Friday, October 30, 2009

The House With a Clock in its Walls

This is my Halloween book review, The House With a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs. I don't read many books I think might be scary because they usually give me nightmares. This one is a children's book, so I thought I could handle it. And although I did dream about it, the dream was interestingly woven around this bit of description:
"And now Uncle Jonathan's back yard came to life. It was full of strange sights and sounds. The grass glowed a phosphorescent green, and red worms wriggled through the tall blades with a hushing sound. Strange insects dropped down out of the overhanging boughs of the willow tree and started to dance on the picnic table. They waltzed and wiggled in a shaking blue light...."

I read it because Nymeth's review mentioned that it features illustrations by Edward Gorey and that reading it reminded her a bit of reading Roald Dahl. And I read it because Amanda's review listed five thing she learned from it, and one of them is that necromancy never pays.

There are two people who live in the house with a clock in its walls, and they are ten-year-old Lewis, whose parents died in a car crash, and his Uncle Jonathan, who turns out to be one of those lovable and slightly ineffectual good wizards. The clock in the walls is eventually revealed to be a doomsday device left there by the former owner of the house, a bad wizard. When Lewis starts looking through magic books in the house for a spell to impress a friend with, he finds one on necromancy and all it takes is to read the book, memorize "some of the charms," and then he "copied one of the pentagrams and the spell that went with it onto a piece of notepaper and put it in his pocket" so he can raise the dead, specifically the dead wife of the house's former owner, who almost immediately begins scheming to activate the doomsday device in the house where Lewis and his uncle are living. There's a visit from Lewis' dead aunt, but I was mildly surprised that his parents don't make an appearance. That would be a far scarier and more adult story.

Lewis makes up for his act of thoughtless necromancy by coming up with a spell that he, his uncle, and their neighbor (a good witch) hope will counteract the effects of the dead woman's schemes. His uncle asks him to think up a silly spell, and it turns out to be a magical version of something like calvinball. First they put lighted candles in all the windows. Then they set the player piano to play chopsticks. Then they play a game of poker until the "Ace of Nitwits" comes up, at which point Lewis directs his uncle to "wear it stuck to your forehead with a piece of bubble gum" and they get Lewis' magic 8 ball, which tells them where the clock is. At a crucial moment, Lewis remembers what he's read in the magic books and is able to destroy the person he brought back from the dead, along with her doomsday device.

My favorites of the Gorey illustrations are the ones featuring the dead woman; mostly what you see of her is the reflection off of her spectacles, floating at adult height above the 10-year-old protagonist.

If you like interesting and mildly scary stories, this is a good one with a happy ending. And I like a happy ending. It helps me sleep at night.

11 comments:

FreshHell said...

Wow. I recently checked this out of the library for Dusty because I'd seen a mention of it somewhere and vaguely remember reading it as a kid. I don't think Dusty's cracked it open yet.

Kristen said...

OK, this one sounds wonderful and not scary enough to cause even cowardly little me any problems. I'll bet my creep-out kid would like it too and it might not drive the other two into my bed after reading--always a goal for which to strive.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Lemming just wrote about this book and I tried to respond to it, but her blog wouldn't let me (harrumph). This was one of my brother's favorites. I didn't like it quite as well, but I read it several times anyway. I haven't read it in many years. Perhaps I'll pick it up at the library next go around.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Also, the atmosphere reminded me a little of the Green Knowe books, which were also kind of creepy. I don't remember them terribly well either. More reading for me!

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Also, the atmosphere reminded me a little of the Green Knowe books, which were also kind of creepy. I don't remember them terribly well either. More reading for me!

Amanda said...

I still need to read this to my kids...

Unfocused Me said...

This was, hands down, one of my absolute favorite books when I was a kid. I think I read it for the first time when I was about Lewis's age, 10 or so, and then read it half a dozen times or so after that throughout junior high school, along with the two sequels. I bought it as part of a single volume Best of John Bellairs a few years ago, and tried reading it with Unfocused Girl when she had just turned 7, but it was too scary for her.

Jeanne said...

Green Knowe books, hmm. Just looked them up and had never heard of them before. Maybe I'll try them sometime when I'm feeling brave. I never read spooky books as a kid, and the scariest thing I read before this Bellairs was on Lemming's recommendation, A Candle in her Room.

Teena said...

I liked this one as a kid. I read scary things :)

lemming said...

Funnily enough, though Clock is probably Bellairs' most known book, I don't think it's his best. Try Trolley to Yesterday or Mansion in the Mist - the sequels by Strickland are terrific, too.

Nymeth said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I also keep being told that Bellairs' other series are better...I need to try them.