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.

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