Earlier this month I wrote a few words on the passing of Ray Bradbury. I’m currently reading his seminal novel about small town life, “Dandelion Wine” and am quite enjoying it. It’s put me in a bit of a nostalgic mood and I thought it was time for me to write a little bit about John Bellairs.
Before Bradbury, there was Bellairs, and I have to say Bellairs made much more of an impression on me and it was an impression that lasted much longer than any other author.
He haunts me still.
Where to begin? Why not at the beginning?
My grade 3 teacher ran a contest to see if we could read 30 books in 30 days. I took it as a real challenge. I didn’t cop out and just choose picture books like some kids did. For this to be real, I decided they had to be actually real novels. Up to this point, I had been reading Hardy Boys almost exclusively. The summer between grade 2 and 3 was the first summer I actually read a novel on my own. I remember we were on a road trip to Toronto and Montreal, and I was reading “The CrissCross Shadow” by Franklin W. Dixon. I would summarize each chapter for my parents (and my little brother) as we drove along. My parents were really encouraging. “What’s going to happen next?” “I think so and so is the bad guy.” etc etc. I can’t tell you the feeling of accomplishment I felt when I finally got to the end of that book and filled my family in with the final details. I was hooked. Simple as that. I was now a reader.
So fast forward six months and here I am trying to read 30 books in 30 days. I found this one book called “Captain Ghost” by Thelma Bell. I instantly fell in love with this sweet simple story of a group of friends who are scared of and later befriended by an elderly, reclusive neighbour. I think I was attracted to it because it had “Ghost” in the title, to be honest. I can’t tell you how many times I borrowed that book. Each time I borrowed it from the bottom shelf of our school library’s fiction section, I would see this spooky looking book shelved right next to it.
It was “The Figure in the Shadows” by John Bellairs.
This was one of those happy coincidences that happens in life. On an impulse, I borrowed it one day and I completely forgot about the 30 book challenge. In the end I may have read 10 or 12, but I discovered an author that is still in my heart today. I was hooked from the very first line. “Lewis Barnavelt stood at the edge of the playground, watching the big boys fight.” This book showed wizards and witches to be living amongst us and there was a new revelation for me. There was such a thing as good wizards and witches. This was also 20 years before Harry Potter. I loved everything about this story. I loved the descriptions of small town life in “New Zebedee, in Capernaum County, in rural Michigan”. I loved the old house where Lewis lived with his Uncle Jonathan and the next door neighbour, Mrs. Zimmerman who would always wear purple and turned out to be a witch ( a good witch). Uncle Jonathan was a male witch (they call them warlocks in these stories) but not nearly as powerful as Mrs. Zimmerman. He could conjure the odd thing and do some pretty cool parlour tricks, but that was about it. I could relate to Lewis, a shy bookish character. I also loved his friend, tomboy Rose Rita Pottinger whose fearlessness was a perfect counterpoint to Lewis’ timidity. I also loved the cozy quiet moments in the books, where the characters would play cards and drink cider (Uncle Jonathan would always drink something stronger) and eat donuts and have bonfires. I also loved the subtle way evil magic was talked about. Mrs. Zimmerman at the end of “Figure in the Shadows” says “You know, 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.”
And the illustrations. I can’t even tell you how much the illustrations fueled this 8 year old’s mind. “The Figure in the Shadows” was illustrated by Mercer Mayer, but almost all of the other stories had drawings by Edward Gorey. In fact, there was a time when I couldn’t imagine John Bellairs writing anything that wasn’t accompanied by Edward Gorey sketches. It was the first time I had ever heard of the term “frontispiece”. The same is true of Edward Gorey, when I discovered he had a whole career doing things other than John Bellairs novels. It somehow didn’t seem right that these two would have the ability to work on stuff separately. It felt like cheating. Bellairs’ words and Gorey’s pictures belong together.
I soon found out that “The Figure in the Shadows” was book 2 in a trilogy and book 3 wasn’t yet published. I quickly sought out “The House with a Clock in it’s Walls” (book 1) and loved it almost as much as “Figure in the Shadows”. Do you ever really get over your first love? I learned how Lewis came to live with his Uncle and how he adjusted to life in New Zebedee. A year later, “The Letter, the Witch and the Ring” was published and you’ve never seen a more excited 9-year-old tear out of his school library with it under his arm.
Soon John Bellairs moved away from those beloved characters and created two other distinct series.
Johnny Dixon lived with his grandparents in Dustin Heights, Massachutsets. His mother died and his father was a pilot fighting in Korea. He had similar characteristics to Lewis, shy and bookish. He was befriended by Fergie, a tough no-nonsense kind of kid. A male version of Rose Rita, if you will. He also developed this wonderful friendship with cranky old Professor Childermass across the street who studied the occult. The first book in this series was “The Curse of the Blue Figurine” and another strong title is “The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt”.
