Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Looking Back Bellairs -- The Dark Secret of Weatherend

Our tale begins sometime in the 1950s during a hot disgusting summer. Anthony Monday and his boss/friend, Miss Myra Eells decide that this would be a good time to go exploring and maybe commit some breaking and entering while at it. Anthony and Miss Eells break into the seemingly abandoned Weatherend Estate -- property once owned by an eccentric millionaire who probably practiced the dark arts (man, Minnesota seems to have a lot of those) -- and after Miss Eells pulls a dojikko act and breaks something, they find the diary of the former owner JK Rowling Simmons Borkman.

Then, surprising to no one, the estate is not really unoccupied and Anthony and Miss Eells are chased off by some dude with a dog. Small matter because once they're in Hoosac, they look through their score and realize the diary doesn't make a whole lot of sense. So they put away and nothing happens for a little bit.

As fall comes and descends into winter, Hoosac and surrounding areas begin to have extremely strange weather patterns. Anthony thinks back to the diary and saw Borkman talked about destroying the world with weather. He brings it up to his loved ones who basically wonder about his sanity and that is it. Even Miss Eells doesn't buy it.

That all changes when it turns out Anders Borkman, JK Borkman's son, takes up the estate and pays Miss Eells and Anthony a visit asking for the diary. He uses some kind of magic which forces them to give it up but they don't remember exactly how or why. But jokes on Anders because Anthony was testing out the 1950s equivalent of a copier and made a copy of it. Miss Eells believes Anthony now and enlists the help of her lawyer, occult enthusiast brother, Emerson Eells.

Emerson creates a plan in which he would disguise himself as an electrician while Myra and Anthony would try to take the magical stuff in the statues used in the weather ritual. It doesn't work. Myra and Anthony are transported somewhere in the snow and Emerson disappears.

After rereading the diary, Myra and Anthony find that there is part of the ritual in JK Borkman's tomb in Duluth. Thus begins an adventure there while they were almost led off course by Not-Emerson. And yay! They destroy the talisman Borkman's corpse clasped which destroyed Anders -- who was not a real boy -- and Emerson comes back. The world is saved until the next book.

Random Thoughts

+ The lesson I learned here is climate change is most likely the result of a Minnesota-based wizard
+ Out of Bellairs' three leads, only Anthony is a heathen. However, Miss Eells will probably save his soul because she is the source of all things Catholic
+ If this book was ever made into a movie, all I can see that there is a montage of Anthony fiddling with the copier cuz why not?
+ I keep on picturing Emerson looking like Martin Freeman a la Fargo, complete with accent because you know, Minnesota
+ When it comes to property, Miss Eells is practically a socialist...?

Does it Hold Up?

Here's the thing. I don't think I read this one as a kid. I do remember there was one Bellairs book I could never seem to find and this was before the days of Amazon. It was this book. I remember going to used bookstores, new bookstores, the library and I could not find the second Anthony Monday book.

 And I might as well because I found this book particularly difficult to finish. It didn't flow as well as the others did. I felt there were too many points of unnecessary detail. Like the whole thing with Oxenstern and Miss Eells losing her job temporarily, I just couldn't see how it really tied into the narrative.

The sad part is, is there were a lot of cool concepts in it. The idea of a villain wanting to destroy the world with weather. Gotta give him props for creativity at least. And the scene with Not-Emerson were especially well done, tension-wise. That was probably the only moment when I felt on the edge of my seat.

Otherwise, I consider this to be the weakest book thus far.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

White Wolf and the Sliding Scale of Humanity

Last weekend, my friend and GM for the Call of Cthulhu game we've been playing in decided to do a flashback episode using the EPOCH system. It was less rules crunchy and more story driven. It puts a lot of power to the GM to tell an epic story and us players were more encouraged to tell how we did things rather than focus on using abilities and the like.

The one shot itself was set in the trenches of World War I. For the first few rounds, we focused on characters and typical choices one would come across during war time before we got to the Lovecraftian stuff. I played an Italian immigrant who was kind of a cross of Prince Naveen in Princess and the Frog and Jake Peralta in Brooklyn 99.

