Tag Archives: John Bellairs

Return to New Zebedee

“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes”. John LeCarré

It’s such a cliché to say that “the book was better than the movie” that I hesitate to even bring it up. But I did. And there it is. In fact, it’s so common that what’s really worth pointing out are those rare movies that actually improve on their source material. Jaws comes to mind; so does The Godfather. You could make the case that The Shawshank Redemption is just as good as Stephen King’s original story, AND THAT’S IT. Those are the exceptions. (Okay, fine. The Wizard of Oz is a sentimental favourite, as is Mary Poppins, but I’ll allow no others).

So it probably comes as no surprise that The House with a Clock in its Walls movie doesn’t quite live up to the novel. The thing is, the movie gets some of it really really right, (and some of it really, really, really, really, head-scratchingly wrong), and it would have been something I think they could have easily fixed.

Needless to say, spoilers follow: Both for the 1973 novel and the 2018 movie.

The things they got right:

When this project was announced last year, I almost couldn’t believe it. John Bellairs, as many who follow this blog will know, is a sentimental childhood favourite of mine. He’s one of those authors that weaves such a perfect mood with his writing that whenever I am feeling down, I can turn to one of his books even now as an adult, and I am swept up in literary comfort food that warms me as it nourishes my soul. I’m sure you can think of that handful of special authors in your own life that fit this bill. If I had read Lucy Maude Montgomery as a kid, I’m sure she’d be on that list too, but I only got to her in the last couple of years.

The fact that John Bellairs died in 1991 and that his books have almost completely disappeared from bookstores and libraries made the movie announcement even more unexpected. If an adaptation was going to be made from one of his works, why didn’t it happen in the ’80s when he was still writing?

When the creative team and cast was announced, I was even more skeptical. Director Eli Roth was known mostly for his hardcore horror like Hostel and Cabin Fever. I knew he could do gore, but was he able to capture that magic (no pun intended) between Uncle Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman and Lewis? Could he re-create the New Zebedee in Capernaum County of my childhood? I am happy to say that he can and he DID.

His success in this area was helped greatly by the cast, obviously. When Jack Black and Cate Blanchett were cast as Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman I thought, “they are too young!” In my head, someone like Brendan Gleason would have been the perfect age and look for Uncle Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman? Maggie Smith would have been ideal, but she already did that wizarding thing in Harry Potter (as did Brendan Gleason, come to think of it), so I guess we have Harry Potter to blame for stealing all the best actors for The House with a Clock in its Walls. There will no doubt be comparisons between this movie and the Harry Potter series anyway. I was worried, but needlessly so. From the first time we meet uncle Jonathan (wearing a kimono as he picks up his nephew Lewis Barnavelt at the bus depot), and Mrs. Zimmerman (wearing PURPLE from head to toe (yes!) and coming out of the secret passage between her home and the titular house (the one with the clock in its walls you guys), I knew these characters were in capable hands. The look was mostly there, but more importantly, the chemistry between the two of them was real and perfect. So they were about a decade (at least) younger than they should have been, I was happy they were close enough in age that it made sense that they were buddies. I could have watched twice as much dialogue between the two of them and not gotten tired of it. Perhaps there are deleted scenes with more Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman to look forward to? A quick word about Lewis: he was fine. Sure, he didn’t follow novel’s description of being overweight, but the young actor got across the nerdiness and socially awkwardness of the character while giving off a bit of a steam-punk vibe with those Captain Midnight goggles. I’ll allow those goggles, if only because Lewis wears a Sherlock Holmes hat at the beginning of Figure in the Shadows, so his penchant for cosplaying favourite characters is established in canon.

The set design was gorgeous, and the house looked as close to how I thought it looked in my head from the books as it possibly could. Sure, they added some magical flourishes that weren’t in the novel, but I thought they were done in the spirit of the novel so I was fine with them. The shots of the town and of Lewis at school also rang true, and it was so smart for them to set the story in the 1950s. But the best set-piece of all was the Oakridge cemetery, the setting for the pivotal “raising of the dead” scene. Whoever designed the set must have studied the book closely, as well as visited the real Oakridge cemetery on the outskirts of Marshall, Michigan. It even had the great quotation, “The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised” over the archway as you entered the cemetery.

Things they got WRONG.

But oddly enough, it was in this pivotal cemetery scene where the movie took a left turn from which it never really recovered. I know movie-making is a collaborative art, and when something goes wrong it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. In this case, I think we can look to the screenplay as the culprit; which is maddening since the story is really only one part of the Bellairs experience. The books create a mood and atmosphere that I feel the movie successfully captures in the first 2/3rds, only to squander it in the final act.

