Friday, October 03, 2008

Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Written by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
A Dell Yearling Book, Published 1973
RIP III Challenge
Young Readers Challenge

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, by John Bellairs, is the first book in his Lewis Barnavelt series of gothic horror novels for young readers.

Orphaned when his parents are killed in an auto accident, ten-year-old Lewis comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan, in New Zebedee, Michigan in 1948. Lewis is lonely, frightened, nervous about meeting his unknown relative, and worried about what his future holds:

It seemed to Lewis that all he could think of these days were questions: Where am I going? Who will I meet? Will I like them? What will happen to me? [p. 4]

This could be the beginning of any number of orphaned-children novels. But Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan turns out to be a wizard – the scandalous black sheep of the family. And the story soon takes a unique and uncanny turn: Together with neighbor Florence Zimmermann (who just happens to be a witch), Lewis and his uncle must locate a magic clock hidden somewhere in Jonathan's spooky mansion, before it destroys the world.

The clock was the handiwork of Isaac Izard, an evil warlock who was the original owner of Uncle Jonathan's house. Izard practiced black magic and lived a hermit-like existence there in the mansion along with his wife Selenna until her mysterious death. Isaac himself died shortly after that, one night during a wild thunderstorm. And though no one understands why he did it, Izard devised a clock that would bring about the end of the world and hid it somewhere in the walls of the house. Now every night Lewis and his uncle search for the clock while they hear it ticking off the minutes leading up to doomsday.

Bellairs’ story is decidedly creepy, but also whimsical and endearing. Uncle Jonathan’s house has some very surprising characteristics – such as stained glass windows with pictures that change without notice. And a secret passageway that leads to Mrs. Zimmermann’s house next door. And Jonathan and Florence are constantly engaged in good-natured bickering, and delight in addressing each other with pet names like “Hag Face,” “Frizzy Wig,” and “Weird Beard.”

Lewis is presented as a very real boy, with a real child’s insecurities and fears, forced to deal with very exotic and peculiar and even perilous situations. His desperate struggle to maintain an unlikely friendship with a popular boy in his class at school serves as the main mechanism for some of the most dangerous action in the book. And although he’s certainly instrumental in the effort to destroy the forces of evil, he’s not portrayed as a superhero. In the end, he’s content to sit around a bonfire with his uncle and Mrs. Zimmermann, drinking cocoa and eating chocolate chip cookies. Of course, the bonfire eventually turns into a jack-o-lantern, with a scowling orange face – but then, Uncle Jonathan is a wizard, after all.

This was my introduction to John Bellairs and Lewis Barnavelt, and I'd definitely like to read more titles in the series. I loved the eccentric characters and bizarre storyline. And Edward Gorey’s illustrations were a special treat, and a perfect match for Bellairs’ mix of ordinary everyday action with a supernatural element. It all combines to make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a delightful experience for readers of all ages.


  1. This sounds terrific, and I adore Gorey, his artwork is so creepy.

  2. I loved this book too! And I got the second and third book in the series just today. I'm really looking forward to reading them.

  3. I remember when Chris reviewed this last year it sounded good and you make it sound good too! (not easy to find the book other than used though)

  4. I have this book but I didn't know it was a series. I realy need to read it but when?? Thanks to your review, maybe I will move it up the list.

  5. I love John Bellairs! My favorites were always his Johnny Dixon books, especially The Mummy, The Will, and the Crypt. Dr Brad Strickland has taken over writing these (with the blessing of the Bellairs estate) since Mr Bellairs passed away - 10 or so years ago? There's also another book coming out this month - The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer.

    A good source for Bellairs info:

    Great review!

  6. book zombie--
    Me, too. I've loved Gorey since I was a child. His illustrations are so "deep" - there always seems to be more there than you're actually seeing!

    Yes, I just bought a few of the other books in the series, too. I think I'm hooked!

    Thanks. Yes, Bellairs' older titles are almost impossible to find - especially with the Gorey covers. Had to buy mine used on eBay.

    I think it's worth a bump up to the top of the list. But I know how it is to be snowed under with too many choices!

    I knew there were more recent books, but didn't realize there was a new one coming out. Thanks for the heads-up and the kind words.

    Thanks all, for the visit.

  7. I grew up in the same hometown as John Bellairs. The house in the book is supposed to be based on an old Victorian mansion in our town.

  8. alabama book worm--
    That's very interesting! I don't really know anything about John Bellairs, but I'm definitely gonna be reading more of his books. Thanks for the info.


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