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The House with a Clock in its Walls is John Bellairs’s first book in the Lewis Barnavelt series, introducing 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt; his uncle, Jonathan; and their neighbor, Mrs. Zimmermann; as well as Barnavelt's Folly, Jonathan’s pet name for his three-story, magic-filled fun house of a mansion.

Plot

It's 1948 and 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt rides a bus by himself.

Cast

Protagonists

Main article: Lewis Barnavelt series characters

Antagonists

Setting

Background

Bellairs said that "out of boredom" during his time at Emmanuel College he began piecing together his next work, originally perceived as another contemporary adult fantasy. Originally "350 pages and the plot a real mess, I sent it around to three or four publishers until it landed with Dial Press. The editor [Phyllis Fogelman] there was herself a children's book writer, and she liked it but wanted it shorter. So I wrote a whole new book. Learning to write for children instead of grown-ups [is what took so long]. And it was something I wrote at night. But I realized it was what I wanted to do and what I was good at.[1]"

After multiple revisions over the next five years, and originally focusing on the elderly uncle rather than the child, the end result was his first young-adult novel featuring the first of his young protagonists, Lewis Barnavelt of New Zebedee, Michigan - a small community not unlike his hometown of Marshall.

Jean Van Leeuwen, herself at Dial at the time, says she found the manuscript "in the 'slush pile' of unsolicited manuscripts. I was impressed by its wonderful combination of humor, obscure intellectual references, the supernatural, and cozy, down-to-earth milk and cookies. I remember a lot of correspondence with John, but only one or two actual face-to-face meetings. My chief memory of these meetings was that he brought me delicious chocolate chip cookies, made by his wife, Priscilla. I don't recall ever talking to him about how he came to write The House with a Clock in its Walls, or how much of his writing was autobiographical."

As with Bellairs' previous work, The Face in the Frost, the tale is not totally horrific: the motherly next door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmermann, herself a witch, adds many a comedic effect in her interactions with Uncle Jonathan. As much as magic is discussed, the story also reproduces the sights and sounds of childhood, specifically that of the author's: going to Catholic services and saying prayers in Latin as an alter boy, playing with tin soldiers, being a bookworm and discovering books that smell like Old Spice talcum powder, being a loner and without many friends, and other memories - or things he would have liked to happen.

This was also Bellairs' first collaboration with popular illustrator Edward Gorey, whose black-and-white illustrations helped set the forbidding mood and are as memorable as the story itself. Even though the association lasted for twelve books across eighteen years and both resided in Massachusetts, the two never met.

Just an important a character was the house itself, a bizarre building that served as Lewis's protected sanctuary full of secret passages, stained glass windows and other surprises. Edward Recchia's article, "You Can Take the Boy out of Michigan, but…" notes that growing up Marshall, Bellairs often visited relatives at their home "just opposite the Cronin House...a foreboding Italianate structure whose mansard-roofed tower rises sixty feet into the air-the highest point in all of Marshall." The century-old house still stands in Marshall and has become a popular attraction for fans.

Two sequels would follow: first, The Figure in the Shadows (1975) continues the Barnavelt saga, as Lewis and his new friend, Rose Rita Pottinger, accidentally summon a spirit using an enchanted coin that gradually takes possession of an unsuspecting Lewis. Rose Rita is given a story mostly to her own in The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring (1976) when she and Mrs. Zimmermann take a seemingly innocent vacation that turns frightful when Zimmermann runs into an old nemesis.  While popular characters with fans, Bellairs put Lewis and Rose Rita into semi-retirement, picking up the series shortly before his death.

Response

The supernatural and highly imaginative tale struck a nerve with readers and reviewers alike:

"What the author has done that’s so special is to touch both the intellect and the feelings.  He has dusted off the paraphernalia of ancient magic and made us newly aware of the differences between good and evil.[2]"
"In The House with a Clock in its Walls, Bellairs builds on the mythic topos that the weak and innocent perform the grave and mighty deeds of the world....[3]"
"The particularly engaging tone of the book springs from the comical clash between appearances of cozy normalcy and matter-of-fact revelations of the supernatural.[4]"
"For devotees of the genre, here's the genuine article, a ghost story guaranteed to raise hackles.[5]"
"Bellairs doesn't bother to supply either motivation or blueprints for the Izard's antisocial scheme, but if the cavalier and capricious handling of the occult by characters and author alike precludes any bone-deep shudders, the house lives up to its promise of a few gratifying Halloween shivers.[6]"
"Bellair’s tale is weakened by the loose juxtaposing of diabolical elements and levity, but nonetheless is palpable fare for younger dabblers in the occult.[7]"
"The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an unsuccessful attempt to produce a seriocomic tale of the supernatural set in a modern small town….Lewis’ adventures are neither funny nor chilling, merely implausible.[8]"

Dedication

For Priscilla, who lets me be myself.
"The publication of House was hugely exciting for us in 1973. It represented John's definitive turn towards children's lit, and the end of the longest non-publishing period in his career after his first success. He loved Edward Gorey's work and was thrilled that he'd been commissioned (and willing) to illustrate the book. I'm very happy that it is still scaring and fascinating a third generation of new readers.[9]"

Allusions

  • In the twentieth anniversary expanded edition of The Monster’s Ring (Bruce Coville, 2002), to help get into the Halloween spirit, Russell Crannaker, decides to read a scary story[10]:

The night wore on. Russell did his homework, then read some of a very spooky book called The House with a Clock in Its Walls. [11]

External links

Reference

  1. "Author's Imagination Stuck at 10".  Haverhill Eagle-Tribune (Nov. 25, 1990).
  2. "The House with a Clock in it Walls".  Natalie Babbitt, New York Times (Jul. 8, 1973).
  3. "See How They Grow: Character Development in Children's Series Books."  Gary D. Schmidt, Children's Literature in Education (v18 n1, p34-44, 1987).
  4. Reading for the Love of It: Best Books for Young Readers. Michael Landsberg (1987).
  5. Publishers Weekly.
  6. "The House with a Clock in its Walls." Kirkus Reviews (May 30, 1973).
  7. Booklist.
  8. School Library Journal.
  9. Correspondence with Priscilla Bellairs (2013).
  10. The Monster’s Ring, Bruce Coville (Sep. 1, 2002).
Lewis Barnavelt Series
Bellairs Corpus
By John Bellairs
Completed by Brad Strickland
Completed by Brad Strickland
Series
Who's who Lewis Barnavelt | Rose Rita Pottinger | Jonathan Barnavelt | Florence Zimmermann
What's what Barnavelt House | Fountain
Where's there New Zebedee, Michigan

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