This pretty much was Tino-style thousand yard stare

But anyway, while all this was going on, the GM was secretly keeping tabs on what we did that was good and what was bad. The reason was what we ended up unleashing in the church worked like a virus that would infect those who had a very low morality score. When it got to a certain point, that character would scratch his skin off and turn into a monster who attacked people.

Now, I've already mentioned how much I loved that whole concept (about the sliding scale of morality not about the skinless) to the GM in e-mail and in person and now I'm mentioning it again in a blog post (sorry, not sorry). But it made me consider why I love White Wolf so much.

The people who annoy me who tend to play VtM

I'm not a douchy little Vampire Kid or even really a fan of Ann Rice but I love Vampire: The Masquerade and most of the other systems in the Old World of Darkness. I'm not really a Werewolf fan or a Mage fan (seriously, one of my co-workers said he tried tabletop roleplaying once and his first system was Mage and he was so confused he never played again. Mage is on the hard end of the spectrum as far as tabletop roleplying goes). But everything else in the Old World of Darkness I absolutely love: especially Vampire, Demon, and Hunter. Sure, the system itself is a little clunky but oh man, the world building. When I first discovered WoD, I used to make characters just for the hell of making characters -- complete with backstories.

It is kind of funny that when it comes to edition changes of games, I don't get as angry and hardcore as other people. Like Dungeons and Dragons? Meh. I wrote before how I don't consider 4th edition D&D but it is still an interesting system when you don't look at it like D&D. And haters gonna hate but I actually LIKE 5th Edition. However, having said that, I STRONGLY dislike New World of Darkness, especially Vampire: The Requiem. They changed so much in the world building I loved that UG!

Having said that, though, Changeling: The Lost was a vast improvement over Changeling: The Dreaming and it is probably my most favorite setting to this day. One day I hope to run/play in a Changeling: The Lost tabletop. I did a post-by-post game that lasted year in the Changeling: The Lost universe. That was fun. Also, Hunter: The Vigil is okay compared to the Reckoning. And Geist: The Sineaters is not as depressing as Wraith.

Forever my favorite setting

Okay, now this entry has taken a left turn about to make it to off-topic city, I need to steer it back on track. The reason why I love Vampire so much is because the bad guy in the game is you. Yeah sure, you may run into werewolves or the Prince of the city is a huge dick to you on a regular basis or the Sabbat is causing trouble again but all that is really incidental. Your character is really wrestling with his or her humanity -- what's left of it anyway. A properly run Vampire game involves many Humanity rolls. If you run out of humanity, your character finally gives in to the monster inside of her and as the book says, you hand your character sheet to the storyteller. Yes, there are ways around the humanity stat. There are separate paths of morality that characters can follow but humanity is the hardest. As a side note, Requiem does still have the Humanity scale so my dislike of Requiem is not due to it lacking that.

However, the thing is way too many people DON'T run Vampire like that. They play it and run it like it were a D&D game and Vampires spend most of their time in combat. It's not like that. The simplest terms Vampire is a game about politics. It is possible for a lot to happen in a session with no fighting but just maneuvering in the Vampire political/social scene.

In the two Vampire games I played in, in which I feel the storyteller ran it correctly, there was one instance in which I felt Humanity was used in an intriguing way. In the first game, we played newly embraced vampires. I played essentially a Holden Caulfield, smart-ass teenager who got embraced by a Brujah. His name was Aaron. The funny part was, this particular character was like Will in Good Will Hunting -- working class who was super smart. The brujah hired him initially to keep their books thinking they could get away with not paying him a whole lot because Vampires aren't above child labor laws. They kept him human for that time. After he was embraced, his sire got iced because he embraced Aaron young but the Prince was intrigued with Aaron's bookkeeping and kept him alive just for that.

Not pictured -- Vampire Overlords

At first, Aaron saw Vampire life almost as a dream because he got out of his shitty home situation. But then, he and another vampire got set on a mission. Aaron frenzied because he was being tortured for information. The room was filled with vampires and ghouls. I rolled extremely well. The storyteller just said when Aaron came to, the room was filled with dead bodies that had been ripped apart. This requires a humanity roll. If Aaron failed, he would have lost all his Humanity. He would have looked at what he just did, shrugged his shoulders and became more and more ... inhuman. In this case, I would have to stop playing him.

