Thursday, August 16, 2001

Testimony: Gothic Boys And Literary Greats

by Matthew Richardson (Aug. 16, 2001)
(Originally published at the

When I was a boy, I was much like Johnny Dixon and Lewis Barnavelt: a pudgy blond boy with a yen for the old-fashioned and the mysterious. While other kids indulged in athletics, I became a voracious reader and video viewer. I loved old black-and-white movies as well as futuristic science fiction. I reveled in the spookiness of old radio show recordings, such as The Shadow, War of the Worlds, and Suspense! I knew what it was to be an outcast among my peers.

Somewhere, in the midst of all this, I discovered John Bellairs. I remember visiting our local bookstore and seeing Edward Gorey's lovely cover to The Trolley to Yesterday. As a fan of the British series, Doctor Who, time travel greatly fascinated me. So I took it home, and my literary life was forever changed. Ironically, this was one of Bellairs' most atypical works, bordering - along with The Eyes of the Killer Robot - on science fiction.

In the midst of all this, I knew I wanted to be a writer. For a long time, I bemoaned the fact that darkly Gothic stories about boyhood - the kind of stories I was most interested in - were so scarce. A sensitive, precocious, intellectual boy, I identified with such children more than anyone else. John Bellairs was the perfect antidote. While I enjoyed all of the adventures, his sensitive vision of Johnny Dixon was - and is - what I have always found the most compelling. I can still remember the rush of excitement when I read The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt for the first time, when we learn of Johnny's fears of being alone. Although I am a loner by nature, I really felt Johnny's pain.

There has always been an innate sense of tragedy to the Gothic story. Though they come through the horrors relatively unscathed, the dark wheels of destiny seem to be pitted against them. These books contain some of the finest juxtapositions of childhood innocence and Gothic decadence that I have ever seen. I can think of no writer, aside from John Bellairs, who has captured this contrast so effectively.

What makes John Bellairs so special, to me anyway, is how he finds new ways of combining old ideas. Although the traditional Gothic horror elements are almost always used, he takes us to new locations and exposes us to different kinds of evils in each and every book. His heroes are not only some of the most vivid in children's literature, but they exemplify what I consider to be an all-important heroic qualify: they're eccentric, they know they're eccentric, and even when it bothers them, they don't usually try to conform. Therefore, they provide good role models for children.

John Bellairs has inspired me in more ways than I thought possible. When I finally started writing novels, I realized that what I most wanted to write was a Bellairs-esque story, but with my own characters and situations, my own "take" on a Gothic child's life. This "novel" has since expanded into a trilogy, but the Bellairs inspiration is especially evident in the first book. I simply loved - and love - his storytelling vision. Even as I move toward completing this trilogy of novels, and I look forward to moving on to other ideas, I can't help thinking of how much this wonderful man named John Bellairs inspired and continues to inspire me. May his words live forever.

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