The House with a Clock in Its Walls
by John Bellairs
Dell Publishing, 1973
179 pages / buy at Powell’s
- I first read this novel when I was a kid, checking it out from the library. Actually, I first read John Bellairs’s novel The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (1978), which I picked it up because of its Gorey cover and illustrations. And it’s through these novels, I think, that I first learned about Edward Gorey.
- I got my current copy of THwaCiIW from my friend Rebekah, last November, at her Friendsgiving party. And it’s only appropriate that Rebekah should have given me a horror novel, because my nickname for her is “Ghost Mouth.” (Thanks, Ghost Mouth!)
- THwaCiIW is a Gothic horror novel for kids, and it’s genuinely spooky. For one thing, it’s about a house with a goddamned clock in its walls! And not just any clock, but a doomsday clock that, when it goes off, will bring about the end of the world. The book’s protagonist, Lewis Barnavelt, along with his Uncle Jonathan, can hear the clock ticking all throughout their house, but they cannot find it. (The evil wizard who made and hid the clock cast a spell that causes the clock’s ticking to sound the same from inside every wall). And so neither the heroes nor the reader know when the clock will go off and cause the world to end. Which is like . . . Christ!
- The whole novel is tremendously suspenseful. Rereading it now, I still wanted to zip through to find out what would happen.
- I remember that, as a kid, the book scared the crap out of me. I found it frightening even now, reading it as an adult. I mean—it’s about a house with a goddamned doomsday clock hidden in its walls!
- Receiving and rereading the book prompted me to check out the John Bellairs website, Bellairsia, which is fun and informative, including providing other other things reading guides for young and old readers alike. (Here’s the page for THwaCiIW.)
- THwaCiIW has, over the years, borne a succession of different covers, many of which are nice. But only one of them was done by the one and only Edward Gorey (the cover pictured above).
- Regardless of which cover adorns it, the novel was illustrated by Gorey. This was Gorey’s first collaboration with John Bellairs, and he went on to illustrate several other of the man’s books: The Curse of the Blue Figurine (1983); The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt (1983); The Dark Secret of Weatherend (1984); The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull (1984); The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost (1985); The Eyes of the Killer Robot (1986); The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb (1988); The Trolley to Yesterday (1989); The Chessmen of Doom (1989); The Secret of the Underground Room (1990); and The Mansion in the Mist (1992).
- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this website, which lists various books with covers and illustrations by Gorey. Note however that the site is not complete, as it fails to include Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari, and Alexander Theroux’s The Lollipop Trollops and Other Poems (which is to my knowledge the only Dalkey Archive Press book to feature work by Gorey).
- This post could easily turn into a “25 Points: Edward Gorey,” and I’ve been meaning for some time to write about that artist, and how his work has largely been misunderstood, and perhaps even ruined. But that dismal study will have to wait for another moody, rainy day.
- Returning our attention to John Bellairs: he was the author of over a dozen books for children, most of them of the Gothic persuasion. He studied English and Catholicism at Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, then turned to writing fantasy after reading The Lord of the Rings.
- I was thinking that I should write the man a fan letter, but he died in 1991. (I suppose I could still write him a letter; perhaps his ghost would care to read it?)
- Bellairs wrote two sequels to THwaCiIW: The Figure in the Shadows (1975) and The Letter, The Witch, and The Ring (1976). Since Bellairs’s death, another author, Brad Strickland, has continued the series, and some of his books feature illustrations by Gorey. I haven’t read any of these installments, although I intend to check them out. (Eventually.)
- Bellairs’s writing, overall, can only be described as idiosyncratic. For one thing, he set THwaCiIW in 1948, a maneuver I find curious. I’m not sure what doing that really accomplished. While reading I kept forgetting that detail, assuming that the action was set in the 1970s.