But I passed the Humanity roll, so Aaron felt really awful about it. He was inconsolable. Being a vampire wasn't cool anymore and he realized he was now stuck with it. And he was no longer human. It was up to the other PCs to drag him out of there. It wasn't too different than when someone loses a lot of sanity in Call of Cthulhu.

White Wolf systems have other types of Humanity type rolls. For Changeling it was Clarity -- the idea being how much  you see the invisible world. Too high and you ramble like a madman. Synergy in Geist is how well the death spirit is attached to you. Too high and the ghost controls you. Etc. However, Humanity in vampire always intrigued me the most.

Part of the reason why I like humanity is because people who are into vampires think they're so cool when it reality, it really isn't cool. It kind of sucks. Sure, you are stronger and immortal but look at the cost. But another reason why I like humanity as a stat because, like in the EPOCH game, the game punishes you for being a bad person. It encourages you to try to be a moral person. And in tabletop roleplaying games, that is usually not the case. Okay, we can destroy an entire village of innocents and the worst punishment is you may not be able to use certain items or paladins may bother you. But with the Humanity stat in Vampire, it actually works against you.

You're forced to play the Masquerade that you're still human, even though you're not.

I'll close up by adding this caveat-- I don't think it is a bad thing to have a game in which you don't have to think about the morals of the situation. When I am having a shitty, stressful week, I will mindlessly click a screen playing Diablo III, even though a co-worker of mine and I once joked about slaughtering goblins in the villages. What if they were just refugees from hell? I'll still play though.

Also, even in Vampire, I did play probably my most evil character and I couldn't use the Humanity stat with him. I used a different path of morality (it was knowledge focused). The game was well-run though because the storyteller did play with the idea of humanity. We were also older vampires and we played the political game well against each other (lesson -- keep an eye on the Toreador, not all of them are fluffy-head, art lovers like they appear to be!) . I played a Tremere in that game who liked to experiment and invent rituals. Let's just say that the homeless population in town was no longer a "problem" thanks to him.

So this entry was not a criticism against systems who do not employ a morality scale. Just that I really like the idea of them. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Looking Back Bellairs -- The Curse of the Blue Figurine

