Friday, June 4, 2010

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

The House With a Clock in Its Walls
John Bellairs
The Dial Press, 1973
Puffin Books, 1993

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the first in a glorious and mysterious series by John Bellairs. Having read this book as a child and then recently again as an adult I have to say the gothic bones of this story have allowed it to stand the test of the decades that have passed since it was first published.

The story, along with the whole series, follows the adventures of Lewis Barnavelt. In House the book opens with Lewis moving to the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan, more specifically into a sprawling Victorian mansion with his odd yet loveable uncle Jonathan. Overtime, Lewis comes to realize his uncle and his uncle’s friend Florence Zimmerman dabble in the dark arts; Jonathan a fledgling wizard and Florence a powerful yet cautious witch. As if being bathed in the spectacle of magic mirrors, light-hearted displays of illusion, and wizardry wasn’t fascinating enough, Lewis is quickly confronted with the evil side of such powers when he learns about the previous owners of the house, the cunning and sinister Isaac and Selenna Izard. Before his death, the power hungry (criminally insane?) Isaac constructed a hidden enchanted clock within the walls of the New Zebedee home. The device, meant to align the cosmos in such a way to allow Izard’s magic to obliterate the world, eternally ticks in an attempt to carry out Izard’s evil plan, even from beyond the grave. The story builds and an escalating series of ghostly encounters climaxes into a stunning finish which will encourage readers on to the next book in the series.

The glory of this story rests not only in the wonderful writing and the supernatural/magical elements of the plot, but also in the quiet and relatable nature of the characters. Lewis Barnavelt, who is perhaps like his maker John Bellairs and countless others, is a self-conscious yet curious boy, eager to find friends, but more comfortable reading and crunching cookies. Oft being the last boy picked for the baseball team, if picked at all, can lead to an overpowering sense of desperation which is all too human. Unfortunately, it is such desperation which often leads to horrifying results, particularly in a supernatural type book. One of the threads of the story follows Lewis as he befriends, struggles to keep, and ultimately loses his friend Tarby. When we see Lewis try to raise the dead in the cemetery to impress Tarby we feel his overwhelming sense of loneliness, knowing that whether or not his incantation works, he’s probably lost Tarby anyway. I think seeing Lewis vulnerable and exposed, stripped bare spiritually, allows us to really see Lewis. Being so close to him makes this story even greater than it already is.

As if I couldn’t love this book enough, the illustrations are masterfully created by the late Edward Gorey. In true Gorey style, the character of his illustrations, which he self-described as literary nonsense (the class of such as Lewis Carroll), fit perfectly with the tone of the story. Dark, mysterious, subtle yet awful (in imagery, not construct) the pictures in this book are so breathtakingly beautiful that it further accentuates what a wonderful literary gift this book, and series, is to readers of all ages. I highly recommend this book for middle grade readers, and even teens and adults who want another chance to solve the mysteries of their youth and visit the haunts of their childhood. We all have them, I’m quite sure.

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