Sunday, December 29, 1996

Testimony: The Magical Mystery Muse

by John Hammink, North Karelia, Finland (Dec. 29, 1996)
(Originally published at the

It was one of those long, hot, boring summers after elementary school. Having just refused another neighborhood baseball game, the book, lying torn and dusty in a cool corner of the basement, caught my eye. Crumbling pages, tattered, a little moldy, like Uncle Jonathan's copies of the John L. Stoddard lectures. I picked up the book and began perusing Edward Gorey's creepy cover art. "...the year was 1948..." I found myself suddenly plunged into a tale of a boy like myself: traveling to a new town to live with an uncle whom he'd never met, the boy himself shy, geeky and unable to keep new friends. The poker game in the front parlor with Mrs. Zimmerman had me as full of anticipation just after I walked in the front door of that humongous house. I was as anxious to explore the rest of the novel as Lewis was to explore the mansion. I related to the downsides of Lewis's life as well---the boredom with most of his peers, rejection by the hooting, hollering athletic boys, Tarby and his associated foolishness and popularity. (And who can forget the scene where Lewis goes to Tarby's nuclear-family zoo of a house!)

It was a natural transition, then, from the commonplace to the supernatural: raising the Izard(s) from the crypt, experiencing Jonathan's magic, and listening to the ticking of the clock in the walls. And the final encounter! I could see Edward Gorey's version of the rotting Izards, the Omega, and the Hand of Glory. And with the humor that was as interwoven into the horror and cozy familiarity of the tale, it made me happy to know that there was such a writer as Bellairs around. I was both dazzled and (I admit) envious of his talent (even at that age!).

Of course, then, there was so much to do. By that summer (1979) Bellairs was well into his second series. I devoured the Lewis-Rose Rita trilogy like a pack of hyenas on a fleshy dead zebra. I then began to work my way through the Anthony Monday stories, all the way up to The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn. I couldn't put a single book down for a minute. After reading The Figure in the Shadows in one sitting, I always got a nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach at the smell of wet ashes, and an almost paranoid disdain for amulets. And The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring has left me with an inspiration toward the ambiguities and mysteries of sifting through a deceased person's belongings (in a piece I'm writing now, the protagonist becomes obsessed with a person's life whom he only knows through the belongings, which he volunteers to liquidate. In so doing, he finds an anomaly and creates, for himself, a philosophical crisis).

I went back and read the hilariously horrifying The Face in the Frost. And even more to the beginning: The Pedant and the Shuffly and St. Fidgeta and other Parodies. And, over time, all of the Anthony Monday stories and most of the Johnny Dixon series as well, as they were being written.

While adolescence, for me, had all of it's ordinary twists and turns, usually bordering on the mundane, John Bellairs's influence on that part of my life was inestimable. The novels, in time, took on a pattern with the protagonist usually an adolescent who made a mystical goof, who, usually with the help of friends, or someone older, eventually comes to terms with it. But there was always something new around each turn. Elements of science fiction in The Eyes of the Killer Robot; time travel in The Trolley to Yesterday; gothic horror in The Doom of the Haunted Opera; even some delicious philosophical crisis sprinkled here and there. (I think Robert M. Pirsig, another one of my favorite authors, would love these books). What Bellairs seemingly hadn't done before he always approached with the ease of a child picking up a new toy and the grace of a dancer gliding through the movements to the exact beat of the dance. One enters Bellairs's novels right from the front door, hangs out in the comfy living room for a while, with Uncle Jonathon's meerschaum pipesmoke curling to cozy embers and a cup of hot chocolate. Of course, before one realizes it, one finds oneself thrown headfirst into the labyrinthine plot, chasing ancient spells and spectral visions, fighting it out with the hideous forces of evil.

John Bellairs was one of those truly amazing writers by whose pen the ordinary place was transformed into the setting for the mysterious. I moved to Michigan myself in 1988, sometimes dreaming of where Uncle Jonathan was or where Mrs. Zimmerman was, by now, buried. Curiously enough, right in Ypsilanti, my college town, there were two old houses that could have been the setting for The House with a Clock in its Walls: an old green mansion with a cupola and a space for a fountain behind (the backyard was donated to the Boys and Girls club in the early sixties) and a small, pointy bungalow almost directly adjacent, with flecks of purple paint sloppily covered by newer, fresher coats. Of course, I also took a trip to the real New Zebedee (known to ordinary mortals as Marshall, Michigan) and saw the the real haunted opera, the house with a clock, the fountain. I met a bartender who was an old classmate of John's. Before he sent me off in the direction of John's old house, he showed me a senior yearbook picture. There was Lewis, (and Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon) all grown up!

The year of that trip was 1991. Of course, everyone moves on, in some way, to somwehere. I, later, having developed a taste for the mystery out of the corner of my eye, took to Robert M. Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and Umberto Eco (Focault's Pendulum), both wonderful follow-up writers to the craving that Bellairs tantalized. I grew up at 26, moved to Finland, and became a writer and editor, chasing old legends here. That's life. Even Lewis and Rose Rita grew up and grew older. I believe, If I can even approach the harmonic resonance of horror, humor and allegory that John Bellairs started and Brad Strickland continues, and the boring adolescent baseball games and nerdiness, insatiable wonder at the darkness, and the frightening calm that lies out of the corner of perception, then my muse has taken me somewhere.

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