Mon. June 11
The Spell of the Satirist’s Skill
I don’t know why anyone would ever want to rule a fantasy kingdom, or become an evil wizard, when you have to deal with countless irksome children giving you backchat. It seems that almost every kids’ fantasy written nowadays has a “spunky” hero or heroine: kids who speak their mind or talk back to their elders, even when sass is clearly not the wisest move. These kids’ mentors constantly praise them for their bravery, but it’s hard to see why, since their whole personalities seem geared toward boldness to the point of stupidity or brattiness.
Not so the heroes of John C. Bellairs’s eerie, spooky, often grimly funny fantasy tales. The kids who battle sorcerers and curses in his books are typically shy or easily intimidated, burdened with anxiety and guilt. These kids can even come across as sad-sacks, which would be less fun to read if the books didn’t push them out of their shells and help them find friendship (usually with adults rather than other children) and courage.
Bellairs wrote fifteen children’s books himself; the remaining books using his characters were pieced together from his notes or entirely written by another author. (You can find a list of actual- versus ersatz-Bellairs here.) Many were illustrated by the great master of Gothic humor, Edward Gorey. Bellairs got his start as a satirist of Catholic mores in the Vatican II era, and he loved silly puzzles. (One of his evil wizards plants a clue requiring knowledge of the punchline of a joke which begins, “Does this bus go to Duluth?”) But he also crafted truly frightening images and characters who linger in children’s imaginations. Last year I ran across a grown-up who still shivers when she thinks of Isaac Izard, the villain of The House with a Clock in Its Walls. That clock is counting down the hours to Doomsday—but, in a sublime Bellairs touch, it’s defeated by means of a madcap magical card game involving a tiny creature who lives in the fusebox and shouts, “Dreeb! Dreeb! I am the fusebox dwarf.”
There are darker, deeper horror novels for kids. Ray Bradbury’s haunting, lovely Something Wicked This Way Comes is the greatest nightmare-carnival tale ever told, with shimmeringly lush prose and wrenching themes of fatherhood, aging, moral choice, and regret. Bellairs isn’t trying to reach that level. He’s trying to provide laughs, thrills, and maybe a few nightmares, for kids who relate best to characters who respect authority figures rather than challenging them, and shy away from conflict with their peers.
The relationships between kids and adults in Bellairs’s books may be one of their most unusual aspects. The kids bear adult burdens—in The Mummy, the Will, And the Crypt, Johnny Dixon is trying to uncover the secrets of a tycoon’s riddling will in order to get money for medical care for his beloved grandmother. (His grandparents are caring for him while his father fights in Korea.) And the adults have childlike weaknesses which are both mortifying and endearing. Professor Childermass, though he shepherds Johnny through eldritch terrors, has such a short temper that he has to lock himself in a “fuss closet” so he can Hulk out in peace. The librarian Myra Eells is daring and clever, but she’s also short-tempered, clumsy, and defensive when faced with her prissy brother Emerson. While Bellairs’s heroes do find friends their own age, as when easily-frightened Lewis teams up with brash but loving Rose Rita, they often seem more comfortable with adults. Many kids will find that a refreshing change from the assumption that their world is age-segregated. They may also enjoy reading about a world which isn’t always gentle or pleasant—Professor Childermass’s surname, taken from the Catholic feast day remembering Herod’s massacre of the Holy Innocents, gives a sense of the dark Catholic sensibility of the books—but where beloved adults can be trusted.
These books are comfort food for the kind of child who loves a good ghost story.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/. She has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.