Sunday, March 26, 2023

The House with a Clock in its Walls: Revisiting 50-Year-Old Book Reviews

It's not just The House with a Clock in its Walls turning 50 years old this year. It's also all the reviews from the various publishing journals. Just like the text of the book, some reviews have aged better than others. Here's a rundown of what we've collected over the years. 

Let's begin with the oldest in our archive:

For devotees of the genre, here’s the genuine article, a ghost story guaranteed to raise hackles. Young Lewis arrives to live with his uncle, Jonathan, when his parents die, and he is delighted with the new house. It has secret passages, stained glass windows and all kinds of surprises. Almost at once, he finds that his uncle and a neighbor, a motherly soul named Mrs. Zimmermann, are witches but dedicated to good works. They are trying to find a clock hidden in the walls of Jonathan’s house, left there by the former owners, both bad witches. The clock goes on ticking and the three must find and stop it before it strikes and marks the end of the world. In the chilling finale, good conquers evil, of course. Bellairs’s story and Edward Gorey’s pictures are satisfyingly frightening.

Publishers Weekly
Vol. 203, No. 13, March 26, 1973, p. 70
Over the years, you've probably read snippets from these reviews on the front and back of paperback covers. It's always nice to find the source and read the full review.
What the author has done that's so special is to touch both the intellect and the feelings. He has dusted off the paraphernalia of ancient magic and made us newly aware of the differences between good and evil. His dialogue goes snap, crackle, and pop. He sets chilling scenes with suspense that tightens like a screw .... The House With a Clock in Its Walls will cast its spell for a long time.

The New York Times Book Review
Sometimes reviews spoil the plot, the ending -- all points in between.  I’m sure the full text was not immediately available to the public at the time, so perhaps the intended audience would never have read the review. Perhaps librarians or booksellers consulted such things to decide what to stock?

Gorey’s creepy-cozy drawings accurately project the ambience of the big old house in tiny New Zebedee, Michigan, where ten-year old Lewis, newly orphaned by an auto accident, goes to live with his benign and rather seedy warlock uncle Jonathan. With the help of gray-haired Mrs. Zimmermann, the cookie-baking witch next door, Jonathan amuses his nephew with an eclipse of the moon and other frivolous pastimes—but the uncanny happenings become more sinister when Lewis himself, to impress a friend, manages to summon malignant Mrs. Izard, the house’s former occupant, from her tomb. Lewis redeems himself in the end and destroys Mrs. Izard’s evil power by finding and breaking a clock which the lady’s sorcerer husband, now dead, had programmed to destroy the world. Bellairs doesn’t bother to supply either motivation or blueprints for the Izards’ antisocial scheme, but if the cavalier and capricious handling of the occult by characters and author alike precludes any bone-deep shudders, the house lives up to its promise of a few gratifying Halloween shivers.

Kirkus Reviews
Vol. XLI, No. 9, May 1, 1973, p. 514

Do we know whether some of the reviewers or journals ever went back to reasses books 10, 20, or 40 years later?

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an unsuccessful attempt to produce a seriocomic tale of the supernatural set in a modern small town. Lewis, a 10-year-old orphan, comes to New Zebedee, Michigan, to stay with his Uncle Jonathan who lives in a three-story stone mansion with a tall turret. Uncle Jonathan is an inept wizard, his neighbor and friend, Mrs. Zimmermann, is a witch, and the previous owners of the house (both recently deceased) were Isaac Izard, an evil warlock, and his wife. Hidden in the walls of the house is Isaac’s magic clock, ticking away the minutes until doomsday. Lewis’ efforts to find the clock only succeed in bringing Mrs. Izard back from the grave even more determined to destroy the world. In the end, her machinations are foiled by Lewis, who destroys the clock in the nick of time. Lewis’ adventures are neither funny nor chilling, merely implausible.

School Library Journal
Vol. 19, No. 9, May 15, 1973, p. 91

Is there a difference between "younger dabblers in the occult" and -- oh let's call them "young people reading about the occult"?
A light occult novel in which orphaned Lewis goes to live with his Uncle Jonathan, a wizard who owns a rambling mansion previously inhabited by the now deceased Izzard’s [sic], dealers in black magic. A mysterious ticking within the mansion walls bodes ill, Jonathan feels, and his intuition is borne out when Lewis unknowingly resurrects Mrs. Izard on a midnight graveyard Halloween outing. Freed, she resumes her husband’s unfinished task of bringing about ht e end of the world—a task closely linked with the ticking in Jonathan’s mansion. Bellair’s [sic] tale is weakened by the loose juxtaposition of diabolical elements and levity, but nonetheless is palatable fare for younger dabblers in the occult.

The Booklist
Vol. 70, No. 4, October 15, 1973, p. 227
A few months after Dial published the book, reviews were still favorable -- save for the "cumbersome plot".
Newly orphaned, Lewis is a plump ten-year-old who has come to live with his Uncle Jonathan; he finds himself very much at home in the old, odd mansion and he quickly becomes fond of both Uncle Jonathan and his next-door neighbor ... Mrs. Zimmerman [sic]. But there's something odd going on: the ticking noise in the walls of the house, the strange things Uncle Jonathan does; Lewis discovers that his uncle has magic powers, that he himself has acquired some occult ability, and that there is a major power struggle between their well-meant white magic and the dire plans of an extinct (but haunting) former owner. Black magic against white, good against evil, the mood and suspense are artfully created and the illustrations exactly right for the eerie tale. The plot is a bit cumbersome at some points in the story, but it’s imaginative, the characters and dialogue are convincing, and the relationship between Lewis and his adult friends is sympathetically drawn.

Zena Sutherland
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
Vol. 27, No. 3, November, 1973, p. 37.
Five years later (okay, not quite the 50 years we alluded to in this post's title) the book still received praise.  Although I wouldn't call doomsday a "not-too-serious supernatural experience". That's just me. You do you.
An entertaining fantasy about not-too-serious supernatural experiences. Lewis, fat and clumsy, lives with his uncle who is a "white" magician. Somewhere in his uncle’s odd house is a clock that ticks day and night. It has been placed there by a wizard and his wife and when it stops, the end of the world will come. But how to find it? The search involves a breathless chase by ghosts and the opening of a tomb where the wizard is buried. Most of the mysterious happenings cause only a titillation of the nerves but there is one moment of sheer horror when Lewis (aged 10) opens the door at midnight and sees the “white fungus blotch which was the face” of an old woman he used to know and whom he knows to be dead. Very sensibly he faints. The characters in the story are very odd indeed—Mrs. Zimmerman [sic] who is an educated witch with a degree, the podgy and lonely Lewis with his lively and almost fatal curiosity, and Mrs. Izard who has escaped from her grave and falls to dust in an unpleasant way when Lewis outwits her.

Edward Gorey is a fitting illustrator for such an uncanny tale.

E. Colwell
The Junior Bookshelf
Vol. 42, No. 5, October, 1978, pp. 253-54
Again, these were what we had in the archives. Drop us line if you find some other gems from all those years ago or to share your thoughts on whether these reviewers got it right or wrong. Plenty of other people have shared their thoughts in recent years. Let's see how the next 50 years fare for Lewis.

Happy (re)reading!

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