The University Bookman


Winter 2018

Tomboys and Magic

The creepy-cozy tales of John Bellairs.

Eve Tushnet

Children fell in love with the tales of John Bellairs (1938–1991) because they perfectly combined creepy and cozy: the laughing skeleton, curled up by the fire with a mug of cider. In novels like The Curse of the Blue Figurine and The Dark Secret of Weatherend Bellairs confronted his child heroes with cruel wizards and apocalyptic prophecies, terrible dreams and grim temptations—often illustrated by Edward Gorey, the other master of elementary-school macabre. Bellairs and Gorey both cherish old houses, weird objects, and the friendships that form among oddballs and outsiders.

Bellairs stuffs his spooky stories with scraps of literature: “Urne-Buriall,” for example, or lines from Shakespeare. His first published work, St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies, satirized Vatican II-era Catholicism, and he strewed Catholic prayers throughout his work. Maybe the most incongruous example is when the Litany of Loreto offers the solution to a magician’s tomb puzzle in Weatherend. (Did this dabbler in world-ending evil have a special Marian devotion?)

But Bellairs’s Catholicism is often incongruous, or superstitious, or used for effect. He’ll call a kindly character Professor Childermass, after the feast of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Other authors might use this surname to make us suspicious of the professor. Bellairs transparently just thinks the name is spooky and cool. I recently reread a couple shelves’ worth of Bellairs, and what stood out, above all, is his shrugging refusal to make a point. Bellairs has no preachiness or even basic philosophical coherence. This reluctance to preach is immensely refreshing even though it also does make his portrayal of religion a bizarre mix of touching and misleading.

In The House with a Clock in Its Walls Bellairs shows a newly orphaned boy, on his way to live with an uncle he’s never met, praying:

It was one of his altar-boy prayers:

Quia tu es Deus fortitudo mea; quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus?

For Thou O God art my strength; why have you cast me off, and why do I go sorrowful, while the enemy afflicts me? …

It seemed to Lewis that all he could think of these days were questions: Where am I going? Who will I meet? Will I like them? What will happen to me?

He tries different prayers, “this time with the wish that they might make Uncle Jonathan like him. Judica me Deus … Judge me O God … no, don’t judge me, help me to live a happy life.”

This is one side of Bellairs’s Catholicism, sincere and childlike, and it appears in many of his books. But he also consistently blurs the line between prayer and superstition. In The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull a lonely, caring priest furtively hides messages under the St. Anthony statue (and warns the hero not to tell his bishop!). The hero calls these appeals to St. Anthony “magic,” and the priest himself says they’re “razzmatazz” and “mummery and flummery”: “And I said lumen Christi, which means light of Christ. It’s a powerful charm and part of the Holy Saturday service.” Several novels suggest that Catholicism is a kind of good magic, protective and powerful, a holy magic which destroys the bad magic. In the Bellairs world of cozy creepiness, the Church is both: familiar touchstone and protector, but also unsettling, smoke-hung haven of eerie beauty.

After Bellairs’s death, his publishers hired Brad Strickland, a fan of his work, to complete his unfinished novels and eventually take over his characters. I tried one of the Strickland collaborations, The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie. It has a lot of real creepiness; like many later Bellairs novels it emphasizes scary scenes over insight into childhood, clues over character. But there’s also this:

Dr. Coote shrugged his thin shoulders. “True, but wicked human nature may corrupt any religion and turn it to evil purposes. Just think of the jihads, or holy wars, of Islam. For that matter, think of the poor innocent people your very own Catholic church burned as heretics in the Middle Ages.”

“No argument there,” agreed the professor. “Although, as you say, such terrible events occur more because of people corrupting the doctrines of the church than because of true religious principles.”

Now, I cannot prove that Brad Strickland wrote this bit. But I can say that its careful, correct tone is found in none of the books Bellairs wrote on his own.

Two other features stood out in Drum. Professor Childermass is a hot-tempered old fussbudget, but he’s also quick to repent of his outbursts. One of the most frequently repeated scenes in Bellairs is the scene where an adult gets angry with one of Bellairs’s timid heroes and then, when the boy gets upset, immediately reassures and apologizes to him. In Drum, by contrast, the professor yells at service workers and never apologizes or reassures anybody. He has become a children’s-book version of the contemporary “mean genius” character, a Dr. House type.

And in Drum the hero doesn’t cry! Bellairs’s shy, unhappy heroes bawl on every other page. One of his favorite words is “helplessly.” His heroes get along more easily with weird old adults than with other children. In The House with a Clock In Its Walls, fat and unathletic Lewis Barnavelt almost causes the end of the world because he wanted to impress the coolest boy in school—and his tentative friendship with that boy is drawn in realistic, unprettified terms. Bellairs never makes an adult explain that it is okay for boys to cry. He just shows you boys crying all the time and lets you identify with them, and lets them be heroes.

Bellairs did do a bit of arguing for tomboy girls. His work is full of feisty widows and adventurous old-maid librarians. The only discernible messages in his works are, “Don’t even dabble in evil magic,” “Seeking power over your bullies will lead you into moral and physical harm,” and, “It’s fine if a girl likes softball more than school dances.” The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring is an all-girls Bellairs book where the heroine, sidekick, mentor, and villainess are all female. The cigar-smoking Mrs. Zimmerman reassures troubled tomboy Rose Rita: “The women who are remembered in history, women like Joan of Arc and Molly Pitcher, are not remembered because they spent all their time powdering their noses. As for the rest, you’ll just have to wait and see how your life turns out.” Mrs. Zimmerman declares, “[I]f you think I’m going to give you a handy-dandy recipe for how to live your life, you’re crazy.”

Bellairs charmingly evokes the Korean War era: Wildroot Cream Oil for your hair and “the Classic Comics version of the Iliad.” Especially in his early books, he portrays the emotional texture of childhood: “purple corduroy trousers, the kind that go whip-whip when you walk”; the humiliation of semi-deserved school punishments; watching your best friend get beat up and knowing you can’t help her; squinting to turn the Christmas lights into stars; gauging a book’s likely quality by smelling it. In simple prose he creates a world at once menacing and gentle. In the strenuously moral world of children’s lit, Bellairs was a light-footed writer whose craft and truthfulness always feel somehow unintentional.  

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. She is author, most recently of Amends, a novel.

Posted: February 4, 2018 in Essays.

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