And here is the book that started it all! I was not disappointed!
The Curse of the Blue Figurine takes place in the 1950s and follows 12-year-old Johnny Dixon as he goes to live with his grandparents in the fictional Duston Heights, Massachusetts after the untimely death of his mother and the sudden departure of his fighter pilot father to the warfront in Korea. Johnny is an imaginative boy, fascinated by history and archaeology.
The events of the story begins with his neighbor and good friend of his Grandpa, Professor Roderick Childermass comes over and tells Johnny about the ghost story surrounding the Catholic Church the Dixon family attends. Back in the day, there was a sinister priest named Father Baart who was thought to have messed with black magic and enlisted the help of a mysterious builder to create the church as it stands. As the builder left, he left an alleged magical object. Shortly after, two of Father Baart's bitter enemies met violent ends. Then he mysteriously disappeared with only a note quoting the Bible. Johnny is intrigued with the story, but doesn't believe it at first.
Later, a la Bastien in Neverending Story, Johnny runs from a bully named Eddie Tompke and takes sanctuary in the church. Once there, he thought about Professor Childermass's story and began to explore areas off limits to non-church staff. It is here, he finds a hallowed out book with a blue Egyptian statue and a scroll that promised misfortune to those who removed the book from the church -- signed Father Baart. Johnny is spooked by the sound of someone upstairs. Thinking it was Father Higgins and he didn't want to get into trouble for snooping, he ran out of there and mistakenly took the book with him.
Shortly after, Johnny begins to have dreams about Father Baart and his house begins to become infested with insiduous spiders. He tells the professor about it, worried that it was somehow true but upon inspection, the figurine is just a souvineer. Johnny wants to believe the professor but he isn't entirely sure.
Things begin to turn for the worst when Eddie Tompke tries to cut Johnny's fingers off with kid scissors and Johnny wishes on the figurine that Eddie break his neck. Eddie breaks his arm and Johnny immediately feels guilty so he goes to church one night to light a candle to his mom and to pray for forgiveness. It is here he meets the mysterious Robert Beard who Johnny ends up telling the guy everything. He's not even sure why but he felt compelled to talk to the guy. Beard gives Johnny a ring and offers to Johnny to use the figurine in a game. Making prayers to it to make him stronger and more confident for instance.
Johnny does this and his personality begins to slowly change and his nightmares increase. He ends up standing up to Eddie Tompke. But he is also not sleeping well and becomes withdrawn. Concerned, Granpa Dixon and Professor Childermass hatch a plan to follow Johnny when he "goes to church to pray for mom" what he is really doing. The professor discovers Johnny moving from the church to a park in which he proceeded to have a conversation with no one. To Johnny, Beard had threatened him to come back to the park in three days at midnight with the figurine or else Johnny would die.
The Dixons and the professor figure Johnny is having a mental break due to the loss of his mother and the deployment of his father. They arrange to have him see a psychologist. Under hypnotism, Johnny talks about everything. And when he said he can't remove the ring, the psychologist removed it while he slept off the effects of hypnosis. Then, to break his "delusions" the psychologist suggested the professor go to the meeting place which will relieve Johnny when no one shows up. This goes all according to plan. Johnny goes to grief counseling and the nightmares stop.
But the story does not end. After school is finished for the year, Johnny goes to New Hampshire with the Professor to get some much needed R&R. However, they would not get this as Johnny ends up sleep walking to the top of the mountain. When Professor catches up, he is face to face with the shade of Father Baart. The sinister priest planned to use Johnny's body to come back to the world. After a little Catholic magic (prayer really), the professor saves Johnny.
When their vacation was a bust, the Dixons and the professor have an after action review with professor's good friend, Professor Charles Coote, who is an expert on the occult. Coote explains what happened to Johnny and how the ring and the figurine figure into it.
Random Thoughts
+ What I learned from this is never accept rings from mysterious people in churches, no matter how coolly vintage it may be.
+ I mentioned how in The House With a Clock in its Walls how it did kind of bother me how Lewis was sad about his dead parents for five seconds before just totally being over it when he finds out his uncle is a warlock. Then in The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, much of Anthony's motivation revolves around trying to help so his father doesn't die from heart disease. Then in this one, Johnny is deeply effected by his mother's death. He thinks about her a lot, lights candles for her, prays for her, and cries for her. It is touching and it works, but it is also a red herring for the main plot.