One of the things that makes the book so creepy is that Lewis tries to raise someone from the dead to impress the popular, athletic kid at school. Lewis uses some of the charms he finds in his uncle’s library and he does something in the cemetery, but it takes a few chapters until the reader is fully aware of the effects. There’s a wonderfully eerie scene in the novel where Uncle Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman and Lewis are out for a drive in the country, only to have Uncle Jonathan pull the car over when he thinks he hears another car behind them. After razzing him, “You know they DO allow other cars to drive on these roads,” Mrs. Zimmerman shares in Uncle Jonathan’s discomfort and the three of them drive frantically back to town, taking short cuts and detours with the two lights of a following car’s headlights always in their rear view. It’s only when they cross an iron bridge over the river (evil spirits can’t cross running water) that they stop the car and look back. The other car, with whoever or whatever inside, turns around and drives away. It’s one of the most visual scenes in the entire book, tailor-made for the movie, and yet it is curiously missing from the movie. In the novel, we eventually learn that Lewis unwittingly brought Selina Izard back to life. She is the wife of the evil wizard, Isaac Izard, who owned the house before Uncle Jonathan. He was working on a doomsday clock when he was killed. (His wife died mysteriously before him). In the last half of the book, Selina Izard tries to complete her husband’s evil plan, and while the evil wizard is talked about and anticipated, his eventual arrival is thwarted by Lewis destroying the clock (spoiler!) in the climax. The last chapter involves a lot of chocolate chip cookie eating around a bonfire, where exposition and explanations are made, and we are left feeling safe and secure.

Where the movie goes wrong is that it has Lewis raising Isaac Izard himself, not Selina. Clive Barker once said that the horror not seen is much scarier than any seen horror, and this applies in this case too. By showing us the raised Izard, it removes any menace from his potential return. All we get is Kyle McLachlan in prosthetics and makeup. You can say what you want about JK Rowling, but she was smart in not giving us the “full Voldemort” at first. Old “You Know Who”s delayed entrance into the series gave his eventual debut the suspense and menace it deserved.

And while Selina Kyle is a shadowy enough figure in the novel, (one could say she was a Figure in the Shadows, #deepcut), in the movie they explain that Selina never really died in the first place, and was living under a magical disguise across the street from the Barnavelts. While this reveal was a genuine surprise in the movie, it didn’t make any sense to me why they complicated the plot in this way. I wanted to like Renée Elise Goldsbury as Selina, but I found her interpretation cartoony and obvious and not scary at all. Another dumb complication/connection the screenplay makes is the reveal that Uncle Jonathan and Isaac Izard used to be friends and co-magicians before Izard turned evil. YAWN. I mean, come ON. How many times does this old trope have to be brought out? The original novel made no such connection, and it was better for it. Also, I didn’t like the back story they gave Mrs. Zimmerman. They hint that she was a survivor of the holocaust and that experience left her with unreliable magic powers. In the novel, Mrs. Zimmerman is just a kick-ass awesomely powerful witch. Sure, a later novel, The Letter, The Witch and The Ring, involves Mrs. Zimmerman falling ill and losing her powers, but why the heck introduce that subplot now? And okay, I know this is nickpicky, but WHY introduce Rose Rita Pottinger and NOT have her wear a beanie with buttons all over it? It’s such an iconic part of her look and supposedly everyone involved in the movie read the novels, so there’s no excuse why this small detail was left out. [Editor’s Note: A fan online pointed out that in the novels Rose Rita HATES her school uniform and takes it off (and puts her beanie on) as soon as she gets home, so the fact that we only see her at school COULD mean that we can still get a beanied Rose Rita in the sequel.]

And before I stop bashing this movie, I have to talk a little bit about the ending. In the novel, everything is implied and suggested, which again, makes the story so much stronger. Lewis, Mrs. Zimmerman and Uncle Jonathan eventually DO find the clock after following a series of Lewis’s nonsense made up charms. It would have been way better to leave Lewis’s real introduction to magic (not counting the raising the dead bit) happen at this point, rather than have an earlier scene where Lewis asks “Can I learn magic?” and Uncle Jonathan says, “No, it’s too dangerous.” And Lewis says, “Please?” and Uncle Jonathan says, “K, fine” or some nonsense. In the novel, Selina follows the three down to the cellar, holding a hand of glory which freezes Mrs. Z and Uncle J to the spot. Lewis, however, sees Selina’s reflection in the clockface, and he knows from his reading what a hand of glory is, so he doesn’t turn around and is not affected by the magical artifact. Lewis then smashes the clock (which surprisingly looks just like a regular wind up clock), destroying the doomsday spell, killing Selina (again) and preventing the return of Isaac Izard, who only at this point in the novel is about to appear.

