Q: Tell us about your first encounter with John’s books?
A: I think I was in fourth grade, which would have made it 1994 or so. I have very distinct memories of that Edward Gorey cover of The House with a Clock in its Walls; at least one of my friends was reading it, and I have the impression that quite a few were, so it’s possible it was assigned reading.
In any case, even at age nine I was apparently attracted to weird, creepy things, and there was no turning back for me. My parents, always very encouraging of reading, bought me some of his books, and I have fond memories of checking out every one I could find from the public library. Except The Trolley to Yesterday, because time travel sounded boring.
Q: You recently wrote a nice piece on Bellairs’ use of language, notably in The Face in the Frost. Was this language something that attracted you to his storytelling? Of all his writings, what is your all-time favorite passage?
A: Definitely as an older reader, yes. When I was in college I started rereading a lot of books that I’d read as a kid, and just in general started re-exploring children’s literature. At some point in there, I read Clock and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was every bit as good as I remembered, and actually very sophisticated thematically.
Around that time I discovered that Bellairs had written an adult fantasy novel with the very Bellairsian title The Face in the Frost. Happily, my university library had a copy. It’s so short that I read it in one sitting, and I was just blown away by it. The writing in Clock is very good, but the voice is so much younger, and the plot so much more complex in just about the same amount of space, that there’s not as much room for the kind of language and scene-setting that Frost does, though there are certainly some fantastic passages, like the eclipse scene.
As for my favorite passage, there are many great ones in Frost - Five Dials comes to mind - but it’s probably the first one I wrote about:
Around six o'clock, a dark greenish storm-twilight descended, though the sun was not due to set for two hours. Prospero got up and walked out the back door into this unnatural dusk; in the yard behind the house no birds could be seen or heard; the leaves of the trees hung like carved ornaments; and even the splashing of the fountain was strangely muted. The slates of the roof were a flat gray, and the thick-piled clouds seemed to press down on the turreted house.
Not only is that a beautiful bit of writing, but the moment when I realized what, exactly he was doing - when I realized just how precisely he chose the language he used - was like the moment when you finally solve a puzzle that’s been frustrating you, or when something blurry suddenly snaps into focus. I felt like I was inside his head for a moment, like he was speaking directly to me as a reader. It was one of those formative realizations as a writer. Almost an epiphany.
There’s also some stuff in The Dolphin Cross - mostly having to do with the Bishop, which as you mentioned to me is one of Bellairs’s more disturbing villains - that’s really strong. (Everything with the leaves, the Bishop’s table settings, the fishes…) More on that book in a bit.
Q: You also mentioned his “evolution as an author” in your piece, plus the opinion that his later books becoming somewhat formulaic. Do you feel these later books diminish his legacy in anyway? What do you feel is the pinnacle of his career? Low point?
A: Well, I think I should clarify what I meant, exactly, to try and assuage the hordes of angry Johnny Dixon fans as they sharpen their pitchforks and soak their torches in kerosene; but before I do that I will say, in answer to the first question, no, definitely not. I mean, he produced a couple of phenomenal books and a lot of very, very good ones. Based on Frost and Clock alone I think his legacy is pretty secure. He was a genius, and one who’s largely underappreciated.
Anyhow, formulaic probably wasn’t exactly the right word to use, but I do think that his later books lack something that his very early work has. There’s a temptation to just say ‘oh, he started writing children’s books’ but I think that’s a copout and, as someone who a) loves children’s fiction, b) briefly worked in the children’s editorial trenches, and c) wants to write children’s fiction, I vehemently disagree that children’s books are inherently less sophisticated or worthy than books marketed to adults.
But let’s look at Clock, which is such a bizarre little book, and in my opinion, to answer your second question, his best.
Thinking about Clock, and what I like about it, I think conventional is probably a better word than formulaic. The Johnny Dixon books - which I love - are more typically Gothic horror, I think, than Clock. They have the Catholicism, evil magical objects, demonic presences, that sort of thing. Whereas Clock, while it uses some of the same kinds of images to great effect, is at its core just really, really weird.
