encounter much — but, à la South Park, don’t age or grow enough for everything that happens. By the third haunting in each series, why do the characters doubt any chilling encounters? Perhaps because, like us, they know horrors are real but don’t want them to be the definition of reality.

Re-reading and reading occurred December 2018 to March 2019.

  Title Series / Characters / Main Location Reflections
1 – 1973 The House with a Clock in Its Walls Lewis Barnavelt, with Mrs. Zimmermann, Uncle Jonathan, and Rose Rita — New Zebedee, Michigan Middle-grade audiences handle heavy topics well — in fact, they want them. They also want to know kids like them will make mistakes, big ones even.
2 – 1975 The Figure in the Shadows Lewis Barnavelt The pressure of secrets between friends creates a realism that carries the novel. Also, the bully v. the book’s hero solutions remind of Bellairs’s desire for power redistribution.
3 – 1976 The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring Lewis Barnavelt As always, Bellairs matches adult duties in a book to the power of children’s actions. Also, a strong girl protagonist acts a precursor for modern girl-as-powerful story lines.
4 – 1978 The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn Anthony Monday, with Mrs. Myra Eells — Hoosac, Minnesota The least horror- and magic-filled of all the books is a bumbling mystery that manages to show real terrors of life: selfish, ordinary people.
5 – 1983 The Curse of the Blue Figurine Johnny Dixon, with Professor Roderick Childermass, Father Higgins, Professor Charley Coote, Johnny’s grandparents, and, starting in the next book, Fergie — Duston Heights, Massachusetts For Bellairs books, the Catholic Church often offers a great blend of veiled systems relied upon but also in flux mid-century. Here, the risk of priest-as-evil fascinates and humanizes.
6 – 1983 The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt Johnny Dixon Bellairs (or a publisher) may be playing a sly trick here: Everything in the title happens ‘off-screen’, to the extent that when we get close to any of the three, falling house rubble conks Johnny on the head, and he passes out. Or perhaps Bellairs wrote the first 95 percent too well (despite all those manner adverbs) and had to stop at a prescribed page maximum. But, heck, we see how Johnny and Fergie meet.
7 – 1984 The Dark Secret of Weatherend Anthony Monday Bellairs’s younger and older protagonists continue to share an affinity for cross-generational friendships. Also, Anthony is not Lewis is not Johnny. As is common, Bellairs ignores the convention of the red herring. You know who the bad actor is, even if the characters don’t quite.
8 – 1984 The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull Johnny Dixon Scary concept (What is that skull Johnny’s carrying about?), but the story is oddly loose until the last 30 pages.
9 – 1985 The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost Johnny Dixon This continuation of The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull satisfies as a sequel but remains oddly vague or too simple in piecing together the many chilling scenes. Gorey’s wonderful illustration misspells “Zebulon.”
10 – 1986 The Eyes of the Killer Robot Johnny Dixon The Sloanes kidnap Johnny twice to steal his eyes, allowing a different sort of book — Childermass and Fergie face their enemies directly over a longer stretch of a novel. Quite even and strong, the story features victory over the wicked duo by indirect means — an attack on an evil creation when direct confrontation will not pan out.
11 – 1988 The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb Anthony Monday Consistent, spooky, ghastly. And a bit of sorrow at the end for a woman caught up in bad things.
12 – 1989 The Trolley to Yesterday Johnny Dixon Perhaps the most video-game-lite of all the books, this one was my least favorite decades ago and remains the most painful ‘original’ to get through. Also — the end makes no sense: The original time traveler could just return to his original time.
13 – 1989 The Chessmen of Doom Johnny Dixon It would have been wonderful if the chessmen had some explanation for being chessmen in the book, as opposed to some other creepy objects. The book feels split in two — a nicely macabre first-half setup and a second half solution that was often too simple.
14 – 1990 The Secret of the Underground Room Johnny Dixon The demonic possession of priest friend Father Higgins leads Johnny, Fergie, and Professor Childermass to the UK. Again, Bellairs includes unique scares — but the solution, even with the double-undoing of the antagonist, seems too quick.
