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.

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