John Bellairs: The Spooky Writer Who Cast a Magic Spell

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

When the kids finish the latest Harry Potter, some fans of ghosts and spells and things that go creeeeak in the night have a suggestion: Check out the books by John Bellairs.

Bellairs, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1959, became the talk of juvenile fiction in the 1970s with the publication of The House with a Clock in Its Walls. The creepy doings in that book earned it a place as one of The New York Times Best Books in 1973.

He published three separate series of juvenile horror/mystery books until his death of cardiovascular disease in 1991 at age 53. His estate hired Brad Strickland to complete four books begun by Bellairs; Strickland has since continued the series under his own name.

“Bellairs’ books are still being read,” says Carole Walton, a lecturer at Saint Mary’s College who specializes in children’s literature. “I always put him on my booklist for the students here.”

Bellairs was playful, says Walton, which is why many adults enjoy his Gothic tales and children can laugh between the shivers. “Besides being witty, he’s funny. I think that undercuts the horror in some of his books.”

Consider, for instance, this introduction of a benevolent character in The House With a Clock in Its Walls: “He was going to live with his Uncle Jonathan, whom he had never met in his life. Of course, Lewis had heard a few things about Uncle Jonathan, like that he smoked and drank and played poker. These were not such bad things in a Catholic family, but Lewis had two maiden aunts who were Baptists, and they had warned him about Jonathan.”

Walton’s husband, Jay Walton ‘59, was a classmate of Bellairs. "He was the wittiest guy in the class of ’59, that’s for sure," says the ND English professor. That humor and wit was apparent in his first published books — St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies and The Pedant and the Shuffly. His third book, The Face in the Frost, was inspired by one of Bellairs’ favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien, and is regarded by fantasy fans as a small masterpiece.

But it was the exploits of Lewis Barnavelt, an orphan who lives with an uncle who just happens to be a wizard who lives next door to a witch, that set Bellairs on a path to popularity as an author. Children readily responded to the books.

“He knows the subversive tendencies of children,” says Carole Walton. “They don’t like to take adults’ words for things.” Which explains how Lewis causes trouble when he sneaks a peek at his uncle’s magic books and manages to revive the evil Mrs. Izard, who’s been shut away in a mausoleum for years.

Lewis was the first of Bellairs’ series heroes and appears in three books, one of which focuses on his friend Rose Rita Pottinger. Strickland completed three “Lewis” manuscripts left by Bellairs and has written four more in the series.

Another series focuses on Johnny Dixon. Bellairs wrote eight; Strickland finished one and has written three more on his own. Finally, Bellairs wrote four Anthony Monday books.

Bellairs knew about being an unpopular kid, and about how reading and making up fantasies can help ease childhood pains. The leading characters of the three series play out some of his youthful angst. “The heroes of my books are loners and outsiders because that’s the way I felt when I was a kid,” Bellairs wrote in a letter. “If you’re fat, brainy, can’t play sports and are physically cowardly, you don’t fit in.”

Bellairs also noted that the presence of bullies and of being “a scaredy-cat kid” are based on his experience. In the books, however, the characters learn to face these childhood difficulties, generally without the help of magic.

Bellairs, who was a member of Notre Dame’s 1959 Quiz Bowl panel, also added various obscure references in his books. “This is what makes John’s writing exciting,” says longtime fan Craig Seemann of Austin, Texas. “You can read the book at face value and get a thrilling, supernatural mystery, yet there is a whole other world below the surface full of factual information.”

And like a friendly ghost, Bellairs haunts the online world.

Seemann and Jon Shanks are the co-creators of the Bellairsia website. The large site includes interviews with some of Bellairs’ classmates, including Charlie Bowen ’59, Al Myers ’59 and Tom Banchoff ’60, and a look at his life at Notre Dame.

The Compleat Bellairs is another huge site dealing with Bellairs and his work. And the “Behind the Books, A Closer Look at John Bellairs,” site constructed by six students in grades 6-8 in Massachusetts, won a state ThinkQuest USA award for educational websites in 2002.

Fans of Bellairs who are book collectors also get an added plus. His hardback juvenile fiction was illustrated by Edward Gorey, the famed designer whose drawings are used to introduce the PBS series Mystery.

Carol Schaal is managing editor of this magazine.