The thing that always strikes me is the poker game at the end, where Lewis makes up nonsense rules as a way of creating a magical ritual whole cloth. It’s brilliant, and it’s so beautifully absurd, but you don’t really see anything like it in any of his later books, and especially not once he abandoned Lewis Barnavelt for so long. That kind of humor, so present in The Face in the Frost and in St. Fidgeta and The Pedant and the Shuffly, just fades away. I mean, Professor Childermass is funny, for sure, but he’s funny in kind of a more conventional way. That sort of absurdist, madcap sense of humor is one of the things that I think really defines his early work - even Isaac Izard’s plan is delightfully bizarre, and the reason he failed in the first place is kind of hilarious - and I wish it hadn’t disappeared. When you look at Clock side by side with his later stuff I think the difference is really apparent.
My suspicion, also, based on reading about his childhood here on Bellairsia, and on Ellen Kushner’s account of her correspondence with him in Magic Mirrors, is that, out of Lewis, Johnny, and Anthony, Lewis is the closest to Bellairs himself. (I have no trouble believing that a young John Bellairs would have sat awake at night reading John L. Stoddard, for example.)
And there’s something really personal about all of the supernatural stuff that happens in Clock, and thematically like I said earlier it’s really tight. I mean, Lewis is this lonely kid who’s just lost his parents and moved to a new town to live with someone he’s never met before. And of course he’s bookish and nerdy and overweight and probably has trouble making friends even in the best of circumstances. And everything that happens in the book is driven by his loneliness and, even though it’s not addressed directly, his parents dying: he accidentally resurrects Selenna Izard because he’s desperate to keep Tarby as a friend, even though their friendship is obviously, heart-breakingly doomed from the beginning. And then he doesn’t tell Uncle Jonathan what he did because he’s afraid Jonathan will send him away, and Jonathan’s the only family he has left.
Basically, I think that gradually the supernatural stuff becomes more external, and so later books don’t have the same emotional weight that the early ones do. And like I said, I also think that offbeat weirdness that shows up so much in his early stuff largely disappears after Clock and especially after Bellairs abandons Lewis Barnavelt.
Really, what I wish is that he hadn’t been constrained by financial necessity, and that the market for fantasy in the ‘70s and ‘80s was what it is now in the post-Harry Potter world. Because lord, I would have loved to read a completed The Dolphin Cross. The introduction to The Dolphin Cross in the NESFA collection is really great, and it has this absolutely heartbreaking observation where Kushner mentions that Bellairs abandoned the book because his children’s writing was how he made his living and he felt like that was where his focus needed to be. It’s such a shame he had to do that; and I also wonder if some of the decline I’ve been talking about had to do, on some level, with him writing things he felt he had to write rather than things he wanted to write.
Also, on an unrelated note, I’d love to read the early draft of Clock that he was shopping around, before it was cut down so much and before he turned it into a children’s book.
Q: Would you happen to have a fond memory involving his stories you’d like to share?
A: This isn’t fond, exactly, but I can certainly look back and laugh at it now: The Drum, The Doll, and the Zombie scared the pants off me when I was a kid. I remember basically being afraid of the dark for at least a couple months afterward, and I have one extremely vivid memory associated with that:
My parents had taken me to a symphony performance one night. It was in this big auditorium with rows and rows of deep red velvet seats. We always sat in the balcony, which, being far away from the stage, felt very dark and isolated. Now, at age ten, I was not much interested in the symphony. And so whenever we went - which, to my memory, was fairly often - my mind would wander.
There’s a point in Zombie where Johnny literally says something along the lines of “Look out, professor! There’s a zombie behind you!” And for some reason I started thinking about that, and how the zombie in that book was basically indestructible, and how the climax of the story hinged on an unathletic boy managing to hit someone in the face with a snowball, which seemed tremendously lucky; and I became deathly afraid that there was a zombie in the auditorium, stalking me among the rows of seats. I spent the rest of the concert sweating and terrified, convinced it was about to appear behind me.
