Friday, February 9, 1996

Testimony: The Magic of John Bellairs

by Brad Strickland (Feb. 9, 1996)
(Originally published at the
Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn't matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you're thinking of, either."

John Bellairs' wonderful opening to his unique, funny, scary fantasy novel The Face in the Frost captivated me immediately the first time I read it, back in the early seventies. As the plot unfolds, Roger Bacon joins Prospero (Bacon is on the lam from a magical mistake in England that left all the beaches littered with broken glass). Just in time, too, for an old nemesis of Prospero's, a magician who studied under Michael Scott with him, has mastered a deadly magic that threatens to engulf all the world. . . .

The novel swept me up right away. It is loony and horrifying, witty and atmospheric. When at last the tale brought Prospero and Roger back from a terrifying quest, home to a woodsy cottage with a snarfling metal hippopotamus on the roof and a smart-alec magic mirror in the bedroom, I could only shake my head in wonder and rueful envy of a writer whose first novel could be that good.

And before long, I had read everything available by Bellairs: the Lewis Barnavelt/Rose Rita Pottinger trilogy, beginning with The House with a Clock in its Walls, the Anthony Monday books from The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn on, and the Johnny Dixon series, starting with The Curse of the Blue Figurine. In these books for younger readers, Bellairs found his true niche. All are different, and yet all share similarities.

The Lewis/Rose Rita books take place in New Zebedee, Michigan, a town not as imaginary as it first appears. If you go to the very real town of Marshall, Michigan, where John Bellairs was born on January 17, 1938, you'll find yourself spang in the middle of New Zebedee. Thanks to the hospitality of bookstore owners Ann and Tony LaPietra, I've had the privilege of exploring the real house with a clock in its walls, the Cronin mansion, from ground floor up to the tower roof. I've seen the circular fountain with the wonderful color-changing lights. I've even climbed up decaying stairs to the abandoned Eagle Opera House, which still has posters and playbills on the walls from turn-of- the-century performances of Peck's Bad Boy and East Lynne. I've walked the streets and marveled at what John Bellairs left out of his books: the Honolulu House, an elaborate mansion built in the 1830's that is admirably suited for the torrid summers of Oahu but that might fall a tad short during a cold Michigan winter; the Museum of Magic, with memorabilia of America's greatest conjurors; and a certain barrel-arched bridge under whose shadows spooky things must assuredly skulk. And although I have not visited Winona, Minnesota, the original of Hoosac in the Anthony Monday books, or Haverhill, Massachusetts, the real-life model for Duston Heights, I'm sure they would seem just as familiar.

Surely a key to Bellairs' success as a writer is the utter familiarity, the sense of comfy realism about his places and his people. Into these ordinary lives and homes the uncanny, the eerie, the supernatural, intrudes; and the struggle of everyday, likeable people against powerful evil forces forms the central conflict of most of the Bellairs books. In his dry, unsentimental humor he is a lot like a James Thurber without the vinegar, a small-town boy who remembers what boyish joys and worries were really like. And yet he doesn't hesitate to free the nightmare, to let it ride and romp and threaten--for terror, too, is a part of young lives. However, although most of his best work is gothic, Bellairs was also a versatile writer who toyed with other elements of the fantastic. The supernatural does not really take center stage in The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, for example, and in The Trolley to Yesterday and The Eyes of the Killer Robot, Bellairs uses science-fiction elements as well as magical ones. But most of all, and best of all, he had a fabulous knack of mingling humor with horror.

John Bellairs often remarked that things which terrified him as a boy of ten -- whispering ghosts, magical incantations in a graveyard at midnight, ancient evils loosed on an unsuspecting world -- still thrilled and chilled him as an adult. You can trust a John Bellairs book to tell the truth about the way young folks feel, because he has a strong and vivid memory of how he felt as a young person.

As John Bellairs always said in closing his letters--


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