Okay, I expected a little “jazzing up” of the ending for Hollywood, but what we get is a total travesty. Isaac Izard and his wife Selina are already down by the clock, no hand of glory in sight, and then the whole thing turns into a weird Indiana Jones style set-piece where the floor gives way and the whole cellar turns into a series of cogs and wheels. (Like a giant clock, which is dumb). And then they try to explain that the clock will turn back time to the point before humans existed, so you get this really awful CGI of Jack Black with the head of an adult and the body of a baby which I guess is supposed to be funny, but no-one in the theatre was laughing, and those of us who knew the novel just sat there, appalled. It was all so stupid, and I didn’t think in the spirit of the books, which always followed the “less is more” philosophy. Previous to this scene, we saw a visually arresting but creatively pointless battle scene between the three heroes and a bunch of animated jack-o-lanterns. It was fine, but seemed unneccessary. I would have much rather have seen the scene with the car chase over the iron bridge then a bunch of CGI pumpkins, but at least those pumpkins were in the creepy spirit of the novel, and it gave Mrs. Zimmerman a chance to kick ass, which was awesome.

The final kick in the nuts that summarizes how I feel about the movie happens during the end credits. Edward Gorey illustrated almost all of John Bellairs’ books. For most of them, he just did the covers and a frontispiece, but for The House With a Clock In Its Walls he did the cover, frontispiece, and several illustrations throughout. Gorey’s distinctive style informed Bellairs’ writing and I can’t really imagine one without the other. In fact, I wore a homemade button to opening night with an Edward Gorey drawing of Uncle Jonathan, and my wife consented to an Edward Gorey Mrs. Zimmerman button affixed to her purse strap. Despite the interconnectedness of Gorey/Bellairs in the minds of their fans, the estate of Edward Gorey did not allow any of his art to be used in the film, so over the end credit we get little pencil drawings of the characters doing various things in an obvious pastiche of Gorey’s style. While some people might be charmed by this “clever” homage, I was just left with the feeling that slowly crept into me during the movie’s entire running time. Close, but no cigar. (Literally. I don’t think I saw Uncle Jonathan smoke a pipe once in the movie).

So that’s really all I have to say about the movie. (I guess after 2000 words I’d better wrap this up). The TLDR takeaway is that I liked but not LOVED the movie for all the reasons mentioned above.

But I’ll tell you this: I’ve been a member of the “John Bellairs Wrote the Best Books” group on Facebook for the past few years. Most of the time, it’s people posting pics of their collections, or the minor buying and selling of hardcover editions (the ones with the coveted Edward Gorey art). Leading up to the movie, however, the group has been excited posting pics of behind-the-scenes set visits, early reviews, posters, interviews, late night talk show appearances, you name it. This quiet sleepy community has been mobilized, and in fact a group of us decided to meet in John Bellairs’ hometown, Marshall, Michigan for the premiere this past weekend. Included among our number is Brad Strickland, a professor of english and writer in his own right who was hired by the Bellairs’ estate to finish off a couple of his novels that were left behind after he died. They were so successful that Strickland wrote a number of original adventures using John Bellairs’ characters, carrying on and expanding the mythology. While some of us, myself included, don’t think these extended series books are the same quality and style as the originals, Brad Strickland seems like a decent dude who is the living surrogate for all us fans. Strickland made the trek up to Marshall too, and was signing books in the local bookstore, meeting with fans, and attending the premiere there. By all accounts, no matter what we thought of the movie itself, this gathering of writers and fans was a weekend to remember. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to go, but it brought back great memories of my own pilgrimmage to Marshall ten years ago. This gathering would never have happened if it wasn’t for this movie. Also, John Bellairs books are back in the pop culture landscape for the moment. The House With A Clock In Its Walls was number #6 on the Amazon bestseller list over the weekend, and our library here has bought a bunch of new copies. There are waiting lists for them. The movie was the number one box office draw this past weekend, and if people keep seeing it, it might mean a SEQUEL. Would I go to a sequel? Absolutely, if only to see if they kept the stuff that worked from the first one and steered away from the stuff that didn’t. So, despite all of its problems, the movie has brought John Bellairs to a new generation of readers who are eagerly asking their parents and school librarians, “Are there more in the series?”, and that, my friends, is the best magic spell this movie could ever weave.

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Midsummer Magic: Before Bradbury, there was Bellairs.

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.

My first book, ever.

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.”

Gary, You’re one lucky dude, whoever you are!

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”.

Wot.

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.

Edward Gorey’s house, Cape Cod.

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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”.

Cronin House. The inspiration for “Barnavelt’s Folly” as seen on the covers of “The House with a Clock in its Walls” and “The Figure in the Shadows”.

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.

A governor’s mansion, but no governor.

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!”

Me and my personal tour guide, Doug Collins (with Houdini in the background of course!)

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.

Oakridge Cemetery, Marshall. (We went back the next day to take pictures).

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!

I’ll take two!

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

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