Thursday, March 26, 2009

The World of John Bellairs

This blog is a bit like a secretary desk into which bills and correspondence have been stuffed willy nilly…because of neglect I keep reaching into an overflowing pigeonhole and pulling stuff out only to go, yikes, I meant to deal with that months ago. Come to think of it, that kind of describes my brain.


One of the topics I see I meant to get to back last fall was the work of John Bellairs. I somehow missed these in my own adolescence, although I did give some to my nephew when he was in grade school (at least partly because of the oh-so-cool Edward Gorey covers). Last fall the Budza, then eight, and I started reading them as part of the evening story ritual, which involves about an hour of reading aloud with me, and telling stories out loud with my husband. So far we’ve read five mysteries about Johnny Dixon: The Chessmen of Doom (1989), The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt (1983), The Eyes of the Killer Robot (1986), The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, and The Curse of the Blue Figurine (1983) as well as one mystery starring Anthony Monday, The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb (1988). We aren’t as enamoured by the Lewis Barnavelt ones. For my part, the Dixons are the best, and it’s completely because of the relationship between Johnny and his neighbor and mentor and best friend, Roderick Childermass.

Could anyone invent a character like Professor Childermass now, or a relationship like the one he has with teenaged Johnny? Imagine trying to pitch a novel for this age range (older middle-grade to YA) in which a kind of shy, lonely boy is allowed to go off for the weekend in the company of his somewhat elderly bachelor neighbor, who loves to have Johnny over to his house to play chess and who has hobby baking cakes. Can’t quite see it? It’s why these books are something of a miracle. Childermass throws tantrums. He smokes. He is socially awkward. And he loves Johnny dearly. All the family relationships and friendships are beautifully rendered, but not in a manner that ever gets in the way of the really good shivery gothic storytelling. They are not really mysteries and not really horror, but a category I think of as supernatural and psychological suspense. And no one, in my book, has done it quite as well as Bellairs, with the same humor and humanity. The portraits of flawed adults remind me of Louise Fitzhugh's sequel to Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret, which I think is a better book. It cast quite a spell on me when I was 10 or 11, because it showed adults I recognized from the rather odd hothouse childhood of embassy life in the tropics.

Some of the books remain in print, and can be found new, but this is one of those cases where I really like to find a not too worn copy and give it a home. Bellairs mysteries are something that are easy to find in a used bookstore just about anywhere, and he was prolific enough that you can almost always find one you haven’t read yet, and if you're lucky, two or even three. And the there are more being written all the time as Brad Strickland continues to write about the Bellairs characters. I have yet to read one of the new ones, to judge how well he pulls it off, but my hopes are high.

Bellairs has a fervent following online. A good place to start is


  1. I remember in fourth grade my teacher read us The Trolley to Yesterday and we all loved it! I haven't thought of Bellairs since. Thank you for reminding me!

  2. Ironically, that is one we haven't gotten around to yet.