+ Having said that, I wouldn't say Johnny's mom was "fridged". What motivates Johnny is not the death of his mother but his own feelings of inadequacy against Eddie Tompke. His mother is used to confuse us to why things are happening, though. And also, his father is still absent.
+ I am convinced in about 30 years, I will be the female Professor Childermass -- I will invite myself over for fudge, have a 'rant room', and probably still throw a fit over car troubles like I do today. And it would be so me to tell creepy stories about creepy churches to impressionable 12 year olds and then feel like crap when he has a mental break.
+ Ye Gods! The Catholicism. I know the Catholic nature of the style of horror used here is definitely gothic but Catholic references and "mythology" is used in spades. Even the lessons learned are highly Catholic in nature. I mentioned before how Bellairs writes a lot about temptation and this book is no exception.
+ I think I can safely say that Bellairs was a Democrat. When Johnny daydreams in the last chapter of having magic would be nice to use against bullies, as long as it didn't cost his soul to a sinister priest. The professor admonishes him by comparing the situation to owning a gun. Yeah, it may be good to have but there is always the chance that you'll use it for the wrong reasons due to a quick decision made in passion.
+ I really like the relationship Granpa Dixon and the professor have. They remind me of a couple of teenagers -- if I wrote fanfiction, you bet I would put the two of them in WWI coming across something supernatural.
+ I never thought of wind through pine trees as hissing but yes, I think they do
Does it hold up?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I admit, I was a bit nervous opening up this book again. As I said, I read it so many times and I often listed it as one of my favorite books for a very long time. But I wasn't sure if it would be like Goosebumps for instance. I loved the crap out of those books but when I reread a couple as a college student, I felt very indifferent towards them. I liked it in the nostalgic sense but they weren't that great, not as great as I rememebred. They were like candy really. I kind of worried that The Curse of the Blue Figurine would be the same. And it wasn't.
I felt engaged immediately. The book flowed with the right speed, allowing you to take it in and allow tension to build. The thing about writing tension is there is a sweet spot you have to reach. If it moves too slow, the reader loses interest. Too quickly, it is not effective. Perfect tension occurs when it sneaks up on you. One moment, you're like your usual self, and the next moment, you realize you're super tense. When did this happen?  This book did that. It felt like a high intensity work out -- especially at the climax. Just when you think things are settled, it ramps up x10.
I've long been intrigued by the whole concept of "is he mad or not?" And I realized now, it was THIS VERY BOOK where that fascination first began. And here's the thing -- the book is written in such a way that the reader doesn't know either. As I mentioned above, the book discusses Johnny missing his mother and she's on his mind. The most powerful passage was Johnny watching the snow and picturing snow covering  his mother's headstone on Long Island. Then he began to cry. Not only does he have this stressor but also the downright brutal Eddie Tompke. It is a completely logical conclusion to come to that Johnny simply created this narrative due to his desire to feel power and in control after losing the two most important people in his life to circumstances beyond his control and then losing control to a bully -- psychologically, it makes a lot of sense.
But both outcomes are pretty terrifying. There is nothing scarier than realizing your own senses betraying you. However, the alternative -- being a vessel for a satanist priest -- is pretty frightening too. Johnny was really in a no win situation here. Although, he was getting psychological help which even if that wasn't the cause of everything, he definitely needed it anyway.
The whole theme of feeling powerless and being tempted was incredibly intriguing how it played out. Here you have Johnny, who is not a bad person, and who ends up losing his parents and then is horribly bullied. He feels he lacks the power and desires and is tempted by the thought of having power. Ironically, the price of power was losing control of his life. It is a Devil's Deal.
This book had so many twists and turns and even though I do remember how it ended and how it was the ring and how Beard was Father Baart. But that did not ruin the experience of reading the book for me. As a friend of mine said, if a movie or book or TV show is absolutely ruined by spoilers, then it wasn't that good to begin with.
The Curse of the Blue Figurine is a great gothic tale that will keep you tense and tingle your spine. And it is amazing that a book that turned me onto Bellairs as a preteen still engaged me as a 33 year old -- and made me excited to continue my project.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Looking Back Bellairs -- The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn

