Saturday, February 24, 1996

Testimony: The Boy, the Book, and the Magician

by Jonathan Abucejo (Feb. 24, 1996)
(Originally published at the compleatbellairs.com)

Sounds like the name of a new novel coming out by John Bellairs, doesn't it? The title has all the classic Bellairs elements: a grouping of three items; one being an object (usually magical in origin) and another a supernatural being of some sort (recall The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt or The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring). However, the title refers to myself. I was (and many ways, still am) that "boy"; the "book" happened to be The House With the Clock in Its Walls; and the "magician" was a master storyteller, spawning adventures akin to a wizard casting a fantastic, arcane spell... yes, the magician was John Bellairs.

I was in sixth grade, and had just entered public school for the first time. I had attended a private school of sorts before that (an interesting experience to say the least). Nevertheless, one fancy I did carry over from my previous schooling was "looking forward to Library Day". I was enthralled at the notion of checking out new things to read, and opening the proverbial doors to other worlds which books had to offer. I remember always walking past the "B" section of the paperback aisles marked "juvenile", and my eyes were always drawn to the one book on the top shelf in particular. It wasn't just the cover...it was the face on it. And a strange one at that: a human-seeming greenish face superimposed on what looked to be the face of a great, grand clock face of sorts. The clock face was then juxtaposed with the form of an eerie, dark mansion. The face on the clock was sinister, foreboding...almost as if it were related to "The Wizard" from the classic film version of first Oz book. It seemed to be staring the solitary figure of a boy, a dwarf in comparison. Altogether, the cover gave me the chills, and I took great lengths to always look away from it, as if I were staring into the eyes of the devil himself. I must add that I was always facinated by the supernatural, always wanting to believe in ghosts, goblins and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night; unfortunately, my sense of imagination always got the better of me and I tended to chicken out when confronted with something even remotely scary! Anyways, I quickly tried to find another book just to shake off that shivery, spooky fear. Each succesive Library Day would come and go, and I would always follow the same pattern.

It wasn't until about the middle of the school year when I finally gathered enough gumption to grab the book and page through it. When I opened it, I was immediately captivated by the interesting, linear artwork. I read the first few pages about a boy named Lewis on his way to meet his uncle for the first time, and could readily identify with his situation. He, like myself, was apprehensive in starting fresh in a new different environment (in his case, New Zebedee; in mine, public school). I closed the book, and quickly rushed to the library counter to have the book stamped (which I don't think they do anymore!) and checked out. Upon my arrival at home, I believe I went to my room and read the book from start to finish. Lewis Barnavelt was a very likable character, one that you could relate to, in his attempts at finding new friends. The magical element turned out to be icing on the cake. And who would not want a relative like Uncle Jonathan? "This," I said to myself, "is the best book I've ever read." I shook my head in disbelief, thinking about all the times I had passed the book up in the past!

The following Library Day I asked the school librarian if there were any other books by John Bellairs. To my joy, she pointed me to the rest of the trilogy (The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring) and to a hardback, The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn. I checked those out as well, and enjoyed reading them as much as I did the first book. In fact, so paranoid was my imagination from finishing The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring that the haunting visage of a robed spirit would always seem to appear in the corner of my eye for weeks on end. I was frightened, yes. Yet, it certainly was a delicious fright!

I continued reading John Bellairs's books from junior high school to senior school, up until the present day. And here I am in college, majoring in (who'lda thunk it?) Children's Literature and Child Social and Creative Development (an interdisciplinary major, and preparation for Elementary Education....the University of Pittsburgh's has an odd Teaching program!). Five years ago, upon learning about John Bellairs' death by my local librarian and friend Miss Jones, I was terribly grief-stricken. My heart sank...what would become of that giddy anticipation I had when reading the typical short biography at the end of every recent book: "A resident of Haverhill, Massachusetts, Mr. Bellairs is currently at work on another chilling tale...."

All despair was at once abolished when I later held The Ghost in the Mirror in my hands. I loved it...the long-awaited return of Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmermann! Thank heavens for Brad Strickland! From the front page I had found that he had "completed" the book; I wasn't too sure what "all" he had completed...to be quite honest, I couldn't really tell from the style where John Bellairs stopped and Brad Strickland began! The same went with each successive, "completed" book: The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder, The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie, and The Doom of the Haunted Opera. I felt content and very pleased with Brad Strickland's work (which I thought to be merely a few chapters, here and there, towards the end....how very wrong I turned out to be in many cases!); Mr. Strickland certainly took up the mantle and turned out to be the best-qualified for the position! It was almost as if Mr. Bellairs had not passed away at all...

The Compleat Bellairs started out as a Topic of Interest project for my Educational Psychology class taught by one Heather Simpson-Labuda, to be due at the end of the semester (Spring '96)...originally a few pages dealing with plot synopses and character sketches, nothing more. However, as my knowledge of programming grew, so too did my need to expand the site into something so much more. By a fluke of sorts, I managed to stumble upon the forthcoming title of a new Bellairs book...The Hand of the Necromancer...and Brad Strickland's e-mail address! He is one of the most warm, friendly, personable, agreeable fellows I've ever had the pleasure to correspond with, and I owe a GREAT deal of thanks to his kind comments, suggestions and contributions.

Finally, to the dedicated reader, I hope you have as much fun with The Compleat Bellairs as I had in creating it! I ask of only one, simple favor...please, if you haven't already, pick up a John Bellairs book!

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