Before there was “The Boy Who Lived,” there was Lewis Barnavelt, a 10-year-old orphan who brushed shoulders with wizards, witches, sorcerers, ghosts, and his share of occultists. With the film adaptation of John Bellairs’s 1973 novel, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, releasing on September 21, a new generation of readers will have the opportunity to discover Bellairs’s storytelling. The film stars Owen Vaccaro (Daddy’s Home), Jack Black (Goosebumps) and Cate Blanchett (Ocean's 8), and is directed by Eli Roth (Cabin Fever), marking the horror director’s first “family-friendly” film.
In The House with a Clock in Its Walls (Dial), Lewis Barnavelt (played by Vaccaro) goes to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) in a labyrinthine house that holds a sinister ticking clock in its walls. Lewis soon learns that his uncle is a warlock and the next-door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett), a witch. After Lewis inadvertently wakes the dead, the house’s clock begins ticking faster, hastening the end of the world.
In 2011, Bradley J. Fischer and James Vanderbilt of Mythology Entertainment approached screenwriter Eric Kripke (creator of Supernatural) for the film project. As a child of the 1980s, Kripke was very familiar with Bellairs. Kripke recently told Entertainment Weekly that “when I was 10, I fell in love with this book.” In fact, the only fan letter Kripke ever wrote as a child was to Bellairs.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which was a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 1973, was the first in Bellairs’s Lewis Barnavelt series. Bellairs followed-up the book with The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring. Bellairs also wrote the Johnny Dixon and Anthony Monday series, which included The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt, The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborne, and The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull. In all, Bellairs wrote 15 books for young readers.
But Bellairs actually began his career writing for adults, with his first book, Fidgeta and Other Parodies, a spoof of Catholicism, published in 1966. It was followed by The Pedant and the Shuffly (1968), a picture book of sorts, and the adult fantasy novel, The Face in the Frost (1969). Bellairs didn’t intend The House with a Clock in Its Walls to be for young readers, either. But after the manuscript was discovered by author (and former Dial Books for Young Readers staffer) Jean Van Leeuwen in a slush pile, it fell into the hands of Dial editor Phyllis Fogelman. She saw the book’s potential appeal to young adults, and urged Bellairs to rework the manuscript for a younger audience, which Bellairs did, over the course of five years.
The House with the Clock in its Walls takes place in 1943 in Zebedee, Mich. Bellairs loosely based New Zebedee on his own hometown of Marshall, Mich., and modeled the titular house (at least in part), on the Cronin House, an imposing, haunted-looking mansion in Marshall that rises 60 feet high. The historical house is still standing and, in fact, will be hosting a premiere reception of the film on September 21.
Readers who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s may remember Bellairs’s novels for their sophisticated prose, phantasmagoric imagery, and chilling content, but also for their cover art. Artist Edward Gorey—whose distinctively macabre pen-and-ink illustrations continue to be ubiquitous today—created many of the Gothic illustrations for Bellairs’s work. Despite the seeming accord between the art and text, Gorey wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about creating them. An article that appeared in the Millions explores the relationship (or lack thereof) between Bellairs and Gorey. Andreas Brown, who helped to establish the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, is quoted as saying: “He called me up one day and said, ‘Let’s get all of the Bellairs work out of the archives.’ He just didn’t think it represented him and what he was trying to do. He saw it as his grunt work.” Brown also commented that he doesn’t believe Bellairs and Gorey ever actually met. Nevertheless, for many readers of Bellairs’s oeuvre, the author and artist are inexorably connected.
Following Bellairs’s death in 1991, a posthumous collaboration began. The Bellairs estate commissioned speculative fiction author Brad Strickland to complete two of Bellairs’s unfinished manuscripts. Bellairs had also left behind two outlines for planned novels, which Strickland would develop as well. Those books were The Ghost in the Mirror; The Vengeance of the Witch-finder; The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie; and The Doom of the Haunted Opera.
In the 1990s, Strickland began writing original works based on Bellairs’s characters; the most recent was The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer (2008). In a 2002 interview with the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons, Strickland spoke about continuing Bellairs’s series after his death. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” he said. “After four or five long phone conversations with Toby Sherry, John’s wonderful editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, and after meeting the publisher face to face, I got up the nerve to finish [The Ghost in the Mirror].”
In the interview, Strickland also recounted the challenges of capturing the voice of an author beloved by many: “I get mail from fans who berate me bitterly for this or that in the books. However, I also get much more mail from fans who like my books, so it more than balances out. I’m always keenly aware that I have a responsibility to do the best I can to live up to John’s books.” Working on the Bellairs books also led Strickland to write numerous other middle grade and YA books across multiple series.
In 2001, Craig Seemann, a fan of Bellairs based in Austin Tex., co-founded (with Jon Shanks) the Bellairsia blog, which is entirely devoted to Bellairs’s and Strickland’s work. Seemann and Shanks were initially interested in researching Bellairs’s many literary and historical references sprinkled throughout his books. The site attracts a wide spectrum of Bellairs enthusiasts: “We’ve heard an assortment of stories from fans over the years—people who were not familiar with John until the film frenzy as well as those who grew up with his books in the 1960s and 1970s. Or people who weren’t familiar with the characters until Brad Strickland began writing novels in the mid-1990s,” Seemann told PW. Still, other visitors to the blog are collectors of Edward Gorey’s work.
Seeman believes that Bellairs’s books continue to appeal to readers because of their authentically scary supernatural content. “From the pulp-ish titles alone we know there are cursed figurines, killer robots, misty mansions, frosty faces, and a house with a clock in its walls out there,” Seeman said. But, as with many works of resonant children’s fiction, Bellairs integrates realism as well. “There’s also the frights that occur in day-to-day life—a father fighting in a war half a world away, a grandmother suffering from a brain tumor, a family’s financial woes, or an orphaned child being sent to live with an unknown uncle,” said Seeman.
Seeman frequently hears from adult readers who identified with Bellairs’s protagonists when they were young, whether Lewis, Anthony, Johnny, or Rose Rita, Lewis’s friend who appears throughout the Lewis Barnavelt series. “Many of these adults still have their original, well-worn paperbacks and have already introduced their own children to the books. And now there’s a film to welcome in the next generation of fans. I like to think John would be fidgeting with delight were he here. Many of his long-time fans are,” said Seeman.
Priscilla Bellairs—who was invited to visit the film set in Atlanta, Georgia—told the Gloucester Daily Times that “I'm thrilled that a new generation is going to see this work and that it's getting on a screen.” She also reflected on the unique sensibilities that her late husband brought to his work, saying that “they capture his fondness for odd facts, medieval trivia, and of course, Victorian architecture," as well as his "sympathy for kids that are bullied and are outcasts."