July 09, 2003

The Best of John Bellairs, by John Bellairs

Years ago, I read a delightful little fantasy novel called The Face in the Frost. It was quirky, whimsical, and scary all at once, and it worked. It was by a man named John Bellairs. I never saw anything else by him until eventually I discovered that he'd taken to writing young adult novels. Hmm, I thought, and passed on.

One of our local bookstores has a table of books for people who have finished reading about Harry Potter. I was glancing at it the other day, and found a volume called The Best of John Bellairs, which contained three juvenile novels, all of them tales of gothic horror: The House with a Clock in its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring. The three novels form a series; whether there are other books that follow the third one, I don't know.

Having recently been told by numerous literary snobs that liking Harry Potter is childish and a sign of cultural infantilism, and remembering Bellairs' name fondly, I was caught by a fit of rebelliousness and bought it.

Orphaned Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathon, who happens to be a mildly-skilled wizard of the white variety. His Uncle's next door neighbor and best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, is a skilled witch. Lewis likes them both very much, and together with his friend Rose Rita they deal with mysterious noises, long dead wizards, plots to bring about the end of the world, angry witches, schoolyard bullies, and how to cope with always being picked last for baseball.

Bellairs has a flair for baroque description and gothic horror, but The House with the Clock in its Walls was his first book for young readers, and it shows. He talks down to the reader (something J.K. Rowling never does), and the dialogue frequently made me cringe. Ironically, though, this first book was also the best and most interesting of the three. He's resolved many of his technical difficulties in the other two books, but they aren't as much fun. I'd consider re-reading the first one day, but most likely not the other two.

The illustrations, though, were fascinating. Each of the three tales were illustrated, and by three different artists. The first book, the best of the three, and the most horrific, is illustrated by Edward Gorey. What more could you want? The second book is illustrated by Mercer Mayer. Now, I have great respect for Mayer; but he always draws the same little mop-haired round-faced kid, and his work has a warmth and joy that is simply out of place in what's supposed to be a scary story. And then for the third book they brought in somebody I've never heard of named Richard Egielski. His drawings are suitably dark, but they are also lumpy and ugly, and none of the characters look like quite the same people from one picture to the next. It's funny how the quality of the artwork parallels the quality of the tale.

Bottom line...I really like The Face in the Frost.

Posted by Will Duquette at July 9, 2003 09:28 AM

Deb said:

He has another series too about a kid named, I think, Johnny Madison. Very similiar. And the Lewis Barnevelt series continues beyond the first three.I liked them but my kids never got into them. Sigh....

Will Duquette said:

I'd really like to have liked these better than I did. They weren't awful, by any means; I didn't have to force myself to finish them. But they lack something.

Deb said:

Hmm, I'm feeling a trip to The Daughter's bookshelf coming on. She had some last time I browsed her shelf. And maybe a review....

Have you ever read anything by Margaret Mahy? She's another one I liked--I read the kids "The Blood and Thunder Adventures on Hurricane Peak" and they loved it. Maybe for your Number One Son?

khan said:

Bellairs wrote three childrens' series: the Lewis Barnavelt trilogy, the Johnny Dixon (not Madison) series, and the Anthony Monday series. Brad Strickland continued two of the three series (Barnavelt and Dixon) after JB's death in 1991. In fact, a new Lewis Barnavelt book is due next month.

Before writing for children, he authored three books for adults, one of which was The Face in The Frost.

As for Will's claim that he talks down to the reader... oh well. I never noticed it, though every reader is different... You can visit an excellent fan site at http://www.compleatbellairs.com. I, for one, heartily recommend his books.