When I was but a young’n, I found a book at my local library (The Stockbridge Library, which still stands where I visited it several times a week, at the corner of Main St and Elm St). The book would go on to change my reading habits for years. The book? The House With A Clock In Its Walls.
To this day, I can’t be certain what made me choose that particular book. The cover, which I’ve provided below, is very obviously a horror cover. But I did pick it up. I can’t say for certain how fast I read it that first time, but I do know that I re-read the novel countless times. Why? Well, I just re-read the book for the first time in more than a decade to try to find out.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls
John Bellairs (illus. Edward Gorey)
First, a note: normally I try to give the publisher’s information to help people track down the first editions… in this case… well, it’s a bit muddled. The book was first published in 1973 by Yearling… erm, I think. Or Dell. Which I think is the same company. But since publication, the book has been published by more than half-a-dozen publishers so… this is as close as I can get. Mea culpa.
As I said above, The House With A Clock In Its Walls was a bit of a watershed moment in my childhood reading. It led to my interest in horror for almost eight years… The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections, Wait ’til Helen Comes (super-creepy, super-good!), the Goosebumps series, Fear Street, and just about anything else John Bellairs I could get my hands on.
But the first one is still my favorite and still, in this man’s opinion, the best. The House With A Clock In Its Walls was one of Bellairs’ earliest novels and it was his first written for children. It stars (somewhat) lovable Lewis Barnavelt, a chubby book-worm who is more at home in a library than on a baseball field.
Lewis has been tragically orphaned when his parents were in a car wreck and is on his way to live with his uncle Johnathan, who owns a large house in the far-away town of New Zebedee, Michigan. Little does Lewis know that his uncle, somewhat imposing with his large stature, rotund belly, and messy, bright red hair and beard, is a magician. His uncle’s magical abilities make for a very interesting year for young Lewis.
At the beginning of our story, Lewis is nervous, extremely prone to crying, and scared of his own shadow. The first thing his uncle does after Lewis gets off the bus is stare vacantly at the town’s clock tower as it strikes the hour. Is something wrong with his uncle? Has Lewis been sent to live with his crazier of relatives?
Despite the strange introduction, Lewis finds he really does enjoy the company of his uncle. Lewis plays cards with Johnathan and his uncle’s next-door neighbor, Mrs Zimmerman and, as he spends time with them, notices little oddities.
For instance, he wins more often at cards than he ever has before. There’s a certain window of the house at 100 High Street that displays different stained-glass designs, depending on when Lewis passes it. And his uncle’s coat-rack has a glass ball in it that shows the pyramids at Chichen Itza… but the birds in the sky fly from tree to tree.
So one night, Johnathan and Mrs Zimmerman sit Lewis down and explain to him about their dalliances in magic. Johnathon is a wizard (though he claims to only know a few parlor tricks) and Mrs Zimmerman is a witch (and the proud holder of a Doctor Magicorum Artium, which makes Johnathan often defer to her on magical matters, as he only has a degree in Agriculture). They also explain to Lewis about the mysterious ticking that can be heard from any room in the house and the man who owned the house before Johnathan.
The previous owner of the house, one Isaac Izard, was a very powerful warlock, and very evil to boot. He and his wife were both supposedly very powerful magicians who were attempting to bring about the end of the world. Why? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out!
As I read the book again, I quickly rediscovered why I liked it so much as a child. Bellairs’ language is very descriptive, especially when talking about landmarks in the town, or the inner rooms of the house, without being convoluted, or flowery.
The emotions the characters feel flow out of the book and I felt them very deeply. Lewis’ guilt at casting a magic spell is palpable, as is the anger felt by Johnathan as the story builds to its conclusion.
At times, the anxiety Lewis feels is thick and difficult to get through because Bellairs writes it with such conviction. Lewis’ emotions are so believable that it makes his later attempts to make up for his rash behavior that much more wonderful. His development as a character in this novel (and into the other Barnavelt novels) is stellar because of how natural it feels.
And the book doesn’t skimp on the horror. The novel would be scary enough without the illustrations, but Edward Gorey’s creepy illustrations add another level to the horror elements of the novel, and also provided a younger me (who often had difficulty imagining what book characters looked like) with a good idea of who the characters were.
Before he passed away in 1991, John Bellairs wrote eighteen novels. After his death, an additional four novels were completed with the assistance of a ghost writer named Brad Stickland, who has continued writing Lewis Barnavelt (and Johnny Dixon) novels as recently as 2008.
Bellairs was such a strong influence on my childhood that I often spent my summer days hunting around Stockbridge, Massachusetts looking for dark things that I knew were just below the surface. I biked all around trying to find weird looking houses and searched wooded areas all over for caves, sink-holes, or other places that would most certainly transport me to another world.
I even wrote one of my first stories as a tribute to\major rip off of The House With A Clock In Its Walls. And I certainly didn’t look at the mausoleums in the cemetery the same way ever again… So to say that I’ve really enjoyed his work would be a bit of an understatement.
Despite Bellairs’ relative productivity as an author, many of his books have fallen out of print and can be difficult to find at local retailers. Barnes and Noble republished the three Lewis Barnavelt stories that Bellairs wrote in his lifetime (as well as a collection of three of the Johnny Dixon stories that are also well worth reading) and most of his books remain available online, especially through used sellers.
If you’ve ever had an interest in imaginative children’s literature (especially the more macabre styles), please check his works out. He deserves to be remembered as a spinner of fantastic tales for generations!