I actually read this book Wednesday and wrote this on Thursday but decided to wait a week before publishing.
I tend to go through phases in which all I'll want to do is read or video games or watch TV shows or write. Right now, it is reading. I hope to get to a big list of books I have accumulated over the year but may have picked at but not read fully (as I said, my attention span has been crap lately). But for now, I am cruising. I may run out of gas, but I'll try not to.
It took me about four hours to read this one, mostly because my cat was being a little asshole. She does that from time to time.
Anyways, onto the review! Contrary to what I said before, this book is the 1st Anthony Monday book and 4th kids' book. I'm reading them in order in each series.
The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn follows the adventures of 13-year-old Anthony Monday and his friend and boss, librarian Miss Myra Eells. When Anthony's family falls into money troubles and his father suffers a heart attack, he becomes obsessed with finding the rumored lost treasure of millionaire eccentric Alpheus Winterborn. Winterborn was involved in typical hobbies eccentric early 20th century gentlemen found themselves in including archaeology, inventing stuff, and building castle libraries (where Anthony and Miss Eells work). He also allegedly hid hints to where his treasure is in the library.
Anthony find the first clue which begins the chase to find it. However, it becomes clear that one of the wealthiest men in town, the Vice President of the Bank, and Winterborn's nephew Hugo Philpotts seeks the treasure himself. He believes as a relative, it belongs to him -- nevermind his mother and Alpheus had a falling out and never reconciled.
In the battle of the haves and havenots, the two try to out maneuver each other to find out if the treasure really exists or -- as Miss Eells suspects -- Alpheus is the biggest troll of them all.
Random Thoughts
+ What I learned is that if I am stuck on a clue in a grand mystery, visit an auction for inspiration
+ Man, Anthony can be a little asshole sometimes -- just like his mother.
+ Seriously, Anthony's mother is kind of emotionally abusive and manipulative at times and contributes to Anthony's tendency to be a nervous wreck about the tiniest things.
+ I think this is Bellairs' only book in which there are no supernatural elements.
+ Miss Eells is adorable. Can I adopt her?
+ I know Bellairs provided a deep description of Philpotts but I kept on picturing him as an evil version of the monopoly guy.
+ I was surprised halfway through that there were no references to Catholism. But then in the climax as Hoosac floods, our heroes must evacuate to a Catholic School.
+ A House With A Clock In Its Walls definitely had a more grandiose and magical style than this one. Doesn't make it bad though.
+ It can't be helped to make a comparison to the first book. While Mrs. Zimmerman and Miss Eells are both slightly eccentric old ladies they are different in many ways. Eells is klutzier and sweeter than the sharp and witty Florence. Anthony and Lewis are both bookish dudes with anxiety issues except Lewis is a lot more hesitant and its his intellectual curiosity that gets him into trouble (and desparately wanting friends) while with Anthony, he is just impatient and impulsive and a little sassy.
Does it hold up further than just nostalgic reasons?
No. Well, yes and no. When I was a kid, this is the second Bellairs book I read and I remember not being incredibly wild about it. I think I thought, "Needs moar ghosts". I still continued to read Bellairs' books because I do like Miss Eells and to a lesser degree of Anthony. I forgot how sassy Anthony could be which is different from Lewis and Johnny.
I also noticed a lot of different themes in the book I missed as a child. Philpots is an evil capitalist type, true, but I couldn't help but notice the subtle political commentary. Both Anthony and Philpots are willing to do anything to get that treasure, including illegal things, but for a while it looks like Philpots could use his position to be excused of doing the dastardly things he does. Meanwhile, Anthony could use the money. Banks are not out there to help you, they are there to make money.
Is it actually good?
This is where I waver a little bit. Like with the book mentioned before, Bellairs is really great at writing characters as flawed and interesting to succumb to temptations and make bad decisions. Miss Eells and Anthony are highly likable characters. There were amusing jokes and in general a lot of moments to go gasp at.
However, the book in places felt a little klunky. The beginning didn't flow as well as the rest of the book did. I mean, the first about five paragraphs grab you. It is Anthony listening to his parents argue about money when he is supposed to be sleeping. It is realistic and emotional and it really sets the tone of the book and provides early motivation for Anthony's later obsession with the treasure. But afterwards, as Bellairs sets the scene and sets Anthony up with a job, it just didn't move as smoothly.
Then, I have one minor issue in which Anthony stumbles on a clue quite randomly. Before, he had been stuck but then he found just what he was looking for at an auction. I'm okay with happenstance but with a mystery, I would really prefer if there was a path the characters took to get the clue. It is one thing to stumble on a clue while looking for one or near the crime scene but the set up is Miss Eells wants to get Anthony to forget about the treasure and takes him to the auction in a different town. I get it. Miss Eells is a skeptic of the treasure so she wouldn't take Anthony there for that. However, I feel that it would have been better if maybe somehow Anthony heard the lady whose house is being auctioned also bought stuff at Winterborn's auction and he somehow convinced Miss Eells to go there under the guise that she likes antiques.
I also was initially irritated that Anthony tried to break into someone's house but got off when caught. But then, when he tried again, he ended up breaking his arm. So I guess that is consequences for doing something illegal.
But besides all that, when I really sat down and thought about it, I couldn't help but notice how realistic this story was in many ways. Sure, it has typical preteen shenanigans. However, there were many realistic moments, particularly with the villain and Anthony's mother.
I find that parents in kids books usually are generic, loving parents often looked at fondly by their children or they are charictures of horrible parents like Matilda's parents or Harry Potter's aunt and uncle. Anthony's mother is somewhere in the middle. She obviously loves her children and is protective of them but she is incredibly judgmental, overprotective, and emotionally manipulative at parts. In fact, Anthony's anxiety is directly linked to her in many cases. A lot of his neuroses are instigated by the fear of what his mother may say or do. She's realistic.
As for Mr. Philpots, he is a realistic villain. No doubt there are people who have high standings due to wealth in small towns like Hoosac, Minnesota that believe they are entitled to certain privileges even though they didn't earn it. And no doubt they would use their position to get their way.
How Philpots tries to manipulate Anthony before the climax is positively frightening and not because he took out a gun or knife or threaten to kill him. Oh no. Philpotts tells Anthony that he would use his position at the bank to force one of Anthony's dad's investors to declare bankruptcy which will cause Anthony's dad to close down the Cigar Shop/Saloon that he runs. And Philpotts mentions he knew about Mr. Monday's troubling health and heart attack and speculated that such a situation would destroy Anthony's father's weakened heart which will end up killing him.
He threatened to kill Mr. Monday indirectly in such a way that he would not get caught if he did not get the clues Anthony had. How frightening and just plain callous and evil is THAT?
So I really have to give the book credit for those two characters.
 I read on an uncorroborated site how this book was very personal to the author. His father had died of a heart attack when he was around Anthony's age. And his father also ran a store similar to Mr. Monday's. The scenes with Mr. Monday's heart attack lingered and really were at the "heart" of the story. Mr. Monday's work ethic and stubbornness feels too real to be something Bellairs made up. And Anthony's longing to find the money so his dad wouldn't have to work as hard felt sincere. I do wonder if this whole story about the treasure was something Bellairs made up to cope with his father's death. And the lack of ghosts in this story may be due to the reason that it is John Bellairs' father who haunts it. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Looking Back Bellairs -- The House With a Clock in its Walls