Fourteen year old Anthony Monday works part-time in the Hoosac Public Library in Hoosac, Minnesota. He is befriended by elderly librarian Miss Eells and her brother Emerson. Two of his best adventures are “The Treasure of Alpheus T. Winterborn” and “The Dark Secret of Weatherend”.
I loved the intergenerational aspect of these stories. Characters my age could work and joke with adults and also be seen as equals (especially when fighting evil spirits and the like.)
I read these books well past the target age, I am sure. I read them even after I discovered Stephen King and Clive Barker. It wasn’t until I got to university that I noticed that there hadn’t been a new one in a while. I was in the library and I noticed that there was a new John Bellairs book, but on the cover it said “completed by Brad Strickland”.
This was the early 1990’s, before the internet. It was harder to keep up with things then. The book jacket said that Brad Strickland was “authorized by the estate of John Bellairs to complete a number of manuscripts left behind after the author’s untimely death in 1991.”
1991. The same year my Dad died. Somehow feels a little appropriate, doesn’t it, considering John Bellairs was a such a positive influence on my early years and was almost a literary father figure to me? I admired and loved him and waited impatiently for each new book from grade 3 to high school. 1991. How I fucking hate you.
I tried reading that Brad Strictland book, as well as one or two later ones, but I just couldn’t get into them. The familiar characters were there, of course, but there was something missing. The magic was gone, I’m afraid.
But wait, there’s more!
In 2007, my wife, Mom and I were on a road trip, a very John Bellairsy intergenerational road trip, I might add, and we found ourselves in Cape Cod. A little pre-trip research turned up the fact that Edward Gorey’s cottage has been turned into a museum ever since his death in 2000. It is located in Barnstaple, just off the scenic 6A road. It was a short drive from where we were staying and we had a wonderful time poking around his place. It was filled with a lot of artifacts from his life, but many things were left the same as when he lived. The back of his couch still had the scratch marks from all of his cats. We had supper that night in the wee restaurant that he often frequented. I was cheered to see they had a complete set of John Bellairs’ first editions on display too.
As a public librarian, I take a personal interest in the John Bellairs books in our collection. I jealously guard them from weeding. I know I am supposed to maintain a professional disinterest in the collection. It’s not my collection after all, it’s the community’s. Having said this, I have let the children’s staff know to not withdraw any John Bellairs without checking with me first. Most of his titles are sadly out of print these days. Something so strong from my childhood is slowly fading into obscurity. My wife, who works in the children’s department of a different library, does her part to keep John Bellairs alive. If ever a young boy comes in and asks for something scary, my wife will say, “Do you want something really scary?” The boy will invariably nod his head and my wife will answer. “Okay, well, if you think you can handle it, this is really really scary. It gave me nightmares!” and she hands him a John Bellairs title.
A year after the Cape Cod trip, my wife and I were planning a road trip to Toronto in June. I’m usually the planner, but this time my wife said, “Where’s that town where John Bellairs in from? Maybe we could check it out?”. Well, it turns out Marshall, Michigan, John Bellairs’ home town, is about three hours past Chicago. It was sort of on our route, so we made an effort to spend a night there.
And it was AMAZING!
Here’s a quotation from “The House with a Clock in its Walls” describing New Zebedee, the fictional town based on Marshall.
“To begin with, the town was marvelous. It was the sort of place he had always wanted to live in. Lewis’s old hometown in Wisconsin looked as if it had been built yesterday; all the houses were the same size, and the main street was just a row of bars and gas stations. New Zebedee was different. It was full of tall, elaborately decorated old houses. Even the ordinary white-frame houses had things that made them seem different-a stained glass window or a bouquet of iron flowers on top of a cupola. And so many of the houses seemed to be hiding secrets”.