15 – 1992 The Mansion in the Mist Anthony Monday In this mostly enjoyable tale, Anthony and friends discover a portal to another dimension — as well as a magically powerful group that is annoyed by visitors. In this Monday finale, more than ever before, Anthony has to act without the aid of his companions. The book includes a surprise typo (pp 69 in the version I read), as well as inconsistent narrative stance.
16 – 1993 The Ghost in the Mirror (w/ Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt This well-written time-travel story surprises with making the visit-to-the-past meaningful in the frame story of the present: An action in the past fixes a character’s problem in the future.
17 – 1993 The Vengeance of the Witch-finder (w/ Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt Nicely fills in story referenced in ‘The Ghost in the Mirror’. A young person who has become blind features heavily here — but as with Lewis’s weight / body type, a lack of expected sight is presented as something to overcome. The idea of health outside of others’ perceptions is fully missing.
18 – 1994 The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie (w/ Strickland) Johnny Dixon One of the scarier books. When a character states that Voodoo Dolls have nothing to do with proper Voodoo, we get the sense that we’re being asked to question stereotypes, though the book still uses otherness to stoke fear, despite its attempts to clarify that the big bad in the book is a misused version of a religion.
19 – 1995 The Doom of the Haunted Opera (w/ Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt Enjoyable throughout, this book separates the kids and their out-of-town adult protectors by a magical fog. A continual strength of all the books — the connections of youth to an older generation — is celebrated nonetheless as Lewis and Rose Rita battle an evil opera composer. Includes precursors to Doctor Who (Weeping Angels from 2007 on) and Harry Potter (Magic Chess Board from 1997 on).
20 – 1996 The Hand of the Necromancer (by Strickland) Johnny Dixon Oddly similar to The Vengeance of the Witch-finder, but still compelling — go figure that it was a man doing all the bad, not the accused women. A weakness of the book lies in no one believing anyone — and, at this point, that doesn’t make sense for many of the relationships.
21 – 1997 The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder (by Strickland) Johnny Dixon Wonderful, magically induced conflict between Johnny and Fergie lead to the true horror here: Have they lost their friendship? Oddly, Gorey’s original cover includes an error — the bell is stated not to have a clapper, but he’s illustrated one.
22 – 1998 The Specter from the Magician’s Museum (by Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt With a very similar plot to The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder, Lewis and Rose Rita are at odds as a magical force distracts and controls Rose Rita. The blood-born(e) spider is particularly creepy. Includes very odd cultural borrowing, specifically in characters’ talent-show costumes.
23 – 1999 The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost (by Strickland) Johnny Dixon Despite several creepy, effective scenes, the novel’s overall use of jokey and heavy-handed chocolate-box elements lands it perhaps the farthest from the eeriness of Bellairs. This Dixon finale borrows from The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie and The Trolley to Yesterday while reading like familiar characters lost in another series.
24 – 2000 The Beast Under the Wizard’s Bridge (by Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt Borrows a comet theme from The Chessmen of Doom. A scary one, despite looser writing (such as a frightful instance of adverb use: ‘hurriedly sprang’) and the shift of the horror from the personal to the comet-infested extraterrestrial. The aging-up of the young characters is evident when they keep secrets from their older friends.
25 – 2001 The Tower at the End of the World (by Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt Featuring the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Lake Superior, the novel revisits the Izard family from Bellairs’s debut and is highlighted by scary bad-guy death, as was true in The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost and The Beast Under the Wizard’s Bridge.
26 – 2003 The Whistle, the Grave, and the Ghost (by Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt Overall, a well-written forbidding story of an evil spirit’s insidious effect on Lewis — he becomes more and more distant as the spirit gains influence.
27 – 2006 The House Where Nobody Lived (by Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt The hidden story line here is the commentary that in the time of the story, Rose Rita being a girl limits her participation. When she finally gets to act, she saves the day. Also includes the colloquial “down cellar” as a location, meaning, “in the basement.” Discomfort with the book arises as cultural stereotypes about Hawai’i linger and are pitted against women’s liberation.
28 – 2008 The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer (by Strickland) Lewis Barnavelt The twist of who the new friend is is in itself ghoulish enough to warrant a read of this final Lewis book.
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