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John Bellairs: Author of Gothic Fiction For Kids

john-bellairs-booksThe late John Bellairs (1938-1991) was an author of Gothic fiction aimed at the young adult reader using his creations,  Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon, three young boys who found themselves involved in all kinds of mysteries that usually involved ghosts, demons, magic spells, wizards, zombies and more!

His first book for the young adult reader was The House With a Clock In It’s Walls, which had originally been written as an adult fantasy novel, but was eventually retooled as a book for the young adult reader.

From 1973, until his untimely death of heart disease at age 53 in 1991, John completed 18 books that enthralled young and adult readers as well… and they still continue to do so today.

After John’s death, his son contacted author Brad Strickland and asked if he would take on the task of finishing some of the unfinished manuscripts and flesh out a few more of the outlines left behind by John. He readily agreed and became a wonderful “guardian” to John’s characters, even using a few of them in his own creations. Thank you, Mr. Strickland!

The House With a Clock In Its Walls: (A Lewis Barnavelt Mystery) Lewis Barnavelt is orphaned after losing his parents in car accident. He is sent to to live with his Uncle Jonathan Barnavelt, whom he had never met before, in the small town of New Zebedee, Michigan. His uncle lives in a house once occupied by evil wizard who created a doomsday clock and hid it in the walls of the old house, but he died before he could activate it. Now all the clock does is sit and wait and tick off the minutes until someone can put things in motion. That someone is Serena Izzard, the long deceased wife of the evil wizard, who is resurrected accidentally by Lewis when he tries one of his uncle’s magic spells. Edward Gorey did illustrations for many of John’s books. He had the ability to bring to life the words on the page.  Gorey and Bellairs made a wonderful pairing. In 1979, The CBS Library showed their adaptation of The House with a Clock in its Walls. Severn Darden was cast as Uncle Jonathan and Michael Brick was cast as Lewis. We are introduced to Rose Rita Pottinger at the end of this book. The book won New York Times Outstanding Book of Award and the American Library Association Children’s Books of International Interest Award.

The Figure in the Shadows:  (A Lewis Barnavelt Mystery) Poor Lewis, who is an easy target for bullies finds himself being picked on, this time, by Woody Mingo, and he wished he had a way to defend himself and get back at Woody. (This doesn’t sound like a good idea, does it?).    While rummaging in Grandpa Barnavelt’s travel trunk, he finds a  “lucky” coin from 1859, and he is certain that is contains magic powers and will act as a talisman. But, once he starts to carry the coin with him strange things begin to happen, like the appearance of notes with the word “Venio” written on them. Then, of course, there is that mysterious shadowy figure that seems to be following him. Just what has Lewis awakened? This is the first book to feature Rose Rita Pottinger who we met at the end of The House With a Clock in Its Walls.

The Letter, the Witch and the Ring: (A Lewis Barnavelt Mystery) With her best friend, Lewis, away at summer camp, Rose Rita figures it is going to be a boring summer.Things get interesting when her friend Mrs. Zimmerman receives a strange letter from her cousin Oley who has just recently passed. In it he tells her about the strange goings on at his farm and that he has found a ring that he thinks has magical powers.Mrs. Zimmerman asks Rose Rita to accompany her to the farm to investigate things and together the two of them run afoul of an old witch Gert Bigger who is holding onto a grudge from 45 years ago when Mrs. Zimmerman stole the old woman’s beau (or so she believes.)  The old witch intends to get her revenge against Mrs. Zimmerman and Rose Rita, too. While this is classified as a Lewis mystery, I always thought that Rose Rita should have gotten the credit as it features her more prominently that Lewis.

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn: (An Anthony Monday Mystery) Has Alpheus Winterborn, Hoosac’s eccentric millionaire, really hidden a treasure in the Hoosac town library? Anthony Monday is sure that there is something to the story and sets out find the treasure. But, he isn’t the only one who is searching for the old man’s millions, Hugo Phipotts, Alpheus’ nephew has his sight set on the treasure too and is willing to let Anthony do all the work and then when the time is right, he will just snatch the treasure away.This book doesn’t have many elements of the supernatural, but it is a very good mystery story.This is the second of John’s books to be turned into a TV special. It was shown on an episode of The CBS Children’s Mystery Theatre in 1980 that was shown under the title of The Mystery According to Sherlock Holmes.

The Curse of the Blue Figurine: (A Johnny Dixon Mystery) One day while Johnny Dixon is looking around in the town church basement, he finds and old blue figurine called an ushabt (a funeral figuring used in Ancient Egypt) that has a message scrawled inside of it whoever removes these things from the church, does so at his own peril.By accident, Johnny takes the figurine home and odd things begin to happen. He calls on his friend and neighbor, Professor Roderick Childermass to help him figure out what is going on and how to put things right.

The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt:  (A Johnny Dixon Mystery) This book is also touted as a sequel to the “Curse of The Blue Figurine” and is the story of wealthy H. Bagwell Glomus’ and his missing will.There is a $10,000 reward that will go to anyone who can find it. Johnny Dixon wants the reward and believes that the clues to it’s hiding place is in Glomus’s diary but that is filled with strange and weird riddles that Johnny intends to solve.He also thinks that the clues to solving those riddles can be found in the old spooky Glomus mansion, so he decides to sneak in and look around. Once inside, a sudden bright flash of light stops him in his tracks and he discovers he is not alone in this mansion.

