Sunday, May 15, 2016


This is an old favorite from my childhood, and one of the works that set me on the path I am on today.

It's the summer of 1948. Newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his uncle Jonathan in the town of New Zebedee, MI (based on the author's childhood memories of Marshall, MI, and some touches of his then-home of Haverhill, MA). Lewis notices some strange behavior from his uncle and his neighbor, the elderly Mrs. Zimmermann. Finally, the truth comes out: Uncle Jonathan is a wizard, although not a very powerful one. Mrs. Zimmermann is a powerful witch, although a good one, and they've been trying to find the source of a strange ticking in the walls of the house, suspecting it's something left behind by the house's former owner, an evil sorcerer named Isaac Izard.

Lewis has problems of his own at school; he's fat and bookish, and not very athletic, but he tries. He's also not very popular, but ends up befriending Tarby Corrigan, a popular athletic kid who can't participate in any games because of a broken arm. They start to drift apart, though, as Tarby's arm heals. Lewis, attempting to impress Tarby, claims he can raise the dead, and the two meet on Halloween night to raise a spirit in the town cemetery.

The experiment doesn't go as planned, and Lewis finds himself sitting on a painful secret, afraid to tell anyone. Meanwhile, the ticking in the walls grows louder, a mysterious woman moves in across the street, eerie happenings occur, and Lewis stumbles on clues indicating that Isaac Izard had plotted to destroy the world....

It's horror for younger readers, sure, but it's a fun and atmospheric read. The town is described lovingly, and the characters are appealingly human. Lewis' problems with bullies and a friend who grows increasingly distant and dismissive rang true for me as a kid. It's also got great illustrations by Edward Gorey (see the cover above). Gorey would end up supplying covers and frontispieces for most of Bellairs' works over the years, to the point that the two are almost inextricably linked in my mind. Lewis and his family and friends would appear in a full dozen works, and Bellairs also had two other series running along the same lines, one starring Anthony Monday and set in small-town Minnesota, and another starring Johnny Dixon and set in small-town Massachusetts.

It's not all dark and grim; there's quite a bit of humor on display, and Bellairs was obviously an educated man. Uncle Johnathan's name, Jonathan Van Olden Barnavelt, is lifted from an Elizabethan tragedy. Mrs. Zimmermann is based on Wisconsin poet Mary Zimmermann, whom Bellairs had befriended many years before. There are many literary in-jokes you'll come across here and there in Bellairs' books.

Reading it as an adult, there were a few things that jumped to my attention. There's a few supernatural occurrences that don't seem to make a lot of sense, but could be sendings from the villain to demoralize Lewis. (Mainly, the Aunt Mattie scene.) Bellairs describes a chestnut tree in Uncle Johnathan's front yard, an oddity considering the chestnut blight wiped out the chestnut in most of the country starting in 1904. And at the end, the solution to the mystery is found in a secret passage....which, to the best of my recall, is never mentioned again in the series.

Still, despite a few flaws, it's a quick, entertaining read. Bellairs had intended Uncle Jonathan to be the main character and for it to be an adult work, but there wasn't a market for it, and Bellairs was talked into rewriting it as a book for young readers, and it was an unqualified success and won multiple awards when it was first published in 1973. Seek it out...although later verions have a new cover, they at least preserved the Gorey illustrations inside, even for the Kindle version. Highly recommended.

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