A newly-orphaned boy comes to live with his uncle. Along the way, he learns that magic is real and that terrors thought long-dead roam the night. It’s not Harry Potter, actually, but John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls. First published in 1973, the novel follows the adventures of Lewis Barnavelt and his uncle Jonathan, a warlock who has more bravery and heart than actual power.
House fairly well drips with gothic overtones, though the book is set in post-World War II Michigan. References to Charles Atlas and mail-order Sea Monkeys might be a bit idiosyncratic these days. But the core story remains simple and well-crafted enough for readers young and old. This is a great book to read in the fall and early winter, as Bellairs’ methodical prose brings Lewis’ world to life. You can practically feel the leaves crunching under your feet.
Lewis the brave
In his portrayal of the young protagonist, Bellairs makes good use of timeless themes, but Lewis never comes across as cliched. He’s the new kid, the one who lives in the house with a weird uncle. He’s the last one to be picked for baseball. But he’s not a pitiable figure in any way. The arc of his growing courage is one of the highlights of the book.
The overt weirdness that the story engages in (particularly early on) can be a bit off-putting. The resolution is well-explained, ties up the loose ends, and most important, feels earned. There is a real sense of peril as the characters realize that the intermittent ticking of the mysterious clock in the walls is a countdown.
Armed with wits, guts, and a bit of magic, Lewis, Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman the friendly witch are able to endure against the forces of darkness and save the world. House kicked off a massive eleven novel series that remains approachable today. I dove into the books as a child, and more recently was able to read it to my son. He enjoyed it much as I did when I was his age.
It’s also interesting to note that this fall we’ll be getting a film adaptation. From what I’ve seen in the trailer, they’ve captured the gothic overtones of the book very well. I was a bit uncertain about the casting of Jack Black as Uncle Jonathan and Cate Blanchett as Mrs. Zimmerman. In the book, Bellairs wrote the characters as in their fifties, if not older. However – Jack Black seems to be a good fit for the alternately serious and goofy Uncle Jonathan. Cate Blanchett could probably deliver an Oscar-caliber performance reading the phone book. Fingers crossed! Once the film comes out, we’ll have a review for you as well with a compare and contrast.