That one was another one that I reread not long ago, trying to dissect it and figure out why it scared me when I was younger, because it’s the only book I’ve ever read that outright frightened me like that. And I think the reason it was so successful is that Brad Strickland, like Bellairs, understands how to play with those little irrational everyday fears––like, what if there’s someone lurking in a dark basement? (Answer: YES THERE IS AND IT’S A ZOMBIE.) And there are all these eerie details, like how the zombie is controlled by a flute, and so there’s always music playing when it’s around, that really stuck with me.
The other cool thing about that book, which obviously went way over my head as a kid, is that Strickland appears to basically be writing an HP Lovecraft story. The New England setting is similar, obviously, and but more to the point, the villains are a cult that’s straight out of Lovecraft. (There’s also an explicit reference when Professor Childermass consults a colleague at Miskatonik University, raising the glorious possibility that he, Johnny, and Fergie might tangle with a shoggoth at some point.)
Of course, Lovecraftian cults bring their own rather heavy baggage, what with the racism and all; and so Strickland has cleverly inverted things, made the cult the descendants of white Haitian slave owners who have stolen and perverted various religious traditions, and turned the whole story into a metaphor for cultural appropriation.
Q: You mention your own writings – would you care to share anything about those endeavors?
A: Well, there’s not much to tell right now; suffice to say I’m in the ‘aspiring’ phase of authorship at the moment. I’ve been working on something for the past couple years that, if all goes well, I’ll be ready to send out onto the wild by this summer, and if I’m very, very lucky find an agent. So we’ll see how that goes. I have a few other things that I’m working on as well although those are much farther from completion. Hopefully I’ll come to an end of the ‘toiling in obscurity’ phase sooner rather than later.
Bellairs is definitely a huge influence though, both in terms of the kind of tight-yet-complex book that Clock is, and that I want to write (/have tried to write); and also in terms of aesthetics, though I’m not writing horror per se.
I also do freelance work for some local companies, and some sports writing.
Q: What other author(s)/book(s) would you recommend to a Bellairs fan?
A: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline: this one, about a girl in an old house who discovers a passageway leading to a parallel house where different versions of her parents live, probably needs no introduction. It’s more fairy-tale-ish than any of Mr. Bellairs’s work, but it is extremely creepy and has a really goofy sense of humor. It also has the distinction of being the subject of one of the best children’s-book-to-movie adaptations ever made. Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is also very, very good.
The Owl Service, Alan Garner: a really weird little book about a girl who finds a set of owl-patterned plates, pulling her, her stepbrother, and another boy into replaying a sequence of deadly, ancient events. Stylistically this one’s pretty distinct, too - it’s told almost entirely through dialogue, which makes it almost feel like reading a play at times. Garner’s other work is well worth checking out, too. The Weirdstone of Brisingamon and its sequel are great.
On the adult side of things, Bellairs always reminds me of Chesterton. Part of that obviously is the Catholicism, but they both write with a similarly eerie sense of place. Chesterton’s ability to build mood from setting is unparalleled, and if I were a betting man I’d guess his work was a pretty big influence on Bellairs. The Man Who Was Thursday is a fever-dream of a book, and I quite enjoy the Father Brown detective stories as well. A word about those stories: they are basically religious polemics, with each story addressing a particular strain of scientific thought or Christianity that Chesterton found disagreeable, so if that’s not your thing you might not have much patience for them. He also at times indulges in really ugly racism that, though it was endemic to the time, is nonetheless disappointing and off putting. (You can safely skip “The God of the Gongs” for this reason, although it’s pretty weak as a mystery story, too.)
Finally, I’ve found that so-called ‘weird fiction’ in general, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris series in particular, hits a lot of the same buttons that Bellairs does.
Q: Compleat this sentence: you know you’ve read too much John Bellairs when –
A: ...every shadow seems like it might be hiding a zombie.