I found them sitting, looking neglected and rather attractively dated, on a high shelf in the children’s section of our public library. I was looking for books for my then eleven year-old son, and here was a series I had never heard of, gothic thrillers of the sort boys love: The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost, The Eyes of the Killer Robot. These were books written by John Bellairs (1938-1991), an American children’s author whose name may not be known to many working in the revival of middle grade literature in the last couple of decades, but whose work has proved enduringly popular for those with the persistence to look beyond the current bestsellers list.
About a year ago my son tore through all the Bellairs books in our library. But I was reminded of Bellairs recently via this memoir written by his good friend and fellow University of Notre Dame classmate, Patrick Dunne, published in the Autumn 2012 edition of the Notre Dame Magazine (Notre Dame is also my alma mater). Dunne’s remembrance tells a charming tale of a brilliant undergraduate with a passionate love of literature and satirically comic bent. After he left Notre Dame in 1959, Bellairs spent some years teaching English in various colleges around the United States, before committing himself full-time to his writing in the early 1970s. Among Bellairs’ work is a 1969 fantasy novel, The Face in the Frost.
About this novel Bellairs said: “The Face in the Frost was an attempt to write in the Tolkien manner. I was much taken by The Lord of the Rings and wanted to do a modest work on those lines. In reading the latter book I was struck by the fact that Gandalf was not much of a person—just a good guy. So I gave Prospero, my wizard, most of my phobias and crotchets. It was simply meant as entertainment and any profundity will have to be read in.”
After Bellairs’ death in 1991, author Brad Strickland was commissioned by the Bellairs Estate to complete two manuscripts left by Bellairs at the time of his death, as well as two complete novels based upon one-page synopses Bellairs had left among his papers. Beginning in 1996, Strickland began writing his own stories featuring the established Bellairs characters.
Bellairs’ books have been turned into television shows, and in November 2011 a Bellairs film project was announced.
What is the secret of this enduringly popular author? Macabre settings, plucky heroes, and whimsical humor–all rolled into a rollicking good adventure tale (most of which feature the superbly macabre illustrations of Edward Gorey–best known for the animated figures in the title sequence of PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery). The only thing my son didn’t like about the Bellairs books he read was that “you couldn’t read them before bedtime.”
“Just too scary!”
You can find out more about John Bellairs here at bellairsia.com.