A few weeks ago, while online, I happened upon a movie trailer for “The House with a Clock in its Walls”. While I was intrigued by the casting (Jack Black and Cate Blanchette), I was thrown by the visual styling of it. The music track, title lettering, and overall tone was reminiscent of the Harry Potter films, and I assumed it was a knock off, which irked me. Knock offs are rarely as good as their original counterparts, and, to my way of thinking, it’s cheating. I decided to check out the book it was based on, fully anticipating being bored and annoyed. I was wrong.
When I first looked up the John Bellairs book in the library catalogue, I discovered that it had originally been published in 1973, almost a quarter of a century prior to the first Harry Potter novel! Another delight to discover was the illustrations had been drawn by Edward Gorey. If you haven’t had the good fortune (or bad, depending on your perspective on things) of coming across anything by Edward Gorey, you’re in for a treat… sort of. His work, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” is an alphabet book like no other and not intended for the faint of heart. The 26 letters each depict how a young person met an untimely end. Gorey has been called the Tim Burton of his time and his line drawings reflect that.
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is typical of a novel in the horror genre for younger readers. The hero, Lewis, has recently lost both his parents and is travelling by bus to meet his Uncle Jonathon, with whom he is going to live. Uncle Jonathon’s house is gothic, both in architecture and atmosphere, and Uncle Jonathon’s neighbour, Mrs. Zimmermann, is a witch. Literally. She is also good friends with Uncle Jonathon, who is a warlock. Lewis must learn witchcraft, combat bullies at school, and find the demon that he himself unearthed while trying to impress the most popular boy in school, Tarby, in the graveyard one night.
One of the themes throughout the book is secrets. Uncle Jonathon mysteriously wanders the house at night. Lewis is too terrified to confess to his uncle what he has done, making everything worse. Tarby keeps secret his absolute terror of the events that took place in the graveyard. It’s one of those situations where the reader is led to believe all sorts of problems could have been averted at the outset, if only everyone had come clean. But no. Lewis’s secret in particular is dragged on for an absurd amount of time, irritatingly so.
The tone of the book is dark, but with a flippancy regarding disaster like that found in Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events”. Bellairs builds tension throughout the story, while maintaining levity that reassures all will be well in the end. The relationship between Uncle Jonathon and Mrs. Zimmermann is delightful: they are constantly insulting one another, while looking out for each other, like constantly bantering siblings.
Bellairs writes to a junior audience, very much like the style and tone of the early Harry Potter stories. Having now read two novels by Bellairs, I’m looking forward to seeing the film when it comes out in September. It should be creepy-cool.