“Then something happened. Johnny reached out and - for the first time - actually touched the book, which began to steam and smoke. With a loud yell, Fergie dropped it, and the other two leaped back. The pages of the book began to writhe and twist, and more whitish smoke curled upward. It was burning - being consumed by a fire that could not be seen. In a few minutes there was nothing left on the ground but a heap of gray ashes.”
From John Bellairs' The Spell of the Sorcerers Skull.
Starting in the late 70s, John Bellairs put out several series of gothic supernatural children’s fiction, predating Harry Potter by a good twenty years.
With tantalizing titles like “The Letter, the Witch and the Ring”, “The Spell of The Sorcerers Skull”, and “The Eyes of the Killer Robot”, every book was a first rate magical adventure and just as deserving of fandom as J.K. Rowling’s much beloved novels.
According to John Bellair’s fan site, Bellarsia, his first children’s book “The House With The Clock In it’s Walls” was originally conceived as a fantasy novel for adults. However, the author ultimately chose to direct the book towards children.
“I have the imagination of a 10-year-old” Bellairs once remarked, “I like coffins and bones and secret panels.”
I don’t know about so called normal ten year olds, but I can certainly speak to the appeal.
At the tender age of ten, I was already well on the way to being a budding young goth, although I wouldn’t have known to call myself that. I had a thing for dressing like an old Victorian lady - I had my mom make me ridiculous long wool skirts which I would pair with these hand me down puffy lacy blouses. Unfortunately this can neither be confirmed or denied, officially, as my parents didn’t really take as many pictures of me anymore once I hit that awkward age. But I do remember being teased mercilessly for the way I dressed. And that my fifth grade teacher would often compliment me on my outfits. Which made me seriously uncool.
I was already an avid book nerd, so every day after school my dad would take my brother and I to our diminutive local library, and I would dive into the shelves looking for my next fix: another John Bellairs novel. It was easily the best part of my day.
I know I’m not the only one, a quick Google search of John Bellairs will take you to multiple reviews and blogs by thirty somethings just like me, who also grew up on the stuff. His writing appealed to bookish misfit types, who had a taste for a good ghost story.
Bellairs was really my first introduction to the spell of the Page Turner - I don’t think I’d ever read anything that gripped me so. I remember being scared, quite chillingly frightened - to the point where an odd noise in the room would make me jump out of my seat. But I couldn’t stop, it was just too good.
There were actually several different series of books, each with a different protagonist, but they all had supernatural themes. Evil magicians plotting to end the world, for instance.
And…Edward Gorey, the most wonderful of macabre illustrators, did the covers for most of the Bellairs books. There were usually some great Gorey illustrations inside the book as well, which only enhanced the magic of the whole experience. I didn’t know who Edward Gorey even was at the time, I just know I really dug those drawings.
Again, my story isn’t that exceptional in this regard either. I am one of many who also came to love Gorey through these remarkable childrens books.
And these gems shouldn't just be limited to kids, by the way. Bellairs knew how to write a good, highly addictive story.
What's more, I love that like all great children’s book writers, Bellairs never talks down to his readers. His children and adult characters both were flawed in their own way, for instance the lovable and eccentric uncle from the Lewis Barnavelt series likes to drink and and smoke and gamble for old coins while playing cards. Hardly a shocking thing in itself, but I feel like often times children's book authors shy away from any depictions of vice, unless it's of the bad guys.
Really though, let's be honest and get to the point...who doesn't love a good tale about a kid fighting evil supernatural powers?
Why no one has done a feature film of any of his books is completely beyond me. Done right, they really could be the next mega franchise.
And for the moment anyway, we have a wonderful signed copy of The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull - the third book in Bellairs' Johnny Dixon series. So if you're reading this, and you're already a fan, it's definitely worth a gander.
Posted by The Lady