So, that happened faster than I thought...

As I said last entry, I intended to read every John Bellairs (an author I consider a huge influence on me) book and judge if they still hold up to me as a 33 year old as they did when I was 12. I dived right in and purchased the first book of each series to get started on this little project of mine. I intended to read them in order in which they came out and I would stop with the books Bellairs had a hand in writing. Or that is the plan. I have a habit of starting projects and never finishing them.

However, I think this may be surprisingly easier than I thought. I guess I should have known a kids' book wouldn't take me very long to read but I do have a short attention span lately. I ended up reading the first book in 3 hours. Although the weather was right for it -- heavy rain and thunderstorms!

Anyways! I am ready for my first review!

The House With a Clock in its Walls takes place in 1948 in the fictional New Zebedee, Michigan focusing on ten year old Lewis Barnavelt. Lewis recently lost his parents in a car crash and is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan in his creepy mansion. Lewis enjoys his eccentric uncle and his new elderly neighbor -- the fiery Mrs. Florence Zimmerman. The three often play poker as Mrs. Zimmerman and Jonathan insult each other and Jonathan even lets Lewis stay up late (seriously, Lewis stays up past 10 on a school night and Jonathan is like whatevs nephew!). And just when Lewis doesn't think it can't get any cooler, he discovers his uncle is a parlor warlock and Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch.

And just as if seeing his uncle black out the moon isn't interesting/bizarre enough, Lewis finds out that the house was once owned by an evil wizard couple -- the Izzards. I kinda picture them to be like the Lestranges in Harry Potter but maybe not as stylish. Anyways, Jonathan bought the creepy mansion to be closer to his vitriolic bff and probably got a good deal on it (I'm speculating because who would want to live in a house that was inhabited by evil wizards?). Jonathan discovers that the house plagued by a phantom ticking and he spends a lot of time trying to figure where it comes from. Our heroes find out later that there is a clock Isaac Izzard put in the walls that ticks down towards Doomsday and it can also be sped up if the clock is winded up.

