Friday, January 31, 2020

"The House with a Clock in Its Walls," by John Bellairs--Fiction Review

Good morning dear internet strangers, we’re closing out January with “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” by John Bellairs. Full disclosure upfront—I read this book because I loved the Jack Black movie and was pleased to find out I like the book too, it’s YA fantasy/gothic horror.

John Bellairs

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I love the atmosphere of this novel and the people who inhabit it—the mansion Lewis and Jonathan live in is a bit creepy, but it also has a lighthearted charm that is somehow relaxing. Personally, I think everyone wishes deep down, they had a mysterious magical uncle like Jonathan. I also really enjoy every conversation between Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman, they’re usually bickering like an old married couple, but you can tell there is real affection there.

This is clearly a young adult novel, with the classic fears of growing up—fears like insecurity and making friends in a strange new place, et cetera, et cetera, but I appreciate that it doesn’t pull its punches. The stakes are genuine and deadly, I like that it doesn’t sugar coat for its young audience. So for every charming scene where Mrs. Zimmerman bakes them all cookies, and they play cards or fiddle with some magical doodad or whatnot, there is still the looming threat of the clock in the walls. They aren’t sure initially what its ill purpose is, given to it by its evil creator, but they all know it’s terrible.

The story feels like a period piece because while that probably wasn’t exactly the intention when it was published in 1973, the plot starts in 1948. To explain why I like this, we need a little history, at that time in America—immediately after world war two—optimism in the United States was at an all-time high. Collectively, we just escaped from not only the horrors of the worst war in modern human history but also an economic depression. As a country, we could take pride in the idea that, for the most part, we were heroic—on the right side of history.

So reading this novel is like stepping back in time and wrapping that moment in history comfortingly around you like a warm blanket. Nevermind, perceptions aside, that objectively speaking, it wasn’t that great a time for everybody or even most people. For instance, if you were a woman who was a riveter during the war, you got to experience all of the joy of losing your job, probably to a less qualified man, and return to unpaid kitchen and babymaking duties. If you were a minority—you could just multiply all the usual stressors, but this is a topic for another day.   

What I don’t love about this book:

The magic in the novel is a little unfocussed, you never really get a sense of the rules and limitations on what the warlocks and witches can or can’t do with their magic. At one point, a warlock and a witch are being chased by a car while in their car, and their solution isn’t to turn it to dust or vanish it away—they just drive faster. Subsequently, one of the two that were being chased, during a later scene, has to deal with an evil sorceress and marches across the street and gives her what for, so clearly, these people aren’t helpless.

My instinct is part of the undefinable nature of the magic in the story comes from when this book is published. Rigorously detailed and internally consistent systems of magic, where there are rules and whatnot, is more a modern taste than anything. I’m sure there are contrary examples, but consider something like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter—how the magic in those stories work is talked about in great detail. Now compare that with the Wicked Witch of the West or Gandalf, they just do magic and how they do it doesn’t need to be understood by us mere mortals. It’s a little point, but I prefer the modern approach with internally consistent magic systems in stories.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Lewis Barnavelt is traveling to New Zebedee to live with his uncle Jonathan Barnavelt because his parents are dead—fantasy is a tough genre on parents just ask Harry Potter. Lewis doesn’t really know his Uncle Jonathan because Jonathan has always been regarded as the black sheep of the family. When Lewis arrives in New Zebedee, he meets his kindly but odd uncle right away and is whisked off to Jonathan’s gigantic house.

Soon after arriving, Lewis meets Jonathan’s equally eccentric—if different—friend Mrs. Zimmerman who has an antagonistic friendship with Jonathan. Shortly after meeting Mrs. Zimmerman, Lewis starts to notice some odd things about his uncle, Mrs. Zimmerman, and especially the house. Jonathan then reveals to Lewis that the former owner of the house was an evil warlock, and furthermore, Jonathan himself is a warlock, and Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch—though they aren’t evil. Jonathan further explains that he has so many clocks in the house to drown out the ticking from a clock the previous owner put somewhere in the walls of the house, which despite his best efforts, Jonathan hasn’t been able to find.

After a couple weeks, Lewis starts school at New Zebedee, and as a new kid who isn’t particularly athletic, he has trouble fitting in with his new classmates. Luckily, another boy, Tarby, who is the most popular kid in school, takes Lewis under his wing because, like Lewis, Tarby can’t join in and play baseball either, but only because he has a broken arm. The two become friends, and Tarby even tries to teach Lewis how to hit a baseball. As Tarby’s arm heals though, the two become more-and-more estranged as Tarby returns to his normal life.

