Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Spell of the Satirist’s Skill

by Eve Tushnet (June 11, 2012)
(originally published at
I don’t know why anyone would ever want to rule a fantasy kingdom, or become an evil wizard, when you have to deal with countless irksome children giving you backchat. It seems that almost every kids’ fantasy written nowadays has a “spunky” hero or heroine: kids who speak their mind or talk back to their elders, even when sass is clearly not the wisest move. These kids’ mentors constantly praise them for their bravery, but it’s hard to see why, since their whole personalities seem geared toward boldness to the point of stupidity or brattiness.

Not so the heroes of John C. Bellairs’s [sic] eerie, spooky, often grimly funny fantasy tales. The kids who battle sorcerers and curses in his books are typically shy or easily intimidated, burdened with anxiety and guilt. These kids can even come across as sad-sacks, which would be less fun to read if the books didn’t push them out of their shells and help them find friendship (usually with adults rather than other children) and courage.

Bellairs wrote fifteen children’s books himself; the remaining books using his characters were pieced together from his notes or entirely written by another author. (You can find a list of actual- versus ersatz-Bellairs here.) Many were illustrated by the great master of Gothic humor, Edward Gorey. Bellairs got his start as a satirist of Catholic mores in the Vatican II era, and he loved silly puzzles. (One of his evil wizards plants a clue requiring knowledge of the punchline of a joke which begins, “Does this bus go to Duluth?”) But he also crafted truly frightening images and characters who linger in children’s imaginations. Last year I ran across a grown-up who still shivers when she thinks of Isaac Izard, the villain of The House with a Clock in Its Walls. That clock is counting down the hours to Doomsday—but, in a sublime Bellairs touch, it’s defeated by means of a madcap magical card game involving a tiny creature who lives in the fusebox and shouts, "Dreeb! Dreeb! I am the fusebox dwarf."

The relationships between kids and adults in Bellairs’s books may be one of their most unusual aspects. The kids bear adult burdens—in The Mummy, the Will, And the Crypt, Johnny Dixon is trying to uncover the secrets of a tycoon’s riddling will in order to get money for medical care for his beloved grandmother. (His grandparents are caring for him while his father fights in Korea.) And the adults have childlike weaknesses which are both mortifying and endearing.

These books are comfort food for the kind of child who loves a good ghost story.

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