Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs (1973)

Lewis Barnavelt is an orphan, chubby and unpopular, who has come to live with his uncle Jonathan in a strange house in which the ticking noise of a mysterious hidden clock is ever-present. Lewis quickly learns that both Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman, who lives next door, practice witchcraft, and when he wants to impress his new friend Tarby he decides to perform a little magic himself. Unfortunately, Lewis's attempt to be cool for Tarby also results in the raising of a woman from the dead, a resurrection that creates many problems and dangers for Lewis, his uncle, and Mrs. Zimmerman.

I did a buddy-read of this book with three Instagram friends who were reading it in anticipation of the movie. Though I typically avoid books that might be scary in any way, I've been curious about Bellairs for a long time and this seemed like a good opportunity to get acquainted with his work. As it turned out, I was able to handle the scary content just fine, and I really liked and felt for Lewis as he struggled to fit into his new home and community. I think the fact that Lewis literally raised the dead for Tarby and Tarby still didn't really want to hang out with him is a great hyperbolic commentary on the ways kids sometimes feel compelled to impress the people who just don't want to be their friends, and it also validates the feelings of kids who feel like they just can't do anything right among their peers.

I had some reservations at first about the role of the occult in the story. As I mentioned when I reviewed The Amulet of Samarkand, I generally don't think it's a good idea to encourage kids, however subtly, to play at things like raising the dead. And thankfully, I think the point of view of this book is similar to mine. It is clearly dangerous for Lewis to have raised someone from the dead, and the results are nearly disastrous. Unlike The Amulet of Samarkand, this book does not glorify the occult; if anything, it warns away from meddling in the natural courses of life and death. There are also a few very brief Catholic references early in the book, including some Latin, that I enjoyed.

I mainly connect with books through their characters, and I found the characterizations in this book to be surprisingly believable and well done. I also enjoyed the writing style, even when the author was clearly trying to build up suspense to scare me. Even the ending, which felt a bit random and disorganized, worked for me, because Bellairs sold me on it. I hope to read books two and three in the series before the end of this year.


  1. Figure in the Shadows is my favorite. I kept this whole series, but am lacking the last three Brad Strickland titles. I never thought of that angle on the occult, since it's not POSSIBLE to raise anyone from the dead. When I was in middle school, I kept checking out a book on how to do real magic spells from the public library, and nothing ever worked, so I tend not to worry about it. Clearly, if anyone could do magic, it would be me, right?

  2. I've been wondering about this since I first saw the preview for the movie. Somehow I didn't realize it existed until then. I'm glad that the characters sold you on the book even when the plot itself got jumbly.