Thursday Throwback: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

“Jonathan’s face had turned grim. He shook his head, smiled a little half-hearted smile, and went on. ‘You may be wondering why I don’t just tear down the wall and rip out the clock. Well, it wouldn’t do any good. It sounds like it’s behind every wall: up in the attic, down in the cellar, in the closets and storerooms and parlors. And sometimes it seems to be slowing down. I keep hoping it will stop. But then it picks up and keeps going.'”

Hauntings don’t scare me. Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo taught me that nine times out of ten they’re a scam to shoo people away, and if they are actually real they only want help or closure. Gore, on the other hand, is way too much for me. I tried the R.L. Stine Fear Street books that were practically required reading among kids at my grade school, and though I liked the thrills I stopped after the first nightmare.

The middle ground is books that deal with the occult and supernatural. There’s definitely evil underfoot, made more insidious by the element of the unknown, but it doesn’t seem as real as the terrors stalking those prom queens and cheerleaders. Therefore, when I discovered John Bellairs’ gothic horror The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull I was hooked. I could read it for my shivery fix, then put it down and leave it behind.

The House with the Clock in Its Walls was Bellairs’ second book and first for younger readers, an audience he then never left. Set in a small town in 1948 Michigan, it features orphaned Lewis Barnavelt who comes to live with an unknown relative. Uncle Jonathan and his best friend Mrs. Zimmerman are secretly both full-fledged wizards, as Lewis is delighted to learn. But not all magic is good, especially the kind practiced by the house’s former owners, the Izards. From beyond the grave they are still trying to bring about the end of the world, and to stop them Lewis and Jonathan must first figure out how.

It’s funny that I still can’t help comparing stories with magic to Harry Potter, even though this was written twenty years earlier. And despite a few plot similarities Lewis is definitely not Harry. In fact, he’s somewhat of a pathetic character, which is probably why I always preferred Bellair’s Johnny Dixon series. Lewis is pasty and overweight, with a fondness for reading about old naval battles. He can’t play sports, gets picked on frequently, and has a tendency to blubber when things go wrong. Deep down all he really wants is to be liked, which is why he tries so hard to win Tandy as a friend and is afraid to ask Uncle Jonathan for help. This everyday dimension gives young readers a fallible hero they can relate to.

A lot of the magic is also of the parlor type. Uncle Jonathan uses his skill to make stained glass windows change and recreate historical tableaux. But Lewis soon has to learn that not all magic is harmless, and must be handled carefully. In the Izards’ case it can be used for evil purposes, which does give the story some frightening moments. Finally, the wonderful internal illustrations by Edward Gorey add to the gothic feel.

This was my first book for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. Next up is the sequel, The Figure in the Shadows.

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Published in: on October 15, 2009 at 10:27 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Figure In the Shadows is the second Lewis Barnavelt book by John Bellairs, written in 1975. While the first was a reread (albeit with little remembered), this one was new to […]

  2. […] written in 1976. It takes place about half a year after the prior events, but unlike the first two this story focuses on Rose […]

  3. […] The House with a Clock in its Walls […]


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