Lewis, meanwhile, screws everything up when he tries to make friends with necromancy and accidentally summons Mrs. Izzard from the grave. And she of course wants to speed up the clock. After Mrs. Zimmerman kicks some motherfucking ass and some quick thinking by the trio, particularly Lewis, they manage to find the clock and smash it before it ends the world as we know it.

Random Thoughts

+ The biggest lesson I learned is, like salad, you can't win friends with necromancy
+ I need to use visy versy more often
+ If they ever make a movie, I really want to see Mrs. Zimmerman emerge from the smoldering house across the street in slow motion all bad-ass like with a look of giving zero-fucks. 
+ Kind of a sidebar but it is interesting to me that Bellairs was a self-proclaimed anglophile and you see the influence of British history and folklore here. However, he did grow up in the Mid-west of Germanic background and you see the influence of that in Mrs. Zimmerman and her style of magic.
+ Probably the most powerful storytelling technique was illustrated in how Lewis viewed Tarby, the boy he wants to be friends with. The books are through Lewis's point of view and he sees Tarby as a nice guy who was nice to him once ... but in his interactions with him, it is clear Tarby is a little twerp.
+ This book is a lot lighter than I found Bellairs as a kid. However, I remember the Lewis books always did feel light-hearted with a more prevalence of magic and fantasy elements then gothic horror like his others do -- particularly Johnny Dixon. But who knows, I may get to those and realize they are lighter too. I do remember the humor but also the horror.

Does It Hold Up? Can I enjoy it past the nostalgic sense?

Yes. I feel it does. I still enjoyed reading it, even though it took me a short period of time to do so (which really should not be surprising). I still chuckled at Jonathan's ramblings and Mrs. Zimmerman's sharp wit. I adored the bantering those two characters had. I also incredibly sympathized with Lewis and his difficulty making friends. Also having little shits as friends like Tarby for instance is also pretty relateable. And that sense you would do anything to please them.

The mystery itself is pretty well laid out. I actually fell for the red herring. Yeah, pretty embarrassing. And even though I said before this book felt more heavily fantasy than gothic horror, it still had some tense moments with excellent, ooey gooey descriptions of creepiness. I had to re-read the moment Lewis casts his necromancy spell because it had such great imagery that my 33 year old self shivered at.

As a kid, I remember not being too impressed with this book. I liked it alright but I remember it wasn't one of my favorites. However, it is Bellairs early career. He had only written his book of short stories focusing on Catholic Satire and Face in the Frost which is adult fantasy (I actually never read it but I bought it with the other three). I remember I considered Bellairs last full book as his best. So that is something to keep in mind.

Is it actually any good?

This one  I have to say yes as well.  Bellairs has a style that is actually quite similar to JK Rowling. They aren't hard books to read but they are well-written enough to keep people of all ages engaged. I will say Bellairs is more descriptive than Rowling -- but I guess I shouldn't expect anything less from someone who named Tolkien as an influence. But even in his descriptions, Bellairs plays with words or makes humorous observations that make reading his descriptions fun at least.

He has a strong sense of character voice. Lewis always speaks hesitantly, Jonathan rambles, and Mrs. Zimmerman is usually short and quick and witty. The characters are flawed but incredibly likable. They make mistakes but definitely learn from them. And they aren't idiots either.

And as I said above, I fell for the red herring. That really indicates good storytelling. When the pieces fell together, it was an "a ha" moment and it made sense. The little bread crumbs left by the author lead to the conclusion so you didn't feel cheated.

There were a couple of filler scenes, like Jonathan's illusions of showing Lewis past battles that he could interact with and change the outcome. But I consider it more of trying to fill out the world and the rules of said world so I can forgive it slightly. I kind of wish there was a sad moment in which Lewis remembered his dead parents. It kind of feels like Lewis's parents die and he's sad on the bus there but then Jonathan shows him MAGIC and things are okay. But I understand that sometimes these things need to be left behind.

Otherwise, the narrative moved smoothly.

Tune in next week for Anthony Monday's first book, The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborne.