Friday, January 26, 1996

CompleatBellairs: Brad Strickland Commentary

by Brad Strickland (Jan. 26, 1996)
(Originally published at the

Yes, I'm the writer who completed two unfinished Bellairs manuscripts (The Ghost in the Mirror and The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder) and wrote two more books from short plot synopses left by John (The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie and The Doom of the Haunted Opera). I'll be glad to comment on the experience.

taking up the mantle...

I've been a Bellairs fan for years, ever since coming across John's wonderful fantasy The Face in the Frost back in the late seventies. After reading that, I read practically everything he wrote, including all the books for younger readers. It was a great shock when my agent called to tell me that John had died suddenly of a heart attack, that he had two books in process and had just sold two more based on short outlines, and that the estate wanted to find a writer to complete these books. John's son, as I understand it, had read some of my fantasy work and had noticed a Bellairsian influence (I'm fond of pairing younger characters with older ones and have written some Brewster-ish sidekicks, like the two animated gargoyles in my book Nul's Quest).

After some consideration, a personal meeting with the publisher, and a bit of hesitation -- I didn't want to do a slipshod job! -- I agreed to tackle the most nearly complete book, which had already been set for publication (in fact, the book jacket had already been designed and printed at that point!), The Ghost in the Mirror. The story was all there, but John generally worked from a very short synopsis (always one page or less) and extemporized the details as he went along. Then he would turn in his first draft, the editor would read it and suggest massive revisions, and he would rewrite. In the meantime, while waiting for the editor's comments, John would begin the next book.


The big problems with The Ghost in the Mirror were (1) the villain came in only at the very end; (2) the novel ended abruptly, with the treasure unfound and the status of Mrs. Zimmermann's powers unresolved; and (3) the editor really wanted at least a token appearance by Uncle Jonathan and Lewis. Accordingly, I wrote two brief earlier scenes to put Stoltzfuss in the story earlier, came up with the terrible poem as a key to the treasure, and rewrote earlier scenes to explain the crystal orb as the means of restoring Mrs. Z's powers. Then I expanded the ending drastically (originally it ended with the destruction of Stoltzfuss; Mrs. Z. and Rose Rita were instantly zapped back into the car, came out the other side of the tunnel, and Mrs. Z. said, "Gracious! We're back!") and included the return of Jonathan and Lewis.

on "vengeance", "drum", and "doom"...

The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder was much less complete, with only three chapters done--and nobody could find the synopsis! So I suggested a plot line that would, it seem to me, logically continue the thread of the story and wrote from there.

The other two existed as one-page synopses, often with the characters not named (Mama Sinestra, Todd Lamort, and Immanuel/Henry Vanderhelm are all named by me) and with the conclusions only sketched in ("Using their knowledge of the magician's musical powers, Rose Rita and Lewis break into a performance of the opera and save the day. Then the closing scene is in the back yard as spring approaches.") I elaborated these into twenty-page outlines, worked with the editor to refine the outlines, and then wrote the books.

enjoying the day of doom...

By the way, I had the most fun with The Doom of the Haunted Opera. John's "New Zebedee" is based very closely on his home town of Marshall, Michigan, and I visited Marshall twice, taking copious notes and even visiting the actual Eagle Opera House, the old ruined theater that served as the model for the New Zebedee Opera. It's a spooky place, and in the years since it closed many generations of school children have snuck up there and left graffiti behind. I found one that read simply "Lewis" and knew I was on the right track!

the future...

At this point, all of the Bellairs outlines (as far as we can tell) have been used up. However, the books continue to do well, and there is a demand for them. In addition, like you, I want young readers who like thrills and chills to have some substantial stories to read, and I love writing this kind of book. So, together with John's son, I proposed two books in the Johnny Dixon series as an experiment. I will write them, and if they do well, we may continue the other series, too.

The first of these, The Hand of the Necromancer, is now in press (in fact, I am correcting proof sheets of it this week). Neither the publisher nor I wish to fool the readers into thinking this is another completed book, so the billing will change slightly:

John Bellairs' Johnny Dixon in
by Brad Strickland

The story, briefly, is that Johnny is lonely one summer because Fergie is away. Professor Childermass arranges to get Johnny a temporary job at the Gudge House Museum by letting the museum borrow a boxful of magical implements the professor inherited from his brother Peregrine (from The Chessmen of Doom). Among these items is an apparently carved wooden hand. However, a menacing stranger named Mattheus Mergal comes to Duston Heights and wants to buy the implements, especially the hand. Before the book ends, Johnny and the Professor learn that Mergal is a necromancer, and he intends to use the items to summon up the spirit of a powerful and long-dead sorcerer for nefarious purposes of his own.

The next one will be The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder, in which Fergie has his own adventure with a strange book he stumbles across. It makes his wishes come true -- but it exacts a pretty terrible price! Of course, Johnny and the Professor figure in this one, too.

We don't have any firm plans for more books--the idea is to see whether the readers will accept these "further adventures" or not before we continue. I have in mind a sequel to The Trolley to Yesterday in which Johnny and Fergie visit the future--the world of the 1990's! If it's done, then Brewster will take his bows, naturally, but all that is up to the readers and their support. So at this point, I really don't know whether Lewis, Rose Rita, and Anthony will appear again -- though I like them all and would be willing to write the stories!

giving up the ghost...

As far as the spirit of the books goes, I think that John and I are similar in philosophy. John once remarked that he considered himself a good writer of Gothic thrillers for young folks because the things that scared him when he was ten still scared him when he was forty. We both like a good shivery tale about deserted churchyards at midnight, distant dogs howling mournfully at a baleful full moon, whispery, terrifying chants and incantations, mysterious talismans and amulets, and poised against them, the powers of good. I think we both agree that evil can be on the surface tremendously powerful, and yet can carry within it the seeds of its own destruction; and that the powers of faith, decency, and friendship, though frail on the surface, have a surprising and enduring inner strength. I think all of us, young and old alike, derive from tales of terror a certain sense that the disturbing and dark parts of our lives can be overcome, that there is hope after all, and that courage, honor, and the support of friends are wonderful anchors in a threatening sea.

All this may be more than you bargained for, but please feel free to use anything here in your project. I'll be more than pleased to answer any specific questions you may have as well. Do let me know the http site--I think John Bellairs is long overdue for attention on the Net!

Brad Strickland

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