You know the story: boy discovers there’s a world of witches and wizards, where friends come in the forms of a courageous girls and aging professors, where sinister forces stir in ancient tombs and only he, riddled with self-doubt from behind his glasses, can stop them.
You do realize I’m not talking about Harry Potter.
It’s Lewis Barnavelt, obviously. You know, by John Bellairs? Wait, YOU DON’T KNOW JOHN BELLAIRS?
My inner eleven-year-old gets a little defensive about Bellairs, because he’s my J.K. Rowling.
Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls is my Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. The book where I, as an awkward, inhaler-puffing, glasses-wearing kid, found a hero who sounded a whole lot like me, struggling to find his place in a ever-frightening world.
I am not suggesting that Rowling at all ripped off any ideas from my boy John. Because criticizing J.K. in my house, where my daughters constructed Quidditch brooms out of pool noodles from the Harry Potter day camp they just attended, is blasphemy. Rowling conjured her own world and every detail is original and we will fight you if you disagree.
But make no mistake: Bellairs paved the way, and I won’t be satisfied until a global “John Bellairs Day” is declared by the U.N.
Let me rein it in a bit and explain why. I owe a lot to Bellairs, not only for writing the books that gave me so much comfort and thrills as a child, but for also implanting how fear should not be rejected or stymied, how it is important to development and a vital catalyst for courage.
Bellairs does this masterfully in House. The anxiety for his ten-year-old protagonist, Lewis, is revealed in the very first sentence, describing him fidgeting and wiping his sweaty hands on a 1948 bus seat. Orphaned by a terrible car accident that killed his parents, he is on his way to a new state to live with his uncle Jonathan, whom he had never met.
At about the same age as Lewis, I read the book when I too was leaving the only life I had ever known. My father had lost his job, and my brother and I were shuffled downstate to rural Southern Illinois. While not nearly as catastrophic as Lewis’ journey, I was still a nervous wreck.
By the second page of House, Lewis thinks, “Where am I going? Who will I meet? Will I like them? What will happen to me?”
How often have we all experienced those thoughts; after a shattered marriage, a demotion, or a medical diagnosis.
Young Lewis’ journey does not get easier, as he enters his uncle’s life in a gothic mansion that hides a secret so dark that it could spell the end of the world.
Although he is warned by his Baptist aunts that Uncle Jonathan smokes and drinks and plays poker (therefore instantly likeable in my view), Lewis quickly learns the truth about him: he is a warlock, and his eccentric next door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, is a witch.
I won’t ruin the plot of what unfolds next, for that would ruin the fun. But it’s important to reveal Lewis’ struggles throughout.
Sadness over the loss of his parents. Ostracized for being the self-described fat kid who can’t play baseball. Jealously over an athletic, thinner friend that results in a terrible mistake that awakens evil. And not just a spooky evil, but a truly dangerous, deadly evil.
Lewis doesn’t face it all with unbridled courage and bravery. He stumbles, he fails and weeps and cowers.
He also learns he is not alone in his trials. Uncle Jonathan is more than just his caretaker and becomes the foundation Lewis so desperately needs. Miss Zimmermann, with her wrinkles and tight bun, is a powerful defender. And when Lewis experiences an act of cruelty by a friend, he then discovers the tomboy Rose Rita, whose courage is displayed in the books to come.
Fear is never truly conquered. Our heroes, at the end, are described as wearily going off to bed. It is an ever-present part of life, faced page by page.
In the world before Harry Potter, Bellairs provided books that carried the same themes. Magic is very much real, but so are the social challenges, from bullies to isolation, always told from children navigating strange, uncertain times.
Bellairs continues this theme with other characters in different stories, but always links his young protagonists with older caretakers, either as friends or family members. Prior to Harry and Professor Dumbledore, Bellairs created the friendship between Johnny Dixon and Professor Childermass in The Curse of the Blue Figurine.
I think Bellairs and Rowling were on to something. Both writers often eliminate parents from the narrative, driving right to the relationship between children and senior citizens. There’s something about pairing wary kids with world-weary adults that introduce, often with hesitation, that magic is real, but not without consequences.
Imagine my delight in seeing that what looks to be a top notch film adaptation of House is set to be released this year, featuring actors that often guarantee a well-made film, including Cate Blanchett and Jack Black.
Hopefully, it introduces a whole new generation of fans to Bellairs’ works. While there may be new releases of the novel as tie-ins to the film, I secretly hope everyone scrounges for the versions I still keep on my bookshelf, in which the brilliant Edward Gorey drew the interior artwork.
My eleven-year-old daughter is chomping at the bit for more of what she devoured in Harry Potter. So with an eyebrow raised and a wicked smile, channeling my best Uncle Jonathan, I handed her my copy of House, thinking of what he said to Lewis as they were about to enter the mansion for the first time.
“Come on. Let’s go in. Don’t be bashful. It’s your house now.”
Originally published in June 2018.
Jeremy Finley’s investigative reporting has resulted in criminal convictions, hearings before the U.S. Congress, more than a million dollars paid out to scam victims, and the discovery of missing girls. He is the chief investigative reporter for WSMV-TV in Nashville, TN, where he lives with his wife and daughters. His first speculative thriller, The Darkest Time of Night, is available from St. Martin’s Press—its sequel, The Dark Above, publishes August 23rd.