- I also must voice some quibbles with some of Mr. Bellairs’s aesthetic decisions. For instance, he’s occasionally lazy about POV, needlessly shifting from Lewis (the protagonist) to his Uncle Jonathan. At other times, the POV drifts into a needless second person address (although a lot of children’s books tend to do that, and I have always wondered why). Furthermore, a few aspects of the book haven’t aged particularly well—such as the subplot involving Lewis’s friend Tarby, which feels kinda creaky. . . . The book is, as a whole, rather leisurely paced, perhaps even a little rambly . . . but as a consequence, it’s also not wholly plot-driven, which I think pleasant.
- Here’s a real “Problem,” though. The book opens with Lewis’s parents dying in a car crash, which is what causes him to go live with his Uncle Jonathan. Lewis initially seems upset about this: he frets over whether he will get along with his uncle, and he chokes up when he remembers his mom and dad:
“Yes, but my dad won’t . . .” He stopped. Jonathan saw tears in his eyes. [There’s one of those needless POV shifts.] Lewis choked down a sob and went on, “My . . . dad wouldn’t have let me play for money.” [They’re playing poker; Uncle Jonathan lets Lewis do all sorts of fun grown-up things.]
- [cont’d] But, once the first chapter ends, Lewis forgets his parents entirely—which is odd, given that he’s depicted (as you can see from this passage) as a fairly sensitive kid. And one of Bellairs’s strengths as a writer lies in crafting complex psychological portraits of his characters. But opportunities to have Lewis remember his parents later pass without comment. For instance, there’s a tense car chase scene, midway through the book, but that never once prompts Lewis to think about his parents, who of course died in a car crash. The impression is that Bellairs, having killed off Lewis’s parents, completely forgot them. (It’s not unlike when Christie Malry’s mother dies.)
- Another missed opportunity: Lewis at one point resurrects a dead person, which is great (and by “great” I mean “fucking awesome”), but he never once even thinks about resurrecting his dead parents, which—well, isn’t that damned peculiar? Instead, he accidentally resurrects one of his uncle’s greatest foes—which feels somewhat contrived/clunky.
- God, I’m being way too harsh. These inconsistencies, peculiar though they may be, also lend the novel an odd, forgetful quality. (It’s not unlike Lewis’s Uncle Jonathan.) From what I’ve read online, Bellairs originally wrote the novel as an adult mystery, and was persuaded by his editor to revise it into a young adult title—and if that’s true, then I imagine that accounts for these lapses, and the casual construction of Lewis’s callousness.
- OK, one more complaint: the novel’s two bad guys ultimately turn out to be ciphers, being evil magicians who are just evil for the sake of being evil. Although to be fair, they’re also terrifyingly evil. But in all honesty, I found it slightly disappointing that the novel’s sympathy and complexity didn’t extend to them.
- But these are all minor criticisms. Bellairs’s writing, taken as a whole, is so damned eccentric that what might be serious flaws in another book largely make this book feel that much stranger.
- It helps that the whole book is delightfully weird. Bellairs had a genuine interest in the occult, and depicts some genuinely magical things, like a marvelous scene where Uncle Jonathan eclipses the moon. And The novel also refers freely to John Dee, John Stoddard, and the hand of glory, all of which might lead a kid (or an adult) to want to do some research. (What’s more, the source of the hand of glory is deliciously gruesome.)
- As stated, the book is pretty scary. One of the spookier elements is its burning eyes motif: Lewis often feels the evil wizards staring at him (which is reinforced by several of the illustrations—see below). This aspect of the novel plays out very nicely, and might help teach younger readers how to recognize motifs.
- The writing is always amiable and good-natured. Bellairs clearly enjoys the subject matter and his characters, and his passion for the material shines through. He also never writes down to his audience.
- The novel’s tone reminds me of a more sober—or perhaps less self-conscious & more ambivalent—Daniel Manus Pinkwater, in particular his books like Lizard Music and Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (both of which I greatly admire).
- THwaCiIW was never made into a movie, although 1979 saw an episode of the series “CBS Library,” “Once Upon a Midnight Dreary,” in which Vincent Price narrates an abridged version of it. I’ve read a review here or there that suggest the program was awful. There are, unsurprisingly, plans afoot now to make it into movie, but “details are only available on IMDB Pro.” I can only hope the end result is even half as good as The House with a Clock in Its Walls.