John Bellairs was my favorite author when I was a child. He is still one of my favorites. I recently re-read his novels and found that they are still wonderful even though I’m over twice as old as when I read them the first time. John Bellairs started his writing career with humorous books like The Pedant and the Shuffly and St. Figeta and Other Parodies. The first is a silly short story, and I haven’t read the other. Those are not examples of what made John Bellairs great though. John Bellairs is one of the best horror authors ever. His first horror book was his last book for adults, The Face in the Frost. It is a slightly awkwardly-paced fantasy book with moments of genius that were the first indication of how good Bellairs was going to be. It’s a decent book, but it’s nothing compared to his next book, The House with a Clock in its Walls. House is the first of his books for young readers and is an excellent example of what the rest of Bellairs’s books were like: it takes place in an old mansion, has loveable characters, and is a horror/mystery. Bellairs wrote about many fascinating old mansions, so he must have thought they were as cool as I do. The protagonist is a young boy, Lewis Barnavelt, whose parents have been killed, so he goes to live with his uncle in a mansion. After this book, Bellairs wrote two sequels before creating a new protagonist, Johnny Dixon. Johnny, a Catholic boy, befriends a history professor, allowing Bellairs to bring lots of antiquity and history into the stories. Like with old mansions, I also share a love of these things. In fact, since I read these books at a tender young age, I am not sure if it wasn’t Bellairs who taught me to love old and mysterious things like mansions and medieval history. Most of the books Bellairs wrote were about Johnny and his friends. Bellairs created one other set of characters, featuring the protagonist Anthony Monday, and one of these books was my first Bellairs book: The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb. Although there are only four Anthony Monday books, and the first doesn’t even have anything supernatural in it, Anthony is my favorite character. His three supernatural adventures, including the first book published after Bellairs’s untimely death, are some of the coolest stories Bellairs wrote.
When John Bellairs died in 1991, he had two partially-written books and notes for two more. John’s son, Frank, got Brad Strickland to finish them. Strickland did an amazing job, and the first two are two of the best books in the series. In fact, The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder might be my favorite one of all, and Bellairs only wrote the first couple chapters or so. However, that gave him time to do what he does best and set up an excellent setting and atmosphere, which Strickland was able to use well to create an awesome adventure. It was a good combination of both author’s strengths. Strickland continued to write books about John Bellairs’s characters, and while not as good as the original Bellairs stories, they are pretty good and I hope they keep coming. It’s been over two years since the last one, so I hope he hasn’t decided to throw in the towel.
I discovered John Bellairs because the covers of the books were so cool. They were dark and fit the mood of the stories perfectly. They were done by the greatest illustrator ever: Edward Gorey. The subtly creepy drawings effectively screamed “READ THIS BOOK!!” to any young reader passing the juvenile section of the library. For me, it was love at first sight. Unfortunately, somebody has decided that today’s youth are too stupid to understand atmospheric illustrations and have replaced the cover art with lurid cheesy standard scary kid’s book style pictures. It’s like plastering a billboard over the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. The new covers aren’t bad, but the publisher has Edward Gorey art for this series, so I cannot understand why they don’t use it.
As I mentioned earlier, I collect books. The treasure of my collection is a copy of The Eyes of the Killer Robot signed by Bellairs in 1986. Since he died 19 years ago, his signed books are hard to find, but AbeBooks had a couple when I checked. They also had The Chessmen of Doom, but that one was more expensive, and Robot is a better book.
If you haven’t read Bellairs’s books, give them a try. If you have read them and like them, Joseph Delaney’s Spook’s Apprentice series is the current successor to the awesomely creepy juvenile literature throne.