June 23, 1973: Forty years ago today The House with a Clock in its Walls was published. That’s roughly 1,261,440,000 seconds ago – but who’s counting?
In a 1990 article John Bellairs said that "out of boredom" during his time teaching at Emmanuel College he began piecing together his next work. 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."
The end result was introduced the first of his three young protagonists, Lewis Barnavelt of New Zebedee, Michigan – a small community not unlike his hometown of Marshall. Just an important a character was the titular house itself, a bizarre building that served as Lewis's protected sanctuary full of secret passages, stained glass windows and other surprises. There was Lewis’ uncle Jonathan and next-door-neighbor-witch Mrs. Zimmermann, too. Schoolyard superhero Tarby Corrigan appears as Lewis’ first friend in New Zebedee – as well as first former friend – and there's local transient Hammerhandle, who put his neck on the line to help that strange lady who moved in across the street...who is she, anyway?
Any-who – the supernatural and highly imaginative tale struck a nerve with readers and reviewers alike. The New York Times Book Review said that Bellairs touched "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." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly was also positive, stating that "for devotees of the genre, here's the genuine article, a ghost story guaranteed to raise hackles." Gary D. Schmidt said "Bellairs builds on the mythic topos that the weak and innocent perform the grave and mighty deeds of the world…" and author Michael Landsberg, in Reading for the Love of It: Best Books for Young Readers, said the "engaging tone of the book springs from the comical clash between appearances of cozy normalcy and matter-of-fact revelations of the supernatural."
There were some detractors. The School Library Journal said the book was "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" and Booklist added the tale "is weakened by the loose juxtaposing of diabolical elements and levity, but nonetheless is palpable fare for younger dabblers in the occult."
Did we mention the art by Edward Gorey? No? Well not today at least. You probably were already aware of that, anyway.
Two sequels followed – The Figure in the Shadows (1975) and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring (1976) – before Bellairs put Lewis and Rose Rita into semi-retirement. He picked up the series shortly before his death in 1991, whereupon author Brad Strickland completed three additional stories and wrote an additional six more adventures involving Lewis (his most recent was 2008’s The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer).
House went onto become John’s calling card and, often along with The Face in the Frost, the book that his subsequent stories get judged against. It’s been translated into a handful of languages and made into a made-for-television adaptation back in 1979 (quick capsule review: “they tried.”). Capping the accolades (the equivalent to putting a lighted candle in the cupola room of Barnavelt’s Folly) was the announcement in late 2011 that there might finally be a big-screen adaption after years of rumours. How will that fare?
Time will tell.