The Dark Secret of Weatherend: (An Anthony Monday Mystery) Anthony and his best friend, Miss Eells discover the diary of J.K. Borkman, a mad man who wanted to bring about the end of the world via a horrible ice age.In his diary, Borkman, had created a spell that he carefully hid in cryptic riddle form. When Anthony innocently solves some of the riddles, the ice age is set into motion. Anthony believes that a counter spell is also in the riddles, too, can he figure it out before the earth freezes!We are introduced to Emerson Eells in this book. He is Miss Eells younger brother and a lawyer by trade with a bit of a know-it-all attitude. He is scared of his big sister. He smokes pipes, cigars and cigarettes and likes to drink beer.

The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull: (A Johnny Dixon Mystery) Johnny Dixon and his friend Professor Roderick Childermass discover an old clock. Inside it, Johnny discovers a miniature room that is exactly like the room that a murder had taken place a long time ago.Inside this room, Johnny finds a miniature skull that has magical powers, but the minute he picks it up he unleashes demonic forces.Worse yes, his friend Professor Childermass has vanished and this leaves Johnny having to ask his best friend Fergie and the town’s priest Father Higgens to help him stop the diabolical plan set in motion by the Sorcerer’s Skull!This book is a direct prequel to “The Revenge of The Wizard’s Ghost”.

The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost: (A Johnny Dixon Mystery) Something odd is happening to Johnny, he is sleepwalking and simply not acting like himself at all and it seems the problem is that he has become possessed by an evil spirit and ends up in a coma. Can his trusted friend Professor Childermass save him?  This is the fourth Johnny Dixon book and is a sequel to The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull”. If you remember, in that book, an evil wizard was attempting to get revenge against the Childermass family for an ancient wrong that they committed against him.

The Eyes of the Killer Robot: (A Johnny Dixon Mystery) Mad inventor, Evaristus Sloane’s baseball-pitching robot can only be activated by installing a pair of human eyes and it seems that Sloane has chosen Johnny to be the donor! When he is kidnapped it is up to his best friends Professor Childermass and Fergie to go rescue him.

The Lamp From the Warlock’s Tomb: (An Anthony Monday Mystery) Strange things begin to happen after Miss Eells purchases an antique oil lamp. Little does she know that it was stolen from the tomb of Willis Nightwood who dabbled in black magic. When Anthony lights the lamp, it unleashes evil forces.

The Trolley to Yesterday: (A Johnny Dixon Mystery). Professor Childermass discovers an old trolley that has the ability to transport people back in time and soon he and Johnny end up in Constantinople in the year 1453 as the Turks are invading the Byzantine Empire.

The Chessmen of Doom: (A Johnny Dixon Mystery) Professor Childermass’s brother, Peregrine has passed away and left his substantial estate to his brother who has to go to Maine in order to collect it. Johnny and his best friend Fergie tag along and end up helping Professor Childermass solve a riddle that will prevent a mad man from destroying the world.

The Secret of the Underground Room: ( A Johnny Dixon Mystery) Johnny and Professor Childermass must help their friend Father Higgins who has been possessed by the spirit of an ancient knight bent on taking over the world with the help of seven ancient knights who he plans to bring back to life and release from an underground room where they are imprisoned.

The Ghost in the Mirror: (A Lewis Barnavelt Mystery) Lewis and his Uncle Jonathan have gone on a cruise leaving poor Rose Rita without a friend to do things with. She is happy to accompany her friend, Mrs. Zimmerman to the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country where they duo are transported back in time to 1828. Mrs. Zimmerman loses her memory, and they are taken in by the kindly Weiss family who are battling a powerful evil wizard. (Finished by author Brad Strickland based on notes left behind by Bellairs after his death.)

The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder (A Lewis Barnavelt Mystery) Lewis Barnavelt and his Uncle Jonathan are in English visiting relatives. Lewis accidentally releases a demonic force that summons the ghost of an evil wizard that wants to destroy the entire Barnavelt family. Co authored with Brad Strickland.

The Drum, the Doll and the Zombie: (A Johnny Dixon Mystery) Dr. Charles Coote, a folklorist and friend of both Professor Childermass and Johnny brings back from his visit to New Orleans, a small black wood drum that when played releases the spirit of Madame Sinestra, a voodoo priestess who wants the drum to use with her cult. Co authored with Brad Strickland.

The Doom of the Haunted Opera: (A Lewis Barnavelt Mystery) When exploring an old abandoned theater, Lewis and his friend Rose Rita find an unfinished musical score title The Day of Doom. When stranger Henry Vanderhelm comes to town claiming to be the grandson of the opera’s composer, he convinces the town to put on a performance of the opera. Little do they know that he really wants to use the power of the opera enslave the world and awaken the dead! Co authored with Brad Strickland.

He Loved to Write Stories That Children Love to Read


A few years back, I had the chance to visit, for the first time, the cemetery  (Greenwood Cemetery, 646 East Broadway Street,in Haverhill) where John is buried in Massachusetts. I have to say that if he had a hand in picking this cemetery, it seems to fit him well. It’s a quiet and restful place, off the beaten path.  There are no large tombstones or ornately decorated family crypts or mausoleums to be seen.  In some ways, it doesn’t appear to be the kind of place you would imagine an author of Gothic tales to be resting.

bellairs-gravesiteJohn’s grave is in the front of the cemetery, right along the main road.  Sadly, time has not been kind to John’s stone, the highlighting on the lettering is wearing off on the back which lists his books, making reading it difficult. On the front of the stone is John’s name, date and place of birth and the date and place of his death. As well as the Latin phrase “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” which has different translations, and the one by Vergil may be the one John preferred, “These are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart”. It’s a line from the epic poem, “The Aeneid” On the back of John’s stone is a listing of his books.

Buried beside John, is his son, Frank who died in 1999 at 29 years of age. Frank was instrumental in getting author Brad Strickland to take over the “guardianship” of the characters that John created.

© 2014 Glory Miller


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