Afraid to lose his new friend, Lewis tries to impress Tarby by proving to him that his uncle Jonathan is a real-life warlock. Jonathan agrees to put on a little actual magic show in his backyard for Lewis, Tarby, and Mrs. Zimmerman, and at first, everyone is impressed. Tarby, however, eventually decides that the whole thing was a fake, and Jonathan must have just hypnotized them all. Lewis decides to up the ante by doing something irrefutably magical, something like raising the dead, always a good idea to which nothing has ever gone wrong before in fiction. It, of course, goes wrong, who could have seen that coming, because it turns out Lewis resurrected the wife of the evil warlock who previously owned Jonathan’s house.

This sets off a series of events where Lewis, Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman need to battle the resurrected sorceress before she likewise raises her late husband. The two evil sorcerers apparently created the clock in the walls of Jonathan’s house to cause doomsday. In the end, Lewis is the one who saves everyone by helping them find the evil clock with his magic eight ball, then smashes the clock, preventing the evil warlock from returning and causing the end of the world.


The plot of this novel isn’t in any hurry to get anywhere, so be prepared for a relaxed pace. I believe at least some of this is because of the era in which its portraying, leisure was becoming a highly valued thing then. The other reason I think is the author wanted to marinate the reader in the setting.

The setting is essential in this novel because like any good gothic horror, the evil of the story emanates mainly from one location. The twist with this novel is that the place the evil emanates from is the very house the main characters live. This in itself isn’t odd for gothic horror—à la Amityville Horror—but there is a dissonance with this story because the house with a clock in its walls, seems like a cool place to live from start to finish. It never seems to become sinister—not for very long, at least. Lewis certainly admires the house several times, even though he thinks it’s more than a bit scary. It is creepy because the house, while charming and inviting, also hides secrets, secrets about a dark past, or possibly things forbidden—elements that are also important to the gothic tradition of horror.

All of these atmospherics juxtaposed with a conventional young adult story, make it a special experience. I’d also argue that the plotting of this YA novel may be traditional, but the characters weren’t for its time, which only adds to its uniqueness. Remember this novel was published in 1973, that’s a year before Dungeons and Dragons was a thing, a couple years before even Star Wars, and nearly twenty years after the Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. Wizards, witches, and warlocks weren’t typical traditional heroes for Americans at the time.

You could make a counter-argument that Bewitched came out in 1964 and ran until 1972. To which, I’m going to point out that Bewitched isn’t a novel, it’s a television show—and it was a show primarily about, “well have you ever tried not being a witch?” So the messaging of that show is problematic. Additionally, I Dream of Jeannie was the exact same show, this time with a blonde lady and the added horror in the synopsis that describes her as the man’s slave.      

Parting thoughts:

Like I said at the beginning of the review, I really did pick up this book because I liked the Jack Black movie. Movie reviews aren’t really my thing, but I felt it was a great introduction to this oft-forgotten little universe of books that came out way before Harry Potter.

Why I bring this up is—while I don’t write movie reviews, I do often read them, and I feel that a lot of the critical reviews are unduly harsh toward this movie. One I read—and I’m paraphrasing here—that the film had reduced John Bellairs’ masterpiece to nothing more than a series of fart jokes and that it loses all of the finer details of the novel. I find this to be an incredibly unfair assessment. Are their fart jokes? Sure, it’s a movie targeting ten-year-olds as the target demographic. Is the movie just one after another, after another? Of course, not, that is nothing more than hyperbole. Are some details lost? Yes, of course, it’s a movie, movies are a different medium possessing less time to tell a story.

In a novel, you can meander, get lost in the story—it’s one of the reasons I love books. If you do that in a movie, then you’ve just created the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. Do I think that’s a great movie? Absolutely—but I’m not going to lie, I typically fall asleep every Easter when it’s on at about the time Moses gets banished to the desert during the nineteenth thousandth hour of its run time. My point is—this isn’t an excellent fit for a young audience, a few details need to get trimmed.
Finally, I find that these negative reviews of the movie miss a few acting moments brought out by its cast. Jack Black is surprisingly good at not just being a comedic actor, but as just an actor as well. His version of Jonathan hits all the major points of his literary counterpart, but he also adds a level of insecurity and vulnerability as a new guardian to his nephew, which I don’t feel comes across as well in the book.  

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