The town WAS marvelous. It is on a National Historic Registry for the most number of 19th century buildings in one area, and people really take pride in keeping them in good shape. The main street looks like it was transported here directly from the 1950s. There is still a hardware store, people! And a Rexall drugstore with a soda counter! And the masonic hall, the same masonic hall where Lewis Barnavelt gets (SPOILER!) abducted by the creature in “The Figure in the Shadows”. At one end of the main street is a beautiful fountain, a focal point and landmark in many of the stories. In fact you could see the fountain from our room in our bed and breakfast. I had printed out a “John Bellairs walking tour” off the internet before we left, and we did exactly that. We walked from location to location, each one significant in some way for inspiring John Bellairs. The octagon house featured in “The Treasure of Alpheus T. Winterborn?” Check. Marshall’s high school that inspired Lewis’ and Rose Rita’s school in New Zebedee? Check. The crown jewel on the tour was the Cronin House, which inspired Barnavelt’s Folley, where Lewis and Uncle Jonathan lived. There was even a plaque outside the house commemorating John Bellairs as a notable resident. We visited the library (a nice new facility with a small John Bellairs display in the lobby, but sadly it looked nothing like the library where Anthony Monday and Miss Eells worked) and noticed that there was an “American Museum of Magic” on the main street. How appropriate! Marla decided to do some watercolour painting by the town fountain, so I checked out the “museum” on my own. It was really just one big room, filled with artifacts from the days when Marshall was on the vaudeville circuit. Doug Collins, the curator, told me that Marshall was almost exactly half way between Cleveland and Chicago, and so it made for a natural spot for people to stop for the night. This all changed, however, when the railway went through and there was no longer any need to stop. Marshall also lost out on the bid to become the state capital. That honour went to Lansing in a last-minute final vote, but not before Marshall had prematurely built a governor’s mansion and cleared a huge area for the state capital building. The governor’s mansion is still there, but it looks out on a big empty field where the capitol was meant to be. It is now used for the annual fairgrounds. Doug said, “Kind of ironic that the spot meant for politicians is now used to showcase livestock.” and we both had a good chuckle.
When I mentioned to Doug the real reason why we stopped in Marshall, he looked at me and said, “I went to school with John, and his older brother Frank”. He looked at his watch and said, “Tell you what. It’s pretty quiet here day. Why don’t we close up shop and I’ll take you around town and show you some of the sights?” I couldn’t believe this. Five minutes later I was in Doug Collins’ minivan and took me around to see things that weren’t on the tour, like the house that John Bellairs grew up in and where his brother Frank is currently living. He even had some old yearbooks and let me have a look. Doug told me that he worked for the Marshall fire department his whole career. “I was responsible for turning the water to the town fountain off every night.” he proudly told me. “Now it’s on a timer”. I had lost track of time and I thought Marla would be getting worried. I asked Doug if we could swing by the town fountain, and I’d introduce him to my wife. “Sure thing!” and you should have seen the look on Marla’s face when I pulled up in a minivan and got out. “Marla, I want you to meet Doug. He knew John Bellairs and his brother, Frank!”
That night, after supper, Marla and I took a drive out to the cemetery. “No admittance after dusk!” the sign read. IT WAS AFTER DUSK! I was feeling quite Lewis Barnavelty: “Maybe we should just look at it from the car?” but Marla had the spirit of Rosa Rita. “Come on, you’re not SCARED, are you? Let’s check it out!” Truth was, I was kinda scared. And also we were breaking the law. But Marla was out of the car before I could say anything else, and cursing to myself I fumbled out after her into the semi-darkness. The cemetery looked exactly how a John Bellairs cemetery should look. Crooked grave stones, gloomy mausoleums, twisty paths. A tiny bit of fog even rolled in from the nearby river to complete the effect. I almost expected to stumble over a tomb marked with the Omega symbol and see two piercing lights, like the scene from “The House with the Clock in its Walls”. That didn’t happen, but by God all of a sudden the entire grave yard was full of fireflies. “Oh my God, can you believe this, Trev?” was my wife’s astonished response. In a way, I sort of did. It was John Bellairs’ home town, I was eight again, and it only made sense that after all these years we had rediscovered the magic.
We brought a little bit of Marshall home with us from that trip. I mean that literally. Marla bought a couple of doorknobs in an antique shop and one of them is on our front closet door. Who buys doorknobs as souvenirs? My wife, that’s who! She also went back and secretly bought me a chess set that I was coveting but didn’t think we had the money or space for it. She gave it to me as a Christmas present, and it was a lovely surprise. I don’t think she knew that one of John Bellairs’ stories is called “The Chessmen of Doom” and chess is a contant presence in the Johnny Dixon stories.
Also, for the record, Marshall has the BEST Arby’s I’ve ever been in. They had this giant ceramic cistern filled with iced tea. It had a spigott and everything!
Now this wouldn’t be a blogpost without a good list, so here’s a list of my top five favourite John Bellairs stories. The ones that I’ve read over and over again and will still pick up as an adult and which I cannot wait until my daughter is old enough to discover for herself. I say discover, but there’s really no way she won’t be aware of them as long as I’m around. I realize this list will mean nothing to anyone except me and the dudes that run the “John Bellairs wrote the best books” fanpage on Facebook but here it is anyway.
1. The Figure in the Shadows
2. The House with a Clock in its Walls
3. The Mummy, The Will and The Crypt
4. The Curse of the Blue Figurine
5. The Treasure of Alpheus T. Winterborn